Devon, Pa., June 2, 2006 -- One of the last of the old-fashioned horse shows, Devon is a special experience, whether you're an exhibitor or spectator. It's a blend of the past and the present, with a little bit of the future thrown in. Young horses and riders have an opportunity to demonstrate their potential, though the biggest crowds come to watch many of the best in the business compete for all they are worth--which is a considerable amount.
But the most intriguing thing about this 110-year-old fixture on Philadelphia's storied Main Line is that it's entertaining. You never know what's going to happen in the Dixon Oval (where new footing has won a lot of raves).
Take the $75,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of Devon. It had a very mixed field, with some horses who are just being introduced to grands prix, a few riders you probably never heard of, and then a small group of top class international horses.
It offered a tough problem for German course designer Olaf Petersen Jr. (son of Olympic course designer Olaf Sr.). He agreed his task was "quite difficult," as he told me while riders were walking the route.
While he needed a challenge for the "eight to 10 normal grand prix horses," he didn't want to confound the rest of the field of 29. So he tried to make the combinations reasonable and insure the rest of the route was "not too tricky." Olaf wanted the less-experienced horses "to be fine and not get in trouble for the future."
At first, we were wondering if he would succeed in that ambition, since none of the first eight starters were double-clear. The biggest problem was the red and white triple combination, 7ABC, set a few feet from the crowd that jammed the rail. The combo started with a triple bar one stride from a vertical and then finished with an oxer two tight strides away.
It caught 11 horses, five of which were in the first seven to go, until everyone figured out how to bring their mounts back for a careful fence after stretching out over the triple.
If you went by the odds, the likely winners were Madison, who took the $22,500 first prize last year with Kent Farrington up; Goldika, the 2004 winner with McLain Ward; Roxana, the ride of Anne Kursinski, a standout at the Winter Equestrian Festival and Little Big Man, who likes Devon as much as his rider, Laura Chapot.
Yet the winner was a horse whose name hasn't been in the headlines. Congratulations are in order for Danielle and Jimmy Torano, who are having a baby after 10 years of marriage. And their horse, Capitano, was tops in the grand prix.
Now you're wondering: Is there a connection? Certainly.
Danielle has been pregnant for three months, and this was the last week her doctor said she could ride. But after experiencing "a funny feeling in my stomach," as she prepared to go in the ring, Danielle wisely dismounted.
Capitano easily could have been scratched, since he was scheduled to go five horses later. Luckily, family friend McLain Ward was ready to take the reins, even though he'd never ridden the rangy gelding before.
After a few schooling jumps, he and the 10-year-old Holsteiner put in a clean round that got them into the 10-horse jump-off. Looking as if they were longtime partners, McLain and Capitano took a daring rollback turn to the Budweiser oxer after the second fence, and that move won them the class.
"I felt I had nothing to lose and knew he was an honest jumping horse. I liked the story if we could pull off the win. I thought it would be a cool thing to do," McLain said, explaining his reasoning.
Capitano pulled it off for a clocking of 37.673 seconds, even faster than daring 16-year-old Addison Phillips. Last weekend, Addie had retired the Best Child Rider on a Horse trophy here, and last night she showed she was ready to move on to bigger things when she made a jaw-dropping cut between two fences and several containers of bushes to get to the next-to-last fence in the tiebreaker. The capacity crowd was with her until the last obstacle, a vertical of planks that fell when Trezebees flattened out as Addie galloped over it in a time of 37.898 to finish fifth.
Max Amaya, who works with Frank Madden and Beacon Hill and will be representing his native Argentina in this summer's World Equestrian Games, put on a great display of galloping with Church Road for his best finish ever on the bay gelding, going through the timers in 40.616 seconds to make himself the runner-up.
Laura, who had the disadvantage of going first on Little Big Man, was more cautious than usual under the lights in the rain to wind up third in 40.933 seconds. Madison had a rail in the jump-off, winding up sixth, while Anne had to circle in front of a fence to regroup after getting bounced around in the saddle over an oxer, which put her ninth.
As for Goldika, well, it was lucky that McLain had Capitano to score his fourth win in the grand prix. The capable Goldika had a rail in the first round and didn't make the tie-breaker.
Addie, by the way, is not the only teen testing the open jumper ranks here. Brianne Goutal, 17, who won her first grand prix last month, took her first open jumper class ever at Devon on Onira Wednesday under Max's tutelage. But she didn't enter the Budweiser Grand Prix, figuring it was a little too soon for her to try that kind of test.
Click "Next" to read about the hunter, Saddlebred and other action at Devon.
The hunters also had an unexpected twist earlier in the week, with not one, but two grand champions.
Gray Slipper repeated as Regular Hunter Champion with Louise Serio up, gaining 42 points, while Scott Stewart rode Music Street to the Second Year Green title with 42. Since both horses had the same number over fences, which is how ties are broken, they each will have their names engraved on the trophy that is part of the vast collection of silver belonging to the show.
Luckily, Louise and Scott (who won his fourth straight Leading Hunter Rider title) are good friends.
"For me it's great to win it, but I love being tied with Scott, too. I love the camaraderie of that. The picture I get I'll have for years of the two of us, that means a lot to me," Louise said, and Scott agreed.
Last year, Scott won four of five hunter championships here; this time he took three. He confessed to being nervous beforehand, because how could he live up to 2005?
Horses whose owners dream of having them take a trophy in performance competition at Devon showed them on the line in breeding classes. I hope they weren't dreaming of winning the Best Young Horse title, though.
That went, as it has 31 other times at this show, to Kenny Wheeler, who took it for the second consecutive year with the white-stockinged chestnut, Spanish Spear.
B.J. Meeks, who donated a trophy named after Kenny for the Best Young Horse, is no fool. This is a perpetual trophy, not one of those you can retire with three wins. Because if it were, Kenny would have retired it in 2003, and B.J. would be out a second trophy this year!
Kenny, who turned 78 the day before the breeding division, is quick to point out that his 32 wins weren't consecutive. Once in a while, someone else may win--but they shouldn't count on it. And he's not retiring any day soon.
"I guess I don't have sense enough to," he smiled, looking forward to winning again in 2007, when the horse will be a three-year-old.
I thought this might be the last time you saw Saddlebreds at Devon, since their numbers here had dwindled embarrassingly over the last few years.
But a yeoman effort led by Sarah Lane and Minna Hankin Mintz, as well as extra money and other considerations, brought the Saddlebreds back in force this year. Instead of the one-, two- and three-horse classes that had often been the norm, you were seeing, six, seven and eight in a class.
Devon has always been a multi-breed show, and so the resurgence was nice to see. Management was pleased but cautious, wanting to make sure there is the same enthusiasm in 2007 before offering assurances that Saddlebreds are out of the woods here.
What was really fun were the western Saddlebred classes that demonstrated the versatility of this American breed. And I think the crowd loved seeing the fancy cowboy regalia that gave Devon a different look this year.
Ladies' Day at Devon offered the multitude of fancy hat enthusiasts a chance to win something too. But victory for most creative hat went, as it did last year, to an entry from the horse show office.
Worker Darlene Brown came up with the idea of a carousel, and everyone in the office worked on cutting out Devon blue horses. They were assembled atop a Devon blue straw number from T.J. Maxx (where they probably don't call the color Devon blue), and it was worn by Sharon Distler, wife of show co-manager David Distler. A little battery enabled the carousel to move, and Sharon's phone played a tinkly tune that was appropriate to a merry-go-round.
Well, I could go on and on about Devon (actually, I think I just have!) but now I'm headed to the Jersey Fresh Three-Day Event, where some of those who had a bad time on Rolex Kentucky's cross-country course will get their last chance to show they should be on the World Equestrian Games team. Catch up with all the news from Jersey Fresh with my postcard on June 5.