Devon, Pa., June 1, 2007 -- Part of the Devon Horse Show's enormous charm is the way it remains essentially the same, year after year. Those who have missed a decade or two return to find it's as if time has stood still at this special enclave on Philadelphia's Main Line. The quaint tea sandwiches and fresh mint leaves for the ice tea are always available to satisfy hunger and thirst, ladies continue to wear impressively fancy straw hats, the omnipresent Devon blue and white color scheme is unchanged and the Thursday night grand prix is still a sellout.
In the venerable show's 111th edition, even the winners of the biggest prizes were no different than in 2006. McLain Ward took the $75,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of Devon for the second year in a row as he topped the class for the fifth time in his career, while Scott Stewart was Leading Hunter Rider for a record fifth time in a row. To save the engraving costs on the venerable silver trophy to which he has laid claim, they should just use ditto marks every year!
The script was certainly different, however, than it had been during 2006. While McLain triumphed last year in a rainstorm on a catch ride that he had never jumped until he entered the warm-up ring, this time he was aboard his Olympic and World Equestrian Games partner, Sapphire.
And Scott faced a new and considerable challenge from California invader John French, with each man accounting for two of the five championships in the professional division.
But let me tell you first about the grand prix. It's usually the kick-off for the Thursday night program that packs in the spectators until there's no room left to move between the grandstand, with its box seats and signature towers, and the rail where benches are claimed many hours earlier by diehard fans.
One thing that was different this year was the order of go--for the classes, that is. Instead of starting with the grand prix at 7 p.m., we were treated to the "Devon at Sunset" formula, beginning with gaited, hackney pony and coaching classes. The grand prix was supposed to start at 8:40 p.m. to give competitors an equal chance under the sometimes tricky lights in the Dixon Oval.
Most of the standing-room-only crowd did stay for the entire grand prix, even though it began after 9 p.m. and didn't finish until nearly 11 p.m. on a weeknight. There's no crowd like a Devon crowd, and that's one of the things that has helped make this a place that's important to McLain
"For some reason, things go my way here," he said after his victory gallop. "Sometimes, the stars line up for you."
The stars obviously got very strict marching orders on McLain's behalf, starting when he put in a clean round but exceeded the 80-second time allowed, giving him a single time penalty. But course designer Olaf Petersen immediately adjusted the TA, as is his right after a few have jumped, and the new standard of 83 seconds left McLain and Sapphire, who had been second to go, fault-free.
Nearly half of the 28 starters had trouble at the sixth of 13 jumping efforts, the Sea World planks, while others ran into various difficulties. Kim Prince surprised everyone, including herself, when she fell off at the first fence as the usually reliable Marlou refused.
Carlos Boy, who had looked so good on Wednesday afternoon winning a class with Ken Berkley, was clean with a time penalty, as was Shandor, Patty Stovel's ride, who had won the Gold Cup when it was held here a few years ago. They wound up seventh and sixth respectively. The difficulty of the course could be measured by the fact that only one horse, Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold with Margie Engle, had a 4-fault trip in the first round, finishing eighth. The rest accumulated totals that ranged from 8 to 24, with four riders choosing to retire after racking up rails.
Only five made it into the jump-off. Three were predictable--Sapphire; Little Big Man ridden by Laura Chapot, another combination that has enjoyed much success here, and Margie Engle with the very veteran Hidden Creek's Perin. Joining them were Pato Muente, a Virginia-based Argentine who used to work with double gold Olympian Joe Fargis, and 21-year-old Michael Morrissey, the nephew of Gene Mische, who chairs Stadium Jumping Inc., producer of the Winter Equestrian Festival.
McLain had the unenviable task of going first in the tiebreaker. That meant he didn't have someone else's time to shoot for, and with speedball Laura riding after him, he had no choice but to make a difficult inside turn between fence 12B of the first round and the initial fence of the jump-off after he had cleared it.
McLain was surprised that Olaf hadn't disassembled 12B, but Sapphire showed the same agility that she had in winning the first leg of April's World Cup finals--her last competitive outing--to make it through the timers fault-free in 40.08 seconds after a long gallop to the final obstacle.
"She was awesome as always," he said. "It was a difficult course...but that's as it should be."
Then all McLain could do was watch the others. "It was out of my hands at that point," he said.
But those lined-up stars certainly were doing some meddling on McLain's behalf.
"Odd things happen here for me," he said, and he was right. The rest of the field was star-crossed, as McLain's round ended up being the only fault-free trip.
Little Big Man was going for it big time, as is Laura's preference, but a refusal and two knockdowns dropped her to fourth.
Then that tight turn at the start proved even more difficult for Perin, who is such a big horse. The 18-year-old bay grabbed his left front foot, stumbling and putting Margie in a precarious position for a moment. Understandably, he had the next fence down. When Margie finished her round and dismounted, she found he was missing half of his hoof.
"I knew he tripped, I didn't know how badly he grabbed himself. He was dead honest to even jump the second jump. He tried to jump it clean," she said, but noted he had no impulsion on the way there.
"If I knew what he had done, I might have pulled up," she said. I couldn't help but think of Amy Tryon and her error in judgment on course at Rolex Kentucky that had a much less happy ending a few weeks ago.
Margie's four faults proved to be good enough for second as the rest of the class unfolded. Pato Muente on his Italian stallion, As Di Villagana, had two knockdowns and a time fault, but even with nine faults he was third and thrilled.
Michael, the last to go, was a real longshot with Crelido. But McLain helps train him, and he obviously had taught Michael some speed tricks, because there seemed to be a real possibility that Crelido could overtake Sapphire's time. But at the next-to-last fence, Crelido refused and crashed through the rails, sending Michael to the ground and leaving him fifth.
McLain, who won the style of riding award as well, had more than the usual reasons for wanting to do well. Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, was on hand to watch with his wife, D.D., and their kids.
After taking a spin aboard Jamie O'Rourke's yellow coach in an obstacle class, Michael joined Mrs. F. Eugene Dixon Jr. in a tribute to her late husband, Michael's longtime sponsor, after whom the Dixon oval is named. That he sat with D.D. and the gang in the stands to watch the action in the ring where he had so many triumphs as a rider during the years before he went to the track.
"I was actually excited he was here tonight," said McLain of Michael. "He hasn't really seen me ride in the prime of my career and I wanted to do a good job. It's a level of respect for somebody. I wanted to perform well."
Now, on to the hunters. The courses were long and tiring, which meant that by the final day, the performances weren't always the best, in my view. There were a number of rubs and knockdowns. The adorable Popeye K dropped a rail, so did Dynamic, one of Scott's horses, and the consistent Mandarin did the same.
Mandarin wound up as reserve champ to Highland Park in the Regular Conformation section. Highland Park's total of 39 points was enough to take the Grand Hunter Championship as well. Highland Park actually was a catch ride for Scott, who had never jumped him before last Monday. The horse, trained by Holly Orlando, is usually ridden by Jimmy Torano, but he couldn't participate because he judged on junior weekend here.
I asked Scott to assess the courses, designed by Phil DeVita, and here's what he told me.
Scott is like a force of nature when it comes to the hunter division. John French, who hadn't ridden at Devon in 20 years, came with three horses from trainer Archie Cox. But though Scott admitted to feeling the pressure, the final score wasn't even close. Scott had 113 1/2 points for the Leading Rider title, to John's 88 points.
In a funny twist, John's name was down as the sponsor of the Leading Rider honors, and I know he wanted to win the title in a big way. He told me one of his customers began sponsoring the class last year in his name. That didn't matter when he wasn't riding here in 2006, but it was certainly ironic this time around.
You can bet John will be back in 2008, and he told me he wants to bring more horses.
Scott also swept the young horse under saddle classes here yesterday, as once again Kenny Wheeler took the Best Young Horse title for the 33rd time--and on his 79th birthday! The winner is a fine-looking bay two-year-old, Capital Hill, by Nob Hill. Kenny bought the horse from Diana Dodge a few months ago.
I could continue to go on and on about Devon; the shopping, the little carnival that kids love, the historic brown barns (which are being renovated). I'm glad it doesn't change much, because I never get enough of it. With all the cookie cutter shows out there these days, Devon seems even more special.
The show has an extra day this year, continuing through Sunday with local classes, but I can't linger. I'm off to the Jersey Fresh Three-Day Event. Look for my EquiSearch.com postcard from there Sunday night.