November 6, 2011 -- When I had a lunchtime chat with Florida trainer Don Stewart at the Alltech National Horse Show the other day, I asked him which of his students might have the best shot at winning the ASPCA Maclay. The first one he mentioned was Sarah Milliren, and this afternoon, he turned out to be right as the National ended its five-day run.
The 17-year-old from Oklahoma made a statement in the saddle and took the coveted equitation championship with guts and determination. Second went to Californian Demi Stiegler, while Elizabeth Benson of New Jersey was third.
Sarah, who attends high school on the Internet through the University of Missouri program, finished fifth last weekend in the equitation championship at the Washington International, where I noticed her and was impressed.
Don spotted her at a clinic a number of years ago and worked with her regular trainer, Joey Brumbaugh, to get her well-mounted and polished.
I wanted to find out more about Sarah, so we had a little talk.
To flesh out the info, I spoke to her mother, Jamie, who took her daughter for riding lessons when she was six. The instructor didn't want to accept Sarah because she was too young. But her attitude changed when she saw the child on a horse. As several people said, Sarah is a natural.
"I've always hoped it would wind up here," said her mother, clutching Sarah's bouquet and championship ribbon.
"I'm thrilled and shocked, but not surprised," she said, noting her daughter never had an equitation horse of her own.
The generally straight-forward first round course in the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park included several features, such as a "pen" of natural rail in-and-outs in the middle of the ring. The ASPCA wall, a regular fixture for the last few years, was set along the side of the arena, followed by a bending line to an oxer five strides from a one-stride double. The double offered the option of doing an adjoining low bounce instead, but most competitors played it safe and didn't try it.
Sarah was called in first for the flat phase following the initial jumping round, but dropped to second after that, as Michael Hughes moved to the fore. The judges, Kip Rosenthal and Cynthia Hankins, liked his style.
However, in the 11-obstacle second round, where 18 riders were required to trot two fences, hand-gallop before the National Horse Show oxer and come to a walk after the ninth fence (harder to do neatly than it sounds) before picking up the canter again, Hughes lost his edge. He had a lead swap and didn't hand-gallop, putting him sixth behind Victoria Colvin and Washington International champ Chase Boggio, who had an amazing trip for his final equitation round to come in fourth.
After the second round, the judges decided to test their new top three again, having them swap horses and jump the same course. Elizabeth, who was coping with a broken right wrist, lost a stirrup. Demi looked very good, but Sarah impressed the judges the most with her determined ride.
"She went after it. She said, `I'm going to win this thing or going to blow this thing but I'm going to take a shot.' When she jumped the last jump, it was over," said Kip.
Cynthia noted after the second round, the test was needed because the outcome "needs to be clear. You're here to see a winner, and she rode like one."
There were 199 starters in the Maclay, compared to 150 last year when the class was held in Syracuse, N.Y. The Maclay got under way at 7 a.m.; it finished with the victory gallop at 6:30 p.m. That's too long at a show where people pay to get in, especially since there were no other classes or any entertainment.
I know many trainers want to drop the regional qualifiers and let everyone who earns enough points ride at the National. But I think the regionals need to be stronger, and can be a big occasion as they are in California so kids can set that as a realistic goal if the National is beyond their reach, either athletically or financially.
At any rate, there shouldn't be more than 100 kids in the Maclay if it's going to be held on one day. If it can be run over two days, that's a different story.
On the other hand, the Maclay has a stellar reputation with such past winners as Frank Chapot, George Morris and William Steinkraus who were the nucleus of the U.S. Equestrian team at one time. It needs to be an elite competition, limited to top contenders. We saw too many kids here today who should have been taking lessons at home instead of competing in the finals.
The day was marred by news of the death in Italy of Hickstead, ridden to the 2008 Olympic individual gold medal by Eric Lamaze of Canada. It struck a special chord at the Horse Park, because the Dutchbred stallion was named Best Horse last year here at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The horse collapsed at the Verona show after completing a course. Riders did not finish the class and walked into the ring on foot to pay tribute to a giant. A necropsy is scheduled to determine the cause of death. Eric was not injured.
I don't want to end on a sad note after such a wonderful show, so I'll quote the horse park's executive director, John Nicholson, when I asked him how he thought the National went.
"It's a story of happiness," he said simply.
Making my rounds here, I ran into genius show organizer Simon Brooks-Ward of Great Britain, who runs London's Olympia fixture, among other things.
He, too, was impressed by the show, saying "I think it's got legs." He would, however, like to see "a few more attractors for the locals, then it will be singing."
Translation from the British: Some entertainment is needed to bring in the Lexington folks. That should draw a crowd and everyone will be happy.
Alltech founder Dr. Pearse Lyons has promised to ramp things up next year, and since he's a doer, you can count on it.
Meanwhile, show treasurer Allan Shore had some good news: "For the first time in anyone's recollection, the show has finished without a deficit."
He doesn't yet have exact figures, but prudent planning helped stay within the guidelines of the approximately $2 million budget. Any surplus will be rolled over for the 2012 show, and he's hopeful that those who participated in supporting the National this year will be encouraged by the bookkeeping to increase their backing, and is hopeful there will be new support as well.
As I said in my previous postcard, I'm off to Toronto's Royal Winter Fair now, but you can see some more of the National this week in my gallery.