September 22, 2013 -- I had never been to the Plantation Field International Horse Trials before this weekend, so everything about it was a revelation. Unionville, Pennsylvania's, hunt country is amazing; it's hard to believe that a landscape like this lies within commuting distance of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, it's so green, scenic and abundant in the assets that make it the ideal location for horse sports.
I haven't spent time in the area since the old Chesterland three-day event ended more than a quarter-century ago, and was happy to see development hadn't ruined the surroundings. It has taken a lot of work to make sure that doesn't happen.
The acreage used for the trials has a magical aura, reinforced by the fact that the rain needed to make the footing perfect for today's cross-country (this is not a misprint, I will explain in due time) fell only after yesterday's program finished, and ended before today's began. Isn't that how they did it in Camelot?
And speaking of England, the theme of the event's non-sporting aspects -- the shops and the VIP tent -- was Downton Abbey. Quotes from the wonderful TV series were posted throughout the tent, but my fave was the one you saw at the entrance to the grounds: "What is a weekend?"
That was a question famously posed with great curiousity by the abbey's dowager countess (perfectly played by Maggie Smith). For the aristocracy, every day was like a weekend (why not, if you didn't have to go to the office) but I treasure my weekends, and I know you do, too. They're even better when they include an equestrian competition.
The placings in this one were as well-ordered as the weather. (How do they do that?) The winners of the CIC 1-, 2- and 3-stars all led from the first phase through the last, which was cross-country.
Okay, so it's time to talk about the format. A CIC has less jumps over a shorter distance than a CCI (you know, like Rolex Kentucky). It also can be run with show jumping following dressage, and cross-country as the last phase, which is how they did it here. The top 25 in each division ran cross-country in reverse order of standing. The idea was to heighten the suspense, though in this case, as I said, the winners had it all their way all the time. For those of you who are wondering, there is no vet check at the end, as there is in endurance. You ride off the course, you collect your trophy and you go home.
A large crowd added its own color to the leaves that are starting to turn now that it's officially autumn. A unique aspect of Plantation Field is that the hills offer a viewing platform which enables you to get an overview of the property and see many of the jumps from one spot. It's a visual treasure that was embellished with a group of four-in-hands, a contingent that wound its way up one of the hills, posed, and then wound its way down toward home.
Plantation Field has been growing every year, and it has become a good prep for many riders as they plan their autumn schedule. The winner of the 3-star, Sinead Halpin, got Manoir de Carneville tuned up for next month's Fair Hill International CCI with an impressive dressage performance, marked at 37.8 penalties, fault-free show jumping and a perfect cross-country trip 13 seconds under the optimum time. Among the top 10, only second-place Cambalda, ridden by the irrepressible Jennie Branigan, was faster, and his mark was one second less.
Sinead was out during the summer with injuries incurred while show jumping an inexperienced horse and Tate (her horse's barn name) was idle much of the year after a scan on one of his legs revealed an area of weakness and his competition schedule was altered accordingly.
Now the Olympic alternate combo is back together and both components obviously are on track.
I talked to Sinead after the show jumping, and she proudly told me, with great emphasis, that she thought Tate's performance in the ring was "awe-some."
Here's what else she said.
The stadium course, cleverly designed by Marc Donovan, was very interesting and influential.
A line of options was quite interesting in both the CIC 2- and 3-stars. It prompted riders to think and make decisions. For instance, one of the options was starting the three-obstacle line with a fence topped by a plank, or ending it with a fence topped by a plank. The other choice at the end was a liverpool.
Here's how Sinead explained her approach on that to me, noting every rider has to tailor their strategy to their horse's particular strengths and weaknesses.
"My horse tends to get weaker as he goes down the lines, and he normally jumps in quite well. With the plank, if I can let him see a plank, he'll jump it," she said.
"That's where my concern is jumping down a line. The other option was to have the plank at the end. But if I have to steady and wait for the plank at the end and he takes his eye off it, there's more chance of it coming down. For my particular horse, (taking) the plank on the way in and getting that out of the way was the very obvious option."
The CIC was a real eye-opener in terms of other placings. Erin Sylvester rose from ninth to fourth to third with No Boundaries, while Trading Aces, Boyd Martin's hot mount, dropped to sixth after standing third following show jumping. He was prepping for the Boekelo, Holland, event that's coming up and explained to me how that figured into his plans. Let me segue here and say he did win the 2-star with the rapidly developing Pancho Villa (42.8 penalties) over Kurt Martin and Anna Bella (44.5).
I asked Boyd about his strategy with Trading Aces and found his comments very illuminating.
Doug Payne went from 10th to fourth on Crown Talisman, who continues to impress with his jumping ability. On hand to support Doug was his fiancee, Canadian eventer Jessica Hampf. The two are planning to move from New Jersey to North Carolina, where the climate (both weatherwise and financially) are better. Doug's taking a whole string of horses with him, including a new flashy paint 5-year-old known as Rex imported from England. He already has won two competitions.
"I think he's got all the makings of a big horse for sure," Doug told me, saying the horse is Holsteiner, thoroughbred "and a little bit of Irish."
A syndicate he put together to buy his former 4-star horse, Running Order (who went to William Fox-Pitt instead) chipped in for Rex.
Phillip Dutton ended up fourth with Mr. Medicott, the two-time Olympic horse (Germany's Frank Ostholt in 2008 and the USA's Karen O'Connor in 2012) with whom he is developing a partnership. Two rails yesterday dropped him from a tie for second in dressage to sixth, but he recouped with a swift double-clear cross-country.
The most consequential thing that happened during the 3-star was the elimination, at the behest of the ground jury, of two of the three elements in the big water complex after a series of rider falls. That gave an advantage to riders who competed after the change, but most of those I spoke with agreed with the decision. Still, I wondered, was it fair?
I went to eventing sage Jimmy Wofford for his thoughts, and he pointed out that what counts is being fair to the horse. Denis Glaccum, the energetic Plantation Field organizer, said "when you have an unexplainable reason now, you take it out."
Denis designed all the cross-country courses except the 3-star, which was laid out by Tremaine Cooper. Denis noted that after every fall, officials walked in the water jump to see if there was a problem, and didn't discover any holes.
Post-competition, "We're draining the water jump, but I don't think we'll find anything," he said.
Oh, before I forget, the 1-star went to Courtney Cooper and R Star. I'm not even going to go into the national divisions, there was so much going on it frankly made my head spin.
The event ended almost like a private party, with everybody being jolly in the VIP tent. If there was a formal presentation of ribbons and trophies, I missed it. Relaxed is nice, but I'm not crazy about this format.
If an event ends with show jumping, you know where you stand and what a rail or two down can do to change the standings. It's too difficult to follow the scoring with cross-country at the end, when you don't really know what each entry needs to hold or raise its placing. It's a little anti-climatic, no matter how good the cross-country trips are. I like resolution and everything tied up in a bow; that is, a formal mounted presentation in the ring. It's a little difficult to do if you end with cross-country.
There are those who agree. I spoke with Jennie Brannigan about her thoughts on the subject.
One of the best things about going to a new place on the competition trail is meeting new people. One I enjoyed speaking with is Ardi Hamidjojo, a 42-year-old Indonesian who dreams of being the first to represent his country in Olympic eventing. He doesn't have a horse yet, but he's training with Phillip Dutton and will work on getting his qualifications, though his only international riding experience is in show jumping.
I also spent some time with property owners Katie and Cuyler Walker. She's the one who thought up the Downton Abbey theme (it came to her at 2 a.m. one day) and he is from a family that takes conservation seriously -- we all saw the results in Unionville.
Anyway, he told me a little about his fascinating background. You'll hear names you recognize.
Do you like my photo of Sinead and Tate at the ruins? There's a story behind that. A man named Logan once owned the property and started building a house there with stone quarried on the tract. But it was abandoned when his wife decided she preferred the city, and all that's left is a foundation.
Interestingly, Cuyler Walker told me part of the ruin's wall started to collapse, so workers rebuilt it, cleaned up the weeds from the area and voila, a great backdrop for jumping that was well-used.
Next up for me is Dressage at Devon. I'll be sending you a postcard next Sunday. Wonder who will win the fabulous freestyle this year. I promise to pay lots of attention right after I finish shopping--the trade fair is incredible.