October 26, 2014 -- As the Washington International Horse Show ended its 2014 edition this afternoon, I had more than a twinge of regret. Of course, I'm tired--covering the highlights of a fall indoor circuit show is fulfilling yet demanding work, with classes running late into the evening.
But this show, one of my favorites, produces a special energy that keeps you going. Being in the middle of the nation's capital, with most of the horses stabled in tents on the street just a few feet from the sidewalk, gives it a unique aura. And who doesn't love being a couple of blocks (or less) from hotels, restaurants and museums? (McLain Ward actually had a chance to visit the National Portrait Gallery, one of my faves.)
So the idea that it's over for another year makes me sigh, but the memories of the last few days will be nearly as much fun to look back on as they were when they were happening in front of me.
When I think of the 2014 WIHS, the name that will come to mind is Jessica Springsteen. Last night, she walked to center ring for presentation after presentation. I got a chuckle out of seeing her decked out in championship sash upon championship sash, her arms loaded with coolers, trophies, and boxes of Georgetown cupcakes (among the prizes riders always get at Washington.) Leading international jumper rider and leading under-25 rider were the prestige titles she won, along with champion and reserve in the jumpers for her mares, Lisona and Davendy S.
She topped class after class, but the one that sticks in my mind is the puissance. Washington has the last class held over the big wall in this hemisphere, and sadly, it never draws many riders. As Anthony D'Ambrosio, the course designer at Washington points out, people don't carry a puissance horse around the circuit with them anymore. And he should know -- he set the puissance record of 7-feet, 7 and 1/2 inches, at Washington 31 years ago on Sweet 'n' Lo, in whose name the current puissance trophy is given.
This time, there were five entries, but that was enough to get the great wall up to 6-feet, 10-inches. Think about that, all you 2-6 riders out there. In the previous round, when the wall was a mere 6-feet, 5-inches, only Jessie on Lisona and Leslie Howard on Utah cleared the wall and left the blocks in place. Jessie did it again at the final height (and had no idea how high it was when she jumped it), but Leslie felt Utah had had enough and didn't try at the bigger height.
Jessie had told me originally she would only go two rounds, but the fact that the class counted toward the leading rider title helped convince her to give it a try.
"It was very fun. She jumped it so easily," Jessie pointed out.
"She has so much scope, and she's actually better, the higher the fences."
The $125,000 President's Cup grand prix, the highlight of highlights at Washington, looked like it might just be another triumph for Jessie. She made the jump-off with Davendy S, but on the other hand, so did three formidable opponents, Beezie Madden with her World Cup finals winner, Simon; Reed Kessler with her Olympic mount, Cylana, and McLain with HH Carlos Z.
Jessie gave Davendy a spirited ride in the jump-off, finishing in a time of 34.30 seconds. Cylana, next to go, had a rail and a slower time, but Jessie's mark looked beatable. McLain made it happen, doing just enough to come up with a clean round in 33.52 seconds. With Beezie next to go, McLain's effort to secure the fourth President's Cup victory of his career was no sure thing. Beezie's turns were amazing and she had the time, 33.48 seconds, but a knockdown put her in third place.
I didn't know much about HH Carlos Z, who McLain rides for a former-and-current sponsor, Hunter Harrison. McLain told me the horse had developed a stop with another rider, while praising Nick Dello Joio for helping to bring him back around. With his own talent and special brand of communication, McLain has made a willing partner out of this horse. I asked a leading question when we chatted about Carlos, as you'll see in this video.
The President's Cup is a World Cup qualifier, and all of the top three are trying to make the finals, since they're being held in Vegas next year. That city is, understandably, a draw. McLain and Beezie noted they've been behind the eight-ball, because they spent so much time and effort focusing on the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, where they were part of the bronze medal team (and Beezie also got the individual bronze, of course.)
"I've been in a little bit of a post-WEG rut with 4 faults," conceded McLain, "but I felt he was going well so I was really pleased to be able to jump a clear round tonight."
After seeing Jessie go, he felt, "This is a task," but Carlos was up for it.
"He really responded, he turned phenomenally, he's such a careful horse. I was really, really excited. I felt the horse was due a win and it was nice for it to come together at a great show like this," McLain commented.
Having the World Cup finals in Vegas makes them a special draw, as I discussed with Olivier Philippaerts, the 21-year-old Belgian rider who won the $50,000 Speed Final at the show on Carlito C.
Like the Pennsylvania National and the National horse shows, Washington has its own equitation finals, part of the grueling fall schedule for juniors that also includes the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search.
Each of the 10 finalists at Washington are assigned one of the other finalists' horses for a trip over the same jumper-style course they rode in the afternoon on their own mounts. The previous day, they competed over a hunter course, so there's a lot of grueling competition in this class.
Michael Hughes prevailed in the next-to-last equitation outing of his career (he won the Talent Search last year), coming into the finals behind Hunter Holloway and overtaking her when he nailed the course with a score of 93.5, as she earned 88.5 to finish second, ahead of McKayla Langmeier.
The lead trainers for Michael, Missy Clark and John Brennan, have played the game exactly right with this extraordinary rider.
Jimmy Torano, one of the judges for this class, gave me the same answer as he had at this year's Talent Search when I asked about the difference between the riders that put one ahead of the other.
"You're talking about splitting hairs. All three of them rode super rounds, they did an amazing job on the others' horses, not only the top three, the top six," commented Jimmy, who called Michael's trip "flawless." He noted, "In my mind, there's no question these three will ride on the team."
I have been writing about Michael since he was 11, so I always knew he had a special destiny, but I wondered what it was like for his father, Eamonn, a professional horseman, to have a son with so much talent. Watch this video to find out.
Charities don't go begging at the WIHS. Thursday night, the theme was "Buck Breast Cancer," with the pink symbolizing breast cancer awareness everywhere, including the pink candies on the table in the Acela Club, which has an aerial view of the ring. (It's a VIP area, but the VVIP areas are set a little lower, and right on the rail of their balconies.) For every time a rider in the speed class jumped the breast cancer fence and left it standing, an anonymous donor pledged money. At the end of the evening, that effort raised $7,500 for a community breast care center. There also was a moving tribute to Elizabeth Solter, a top hunter rider who died of breast cancer at age 47.
Friday was military night, with lots of officers in dress uniforms at the Acela club and in the stands. The big charity that evening was TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.) Entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens promised $1,000 for every time the big American flag jump was cleared without a knockdown, and $14,000 was raised that way. Then Alex Clancy, the surviving spouse of novelist Tom Clancy ("The Hunt for Red October") matched that to bring the total to $28,000.
I wanted to learn more about TAPS, and I got the chance yesterday, which was Kids' Day. The show sets up child-centric horse-related activties in the street in front of the Monaco Hotel, where many children who have never touched a horse before can ride, groom and even kiss an equine. It's a great way to get a new generation interested in horses.
Watch this video, get a glimpse of Kids' Day and learn about TAPS along with me.
As you can see, each night had a theme, and last night was Chinese night. You know, Year of the Horse and all that, especially apropos since the Verizon Center in Penn Quarter (as the section is called) flanks Chinatown. The food at Acela was Peking duck and dumplings, with a special surprise for dessert -- chocolate dipped fortune cookies with an equestrian theme. My fortune said, "Practice like you've never won and perform like you've never lost." I'll pass it along to the riders who found themselves behind Jessica this weekend.
The entertainment for the crowd also included a dancing dragon. That's a cute touch and, like Kids' Day, emblematic of the show's efforts to connect with the community.
As I think back to the days when we worried whether WIHS would continue, let alone in such a prestigious venue as the Verizon Center (home to professional basketball and hockey), I realize how far the show has come. There were excellent crowds beginning Thursday night, barn night, through yesterday. The hard work of chairman Juliet Reid was acknowledged in the center of the ring last night. She has made it all happen, and has a great team, including the dynamic Vicki Lowell, the show's president, and Bridget Meehan, the executive director.
Go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos and videos of Washington.
Now I'm off to the National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky. Look for my postcard and a bulletin on the ASPCA Maclay next Sunday.