Devon, Pa., June 4, 2010 -- Call it the luck of the Irish: An impending thunderstorm did not begin last night until moments after the trophy presentation for the $100,000 Grand Prix of Devon, witnessed by the usual overflow crowd whose enthusiastic presence makes this show jumping competition unique in the U.S.
But luck had nothing to do with a fabulous finish for one of the country's landmark show jumping events. Course designer Alan Wade of Ireland skillfully devised a clever route that handled a light field of 21 starters who had varying degrees of expertise. He produced a nine-horse jump-off that made the evening just long enough, as Peter Leone rode off with the $30,000 first prize on Select.
Alan was not in an enviable position as he prepared for the feature of the 11-day show on Philadelphia's Main Line.
"There was a very mixed bag of competitors," said the soft-spoken Alan, who faced quite a challenge with the fences he set in the Dixon Oval.
"I was very unsure; you just don't know the variables when you look at the start list and then you look at the crowd, and there was a trail of thunders due during the class. But it was good sport," he said in a masterpiece of understatement.
The first four starters racked up the faults, so when Callan Solem and the gray stallion VDL Torlando scored a clean round, the fans went wild. Many of those in attendance, from the fancy hat folks in the box seats to the casually clad on the ringside benches, don't go to another show all year.
But they never miss Devon, and over the years have become very knowledgeable. They plan well ahead for the big night. All the reserved seats were sold long before the show began, so those without tickets know they must come early in the day to reserve their spot on those Devon blue benches or carve out a tiny piece of ground for their folding chairs.
Once the action begins, they follow it very closely, zeroing in on the trouble spots, such as the angled vertical at the end of the ring that came down nine times in the first round, or the second fence in the jump-off, an airy red, black and yellow affair that stumped the first four in that round.
When Margie Engle made it past that bogey on Hidden Creek's Campella, the spectators went wild with the kind of cheers that could have been a distraction for a lesser horse and rider, but all-time U.S. money-winner Margie kept on track to finish clear in 38.240 seconds.
"The crowd is amazing," the unflappable Margie said with heartfelt appreciation.
Looking at the roster of entries during the afternoon, there was little question in my mind that the possible winner would be either Todd Minikus on the speedy Pavarotti or Peter. Todd didn't make it to the jump-off, but Peter knew exactly what he had to do there, carving out just enough off Margie's rather conservative (for her) time, finishing in 37.681 seconds.
I had been impressed by Peter's mount when he finished second in April's American Invitational, and found him even more interesting last night. Peter's only hoping he can keep the horse, who is for sale. The asking price is $1 million if you buy him, but Peter said he will get a discount if he is able to put together a syndicate. It's been a decade or so since the 1996 Olympic team silver medalist has been in the limelight, and since he's determined to stay there for a while longer, this very consistent horse is the key.
It was nice to see a rider so happy to win, and for Peter, it wasn't all about the money.
"The Thursday night grand prix at Devon is one of the best grands prix in our country," he commented as he reveled in his victory.
Andre Thieme, a member of Germany's "B" team who finished third in 38.685 seconds on Antares F, was making his first visit to Devon. He didn't know what to expect and was impressed.
"I like that stadium feeling. It's very rare we have like a jumping stadium which is beautiful and awesome. It's a great feeling," he observed.
I wish more of our jumper riders had the same appreciation. But some were leery because the footing hasn't been the best here for years. In 2009, the day after the grand prix was a washout, as a downpour (which also politely held off until after the big class) made the ring a lake. New footing was installed this year, and the unanimous verdict from competitors is that it's "fantastic."
Margie thinks when the word gets around, more jumper competitors will be on the scene, but things were complicated this year by not only the usual conflict with Canada's Spruce Meadows show, which starts next week, but also the large number of horses who are off on European tours. One of them, however, five-time Devon grand prix winner McLain Ward, is (understandably) a Devon fan who sent a note to the organizers saying he wished he were here.
I can't imagine missing Devon. It's such a special blend, with the country fair, the little midway, traditional food--from the fudge to the lemon sticks (candy sticks stuck in lemons; try it, you'll like it) and the wide variety of classes. The live organ music by Amy Paradise is the perfect soundtrack for all the activities on this special little island that survives among the sprawl of suburban development.
Multi-breed shows are nearly extinct, yet Devon makes it all work. Yesterday's program was a perfect example. It started off with the hunter breeding, as Kenny Wheeler took the Best Young Horse title for the umpteenth time--talk about tradition--with 2009 winner Holden. Then it morphed into "Devon at Sunset" featuring everything from saddlebreds to coaching competition and the Budweiser Clydesdales.
I caught up (no small task) with understandably busy show president Wade McDevitt to talk about the new footing and Devon's enduring popularity.
Another Devon feature that's fun is the hat contest. Women are really serious about this. Well some are; I did see one gal who put little blue hats on her two giant schnauzers. But others, like winner Lauren St. Clair Lynch, was wearing a swirling straw number that was created by her stylist (doesn't everyone have a stylist?) Gregory Powell, with an eye toward the millinery worn by Audrey Hepburn in the Ascot scene of "My Fair Lady."
Doing the judging was TV star Carson Kressley, a big Devon supporter. I asked him about the category in which Lauren had scored her victory.
Carson seemed to be everywhere at the show. He rode his own Enchanting Memories to victory in the amateur five-gaited class and drove his Hoof Prince to the blue in the amateur fine harness competition.
The professional hunters wrapped up earlier this week, but many will be back on Sunday at 10 a.m. for a special encore in the hunter derby.
People were talking about Betsee Parker's mid-show purchase of Way Cool, the slick chestnut that won the Overall Large Junior Hunter Championship last weekend with Victoria Colvin aboard, riding for Scott Stewart.
There was a rumor that Betsee paid $900,000 for Way Cool, who went on to take the Second Year Green Hunter Championship with Scott aboard. Here's what Betsee (who also owns regular working hunter Lonestar) had to say about all this.
In another nod to tradition, Scott was the Leading Hunter Rider for the eighth time.
"It never gets old," he said.
But Scott, they're gaining on you. Kelley Farmer, who took the Leading Lady Rider trophy, was only one point behind him.
"I thought this was one of the best Devon years for all the horses," said Scott.
His partner, Ken Berkley--who won the Grand Hunter Championship on Green Conformation titleist Premier--agreed.
"The courses were fabulous, they really showed jumping style. They allowed horses to jump. Between the course designer (Ken Krome) and the new footing, it added already another level to the horse show," said Ken.
He noted that when he got a score of 87 in one class, that was only good enough for seventh place.
"That would normally win at any horse show," he pointed out. "The rounds were fantastic all week, one after another." And, he added, "everybody is here. It was a fantastic hunter show."
Proving the point, Kelley had an amazing round on Betty Oare's Rosalynn, ?going last in the Regular Working Hunter Stake to earn a score of 94 that won her the class.
I advise anyone who hasn't been to Devon to go. If you put it on your calendar now, you might even be able to buy a ticket for the 2011 grand prix before the seats are all sold out!
Be sure to check out the Devon photo gallery for a last look at the highlights of this great show. In the meantime, I'll be sending you a postcard Sunday night from the Garden State Driving Event, a selection trial for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Can you believe that 11 four-in-hands are entered?