Devon, Pa., May 30, 2008 -- There's no place like the Devon Horse Show. It always feels as if I've come home when I walk into the compact grounds, where the rings are a short trot from the fancy country fair, and everything that doesn't move is painted Devon Blue.
What year is it? The smells, sounds and sights are much the same as when I first visited this special spot on Philadelphia's Main Line more than three decades ago. Consistency in the show ring adds to that impression. Scott Stewart was Leading Hunter Rider for the sixth time in a row, while Kenny Wheeler took his 34th Best Young Horse title.
In the era of cookie-cutter shows, Devon's glamour remains undimmed. Variety counts for a lot. When was the last time you went to a multi-breed show? The expensive glitter of the coaching classes, the dignity of the stalwart Friesians, the elegance of side-saddle: It all adds up to a unique experience, as most shows, like doctors, have become specialists in one breed or discipline. The old-fashioned touches add to the charm, from the family class and the crustless tea sandwiches (watercress is my favorite) to the bubbly organ music that accompanies the Saddlebreds.
And then you have the crowd. Whether they're munching French fries along the rail or pouring champagne in the more rarified air of the box seats, Devon fans are numerous and appreciative, a big part of what gives this show its flavor.
Do you want a spot near the rail? Better get here early, especially for the grand prix. Nancy Andreas of the Lehigh Valley came at 9 a.m. yesterday with her sister to set up their tall canvas chairs (so they can see over the benches in the front row), 11 hours before the grand prix would start. It has become a ritual.
"This is the highlight," she said. "You don't plan anything else for the Thursday. If I was having a baby, I'd hold it in for the day."
In the grandstand above her, Kate Johnson from Birchrunville and Debra Malinics of Chestnut Hill (both nearby towns) were luxuriating in their box seats. They arrived early too, the better to get every moment of enjoyment out of the box on which they had the winning $750 bid at the Kimberton Hunt Year-End Dinner. The waiting list for boxes is 12 years, so even to get one for a day is quite a coup, the women noted as they savored their wine, fruit and cheese while horses came and went in the ring below.
"This is the only game in town," Kate advised me, and it was obvious by the evening that a lot of people agreed with her. The place was packed to bursting with more than 6,500 folks who wanted to be a part of it.
The Devon aura as much as the caliber of the competitions is why it's still such a big deal to win here--even for riders who have competed in major international venues.
Hillary Dobbs, Leading Rider at Washington last year and a star in her first Nations' Cup in Argentina (as well as the United States' victorious Cup effort in Wellington, Fla., this winter), has been a consistent star this week. But despite her other achievements, she still is dazzled by Devon Blue--as in the first place ribbons she has been receiving with regularity in the jumpers.
During her junior years, she placed here but never was victorious, so this is a kick for the Harvard University junior, who won jumper classes two evenings in a row.
Of course the biggest deal for the jumpers was last night's Budweiser Grand Prix of Devon, finally elevated to a $100,000 class after eons as a $75,000 fixture (glamour can only take you so far in these days of outrageous gasoline prices; it was definitely time for a raise.)
Bob Ellis of Great Britain is doing the courses here for the first time, and he has one word when asked what he thinks about Devon: "Fabulous," he says repeatedly.
He set quite a test for the 28 starters. As dusk became night, only five made it into the tie-breaker. The biggest stumbling block was the last fence on course, unlucky number 13, an oxer of yellow-, black- and white-striped rails five strides from a two-stride vertical-oxer double. It caught eight riders, including Margie Engle with Hidden Creek's Pamina, coming off a winning streak in Kentucky.
Why was 13 so difficult? Even Bob Ellis wasn't exactly sure he knew.
McLain Ward, a five-time winner of the grand prix, didn't make the tie-breaker. Neither did Laura Chapot. Between the two of them, they have wrapped up the Leading Jumper Rider and Jumper Championship titles numerous times, but 2008 just wasn't looking like their year.
The jump-off was as difficult as the first round. Todd Minikus and Pavarotti had 12 penalties, and Hillary missed a clear with Corlett when number 13 got her on a trip that was good enough for third place.
"This is my first year doing the grand prix here, so I was thrilled to death to go clear (in the first round," Hillary said.
Up Chiqui, although guided with great precision by Kent Farrington, dropped a pole at the triple bar, the first element of what had been a triple combination in the initial round, but was converted to a triple-bar/vertical double for the jump-off. Kent, who wound up second, felt he simply had been unlucky.
"I tried to put him right at the base of the triple bar to slow him down a little bit for the (two) stride and he was looking to set himself up for the vertical," said Kent, trying to analyze why the rail fell.
Callan Solem on Allison matched Todd's score, but was slower to finish fifth.
Darragh Kerins, the final rider into the ring, was in a tough position.
"Knowing you have to jump a clear round and last to go, you're afraid of making a mistake," he said.
Luckily, he didn't, though his time was nearly 10 seconds slower than Up Chiqui's. His decision not to run was a real gamble, since he would have been fourth if he'd toppled a pole. But he won and also took the Richard McDevitt style award. It's named after the show's late president, whose son, Wade, has succeeded him in the position.
Darragh, a U.S.-based Irishman, isn't traveling abroad this year, but hopes to be part of his nation's team for the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
And now for the hunters. Despite the fact that Scott Stewart has been on top here for so many years, results in the hunter divisions are not a foregone conclusion. In fact, Scott only took a single championship this time (usually, it's multiple titles), but it was a good one. He earned the Green Conformation Hunter crown with Krista and Alexa Weisman's 8-year-old West Point, who also doubles as an amateur-owner horse. West Point's total was high enough to make him the Grand Hunter Champion. He improved on his performance from last year, when he was a bit over-awed by the courses, which riders agreed were a little unusual in 2007.
"His only fault is that he over-jumps. Last year he tried too hard," said Scott. "He's really quiet; he has a big stride and a perfect (flying) change."
Scott bought him as a 2-year-old and the horse didn't even have a show name until he was entered in the Young Hunter Under Saddle here three years ago. (He won that class.) Scott has so many horses that names are hard to come by.
West Point earned a score of 94 in his stake, the second-best mark of the final day of hunter classes. It was exceeded only by the 95 scored by Sandy Ferrell and Bolero in the First Year Green stake.
Sandy was Scott's biggest competition for the Leading Hunter Rider crown and came close, though she had to settle for the Regular Hunter Leading Lady Rider. But she was very impressive. The breast cancer survivor took Bolero to the First Year Championship, and Andiamo to the Regular Working Championship.
Andiamo impressed me; he's a real love bug. Californian Archie Cox, who had the horse previously, was busy nuzzling with the big liver chestnut between classes.
I asked Sandy about Andiamo, and this is what she told me:
The Second Year Green Hunter Champion was Jersey Boy, a bright chestnut who really snaps his knees. I questioned rider Jennifer Alfano about his unusual name. She said that his owner, Susie Schoellkopf, had been to see the Broadway show "Jersey Boys" around the time he was purchased.
The Regular Conformation Hunter titleist was Boulevard Deir, previously ridden by Tim Goguen to glory at the show and now handled by Lainie Wimberly.
His main job is as a junior hunter. Since Lainie is primarily a trainer these days, she admitted to some nervousness, explaining she has been showing very little recently.
"I was jumping out of my skin on Monday," she said. "Then I hit a groove, settled in and relaxed."
"This is special to be champion. I actually had a tear when I was walking in to get my championship," said Lainie, for whom the tri-color was her first at Devon. It gave her the opportunity "to prove I could still do it; not to anybody but myself."
I should mention that Boulevard Deir was second in the stake by five points to Kost to Coast, who scored a 92 under a brilliant ride by Jenny Karazissis. She came all the way from California to handle him for owner Betty Oare.
"Now the flight back won't seem so long," said a delighted Jenny, whose husband, Kost (hence the name), is the best friend of Betty's brother and trainer, Bucky Reynolds.
Bucky had flown to California to see the horse when Jenny told him he might be just the mount for Betty, but Bucky didn't buy him. At that point, Bucky felt he just hadn't seen him jump enough. Then on his way to the airport it suddenly dawned on him that this was indeed the right mount for his sister. So he turned around, missed his flight, and drove back to discuss the purchase with Jenny. It was a wise move.
"The feeling he gives you in the air--the first day I almost got jumped off. His balance is probably what makes him such a great horse. He reeks quality," Jenny commented.
Kost to Coast wound up as reserve champion in the Regular Conformation. It was Jenny's second visit to Devon, and her second reserve championship.
"I'll have to come back another time and strive for champion," said Jenny.
There's so much more I could tell you about Devon, but it's hard to sum up an 11-day show in one postcard. Next year, you'll just have to come and see for yourself. Until then, check out my photo gallery from the show. Everyone needs to visit Devon at least once, but odds are you'll find that once is not enough. See you here next year!