DEVON, Pa., May 30, 2003--There's no place like Devon, a 10-day snippet of another era, when the living was gracious and horse shows were fun. People picnic in their box seats, where ladies crown themselves with fantastic feather-decked hats, and their escorts favor blue blazers and striped ties. They pour vintage wine and enjoy wicker baskets full of goodies as they watch the action in the ring below. For those who didn't bring their own food, there are elaborate dishes served up in a cafeteria manned by volunteers, and even wine and cheese platters--not your usual horse show fare.
But Devon, of course, is not your usual horse show, and that's what makes it so special. It's such a tradition along Philadelphia's Main Line that the boxes in the pale blue and white grandstand are handed down like heirlooms, while the reserved seats for last night's $75,000 Budweiser Grand Prix were sold out in April.
The show's sacred slogan, emblazoned over the entrance to the Dixon Oval, is "Where Champions Meet," and that makes victory at Devon especially meaningful. It's a playing field on which the best can easily go down to defeat with an audience watching, but this year, the odds were with the proven contenders.
Chris Kappler scored his fifth major victory in 10 months on Royal Kaliber as he took the grand prix in grand style, demonstrating exactly why he was excused from the Pan American Games selection trials and put right on the team.
Scott Stewart, whose season in the hunter division has rivaled Chris's in the jumpers, easily won the Leading Hunter Rider title, while earning the Grand Hunter Championship with Chopard, tops in the Regular Conformation Hunter section. And Kenny Wheeler, king of the breeding division, kept his throne with his 31st Best Young Horse title showing the stunning 3-year-old, Celebration, who also won the award last year.
All three of these men have learned the secret to winning, capitalizing on not only their natural talent in riding or handling a horse, but also by having an eye for selecting a winner because they can spot an animal with potential.
Chris picked out Royal in Holland, where he was sold by well-known dealer Henk Nooren, and then brought him along carefully. The result of his meticulous training is a real partnership that has earned success after success.
Scott Stewart with Chopard | ? Nancy Jaffer
Actually, they gave Chris a trophy BEFORE the class, an omen of things to come. Chris is the only person to win show jumping's version of the Triple Crown--The American Gold Cup (right here are the Devon Showgrounds), the Budweiser American Invitational in Tampa and the American Grandprix Association Championship in Wellington, Fla.--in the same season with the same horse. So Devon President Leonard King commemorated that with a prize, and it wasn't the last one Chris would get that evening.
Only 23 horses competed in the grand prix, unfortunately. There are so many options for the big jumpers these days, and Spruce Meadows in Canada has called away riders who are going to qualifying shows there for September's rich Masters. But it was quite a good field anyway, and the big question was whether Chris could win again, or if his biggest rival, McLain Ward, could defend his 2002 Devon title. Both bested Leopoldo Palacios-Jugo's technical course, where the distance questions could not be answered by everyone. Joining them in the jump-off were Candice King with Quintin, a solid bay Belgian-bred she has had for 18 months; Jimmy Torano on Aguila and Robin Sweeley with Latinus.
Candice set a realistic pace on a tie-breaker route that had a few spots for galloping, but also demanded carefulness on a key turn to an impressive vertical that was the fourth of eight fences.
Candice handled it fine in a time of 41.316 seconds, but with Chris and McLain coming after her, that clocking seemed unlikely to hold up. And it didn't. Chris cut the turn a little bit better to finish in 38.980 seconds.
"The only thing I was thinking about in my jump-off round is that McLain was coming next," said Chris.
Ringside spectators at Devon | ? Nancy Jaffer
McLain figured he could improve on that mark with Viktor, who is back after more than a month's layoff. But his striding wasn't quite right and though he got the best time in the jump-off--38.058 seconds--he dropped a rail at that vertical to finish third behind Chris and Candice.
"We haven't been able to get in a groove of competing on a regular basis, so even with a horse as special as he is, that's difficult," said McLain.
It was Chris' 18th try at winning the Devon grand prix, and he gave the credit for finally achieving victory to his stallion, calling him "phenomenal. He's just really wonderful. I tried to make as tight a turn as I could to put a little pressure on the ones behind me."
A master of understatement, Chris said, "I've had a really good run lately. I'm trying to be as sharp as I can coming into the Pan Am Games. It's really important." You bet. It's the U.S. show jumpers' last chance to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.
Next week, Chris is heading to Germany for his final Pan Am tune-up with "really serious competition" at Wiesbaden and Aachen, where he will be joined by Candice, Peter Wylde, and his Pan Am teammates, Lauren Hough and Laura Kraut.
In the hunters, the divisions dominated by professionals weren't missing any big stars, but since last year's National Horse Show, it's obvious that the biggest star is Scott.
Strapless, the spectacular mare who has been the horse everyone watches, got her licks in by winning the Regular Working Hunter Stake, but losing the championship to another of Scott's mounts, Prove It.
"Things didn't go our way," said Strapless' rider, Emily Williams, who noted the mare was fresher than she expected her to be when the division began, and some kinks had to be worked out.
Emily also has a second weapon in her arsenal, Priceless, another outstanding bay, who won the Second Year Green title. But no one has Scott's firepower, which always seems to find its target.
"I'm proud of the horses I've got," said Scott. "I bought both of them three years ago, and they got better and better. They both try to win; they don't spook or do anything silly. They do it easy."
And so does Celebration, who has never been defeated in the breeding division. Now the question is what he will do under saddle. He's been started, but Kenny noted neither he nor any of Cismont Manor Farm's young horses "have been jumped enough to see how good they're going to be."
Like the rest of us, Kenny is still missing his wife, Sallie, an all-around horsewoman and the patron of the National Horse Show, who died in 2001. But he has the strong support of his family and seems invigorated by the fact that his sons, Kenneth Jr. and Douglas, have started showing in the breeding division--though of course, they got beaten by Dad.
"I'm so proud of the boys. They look after me the best...and they're pretty darn smart with horses, too," said Kenny.
Noted Douglas, "We're very serious about what we do, but we have the best time doing it."
Added Dad: "It's just like we're best buddies."
These are only a few of the stories that Devon tells, but even on the Internet, there's not enough room for all of them. So make sure you put this show on your calendar next year and see for yourself why even those who don't go to any other equestrian events make a point--like I do--of always returning to Devon.