November 7, 2010 -- I couldn't make it to the Syracuse Sporthorse Invitational in person this year, but I did the next best thing--I watched the major classes online.
Watching isn't enough to write intelligently about anything of course, so I was grateful to be able to do my interviews and hear the press conferences, thanks to help from Rebecca Walton of Phelps Media Group.
It was certainly a different perspective, and one I hope I don't have to repeat--it's important to be at a show to get the whole story and the photos; luckily I had some shots of the right folks from Washington last week. But from this angle, in front of my computer, I was able to appreciate perhaps even better than I have in person how special this show is.
Syracuse, which has combined forces with the National Horse Show for the last several years, offers its features in a unique package. It includes a World Cup qualifier grand prix, the National's ASPCA Maclay hunt seat horsemanship championship finals and the Syracuse Sporthorse Cup, conceived by show organizer John Madden in a custom format to test speed, scope and adjustability.
Richard Jeffery, always a tough (but fair) taskmaster, designed an extremely difficult route for the $100,000 Detweiler Fenton Grand Prix, presented by G&C. The 28 starters included some big names; among them McLain Ward with his Dublin grand prix winner, Antares, and Grand Prix of Devon victor Select, ridden by Peter Leone. But they didn't even get a sniff of the ribbons.
Only three made the jump-off and Margie Engle was well situated to win going last because both Marie Hecart (Myself de Breve) and Harrie Smolders (Exquis Power Fee) had dropped rails. Her mark of 39.150 seconds on the intrepid Indigo was far more leisurely than Marie's 35.510 mark for her 4-fault trip, but leaving the rails in place made all the difference.
Indigo, a 10-year-old Dutchbred, has been competing in grands prix since March with Margie, and has won at such prominent shows as Lake Placid and Cleveland, but to her way of thinking, he's "still a little bit green," meaning "it's better to be safe than sorry."
She doesn't want to push him beyond where she's comfortable, because this is her prospect for the London 2010 Olympics.
The grey gelding came from Australia, purchased on the word of a trustworthy horse dealer (guess that's not an oxymoron) and Engle never tried him. But he rose to being special very fast.
"He's one of the best horses I've sat on in a long time," said Engle, adding she has yet to find his limit.
The Maclay is an endurance contest as well as an equitation competition. It started at 6:30 this morning over fences with 153 riders, then moved on to a flat phase for which 30 were selected, and with barely a lunch break, concluded with a final jumping test for the top 18. Don't forget that these riders and horses are wrapping up a long fall championships circuit, which would explain why some of the mounts seemed a little tired.
Scott Hofstetter, a Maclay winner himself (1986, and I was there for that one) judged the finals with Olympic show jumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor. The flowing first-round course was mostly his product; the second round route was mostly hers.
Melanie explained that the idea behind the initial no-tricks course was to "make it a challenge, but make it doable. The second course was a little more of a test."
After the first round, Pessoa/U.S. Equestrian Federation Medal Winner Hayley Barnhill of Tennessee stood second. She wasn't able to hold the counter-lead to a Swedish oxer on Podest. He swapped leads, and that put her down a notch.
But Melanie told me, "it wasn't a big deal; not enough to drop her way down." By the time the flat phase was finished, she had overtaken the leader, Taylor Ann Adams, who dropped to fourth behind Michael Hughes and Lillie Keenan, winner of the Washington equitation championship last weekend.
The pressure was on Hayley, 17, going into the final phase, where the questions included a trot fence, an option of a wide fence or a skinny, and putting one or two strides in a double. A wingless centerpiece featuring two tree-trunk verticals with a natural rail oxer in the middle didn't faze anyone, nor did the ASPCA wall, a very forward four strides from the first jump, a hogsback.
Scott and Melanie liked the way Hayley handled the pressure. Home-schooled and hoping to be a professional, she has deferred college for a year to clean up the other equitation championships and continue in the junior jumpers.
She is coached by David Pelligrini and Tom Wright as well as Tim and Kelly Goguen, with Missy Clark in the mix after providing the horse from one of the clients in her barn. (Very rarely do any of the top kids these days have just one trainer.)
But the judges also had praise for reserve champion Michael Hughes, who had "a couple of boo-boos in the first round," and was fourth after that segment. He moved up to second following the flat and stayed there through the awards ceremony.
I first met him when he was little more than a tot, an 11-year-old competing in the USEF Talent Search Finals East where, I believe, he was the youngest person ever to take part. Now 13, he has sprouted and is a real talent. Wonder what he'll be like when he's 17? I predict he'll take all the eq championships if he stays in that part of the game.
Scott called him a stylist, noting he had a soft feel and "never looked rushed." Michael is trained by Missy Clark and her husband, John Brennan, as well as his father, professional Eamonn Hughes.
Third went to Chicago's Catherine Tyree on Triple Lutz, coming up from ninth after the flat phase, or going further back, 12th after the first round. She is trained by Chris and Katie Kappler.
Some in the crowd wanted to see a final test, and the judges had one ready that was half flatwork and half jumping.
"If Hayley had been just okay, we would have tested," said Melanie, but noted the winner was far better than that.
"We felt she was good all the way through and she deserved to win it." Testing can be risky. As Melanie pointed out, "you hate to lose your winner."
Asked for a critique of the entire class, Melanie responded that the top 10 really placed themselves and while they "were excellent," that couldn't be said for everyone else.
For some in the group, "The quality of the riding wasn't up to the position of the riders. I didn't see a lot of good connection from leg to hand. To me it's about being effective and getting the job done first. They really weren't aware of the horse they had underneath them at the moment; they were just riding the course, they'd get a little weak or a little long."
The show's final class, the $80,000 Sporthorse Cup presented by Copernicus Stables, gave area spectators the kind of ending they were waiting for when it was won for the third time by Beezie Madden, John's wife. She rode Mademoiselle in the first two segments, which are a speed round and a 4-bar, switching to her 2012 Olympic prospect, Coral Reef Via Volo, for the final phase over a grand prix style course.
"The fans are always behind me," said Beezie, who comes from nearby Cazenovia, and their enthusiasm gives her a lift.
It wasn't the best year for Beezie. She didn't have much experience with the horses she took in the trials for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. In fact, she fell off Via Volo early in the trial process and wound up attending the WEG as a spectator.
She earned 40 points under the complex calculating system for the class, to 38 for Harrie on Power Fee. He had a better time than Kate Levy with Lirving du Voisin, who also had 38 points.
Harrie has become a regular at Syracuse, and I asked him what he thought of this fixture.
"It's quite similar to a European show," he said, noting that's especially true of the Sunday program. "It's a very high quality of show," he added.
Syracuse always focuses on entertaining the crowd, with its Dixieland band that prances and plays during course changes and a breed showcase, among other bits and pieces. But this year they had an amazing act, "The Horseman Team" from Germany, which involves a group of handsome guys jumping over the fences in their bare feet. They start out in black suits, and wind up bare-chested (but still wearing their ties) as each one leaps higher and higher. They handle high amateur-owner jumper heights. And for a grand finale, they jump over the linked hands of comrades after the last fence. I was fascinated.
I know you're thinking one of these guys will be your next purchase, instead of a horse, but remember, they weren't wearing saddles and toting around a human when they were doing their airs above the ground.
On a worrisome note, Georgina Bloomberg was badly hurt in the Gambler's Choice class on Friday when her saddle slipped and she fell, suffering a concussion and other injuries. The 27-year-old daughter of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was hospitalized, will be examined more thoroughly tomorrow.
That ends the show season for me, and plenty of other folks, too. Not sure when you'll hear from me next, but it won't be too long, I promise.