June 23, 2016 -- Think sadly of all the equestrian competitions that have disappeared over the years, remembered only with poignant old photographs and faded ribbons.
So it's something of a miracle to consider that the Essex Horse Trials, last held in 1998, will be making a comeback next year.
And it's being done in a big way, as anyone who attended last night's celebration of its return could see.
A cocktail party and an Invitational Derby Cross (I'll explain later) marked the occasion at Moorland Farm, just a few miles from the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, where Essex was held for years under the sponsorship of M&M Mars.
Now it's Mars Inc. that's the title sponsor of the event, set for the weekend of June 24, 2017. It will run beginner/novice to preliminary competition, though I expect it to offer higher levels as time goes on.
Moorland farm is the most perfect venue. Every October, the 230-acre former estate hosts the Far Hills Race Meeting, chaired by Guy Torsilieri. The races draw about 30,000 people for a day of high-end steeplechasing and tailgating.
The terrain has real character, with a big hill as well as gentle slopes. The turf is maintained beautifully and all the equipment necessary to keep it in shape is available because it is used for the racing surface.
Space to ride is abundant and the views are lovely. Although Moorland Farm is conveniently close to major highways, the roads are peaceful in tiny Far Hills, which has a population of about 1,000. Within just a few miles, there are all kinds of restaurants, from casual to fine dining, and shops, supermarkets, train stations and places to stay.
It's easy to see that Moorland Farm is the perfect venue, and understand completely why Essex Horse Trials Board President Ralph Jones and course designer Morgan Rowsell fell in love with it. Hear Ralph explain how the revival of Essex came to be by clicking on the video below.
What always set Essex apart was its community involvement and touch of elegance -- not so much as to be off-putting; just enough to give it panache. Essex began in 1968 at Hoopstick Farm. (The new Essex has its own cocktail, appropriately called the Hoopstick.) Eventing was still in its infancy in this country at that time, and Roger Haller, whose family owned the farm in nearby Bedminster, decided to start the event with the help of his parents, Elliot and Jean, and members of the Essex Foxhounds, along with other horse enthusiasts from the area.
Essex was a hit that grew so big it was moved to the USET grounds. Roger went on to design the cross-country courses for the 1978 eventing world championships in Kentucky and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and became an internationally respected official in the sport. He died in March, but his spirit was strong last night, as so many of the people in attendance had known him well. His widow, Ann, attended, and I'm sure she'll be a part of Essex to continue Roger's legacy as things progress. Listen to her thoughts and meet Guy Torsilieri by clicking on the video below.
The Derby Cross was a hybrid of show jumps and cross-country fences, set in a fashion so partygoers could see every obstacle if they stepped outside the tent. The commentator and emcee was Doug Payne, who grew up in the area, rode at Essex and is part of a well-known eventing family. His sister, Holly Payne Caravella, competed in the Derby Cross, and watching from the sidelines was his mother, Marilyn, who will be the president of the eventing ground jury at the Rio Olympics. (Marilyn just finished judging Luhmuhlen in Germany, which means she has judged all the 4-star events in the world!)
I asked Doug what he thought of the venue and how he felt Essex would fare on its return. Click on the right-hand arrow to hear what he had to say.
Twelve riders took part in the Derby Cross, with the course beautifully designed by Morgan. I was impressed. A single knockdown in the first round could be remedied with a clear jump over the 4-foot, 3-inch narrow Joker fence. The six who were clear, either by jumping without fault or getting help from the Joker, came back over a shortened course against the clock. They could take five seconds off their time by jumping the Joker successfully (though they were penalized five seconds if they didn't.) Take a look at the competition and the venue by clicking on the video below.
The winner was Jennie Brannigan on Kilkenny, with Sinead Halpin second aboard Topgun. Buck Davidson, an Essex veteran who didn't have his best day in the Derby Cross, was very impressed by the prospect of coming back next year for Essex. We had a chat while he held his baby daughter, Aubrey. Click on the video below to hear what he said.
The Essex revival had its roots in last year's Gladstone Gathering at the USET Foundation. Jim Brady, whose family owned Hamilton Farm, was interested in seeing a resurgence of top class equestrian activity in the area. To that end, he revived the Gladstone Equestrian Association. (Remember its glory days, when it staged the 1993 World Pair Driving Championships?)
The Gathering brought together people from the area who had an interest in horses, whether it was riding, driving or watching them. Ralph was one of them, and you know the rest. But now the Monmouth County show will be held in August at the USET Foundation (even though it's in Somerset County) and there are other big plans on the horizon. I've been sworn to secrecy, but I'll let you know about them as soon as I can.
It looks as if New Jersey's Somerset Hills region will be adding luster to its reputation for hosting exciting equestrian competitions, so you'll want to pay a visit to one of them at some point. And the USET Foundation stables are always worth a look, especially now since they are being refurbished.
My next postcard will come from the first East Coast Longines FEI World Cup™Jumping qualifier of the season at Bromont in Quebec at the end of July, so be sure to look for it.