November 3, 2013 -- There were a few moments at the Alltech National Horse Show that felt like deja vu from last weekend's Washington International. They came when President's Cup winner Kent Farrington won the $50,000 open speed class on Blue Angel, and Great Britain's Tim Gredley took the puissance for the second Friday in a row aboard the stalwart Unex Valente (after Aaron Vale and Smartie redistributed the blocks on the wall in the same dramatic fashion as they had in the Verizon Center.)
But it was obvious last night that this was quite a different show, as 20-year-old Katie Dinan rose to the top of a truly international jump-off contingent with a dynamic ride on her game partner, Nougat du Vallet.
Her trainer, McLain Ward, set the stage with the first clear on Rothchild (speaking of game horses). But Mclain, the defending champion, was only second to go in the field of 36 tested by Conrad Homfeld's artful course in the Alltech Arena.
Conrad, one of the country's most celebrated and successful riders in the 1980s (Olympic gold and silver, world championships gold and silver) made good use of the iconic Kentucky fences that we first saw in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games here at the Kentucky Horse Park. They ranged from a tote board (very appropriate, since the Breeders' Cup races were running on the West Coast during the show) to a Mississippi river steam boat, a tribute to Louisville native Muhammad Ali and obstacles that paid homage to such famous Kentucky farms as Calumet.
Nougat matched Rothchild's effort, but last fence-itis at a white oxer claimed several the top contenders, including Brianne Goutal's Nice de Prissey, second in the President's Cup; Tim on Unex Chamberlain and Margie Engle and Royce. (Poor Margie, she is just recovering from a broken right ankle, and now has a cast on her left ankle. She said a horse fell with her and she got hurt trying to get her right leg out of the way.) Kent, riding Willow, dropped a pole at fence 7A, the first element of a troublesome double along the wall of the ring that caught several other riders, and he had an uncharacteristic time fault to go with it.
Joining the line-up for the tie-breaker were Nicola Philippaerts, part of a four-man Belgian contingent here, and Russia's Ljubov Kochetova, a native of St. Petersburg (we're not talking Florida) who is a familiar face on the U.S. circuit.
No one was going to beat McLain's blazing 42.06 time, but he had a rail at the last, which was a different obstacle than in the first round. Katie sailed in next on her plucky Selle Francais gelding and produced a perfect trip in 44.85 seconds. She didn't leave the ring thinking she had won, though; Nicola was capable of presenting quite a challenge.
Of course, adding a stride here or there can make the difference between winning and second place in such a competitive environment, and Nicola fell just short on Cortez in 45.02 seconds. Ljubov is known for clean rounds, not speed, and played it as usual, her blond ponytail flying in the air as a companion to the black tail of her mount, Aslan. She finished fault-free to clinch third place in 46.42 seconds and be happy about it.
Everyone got a share of the action. Ljubov was named the show's Leading Lady Rider, while Nicola clinched Leading Rider and received a lease on an Audi as his prize. After the presentation, he got behind the wheel, with Ljubov next to him, and sped around the arena. I was standing by the wall next to Alltech founder Dr. Pearse Lyons and for a moment, we feared for our lives as Nicola came way too close for comfort at a pace that would have easily won him the class, if the vehicle had been a horse rather than an SUV.
An obviously thrilled Katie (so refreshing to see someone sparkle after a victory) was effusive in praise for her horse.
"He deserves to be winning these classes. I'm the only thing in his way," she said modestly, and, I must add, inaccurately. She's quite a rider.
Katie, a 20-year-old Harvard University student who is studying biology, has had to balance the demands of one of the country's top schools with her riding, but she has done it artfully.
We talked about the future--big things obviously are ahead for this rising star.
This is the third year the National has been held in Kentucky, saved from a likely fate of fading away by Alltech and the bold decision of the show's president, Mason Phelps, to move it south from its Northeastern roots. Crowds were sparse the first year, but they have been getting better, and it was nearly a packed house for the grand prix. Hideous weather on Halloween flooded the halls with trick-or-treaters (after an invitation by the mayor of Lexington) to such an extent that the candy offered by vendors ran out. That added to the atmosphere and I think the kids will be back next year, rain or shine, hopefully staying to fill the seats. Anyway, the show seems to be catching on and really establishing a foothold in its new home.
I chatted with Mason about how he thinks things are going with the show.
The National, with its 130-year history (of which one is reminded at every turn by those associated with the show), is always a time to reminisce. It's neat when the past and the present come together, as they did this weekend after Frances Land won the both Friday's $15,000 amateur-owner jumper class and yesterday's featured $50,000 Show Jumping Hall of Fame Series Championship Grand Prix for amateur-owners and juniors with Vieanne. The mare was rather restive, so Frances got permission to mount up in the ring for the championship, and never looked back as she had the only fault-free round in the five-horse jump-off.
My friend, Betty Yopko Weibel, remembered it was 30 years ago at the National in Madison Square Garden when Frances' father, Jay Land, was the American Grand Prix Association Rookie of the Year. I vividly recall Jay's rides on the wonderful Irishbred Leapy Lad so well, what a brave horse, with a rider to match.
Now Jay is best known as the dad of Frances, a 19-year-old Emory University student who realizes that father knows best. He's her trainer, and what a good job he does. She loves having him by her side.
"Its really meaningful, because he knows exactly what I'm going through; he knows the pressure, he knows the hard work, he knows the long hours," she said.
"I have the family support as well as a wonderful trainer. It's a really wonderful thing."
In the junior hunters, Tori Colvin cut her usual swath through the ranks with her stellar group of horses, taking the large junior hunter grand championship (the best of the two age groups in the larges) with Way Cool, and earning the championship for the small junior hunters presented by riders 15 and under with Ovation. Both are owned by Dr. Betsee Parker.
"It's a tremendous moment because my (former) trainer, George Morris, is here watching it happen. It was a thrill to see George was up in the stands. I was a little bit of a dickens of a junior and he sometimes read me the riot act," she chuckled.
The grand junior hunter champ was the grand old man of the division, 20-year-old Lyle, ridden by Taylor Sutton. I talked with the flea-bitten gray gelding's longtime trainer, Don Stewart, about him. I couldn't get over the fact that he was still a star at his age.
Saddlebreds have been a traditional part of the show, but weak entries nearly got their classes cancelled until such stalwarts as Misdee Wrigley Miller (whose name is on one of the stables here) got out and recruited. While we still saw instances of only two or three in a class, there is a feeling that as people in the area become more familiar with the show, saddlebred folks will be more eager to take part.
I talked about it with the adorable Carson Kressley. You know him as the star of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," but I met him long before that in the mid-1990s when he worked for the old American Horse Shows Association, a predecessor of today's U.S. Equestrian Federation, which is based at the horse park.
Oh, I don't want to give short shrift to the puissance. Entries were light, as always. Tim and I are waiting for someone to come up with a lucrative series that encourages riders to carry a puissance horse around with them. Only five started, and Charlie Jayne was out early with a knockdown at the second fence on Fly Away -- though he cleared the wall fine. Only Tim and his staunch Dutchbred partner could handle the wall at 7 feet, but he wasn't thinking about trying for a record, something he had said he had been wanting to do at Washington.
Tim, who won the horse's first puissance here last year, offered his thoughts on the class during a post-show chat.
It's been an eventful few days, but this isn't my last communication from the National. I'll be sending a bulletin later on about the ASPCA Maclay finals, so be sure to come back to Equisearch this evening and look for it.