Devon, Pa., June 3, 2005 -- Have you ever been to the Devon Horse Show? If you love horses, excitement, tradition and good shopping, you really must go in person.
In the meantime, let me take you there for just a few minutes as I wrap up some of what's gone on over the past eight days at the 109th edition of this grand fixture on Philadelphia's storied Main Line.
Last night's $75,000 Budweiser Grand Prix sums up the show's appeal. As always on a Thursday evening, it was sold out. There are benches (most painted the pale Devon Blue indigenous to the 17-acre showgrounds) lining one side of the Dixon Oval, and these are the best seats in the house for those who want to feel as if they're part of the action. They're free, unlike the spots in the grandstands around the arena (where some families have treasured boxes for generations), but you better get there early.
Marita McGrath, who has been coming to the show since she was 8 (she's 65 now) arrived with her friend Regina Finnegan to snare a bench four hours before the class (and they weren't the first ones on the scene, either.)
The two rows of benches are right on the rail, between the pounding hooves of the jumpers on one side and the standing-room-only fans pressing in behind. It's impossible not to get swept up in the thrill of it all.
As is the case with many of the others in the crowd, Devon's the only show Marita attends all year (though she does go to the nearby steeplechase at Radnor, too). She wouldn't dream of missing a year.
"This is it. This is the one," she said, explaining a practically sacred commitment shared by many others who grew up near Philly.
An expectant audience provides both the color and soundtrack that accompanies the grand prix. The field was smaller than usual this year, with only 21 riders competing. We have a team in Europe, and another one preparing to go, which meant 10 riders are otherwise engaged there. Those riders who are shipping by van to the Spruce Meadows show in Calgary, Canada, next week couldn't bring their horses, either.
But the roster still had its share of big names, including 2004 winner McLain Ward, Margie Engle, Chris Kappler and Todd Minikus, none of whom (surprisingly) figured in the jump-off.
The course was set by Olaf Petersen Jr. of Germany, the son of the more famous Olaf Petersen Sr., but soon to be famous himself. I was impressed.
Dad has designed courses at the Olympics, World Championships and last year's Devon. While Junior doesn't have that kind of experience yet, he's incredibly astute and willing to listen, consulting with the riders to get their opinions as they walk the course. Oh yes, and he's also charming. But it's not fake charm, it's a genuine interest in what people say and think.
Olaf faced a tough task here, because he had some really experienced combinations (Margie and Hidden Creek's Perin, Chris and Primeur, Todd and Flier) and a group of others who were far less experienced. But he managed to come up with a challenging route, which at the same time wasn't so difficult that anyone faced the risk of injury. There weren't even any falls.
Only three made it through to the jump-off. Jimmy Torano on the white-faced bay, Aguila, really wanted to win the Devon Grand Prix for the first time, and that caused him to press on the gas too much. Devon is not the Indy 500. Although Jimmy went through the timers in a brisk 41.25 seconds, he had two rails down.
"The third jump in the jump-off was definitely my fault. I walked it in six strides and ended up doing five," he said. Had he been more cautious, Jimmy observed, "I'm not saying I would have been clean, but I would have had better chance of going clean."
He wasn't worried about the second to go, 1984 Olympic double-gold medalist Joe Fargis, who still rides with class and precision at age 57. As Jimmy suspected, "Joe didn't try to win the class."
Instead, he turned in a neatly done clear trip in 44.51 seconds on Edgar. "He's not the quickest horse," explained Joe.
But the last to ride, 24-year-old Kent Farrington aboard the Dutchbred Madison, was the one to fear, and the reason Jimmy went all out. Kent, who won the Medal finals as a teen, did what had to be done, turning in a perfect pulse-pounding trip in 41.10 seconds.
"I was worried about Kent. I knew Kent, he's on a naturally fast mare and he's young and fast," Jimmy said afterwards. "Kent rode for the win and he deserved to win the class."
Kent had an edge beyond his mare's ability and his own talent.
"Going last is a huge advantage," Kent pointed out. "Joe went very normal in the jump-off, so I just went a little bit quicker, and I thought that was all I needed to do." Of 9-year-old Madison, he said, "She's great, she's really an athletic horse...she's just coming into her own."
You'll be hearing a lot more from this Connecticut rider, I can tell you. But I had one burning question I'd been dying to ask him. Whenever he walks a course, he's wearing a backpack, which with his fresh-faced features, makes him look like a college kid.
"What's in there?" I wanted to know. The answer is "his stuff," helmet, spurs, a snack. When I asked why he's the only rider I've seen with a back pack, Kent replied with a smile, "McLain has one too, but he makes someone else carry it."
The speed classes have been dominated by Laura Chapot on her gray mares, Sprite and Samantha. Both were circuit champions in their divisions at the Winter Equestrian Festival, and they haven't slowed down since.
"I think with the crowd here, that makes them try even harder and they really get excited for the show," said Laura, who has won the Open Jumper Championship three out of the last four years and could well be on the way to another title.
In the hunters, it was almost all Scott Stewart, almost all the time. He won championships in four of the five professional divisions, took the Grand title with the sharp gray, Fellini (the first-year champ) and wound up (no surprise) as Leading Hunter Rider for the third time in a row. Kudos to him and Louise Serio, who put in a dramatic ride in the Regular Working Stake on another gray, Gray Slipper, to beat Scott's 90-point performance aboard Beyond with a well-earned 92 to take that division's championship.
Scott was gracious about that, noting everything else he had won was "more than enough."
The Scott Stewart of the junior show that wrapped up last weekend was Addison Phillips, who won the $10,000 Show Jumping Hall of Fame Junior Jumper Classic with Flight, the reserve champ in the division to her Cantus Anuberth II. She took the Grand Junior Hunter Championship with Socrates and (again, no surprise) won the Best Child Rider on a Horse honors.
I love the way people dress for Devon. The everday people wear casual attire, but the men who have been coming for years favor sport coats and rep ties (I even saw someone wearing a straw boater).
It's a great opportunity for women to show off millinery, and never better than Wednesday, which was "Hat Day." Sharon Distler, wife of show co-manager David Distler, won the hat contest for most creative. She and the others who work in the show entry office put together a giant Devon Blue paper horse head decked with a mane and forelock made out of Devon ribbons. Towering, but uncomfortable. Sharon had to move very carefully when wearing this one.
Oh, I haven't told you about the shopping. Seeking horsey jewelry? This is the place to deck yourself out with gold and silver stirrups, bits, horseheads, etc. There are a lot of interesting clothes you won't find in department stores, a variety of home decor items and equestrian artwork. I always look for something unusual, and I found it in the $15 blue ribbon charms that you can attach to dangle off your spurs. Adorable and even more important, affordable.
There's also a little midway with rides and games for the kids, that famous Devon fudge and crustless tea sandwiches in addition to wine, cheese and sit-down dinners in the pavilion. What more could you ask?
So if you're within driving distance, you still have time to come to Devon 2005, because it runs through Saturday night. Maybe I'll see you there. If not, you can come next year. Devon has just bought its showgrounds (you heard it here first), which means it's never going to be the site of a shopping mall. There will always be a Devon. Amen.