Syracuse, N.Y., November 5, 2006 -- Syracuse may not be on your wish-list of travel destinations, but if you want to see one heck of a horse show, give it a try.
The Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament gets better every year because its founder, John Madden, not only is a horseman who knows what exhibitors want, but also has a showman's understanding that a competition must be entertaining enough so people will want to buy tickets.
"I think our sport has gotten too much the same all the time," John told me when I asked for his thoughts behind the show's offerings.
"We started with the premise that we didn't want all the money in the grand prix," continued John, noting that while it is worth $75,000, there is a total of $350,000 in prize money at the tournament.
"Riders can come here and not place in the grand prix and still have a good week," he explained. "The other premise is that you want to make entertainment for the fans, and you have to come up with some creative things to entice them to come back next year."
A big drawing card is the series of clinics and demonstrations in a building adjoining the War Memorial Arena, where you could also shop and meet the Budweiser Clydesdales (as well as their donkey mascot).
Every afternoon and evening, there was the usual great line-up of events,from the Gambler's Choice costume class to the $75,000 Budweiser World Cup Qualifier of Syracuse Grand Prix, where Great Britain's Michael Whitaker scored a resounding victory.
Then there was the ASPCA Maclay finals and the $50,000 Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup, where John's wife, Beezie, was a popular winner.
The way everything was staged added to the crowd's understanding and enjoyment. John and 1984 Olympic team gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor were among those on the floor of the War Memorial Arena wielding microphones to offer extra insight on the action.
The only instance in which they didn't do that was the Maclay, and it probably could have used some analysis for those in the audience who weren't sure why Maggie McAlary was the winner, rather than Julie Welles, who came in second.
But equitation is judged subjectively, and Maggie's style seized the day in a very close race.
"It was fantastic riding," said Ralph Caristo, who judged the class with Scott Williamson. "The top four could have gone any way, and it was hard to separate them."
The class, run over two days rather than the usual one, started at 6:30 a.m. Saturday with 147 riders interpreting a course featuring several options. It stumped some, who just weren't ready for a test like that. Others tried to show off with cuts that were beyond their capability, so one can only hope they were satisfied to come away with a learning experience, rather than a ribbon.
At the end of the first round and the flat phase that followed, U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Finals West winner Nick Haness was in first place on a borrowed horse, the six-year-old Landano. Julie was second on Sander and Maggie third on Chagall, Natalie Johnson's former ride who was leased as a children's hunter.
When her own horse went lame last week, Maggie's trainer Andre Dignelli said he went through his barn and "body clipped everything that could jump" seeking a replacement not only for her mount, but also something that Addison Phillips, his other star, could use.
The course set today for the top 25 did not seem quite as challenging as the original course did to me. While there were options, I thought the judges were looking for smooth trips, rather than ones that made the most daring cuts.
At the end of that round, Nick had dropped to third, Jennifer Waxman moved up to fourth from seventh and Julie was in the lead, with Maggie right behind.
The test for the top four required, among other things, a hand-gallop to the first fence, then a halt (where Jennifer dealt with a restive mount) and a counter-canter to a vertical. That's where Nick lost it. In the halt, the inexperienced Landano, obviously feeding off the electricity of the crowd, was not positioned properly to go into the counter-canter on the right lead. So he picked up the left lead, and though Nick quickly changed it, he was cooked and wound up fourth, with Jennifer ahead of him in third place.