August 30, 2015 -- After the announcement earlier this month that American Pharoah would be running in the Travers Stakes, the "Midsummer Derby" at Saratoga, Longines' vice president and head of international marketing, Juan-Carlos Capelli, had a difficult choice. Would he go to see the Triple Crown winner add another conquest to his list, or would he honor a previous commitment to attend the Hampton Classic?
He honored the commitment. It turned out to be a good decision. Juan-Carlos already had been on hand for Pharoah's Belmont win; as it turned out, being at Saratoga for his defeat would have been an enormous letdown.
Instead, Juan-Carlos was part of a happy time at the Classic, handing out a watch to Ireland's Paul O'Shea, winner of the featured $40,000 Longines Cup on Skara Glen's Dolphin.
Riders such as Paul understandably are grateful for Longines' participation, and it's not just the timepieces and the prize money that they appreciate.
"It's fantastic that they're backing our sport so much," he said, noting that having a prestige name involved helps get the public more interested in show jumping.
On my last visit to the Classic in 2013 (I was at the World Equestrian Games on the show's dates in 2014), I chatted at length with Juan-Carlos. That was the first year for Longines to go high-profile at the Classic, after the company entered a 10-year sponsorship contract with the FEI (international equestrian federation) at the end of 2012.
So yesterday it was time for another chat. Longines was just getting started with its major FEI sponsorship in 2013. The company's name is now on everything from the World Cup finals to the new North American League of grands prix that qualify the riders for the finals, as well as special fixtures like the Classic.
Molly Ashe, third in the Cup on Cocq A Doodle, behind runner-up Hayley Barnhill on Zephire, offered a rider's perspective on why the Classic is so special.
"I think this is one of the best horse shows in our country. It feels important and it feels good to do well on that field, because it's taken a lot of prisoners over the years. Success out there feels like you've done things right," she said.
When Juan-Carlos and I talked, he offered his company's view on the same subject, explaining the reason Longines and the Classic are such a good match.
"The quality of the show, the grounds, the obstacles; everything is done in a qualitative way," he said.
In addition to the sporting aspects, "It's a fashion event, a social event; elegant--it's a unique event." He compared it with Deauville in France, known for its race course and international film festival, but noted with a smile that the weather is better in the Hamptons.
(For a look at one aspect of what makes the show so intriguing, watch this video about shopping at the Classic.)
"We have a very long story with horses," Juan-Carlos said, talking about Longines' connections with racing and other equestrian competitions.
"We share the same values," he explained, citing tradition, precision and a concern for ecology among them. He notes that both competitors and spectators are well turned-out, important for a company that makes watches. Juan-Carlos likes the fact that men and women compete against each other in equestrian sport, especially since the company's watch sales balance at 50 percent for each.
While Longines has been very familiar to European showgoers for years--it should be, considering it has been involved with horse sports since 1878--that type of brand recognition was not necessarily the case on this side of the Atlantic.
At one point, he said, equestrian sport was centered in Europe, but now it is global, with better transportation for horses making it possible to have big shows in such far-flung places as Hong Kong and Shanghai. Competitions in China improve the level of the riders there, and Longines is on it with a new Chinese World Cup League.
"The Chinese was to see a Chinese rider, especially in China," he pointed out.
"The U.S. is a priority market for us," Juan-Carlos told me, and with the FEI sponsorship, Longines has become much more visible. At the Classic, for instance, the name and giant watches are an integral part of the scenery.
The Longines executive sees show jumping getting more popular in the U.S., and notes younger talents with high name recognition, including Jessica Springsteen and Georgina Bloomberg, help draw the public's interest. He also mentioned that urban events, such as the Longines Global Champions Tour of Miami Beach last spring and the Longines LA Masters, set for the West Coast in October, can help attract a bigger audience and educate a new generation of fans by introducing city dwellers to competition that primarily has been held more outlying areas.
The Los Angeles Masters is also a good showcase for the company; it will be debuting its new Dolce Vita line of watches there.
Now I need to get back to telling you about the Cup, which drew 30 starters, with five coming through to the jump-off over Guillherme Jorge's course on the big grass grand prix field.
On Friday in the $50,000 Douglas Elliman qualifier for today's $250,000 grand prix, Paul's ride, Skara Glen's Sienna, took offense at what she was asked to do on that field and he was eliminated. Since the requirement for entering the $250,000 class involved finishing the qualifier, Paul was out of luck.
But he didn't get discouraged.
"When I make a mistake, I always say to myself, `I know something good is coming,'" he said, and sure enough, it worked out that way today for him on Dolphin, a 10-year-old stallion by Heartbreaker.
Hayley, a former national horsemanship champion, had two disadvantages; she went first in the jump-off, and she is new to this level of competition. Paul -- an extremely experienced rider with the luck of going last in the tie-breaker -- beat her by nearly a full second on the Longines clock, checking in at the finish line with a time of 41.520 seconds.
Molly logged the only other clear round in the jump-off, yet didn't rush, wanting to give her mare a "nice double-clear" to build her confidence, since she has little mileage at this level.
McLain Ward, the winner of Friday's qualifier with the sensational HH Azur, wasn't sure then whether he would use her or Rothchild in the Cup. Rothchild threw a shoe while competing Friday and did not enter the Cup, so Azur got the nod for the grand prix this afternoon.
There will be another watch presentation then to another Irishman. Shane Sweetnam took the lead early for the $30,000 Longines bonus that goes to the rider who earns the most points during the week, and his 315 points are unassailable. Paul finished with 165. McLain has a chance to add more points today, but he can't catch Shane.
Oh, while I was talking with Paul, I asked for his opinion about the controversy involving the Irish team being shut out of Olympic qualification. At the European championships this month, where Ireland had hoped to qualify, it all came down to Cian O'Connor's round on Good Luck. He was clear over 10 fences, but before the 11th, a member of the ring crew darted across his path. Good Luck, presumably distracted, had the fence down, and Ireland finished seventh. Only the top six teams qualified for the Olympics, and protests were to no avail.
Click on the arrow to hear what Paul, who saw the incident on TV, said about it.
For more photos from the Classic, go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
I'll send you another postcard this evening, with details about the grand prix as the show wraps up. If you haven't been to the Classic and don't mind sitting in traffic jams on the way there, put it on your calendar for next year. It's definitely one of a kind.