August 30, 2009 -- The Hampton Classic Horse Show is a treasure that may be taken for granted by the lucky folks who come every year. Seen through the eyes of those attending for the first time, though, you realize once again how special it really is.
Actor Robert Duvall (a real show jumping fan) compared it to Aachen. Though he's never been there, he's heard about it, and you know, he wasn't far off in terms of this show's cachet.
Guilherme Jorge, a veteran World Cup finals course designer from Brazil, found it charming--especially the vast grass main arena.
"It's a ring with personality and identity," he told me as he stood in the VIP area amid a swirl of lavishly decorated tables laden with champagne bottles and artfully prepared delicacies.
"More and more shows are held only on a rectangular piece of sand," he said, pointing out that the Classic's green field includes natural obstacles; a bank, two water jumps and a hedge jump.
"There's a lot of tradition here," he said.
Later, as I was speaking to trainer Frank Madden, he noted the trend is to have a series of shows held in one place, such as the Kentucky Horse Park, Wellington or the HITS facilities. That makes the Classic even more special: There are few one-off shows with its unique character and style (Devon and Upperville come immediately to mind, but are there many more?)
The style of the Classic and its popularity with the see-and-be-seen crowd may make it seem impervious to the recession, but even out here in the land of conspicuous consumption, the economic downturn is being felt.
For an insight from executive director Shanette Barth Cohen, listen to this sound byte.
Listen: Shanette Barth Cohen
Still, there's some reassurance in the fact that the show continues with flair, and the competition was crowd-pleasing. At the upper level, it wound up being dominated (as is so often the case) by McLain Ward.
He won everything; the awards ceremonies following the $250,000 FTI Grand Prix were just all McLain. It was no shock; he took the Friday Spy Coast grand prix qualifier with his Olympic double-gold medal mount, Sapphire, and the Saturday $30,000 Fendi Cup with another reliable mare, the 19-year-old Goldika, winding up with the national and international jumper championships.
So today, I considered saving some time by writing my story before the grand prix. I figured there was no way McLain couldn't win, and I was right. There were some interesting entries (American Invitational winner Chris Kappler on VDL Oranta, 2008 FTI winner Hillary Dobbs with Quincy B and Brianne Goutal aboard Ralvesther) but none of them even made the jump-off.
Course designer Conrad Homfeld, who was being assisted by Guilherme, put up his usual stiff test for a field of 33. In fact, it was so difficult that only two horses made it through to the jump-off; Sapphire (no surprise), and Judy Garofalo Torres' old campaigner Oliver (surprise). Judy hadn't won a grand prix this year, but today was finally her day, to a great extent. Several key contenders were frustrated. Hillary had the last fence down as the crowd groaned. Georgina Bloomberg, whose father, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was watching from the VIP area, looked as if she would log a clean trip on Street of Diamonds until she had a refusal at the 13th of 14 fences, the David Yurman vertical; practically right in front of Dad!
There was no triple combination, but three doubles did plenty of damage, especially 9A-B, a vertical/oxer one-stride that caused problems for 13 entries.
I asked Judy why there were so few clean and she said, "Every Conrad course is hard. There are no mistakes in his courses; you walk one thing and you jump another."
In the tie-breaker, Judy played it the only way she could against a combination with the stature of Sapphire and McLain. She went slow and practically clean, logging one time fault. McLain was more than six seconds faster (not that he had to be) and left everything in place to take the $75,000 first prize for his record fourth win of the class. (His other victories were 1998 and 1999 with Twist du Valon and 2003 with Hurricane.)
Although he had only one rival, I thought the presence of a nearly full grandstand and VIP tents jammed with fans presented their own kind of stress.
Here's what McLain had to say about that:
Listen: McLain Ward
He also pointed out that going last in the first round (by virtue of winning the qualifier) and then having to jump-off seven minutes later on a hot and humid day was no picnic, comparing it to winning the Kentucky Derby and then going out and galloping another half-mile.
For her part, Judy was fine about not winning. Being second to Sapphire, perhaps the best horse in the world, was quite exciting, she noted.
"I'll take it," she said with a smile.
I thought it was amazing that 19-year-old Oliver handled everything so well, and asked Judy about his future.
Here's what she told me:
Listen: Judy Garofalo Torres
While the sun shone today, a very rainy Saturday did put a damper on things. The Wolffer Equitation Championship lost some of its luster due to the downpour. The class had been whittled to 10 starters after Friday's first round, but only seven wound up competing when trainer Stacia Madden pulled her three contenders, including last year's winner, Jacqueline Lubrano.
"It was not an easy decision," she said, wishing the class had been transferred to the sand ring or re-scheduled today. But she said she couldn't take a chance with horses that still had to do the fall equitation finals. Stacia also felt "they weren't respecting the integrity of the class'' by leaving out the natural obstacles due to the weather.
Schaefer Raposa put on a very credible performance to win the class, but management eventually did decide to exile other competitions to the all-weather sand ring.
Among them was this morning's $25,000 Carolex Derby for junior and amateur-owner jumpers. In this instance, there were those who felt it shouldn't have moved (Chris Kappler told me they were being over-protective of the main ring) so it goes to show you can't please everyone in a situation like this.
Frankly, it probably was best to save the grass arena for the grand prix when it was the event the crowds come to see. And the last line of the FTI, a real heartbreak alley, did have some soggy ground problems left over from yesterday. The pony and junior/amateur hunter classics, by the way, were cancelled due to lack of entries after they were to be moved from a smaller grass ring.
At any rate, the Carolex class was a good one, topped by 15-year-old Victoria Birdsall on the 18-year-old Jerremy, a real class horse who dominated an eight-horse jump-off. The duo also went on to win the division championship.
I chatted about Jerremy afterwards with Andre Dignelli, who won the $10,000 Wolffer Estate Trainer Award, He called the chestnut gelding "the greatest junior jumper we ever had. He just tries to win. I love this horse and Victoria's a great rider. I paired the two together two years ago and it's been really succcessful."
Andre recalled riding Jerremy for the first time years ago at horse dealer Emile Hendrix' place in The Netherlands.
"He was cross-cantering around, his head straight in the air. I said to Emile, 'What do you want me to do with this?' He said, 'You didn't even need to try him; you're going to buy him whether you like him or not.'
"He won all the classes with a Young Rider in Europe and he wins all the classes here."
After that, I talked to Victoria about her success, and here's what she told me.
Listen: Victoria Birdsall
So that's a wrap on the Hamptons. Goodbye to lobster rolls and traffic jams. Watch for my next postcard September 28 from Dressage at Devon.