November 6, 2011 -- "It's just like the old days," said a gleeful Penny Carpenter, as she greeted people at the door of Gracie Street, the well-appointed party venue for the Alltech National Horse Show.
Indeed, as the National made its debut at the Kentucky Horse Park, there was a happy undercurrent reminiscent of its century-plus stay in New York City's Madison Square Garden.
Penny was babysitting mink coats for several of the formally dressed ladies at the post-show gathering. Though the white tie and top hats of the Garden years were not in evidence, I saw plenty of men wearing black tie. And then there was perpetually creative starter/in-gate man Pedro Cebulka, who always makes a sartorial statement. He showed up in 19th Century knee breeches and tail coat, complete with a curly gray wig.
When my jaw dropped in amazement as I first glimpsed his outfit, he grinned and said, "Thank you" before taking to the busy dance floor.
Though Lexington can't be confused with the City that Never Sleeps, the parties fill the gap when they roll up the streets here. And for getting together with friends during the daytime, we have Pearse's Place, a comfy restaurant with lots of flat-screen TVs, a good bar and decent food, named after Alltech founder Dr. Pearse Lyons.
Until last night, this show was still looking for its audience, but the $250,000 Alltech Grand Prix finally filled many of the seats in the Alltech Arena. Someday, the National well may be the autumn equivalent of the spring's well-attended Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event at the park.
The caliber of the World Cup qualifier was top class, from the brilliant course layout by Richard Jeffery to the epic battle between the top two finishers, Californian Richard Spooner and Nick Skelton of Great Britain.
Richard is known for his brilliant speed technique, and in his mount Cristallo, he has the perfect partner. Their flawless trip in the five-horse jump-off was clocked in 37.97 seconds, a seemingly unbeatable mark achieved with smooth turns and no cessation of forward motion.
But Nick, who won the President's Cup at Washington last weekend, as you'll recall, seemed like just the guy to break that time barrier.
Aside from a point in a key early turn where his dapple gray Carlo 273 appeared to get stuck for an instant, Nick looked as if he were well on his way to winning again. In fact, before I looked at the clock, I assumed he had (and so did Richard!). But the numbers didn't lie and a glance at the scoreboard told the surprising tale: 38.33 seconds was only good enough for second.
With Margie Engle on Indigo and Dutch master Harrie Smolders on Exquis Oliver Q both qualified for the jump-off, some might have figured that Jessica Springsteen--the least-experienced rider among the finalists--would wind up fifth. But Jessie, who now rides with Laura Kraut, has come a long, long way. She also enjoys a good history with the National too; don't forget, she won the ASPCA Maclay finals at the show in 2006.
Although she did have a rail down with Cincinnati La Silla, her time of 40.66 soundly outdistanced the other 4-faulters, Harrie (44.05) and Margie (46.71).
I caught up with Jessie after the awards ceremony, where she received the crystal trophy for being the Leading Lady Rider, and asked her about her landmark evening. It was all the more amazing because she has been juggling her riding with classes at Duke University in North Carolina, where she is a sophomore and considering a major in psychology.
I asked Laura about Jessie's progress, and she told me, "She's just got so much talent and feel for an animal, and she also has a great head on her shoulders.
"She doesn't get flustered," Laura explained.
"There's a combination of qualities that make a great rider and she's got a lot of them. She's lacking experience and a few other things, but mainly, she's got it all."
Speaking of experience, Jessie will try out for next year's Olympics "for experience," according to Laura, who also noted that she did the same thing back in 1992 and wound up making the team as the alternate.
Oh, I also wondered whether the flashy silver Audi on which Nick (Laura's partner) won a one-year lease for being Leading International Rider would go to him or her. It's definitely for him, she said. She is relieved she now won't have to chauffeur him everywhere when he is in the States -- he didn't have a car here until last night's prize came his way.
The party after the class was great. Jessie's parents, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, were celebrating with her. I saw Bruce looking longingly at the dance floor and knew it would be only a matter of minutes before he would be out there. And then he was, with Jessie, his wife, some friends and Pedro, this time attired in what I presume was a circus ringmaster's outfit, complete with a very fancy white top hat.
Grand prix evening was vintage National Horse Show, recalling all the fabulous finishes that captivated crowds down through the decades when it was at the Garden.
I asked National President Mason Phelps, who led the movement to bring the show to Kentucky, how the New York mystique that the fixture once enjoyed has translated to the Alltech Arena.
As California trainer Archie Cox pointed out, "Madison Square Garden is the most famous arena in the world. Nothing can compare. But at the moment, it's not an option. To keep holding that as the standard or what you want is not realistic anymore."
On the other hand, don't think anyone is "settling" by having the show here.
New York trainer Andre Dignelli pointed out that unlike the Garden, where it was always a chore to operate out of the fifth floor of a skyscraper in the Big Apple's bustling, beeping heart, this is an environment made for horses.
"It feels special. It's a move in the right direction for the National Horse Show," said Andre. "I think this is the wave of the future. To show horses in places that are not horse-friendly, I think, is going to be a thing of the past."
Exhibitors are universally enthusiastic about the new National. Another California trainer, Karen Healey, summed it up this way: "I think it's a home run."
Although there will be more bells and whistles next year, the debut was not without some frills. The Taylor Harris VIP dining area was a sell-out at $6,500 a table. A "southern gentleman" and his ladies in sweeping gowns made a nice post-Civil War period tableau as they strolled the concourse and posed for photos. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang "God Bless America" in fabulous style to kick off Friday night's competition, and a giant photo backdrop of the Horse Park gave a real sense of place.
Adding to the atmosphere were fences from last year's Alltech World Equestrian Games, used to good effect by course designer Richard Jeffery. From the jump depicting a stanza of the state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," to the one that dangled drying tobacco leaves, they're all about Kentucky. I particularly liked the obstacle that had a baseball bat, a "Louisville Slugger" leaning against one of the standards.
I caught up with Dr. Lyons to talk about his impressions of the show. Although Alltech only has a one-year contract, Dr. Lyons is hoping to extend that to five years.
Another memorable competition was the $60,000 Spy Coast Farm speed class. When Up Chiqui put in an incredible trip as the fifth of 21 starters, I knew the class was all over. He pinged around those fences like a pinball, and his rider, Kent Farrington, certainly is a pinball wizard. He just blew everyone away. His time of 57.35 was simply unbeatable. For example, Nick finished with a score of 62.03 in the faults converted into seconds format after having a knockdown with Unique. But subtract 4 for the toppled pole and you still have 58.03 seconds, which Kent beat handily. Second was another Nick, this one a Dello Joio, a very up-and-coming rider under the tutelage of his father, Olympic medalist Norman Dello Joio, who handed Notre Star de la Nutria over to his son for the fall series.
Kent and Up Chiqui have been together for about seven years, and together personify the definition of centaur. The course didn't really have any time-saving options, so the tightest rollbacks were the key to winning, and Kent put in some amazing turns. I was standing with a few of the professionals as Up Chiqui went, and even they were in awe.
"He has tremendous foot speed and spends very little time in the air," said Kent, who said he can make two less strides on a turn than "a normal horse." All Kent has to do is think about a turn and Up Chiqui is there.
"He's an unorthodox horse. He goes very, very low, almost like a cat, with his nose close to the ground," said Kent.
"I found the more you try to mess with his balance, he gets really angry. I ride him the way that he is and try to stay out of his way. His whole body is rubber. It's an incredible feeling to ride the horse, because you know every time you go in the ring, whether you win or lose, he's going to put it all on the line. He never has a rail because he's not trying.
In the hunters, Scott Stewart continued his indoor circuit domination, taking his third straight Leading Hunter Rider title, and third straight Grand Hunter Champion tricolor. His star was, interestingly enough, a first-year horse -- Dedication, who also took the Grand prize at Harrisburg.
"Today was probably the best he's ever gone. He was very consistent, " said Scott after accepting the honors, noting the horse was greener at Washington, where stablemate Garfield earned the Grand title.
"He has an enormous stride, but sometimes it's hard to fit in the lines, so you have to go very slow," said Scott, who is pointing him toward the hunter derbies.
One of the pluses of coming to the indoor shows is being able to chat with people and tune my radar about what's coming up. With only one ring, no one is as busy as they are at, for instance, the Winter Equestrian Festival, where folks zoom from ring to ring.
So I picked up a bit of intelligence about the World Dressage Masters that is coming back to the Jim Brandon Center in Wellington, Fla., Jan. 26-29 under the sponsorship of the International Polo Club. I never violate a confidence, which means I can't give specifics (though I really want to!) but unlike last year, some incredibly big name horses are going to be coming over from Europe for it. I mean big, BIG names. And of course, our Steffen Peters, the defending champ with Ravel, will be competing as well.
The good news is that also unlike last year, there will be much more general admission seating available, so you don't have to spend thousands on a table for dinner if you just want to see the show.
There's still more to come from the National, so I need to run back to the arena. Be sure to check tomorrow for another update on this postcard, and we'll have a photo gallery up in a day or two.
My next stop is the last on the North American fall circuit; Toronto's Royal Winter Fair. I'll be writing from there next Sunday.