November 2, 2014 --The National Horse Show is far more than a sporting event--it's a treasured tradition. More than a century in New York City's Madison Square Garden cemented its icon status, but after departing its longtime home following the 2001 show, its guardians had to work hard to insure it didn't lose its luster.
None of today's junior riders competed at the Garden, nor did many of the older competitors who fill the show's ranks in this era. They may not understand the National's real essence, beyond the ubiquitous orange and black color scheme and nearly $1 million worth of shining silver trophies, but they still realize that winning a National ribbon has a special meaning in the Alltech Arena, just as it did in Manhattan.
For those of us veterans, however--some of whom even go back to the "old" Garden, before the current version was built over Penn Station in the 1960s, the National is a time to greet friends made in decades past, and swap stories -- many of which have been swapped before, but get better in the re-telling.
It was delightful to chat with Elaine Moore Moffat, who won the ASPCA Maclay horsemanship finals as as 16-year-old in 1946. Elaine is the honorary chairman of this year's Maclay, which is going on as you read this (check back tonight for my bulletin on that class.) Today's testing courses are a far cry from the simple route she rode after the end of World War II, so it was fun to hear her memories of the championship. Watch this video to share them.
The show's featured $250,000 Canadian Pacific Grand Prix last night was a real thriller, with eight of 38 starters coming back for the jump-off. In the advantageous position of being last to go, Beezie Madden pulled out all the stops at the final fence -- appropriately the CP oxer -- and sent Cortes C stretching over the imposing obstacle. The gamble (which she was advised to take by her husband, trainer John Madden) paid off as the gallant black gelding finished it a time of 34.71 seconds to beat the 35.73-second mark set a few minutse earlier by 2012 winner McLain Ward on the feisty Rothchild.
It was Cortes' first grand prix outing since taking Beezie to the team and individual bronze medals at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September, and as always, he was up to the task. Rothchild, also part of the bronze medal squad, is handicapped by physics -- he has a shorter stride.
Discussing her husband's advice, Beezie said he "told me to take a risk and use his (Cortes') scope at the last, but I think I stretched a little bit, almost too far. He's been an amazing horse all year. I'm really happy he's still on form."
McLain naturally would have liked to collected the $62,500 check for first prize, but he did all he could under the circumstances.
"I wasn't confident I was going to win...with Beezie coming behind me. I have to say, if I was in that position 100 times, I would have ridden the same round with her coming behind me," McLain commented.
"If I went after her, I would have tried to do the impossible, but I did about all I could. He (Rothchild) jumped super, the horse keeps giving and giving. I'm pleased with the result."
Have you ever watched Cortes jump? Watch this video for an answer to a question you might have had about him.
Thursday night's $75,000 jumper class was a marathon, with 21 of 42 starters returning for the jump-off (one of those who qualified did not compete.) Everyone, including designer Guillerme Jorge, agreed that wasn't ideal. This is a great designer, who has just been named to that post for the 2016 Olympics in his native Brazil. I caught up with him last night to discuss his efforts.
An innovation this year comes with the debut of the Under 25 jumper competition, which bridges the gap between the juniors and the open grands prix (though several of the U-25 riders also competed in the CP Grand Prix.) The U-25 is limited to riders between 16 adn 25 who have not competed on a U.S. 5-star team.
I remember George Morris saying several years ago, when I talked to him after the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search finals, that riders who succeeded in competitions such as that one had nowhere to go afterward, unless they wanted to compete with the seasoned riders, a step too big for most of them to take. It was, he pointed out, a real void in our system.
So this class, contested over three days, is a bridge devised by the USEF to bring along competitors for our international pipeline. I discussed the U-25 ringside with Peter Wylde, who is very involved in the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's Emerging Athletes Program and is upbeat about the benefits of this innovation. Peter, you will remember, won the 1982 Maclay finals and went on to earn an individual bronze at the 2002 World Equestrian Games and a team gold at the 2004 Olympics.
Watch and listen as he shares his thoughts.
Shawn Casady, a 20-year-old originally from Tennessee who is a hard-working professional associated with Ken and Emilly Smith, came from behind to take the first U-25 title on Twister. Washington International equitation finals winner Michael Hughes, 18, was leading on Macarthur going into the final round yesterday in which the top 12 participated, carrying their penalties from previous trips. He could afford time faults, but not a rail, and when one toppled at an oxer, it put him in second place by two penalties. He tied on 8 faults with Nicole Bellissimo, 20, aboard VDL Bellefleur. The tie was broken by Michael's faster time.
The hunter ranks were topped by Betsee Parker's Lucador, ridden by Scott Stewart to a blue ribbon in every one of his classes to take the grand championship. Betsee, appropriately wearing an orange blazer, also enjoyed dominance in the junior divisions with Ovation, handled by Tori Colvin, who won that grand title. Waiting for the trophy presentations, we talked about winning at the National -- and what Betsee does with all her ribbons.
The National was searching for an identity after leaving the Garden, continuing at a pier in New York City, in Florida and at the Syracuse, N.Y. show (the Maclay was even held at the Washington International one year.) But since arriving in Kentucky four years ago, it seems to have found its footing.
"It's not New York. It's never going to be New York, it's not Madison Square Garden. That's just the facts of life" said show president Mason Phelps, explaining everyone (even the diehards) has accepted the fact that the show continues to move on.
And for most riders, as I said before, riding at the Garden is something with which they have no connection.
"They don't even know what we keep referring to. Most can't even grasp how you could put a horse in that building, though we know how it was done. Of all the indoor venues in the U.S., this is as great a venue as we could find for an equestrian competition of this kind," Mason said of the park.
Sponsorship was an issue after Alltech, the title sponsor since the show's move from Syracuse, pulled out this year as it devoted its resources to the WEG in France. But Canadian Pacific, which is headed by National chairman Hunter Harrison, stepped up to sponsor the grand prix, and for the next two years will be the show's title sponsor. Longines will come in next year as the sponsor of the grand prix, presented by CP, and there will be some juggling of the weekend schedule with the Maclay to accommodate Longines' requirement that the grand prix be televised in Europe when people are awake. (Last night's grand prix ended about 10 p.m., which would have been 4 a.m. in Switzlerland.)
Hunter emphasized about the National, "it's important that it stay a part of this circuit, and it can be re-established in its own structure to fit today's times." He added it's vital that the show keep its World Cup qualifier status, something of which few shows in North America can boast.
Mason said new sponsors are eager to be part of the show, and that Alltech has not closed the door on a possible return to the National.
Crowds are still thin. Lexington for the most part is a racing town and the National runs during the Breeders Cup, but the show is being accommodating in that regard. The pub on the arena's concourse televised the races, and there was off-track wagering in the parking lot. Next year, however, the Cup runs in Lexington at Keeneland, so those who want to attend the National are advised to make their hotel reservations early.
The National never forgets its friends. This year's National is dedicated to Bruce Duchossois, one of the great equestrian sportsmen, who died in the summer after a long and valiant struggle with cancer. Bruce was a director of the National and vice president of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, an admirer and supporter of a variety of disciplines (some of you may know him for his backing of eventer Phillip Dutton, who won Rolex Kentucky with Bruce's Connaught). The National remembers those who have been part of it (Bunty Armstrong, who has been involved with it for 65 years, is the honorary chairwoman of the show this year), which is a big part of the tradition.
Check back tonight for my take on the Maclay finals. In the meantime, go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos of the show.