October 28, 2012 -- The Washington International is an amazing experience, both for the horses who compete at the Verizon Center and for their humans.
As the only horse show in the heart of a major American city, it's an eye-opener even for the well-traveled. Horses often gaze? in wonder at first as they go for a stroll on the sidewalk to stretch their legs or catch some fresh air. Life? swirls around them, from pedestrians who are startled to see stables on the street as they exit the Metro transit system, to admirers eager to pat them, though some are a bit intimidated by their first face-to-face equine encounter.
Most of the horses are housed on the street in portable stalls behind chain link fence. The jumpers live inside the building, just off the arena floor. Their exercise and warm-up area is a tiny space punctuated by pillars. You can't bring every horse to Washington (the claustrophobic animals need not apply), but I've never seen any of them freak out. The place is in use 24 hours a day, with exercise sessions scheduled by division post-midnight and pre-dawn.
There is compensation for the inconvenience. Riders and owners have the luxury of enjoying hotels and places to eat only a block or two from the facility where the competition takes place, in an arena that usually hosts basketball or hockey (at least when the latter isn't involved in a lockout).
"This show is amazing," said Australian rider Matt Williams. "You're so close to everything, you walk outside and all the restaurants are there. It's well-publicized, so people coming in who don't know anything about horses are learning about the sport, and they've got things happening other than jumping to keep everyone entertained."
High above the arena floor, platforms at either end of the building host VIPs who have paid $25,000 for a table that seats eight guests so they can dine in style with a great view of the action. Above that, on one side, is the Acela Club, where folks fork over four figures for a sumptuous buffet and spectating privileges during the key evenings for the run of the show.
The big finale always is the $100,000 President's Cup, which over the decades has drawn diplomats and the leaders of the country or their representatives for an evening that is both gala and exciting (the Obama administration is the exception that has not sent anyone, but the Belgian ambassador was on hand last night to keep up that part of the tradition).
A look at the order of go gave a big hint as to who might win the class. Reed Kessler drew the advantageous spot as the last of 28 to ride, and she is never shy about speeding across the finish line with her Olympic mount, Cylana. Knowing the time of the other eight contenders in the jump-off was all she needed for a slam-dunk. She was fault-free in 32.62 seconds, well ahead of runner-up Paulo Santana from Brazil, clocked in 34.15 on Taloubet.
Reed wasn't quite sure how she got the perfect spot on the roster, but she made the most of it "keeping it slick," taking seven strides rather than eight to a double halfway through the shortened route, and then seven again, instead of eight, to the final fence, an oxer pointed toward the out-gate side of the arena. The victory in the World Cup qualifier (the Cup finals are her next goal) also nailed the Leading Rider and Owner awards for Reed, who marked her 18th birthday last summer by becoming the youngest member ever on the U.S. Olympic jumping team.
"It's my first year of being old enough to do all these grands prix. Last year, I was leading (for) Leading Rider going into it, and I wasn't old enough to do it, so I really wanted to come back this year and seal the deal," she said.
"I'm thrilled. I brought out the red coat for it and everything."
Whatever else happens in Reed's brilliant career, 2012 will be remembered as the time when all the big stuff happened for her.
Understandably, if you're competing against Reed, it's intimidating.
"She made us feel old," the good-humored Paulo said with a twinkle in his eye. "Two seconds in an indoor competition is a lot of a difference," he pointed out.
"I will try to get my pride back. I was afraid to try and have a rail really early," he said, explaining why he was a touch conservative in his approach.
Matt finished third on Watch Me VD Mangelaar, the 9-year-old he took to the Olympics. He now is employed by Missy Clark's North Run, and found that working equitation horses in recent weeks was to his advantage with Watch Me, giving him techniques that helped improve the horse's performance and make him more rideable. He finished the course in 36.15.
Margie Engle, right behind on 36.42 (the slowest of the clean rounds) with Indigo to claim fourth, was, as Paulo pointed out, at a disadvantage. Washington was only her second show back after recuperation from a broken angle, and Paulo believed it hampered her performance. He was probably right; she told me she may need another surgery, but plucky Margie at least picked up some World Cup points.
In addition to the President's Cup, there are several other featured classes at Washington. It's probably a tie between the puissance and the Gambler's Choice costume class as to which is the most popular with the spectators.
The costume class went to Reed on another of her speedsters, Ligist. She was dressed all in black as Catwoman. It was easy to understand why she chose that outfit. Her middle name is Katherine, and her nickname is Cat. So it all follows. My favorite of the outfits was Beezie Madden in a red helmet with a stem, the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that was a two-time team gold medal Olympian. She rode Vanilla, the daughter of her grand prix mount Via Volo. Beezie used face paint to draw "sprinkles" on her breeches, (which she is not planning to wear again,) and her torso was wrapped in a fluffy white stole that was supposed to look like whipped cream. Vanilla had face paint on her rump, representing sauce; this was an outfit that had its premise well-covered.
The puissance is a classical test of man and beast against a faux brick will. It's essential jumping, with the obstacle growing ever higher through four rounds until it's cleared or defeats its challengers.
In this instance, Chicago VH Moleneind and his rider, Olivier Philippaerts, were up to the task. They cleared 7 feet, but declined to go for the record because Olivier felt it would be too big a leap to go from that height to something over the 7-feet, 7 and 1/2 inch mark set in 1983 by Anthony D'Ambrosio (who by the way was the course designer here this year).
It was the puissance debut for Oliver, and his horse as well.
The Belgian ambassador, needless to say, was quite proud that his countryman won, and on a Belgian-bred horse, to make it perfect. You might remember that Olivier gained instant fame far beyond Belgium's borders last month when he won the $1 million class at Spruce Meadows in Canada.
Olivier's twin, Nicola, also was visiting the show for the first time (the two appropriately were attired as the Super Mario brothers for the costume class). Their father, Ludo, a riding legend in Belgium, dropped by on the weekend and walked the course with his boys.
Then there's the equitation championship, part of the series of fall finals that every young rider dreams of winning. This time it went to Elizabeth Benson, who was third last year and had a plan to win this time. The scenario was nearly the same as in 2011, when she also had finished second in the hunter phase and won the jumper phase. This time, though, she was determined to make no errors in the final segment, where the top 10 ride each other's horses, with only three minutes to practice and no jumping allowed before going in the ring.
"Let's go to the video stand," said trainer Don Stewart after the pairings were announced yesterday afternoon. It was time for some research on the horses, and I was interested to see Don comparing notes with trainer Andre Dignelli about the mounts their students had been assigned. It was nice to see how helpful they were being to each other.
Elizabeth left nothing to chance. As her trainer, Stacia Madden noted, judges don't like to take down the leader in a class unless there's cause, and Elizabeth made sure not to give them any.
She didn't win the last phase. That went to Don's student, Hasbrouck Donovan, who will be riding with Elizabeth on the Auburn University NCAA team. But Elizabeth had enough margin from the first two phases to edge her out for the title.
When the riders came back into the ring for awards, however, no one knew the outcome because no scores were announced. Don compared it to "Queen for a Day" but since he and I were probably among the few who remembered that, I compared it to the way they do the Miss America pageant.
Elizabeth's mother, Katie Benson, explained the lengths to which she had to go to insure victory for her daughter.
By the way, unlike so many equitation kids who reach 18, as Elizabeth has, she is not thinking of selling her horse. She loves San Remo VDL, the dependable black gelding who has had some soundness issues but is a rock when she is able to use him for the big classes.
The victory had a poignant quality because everyone involved was thinking of her father, Jack Benson, who died two years ago. Jack founded Briarwood Farm in New Jersey, which is now run by Katie, and he was always there to support Elizabeth and share her show ring dreams.
I'm sorry Washington is over, it's one of a kind -- I'm already looking forward to next year. Be sure to check out the Equisearch Facebook page for more photos from this very special show. Washington's president, Juliet Reid, has been tireless in her efforts not just to save this show, which at one point not too long ago was teetering, but also to improve it and make it the special fixture it is today. Although this was to be her last year as president, she's planning to stay on in a leadership capacity, which is good news for everyone who loves the show.
Speaking of love, remember the guy whose proposal to his girlfriend went up on the jumbotron at the horse show the other night? Here's the story behind that: Two years ago, Jim Moore and Melinda Rozga met at the horse show. He is the manager of Kelly's Ford Equestrian Center in Virginia, where she boards her horse, but at that time he was new in the job and they didn't know each other.
They became involved and when Jim decided to pop the question, he wanted to do it on Barn Night, at the place where they first found each other.
So several thousand people watched their big moment and cheered when she said "Yes".
What if she had said "No," though?
As one show employee pointed out, "it at least would have had entertainment value."
Judging by her thrilled look, however,? I think Jim knew he had a safe bet. We have a photo of the two of them post-proposal on Equisearch's Facebook page.
Well, Hurricane Sandy is getting a little too close for comfort. Today's pony competition started at 6 a.m. in an effort to get everyone safely out of town before the weather strikes. I'm heading out too, and will be at the National Horse Show in Kentucky next weekend, if the planes are still flying in the wake of Frankenstorm.