Washington, D.C., Oct. 30, 2005 -- Forget those old rumors that the Washington International Horse Show is on shaky ground. This blend of entertainment and competition has reached just the right balance, and the public responded by greeting the fall circuit fixture at the MCI Arena with enthusiasm. I mean, my ears are still ringing from all the cheering that was the soundtrack for puissance night.
"This year has been our best. We have raised close to $800,000 in sponsorship," show President Sheila Johnson-Newman told me.
"I think we have crossed the threshold where this show is going to be very profitable," she said the other day, as we sat in her luxurious skybox (it looked just like an elegant but comfy livingroom with a great bird's eye
view of the action.)
The secret to Washington's success?
"Cross-marketing to a very diverse population," Sheila said. "The way I did it was by coming up with more of a western theme this year."
That included her VIP party in the Acela Club overlooking the arena, where guests feasted on the likes of cowboy potato dumplings, chili-cured chicken and Texas millionaire cheesecake. There was bull riding on Sunday night, two days before the hunter/jumper show opened, and last night, the President's Cup grand prix was followed by country-western singer Tracy Byrd in concert. In addition, on Friday night four jumper riders, including Britain's Michael Whitaker, participated in a Pro-Am barrel racing competition. Throw in terrier racing and the finals of the WIHS equitation championship, and you can see why buying a ticket was so worthwhile.
It's great to have a show downtown in a major American city, some of whose landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian towers and the Lincoln Memorial) are replicated in models on one wall of the arena to give it more atmosphere. The plus side of being in the heart of the city means there are plenty of good restaurants and shops within walking distance. On the minus side, horses are stabled in cramped quarters in the building, or behind chain link fencing on the street, where it gives the average pedestrian pause to be sharing the sidewalk with several neatly braided hunters.
But riders put up with some inconvenience so they can appear in an important venue, especially since the National has departed Gotham. Washington is now the crown jewel of "indoors."
"The last year or two it has had a nice spark and some new life," jumper rider Todd Minikus said of the show.
"We have Sheila Johnson to thank. She stuck her neck out," said Laura Kraut, referring to the fact that the show's president was determined to make the fixture fly.
And it certainly was soaring last night, when 24-year-old Kent Farrington capped a fabulous season by winning the featured $100,000 President's Cup. He was aboard Madison, the Dutchbred mare he has brought along from a green prospect to American Grand Prix Association Horse of the Year for 2005.
His Cup performance demonstrated why Madison got the year-end award. She and Kent dominated a stellar field, including Todd, who wound up third on Flier, and Laura, missing by just 0.22 seconds aboard Anthem. Kent took special care in a triple combination (scaled back to a double for the eight-horse jump-off) where a delicate plank supported by standards that looked like the Jefferson Memorial caused a lot of problems.
Difficulty there in the tie-breaker scuttled the chances of Britain's Nick Skelton, the fifth-ranked rider in the world, aboard the usually spectacular Arko, and his countryman, Michael Whitaker on the flashy bay, Mozart des Hayettes. This coming week's Syracuse, N.Y., show collaborated with Washington to bring over some well-known (and one not-so-well-known) riders from Europe. The not-so-well-known rider was Harry Smolders of the Netherlands, number 101 on the show jumping world rankings. But in Washington, Harry got an instant reputation and let me tell you, Smolders didn't smolder; he simply burned up the track on Friday night.
That was the evening his mount, Verelst Quebec, enjoyed the unusual distinction of winning both a speed class and then the puissance a few hours later. How many horses do you know who can gallop around a course AND have the power (not to mention the endurance) to clear 7-feet, 4 and 1/2 inches?
More amazing was the fact that Harry, who's from the Netherlands, just got the ride on the black gelding two weeks ago from his boss, horse dealer Axel Verloy of Belgium. And after Syracuse, he's losing the ride. Last week, the horse was bought by a California-based Argentine, Guillermo Obligado.