Colts Neck, N.J., June 22, 2008 -- The Beacon Hill Equestrian Grand Prix actually is a four-day show, even though the name makes it sound like one big competition.
Instead, it's a series of opportunities for juniors, amateurs and professionals to enjoy showing the way it used to be, before the days of interchangeable fixtures that blend together without a distinct identity. You know, the cookie-cutter shows with which we're all too familiar.
Beacon Hill, which was presented this year by Mackenzie Keck Inc., definitely has personality. It feels a bit like a low-key Hampton Classic, with its big grass grand prix field, enthusiastic spectators and little boutiques. The VIP tent stretches the length of the field, and it was not a mob scene (like the Classic), but rather, just filled with people enjoying prime beef, turkey, cous cous salad and grilled vegetables, as well as marinated strawberries and fresh-baked cookies. (Don't you wish you had come?) There's only one arena, so it isn't rush, rush, rush for riders, trainers or spectators, who can chat with friends while watching the action.
Against the backdrop of the classic white stables, every foray into the ring takes on meaning.
Andrew Ross, who won the $15,000 New Jersey Life Junior/Amateur Owner Jumper Classic today and the division championship, really appreciates coming to Beacon Hill, as do the others who make the trip to bucolic and aptly named Colts Neck, in the verdant countryside of Monmouth County (New Jersey's horsiest county).
Riding the only thoroughbred in the class, an ex-race horse named Electra, Andrew just shaved the time set by Phillip Richter on former grand prix horse Glasgow, who was clocked in 34.897. Andrew bettered that with a trip in 34.696 seconds in a 16-horse jump-off.
Andrew has trained with Jeffery Welles and Peter Leone and is now working with his girlfriend, trainer Laurie Jakubauskas. A former operations manager for manufacturing companies, Andrew loves what he's doing these days, which is riding and serving as Laurie's office manager.
"This is much better than working in a cubicle," he observed.
As Andrew noted, when you've won something at Beacon Hill, it's an achievement.
The undulating terrain in that grass arena isn't easy to navigate (unlike the pancake flat rings with all-weather footing in which most competitions are held) and Richard Jeffery's courses always take some finesse to conquer.
For instance: Only three of 22 participants could manage a fault-free trip in the featured $50,000 Budweiser Grand Prix. It was, I thought, odd the way the class went. The first starter, Kevin Babington with Souvenir, retired; the second, Amanda Flint on Cajun, was eliminated for two refusals.
"Hmmm," I thought. "What have we here?" Then Lara Gay, a rider with whom I was not familiar (I'll tell you a little about her later), put in a perfect trip aboard Nairobi. She was followed by another clear round, from veteran Laura Bowery on Indy Star II. The next rider, Todd Minikus--who has been on a hot streak--was definitely the predictable winner among those in the know. After he was clear with Ultimo van ter Moude, a feisty gray stallion, I figured a few others would join the jump-off. Wrong.
Though there were some big-name riders yet to come, they weren't paired with their big-name horses, but rather, prospects they are bringing along. So we didn't see Kent Farrington, Katie Prudent, Lisa Jacquin or Michael Walton in the tie-breaker, much as you might have expected them to be there.
Lara, who has had Nairobi for only four weeks (he was, she said, "in a manner of speaking" a present for her recent graduation from Brigham Young University) was in her first grand prix with the Dutchbred bay. She had a rail down at the initial fence in the jump-off, a bummer, but kept going to finish with four faults in 35.173 seconds.
"I was trying to go fast, being the first one in," explained Lara, who trains with Kent.
In contrast to Lara's short association with her mount, Laura Bowery has had Indy Star since the 12-year-old son of Quick Star was a foal and she did all his training, aside from the backing and breaking. Laura was clear, but her time of 36.329 seconds was, she realized, undoubtedly beatable with Todd on her trail.
Todd clinched the class in 33.301 seconds, despite Ultimo kicking out, and a slip on a time-saving tight turn to the last fence,
"I didn't panic. I let him shift a little left; that made the distance work out nice," he said.
Laura was philosophical about the loss as she explained her strategy to me.
Todd has a formidable string of horses that has enabled him to win at HITS, Upperville and now here.
I asked him to fill me in about Ultimo, and he was happy to oblige.
Todd pointed out that with all the shows this spring, it takes a group of mounts like his to keep participating in grands prix rather than sitting one or two out.
"There's been a lot of competition this year for the horses. They've been jumping a lot," said Oliver Kennedy, the show's manager and his words had a double meaning.
Spruce Meadows is ongoing, Olympic candidates are in Rotterdam, and other riders are in Europe as well. With Lake Placid on the horizon, things are busy.
"Olympic years are always tough on the horse shows at home," said Oliver, noting all the jumping in the trials means the second- and third-string horses have to fill in. He commented that Margie Engle told him she just had to take a week or two off with her young string.
"But everybody says, 'We'll be back,'" Oliver advised. They particularly like the grass field, he said, commenting that no one from the stable rides on it until after the show, so "it's pristine" when the out-of-towners arrive.
How does he characterize the Beacon Hill show?
"It's like the outdoors of indoors, or the Spruce Meadows of the East," he laughed.
The show benefits a good cause. Its new beneficiary is the Gleneayre Equestrian Program, which helps children at risk, enabling them to grow and gain self- assurance as they accept responsibility through caring for horses.
I'm switching disciplines next weekend, when I'm off to California for the finals of the Olympic dressage trials. Be sure to check back to see who our team will be for Hong Kong.