Devon, Penn., June 4, 2004 -- There's no place like the Devon Horse Show, whether you're strolling the picturesque grounds, nibbling on crustless tea sandwiches or winning the main event.
"It was a strong grand prix, a great group of horses in the jump-off. It was a full house tonight," enthused McLain Ward, enumerating the elements of an exciting evening, after everything went his way in the $75,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of Devon last night. The event on Philadelphia's famous and well-heeled Main Line was a sell-out, with packed stands and fans layered 10-deep on the rail, adding verve to the competition.
"It was a super atmosphere," marveled Olaf Petersen, the well-traveled German course designer, who laid out the ambitious route in the Dixon Oval and will set up the jumps for the Athens Olympics this summer. It was Olaf's first visit to Devon, and he was impressed. We're talking about the guy who's done the courses everywhere from the Seoul Olympics to Aachen, far bigger venues than the one where he's spending this week.
"I've been to several shows in the U.S., and quite often they're missing the public," he pointed out. With his characteristic charm, Olaf smilingly noted that the presence of so many spectators made the whole thing "much more exciting than just doing this (building courses) for empty seats."
This was a knowledgeable crowd for the most part, too. These ticket-holders cheered not only for the big names, but also for the valiant efforts, whoever produced them. They had plenty of both this time around.
The marquee was lit up by the presence of Chris Kappler, giving his Olympic mount Royal Kaliber one final workout before heading off to Europe with the U.S. team. His teammate for the Games, McLain, a two-time winner of the Devon feature, was letting his Olympic ride Sapphire take a rest after two weekends of arduous selection trials. Still, he was well-mounted on Goldika, a sensitive-looking bay mare who was a star in Germany with Toni Hassmann but hasn't always been reliable since coming to this country.
Margie Goldstein Engle, unhappy about being passed over for the Olympic team, was in the fray with Hidden Creek's Perin, who would have been her Games horse (as he was in 2000) and Hidden Creek's Jones. I was pleased to note during the course walk that she was barely limping, a real change from last month when she was in obvious pain at the trials from a broken leg she suffered three months ago. Margie dropped out after a single trials round (a perfect one, I might add, but painful for her to produce), hoping the selection committee would put her on the team based on her previous record. They didn't. But her very presence here heightened the drama.
Leading off in the tiebreaker, Margie dropped a plank at the fence flanked by leaping Shamu whales, coming off a difficult turn toward a towering triple bar that was four fences from the end of the route.
McLain, on the other hand, successfully blazed around aboard Goldika, who ate up the challenge. "She's a real woman sometimes," said Ward, laughingly noting he might get in trouble for that kind of assessment. "When she's on, she's on, and when she's not on, she's really off the mark." This time, her mark was a clean round in 41.86 seconds, a clocking that was going to be tough to better.
"Tonight she really felt on the money, and I felt if I could leave the jumps up, I could probably have the (winning) time," McLain pointed out.
Flier dropped two rails, including the planks at that tricky Shamu, but Callan turned in a clear round with her darling bay mare, albeit in a far slower 45.02 seconds. Now we all waited anxiously for Chris to jump on his big bay stallion. But the Shamu ruined his evening, as he turned tight in an attempt to beat McLain's time.
When Royal felt slightly heavy on the approach, "I tried to lift him a little in front," said Chris, who was sorry he interfered. "I should have left him alone," he admitted.
But let's look at the big picture.
"It felt like a really good prep for Europe," said Chris, who seemed satisfied.
Eliza managed to produce a fault-free round, but far slower than Callan to finish third in 48.55 seconds, putting her ahead of Chris. Both she and Callan were brimming with excitement at having done so well at such a grand prix, marveling at the caliber of the horses and riders they beat.
Eliza, who had a bad crash with her other mount, Gustel II in the Budweiser American Invitational during April, conceded she was intimidated even at the prospect of jumping the course designed by the great Olaf Petersen and figured she would pull up if it was going badly. But the evening gave Callan and her a real confidence boost. As Chris noted, these riders are the future, and two more charming and gracious competitors it would have been hard to find.
While the grand prix is the featured event at Devon, it's not the only game in town during the show's 10-day run. There's coaching competition, very impressive and elegant; American saddlebreds, hackney ponies (the symbol of the show, there's one on the Devon seal), Friesians and of course, hunters.
The professional divisions, which wrapped up Wednesday, were highlighted by a sweep, showing's equivalent of a perfect game. Indian Summer, a chestnut with a coat like a burnished autumn leaf, won every class in the First Year Green Working division with Sandy Ferrell up.
The gelding is owned by Holly and Ralph Caristo. A more down-to-earth and nicer couple you won't find around the show ring. Their daughter Heather was riding for horse dealer Gerhard Etter in Switzerland (Peter Wylde, another of our Olympians, used to ride for him, too) when they went over to look at horses.
A local woman had trucked in Indian Summer, then a stallion, who wasn't making it as a dressage mount. Ralph watched him go and Holly, whose job it was to videotape prospects, put down the camera and said, "This is a mommy horse."
Needless to say, Indian Summer was the Grand Hunter Champion, and Holly's hoping there are many more victories ahead for him.
Asked when she would take over the reins, Holly replied, "It's his year to do the first year greens."
Ralph broke in, commenting, "I said to her, 'If you're not going to ride him, I'm going to sell him.'" Holly just smiled. Yeah, fat chance. But I'll bet she does show him someday. Having something that lovely available has to be an irresistible lure.
Another couple who did well at the show were Samantha and Leo Conroy; she rides, he trains. Samantha took Southern Lights to the Second Year Green Championship after a victory in the stake, where she had to win in order to earn the title.
Her husband is a low-key trainer who makes a point of not giving his wife last-minute advice when facing a crunch like the Devon crisis.
"In these pressure situations," he noted, "the less said the better." I love it!
Well, that's it from my favorite horse show. So much more went on than I have time to tell you about. You'll just have to come next year and nibble a few of those tea sandwiches yourself while you savor one of American horse showing's greatest experiences.
My next stop is the Olympic dressage selection trials June 19-20, so be sure to look for my reports as we assemble what will surely be another medal-winning team for Athens.
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