May 31, 2012 -- Over four decades of attending the Devon Horse Show, I've compiled a checklist to complete annually, insuring I'm maintaining all my traditions at a competition where traditions are both numerous and cherished.
Crustless tea sandwiches? Check (though they are now $1 each, instead of four for $1, as they were a few eons ago).
Visiting the shops at the country fair? Check (I would love the sterling silver bracelet on which all the charms are replicas of riding boots, but I don't think it's in the budget.)
A stroll around the classic brown stables that block out many of the sights of suburbia along Philadelphia's tree-shaded Main Line? Check.
An evening at the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame Induction Dinner? Check (and more on that later).
An interview with Leading Hunter Rider Scott Stewart? Check.
Scott has become as much of an institution here as the Devon fudge, or the ferris wheel that scares so many of the First Year Green horses.
He has won the title 10 consecutive times, though as the quality of the animals competing increases, it does get harder to insure it's his name the engravers will put on the huge silver tray, which is the permanent trophy archive of the honor. With his record, though, I'm not sure why they just aren't engraving ditto marks at this point.
To a certain extent, the Leading Rider habit is a bit of a monkey on his back, since everyone expects him to win. Of course, he has the best chance because he has so many horses, but they still have to perform well to accumulate enough points for the title.
Scott and I talked yesterday about the Leading Rider situation.
The Grand Hunter Championship is more elusive for Scott than the rider title. He's only won it twice in the last five years. This year, it escaped him again, and his lone divisional tri-color came in the Second Year Greens with Dedication, though he did get reserve championships in both the Green Conformation and Regular Conformation.
The Grand honors went to a surprising newcomer, Rapunzel, ridden by Jennifer Alfano, who was the Leading Lady Rider for the second year in a row. Jen preceded her championship by having quite an evening at the Hall of Fame dinner Tuesday night, where she was named Leading Rider (lady or otherwise) and her iconic mount, Jersey Boy, was selected as Horse of the Year. (More about that later.)
Rapunzel took the Green Conformation Championship on her way to earning enough points to take the Grand trophy. Jen only started riding her this winter, when trainer Gary Duffy brought her the horse.
"She's a beautiful horse and great jumper," said Jen.
"I love mares; if you have a good mare, it's the greatest horse you can have. She wants to do everything right," she said of the snazzy chestnut European import, who did dressage when she was overseas. (To me, that's always a good basis for jumping success, but Jen isn't planning to make it a regular part of her program.)
Jen could not have predicted Rapunzel winning any championship at Devon, let alone the Grand, because the showgrounds are always buzzing and the atmosphere is formidable.
"I was really unsure coming here," said Jen.
"She doesn't have a lot of miles under her belt at the 3-6 (3-foot, 6-inch fences) and I thought she would be a little green. But she walked in here like she owned this place. She didn't bat an eye at one thing."
During the presentations, I kept saying to myself, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, prick up your ears," changing the fairy tale plea for Rapunzel to let down her hair. The mare's ears were always turned back when the ribbon went on her bridle, which isn't nice for a photo op.
Jen laughed when we talked about it.
"When you are on her, her ears are always up, she's so attentive," said Jen, who conceded it was funny that she just is never ready for her close-up when the lenses point her way.
Hunt Tosh, who took the High Performance title with Rosalynn and the Regular Conformation tricolor with Cold Harbor, both owned by Betsee Parker, is a polite, soft-spoken Georgia guy with a great way about him. Rosalynn's performance was particularly important to Betsee because last year here, the horse's previous rider, Rob Coluccio, fell off and it was not a happy time. Betsee said Rob was sick, and no one knew it.
Anyway, Hunt got the horse and did her proud, so it was a great comeback. I asked him about Lone Star, another of Betsee's horses, who had also done well here. Lone Star hadn't shown since the Pennsylvania National in 2010. He had a splint operation and finally returned to the ring this month at the Kentucky Horse Park show. He'll be doing the Upperville, Va., show next week, but wasn't here because he hadn't shown and therefore couldn't qualify, as Hunt pointed out to me.
Speaking of comebacks, I laughed when I saw that Molly Ashe-Cawley was riding a hunter called Back in the Game. She didn't name him, of course, but it was so appropriate because after a six- or seven-year absence from this show (and indeed, from major competition while she had two children and less top horses) she is back in the game. She served notice at April's Gene Mische American Invitational that she was once again a force when she finished second with Carissimo, a horse who unfortunately is always for sale.
In yesterday afternoon's $32,000 jumper class, she was the winner with Wriomf (the W is silent) and spoke approvingly of how great the footing is at Devon since a massive refurbishment of the ground, which ended this year with the same surface in the warm-up area as in both rings. She noted that some top jumper riders had stayed away from Devon in recent years because they found the surface unsatisfactory, but she predicted there will be a resurgence in jumpers as word gets around about the improvements.
We chatted about Back in the Game as a lead in to her being a part of the scene again.
While Devon's primary function is as a horse show, over the years it has become much, much more than that. It's a community event and a family event, with lots on hand to attract folks who may not be particularly horse-oriented. One is the hat contest (another thing on my checklist) which is always a gala occasion. Many of the women, like Tiffany Arey who won last year, make their own hats and have as much fun doing that as wearing them. It's a hoot to see them around the showgrounds decked out in creations featuring feathers, (fake) fruit and flowers; some outlandish, some pretty. Carson Kressley usually is a judge, but I'm told he had to skip this year because of a Dancing with the Stars gig.
And now I'll get back to the Show Hunter Hall of Fame dinner. There are all sorts of annual awards in each division, but the three kept secret until the dinner, held at the prestigious Merion Cricket Club, are Horse of the Year and Rider of the Year (I already told you how Jersey Boy and Jen accounted for those) and Owner of the Year (that was Glen Senk, whose string from the Fashion Farm -- he's in retail -- includes Dedication.)
Then there are inductees into the Hall of Fame. The horses this year were All the Gold and Super Flash, while the people were G. Andrew Ebelhare and his wife, Jane; Hap Hansen, best known as a jumper rider but a master with hunters, too; Carol Thompson, ditto; Louise Serio and Don Stewart. Don's induction was more like a roast, courtesy of Susie Schoellkopf and Archie Cox. If you know Don, you know that the repartee was hilarious (and some of it was unprintable!)
The occasion, hosted as always by the hall's chairman, Jimmy Lee, offered a memorable break from the pressure of competing at Devon with a chance to honor the sport's biggest names.
Tonight's $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon is drawing major attention, even with only 16 entries, because it's an observation event for the Olympic show jumping team. Robert Ridland, who will take over formally for chef d'equipe George Morris next year, is pinch-hitting for him here because George is recovering from cancer surgery.
Laura Chapot, who won last night's Hit and Hurry class with the speedy Bradberry for the third year in a row (and also was second with Quointreau un Prince), said she thought the grand prix field is so small because as an observation event, the course necessarily will be big and difficult.
I'll be back with you tomorrow morning for my report on the grand prix and the retirement of McLain Ward's prize ride, Sapphire. which precedes it. Be sure to come back and read about a very big night.