Wellington, Fla., December 2, 2002 -- Who could have guessed that after spending most of its 119-year history in New York City and environs, the National Horse Show would be such a huge hit out of town?
It was standing room only for Friday night's "Jumping Under the Stars" competition at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, where the Wellington folks welcomed the historic fixture with unprecedented enthusiasm.
Though they have pretty much ignored the Winter Equestrian Festival, which has been at the club for years, the lure of a big name competition coming from Madison Square Garden apparently was too much for the locals to resist. Estimates were that between 11,000 and 12,000 people showed up for the Friday evening program, and there were healthy crowds on most of the other days, too.
Some people were afraid the National would be just another show at the facility, but a lot of effort went into making it special. Show chairman Gene Mische and his publicity/social honcho Mason Phelps Jr. of "Denim and Diamonds" fame spearheaded an effort highlighted by everything from beautiful plantings around the grounds to the china and silver set on black tablecloths with orange napkins (the National's colors) in the VIP tent.
A lot of horse people, however, had taken a wait-and-see attitude about the relocation of the National, once the crown jewel of the fall indoor circuit. That meant there were some pretty small classes and only 17 entered in the $100,000 grand prix that was the show's climax yesterday afternoon. Still, the presence of the crowd gave everything an extra buzz, and the quality of the show jumping didn't suffer.
Only two riders, Lauren Hough and Norman Dello Joio -- both Olympic veterans -- made it into the jump-off after Steve Stephens' artfully designed course took its toll of rails on everyone else.
Lauren was trying for an unprecedented back-to-back win in the National's grand prix, having taken the class (formerly the Grand Prix of New York) with Windy City last year as the show made its final bow in the Garden. Officials had refused to give it a long-term contract, prompting the move south.
This time, Lauren was on Clasiko, her 2000 Olympic Games mount. The dark bay soared over the fences with ease, and Lauren didn't hesitate to make what looked like a near-impossible turn in front of a gazebo for a time-saving shortcut to a difficult vertical. It was amazing.
I was standing by the gazebo taking pictures, and before the tie-breaker assistant course designer Pepe Gamarra told me he didn't think anyone would make that daredevil cut.
"It was awkward," conceded Lauren, but with a rider of Norman's stature going after her trip, she couldn't leave any loopholes. And she needed to make up ground because Clasiko "is not very fast."
It was all moot, though, when Norman dropped a rail halfway through the eight-obstacle jump-off course with Glasgow, and had to settle for second. He also wound up more than six seconds slower than Lauren's time of 42.08 seconds, and he added four time faults to wind up with a total of eight penalties.
The jump-off could have been even more competitive if McLain Ward had been in it, but an uncharacteristic time fault with Farrah kept him third and out of the tiebreaker when he was 0.36 over the 87-second time allowed in the first round.
The class, called the National Horse Show Jumper Championship (bor-ing; why not the Grand Prix of the Palm Beaches, or the Grand Prix of Wellington?) was a World Cup qualifier for next year's finals in Las Vegas. Norman is leading the standings in the east and Lauren, like everyone else, is trying to get there too. And it's important to make a good showing, both Norman and Lauren emphasized, because the finals are in the U.S. and an American hasn't won them since 1987.
Amazingly, it was Clasiko's first grand prix win. He's often high in the ribbons, but blue had never been his color until yesterday. Don't feel too bad for Norman. He was the show's leading jumper rider (on the 20th anniversary of taking the same title in the Garden!), and Glasgow was the top open jumper overall.
Sunday also was the conclusion of the show's horsemanship championship, which was making its debut. The idea was a face-off among the top ribbon winners of the major equitation classes of 2002. The only key victor missing was Californian Tedra Bates, who topped the BET/USET Talent Search west. But all the other major contenders were on hand. They included Erin Stewart, the Maclay winner; Whitney Roper (Washington); Kristy McCormack (USET East) and Maggie Jayne, (USA Eq Medal).
The format involved three phases, starting Thursday with a flat segment, followed by a trip over a hunter-style course Friday, with a jumper course yesterday. Maggie swept all of them, winning the class hands-down. She liked the format, which she saw as a cross between the USET and the Washington International class.
The best thing about her victory, in Maggie's view, was the fact that she rode Chocolate, a horse she trained herself. In the other finals, she was aboard the most famous equitation mount of them all, the legendary Grappa, which gave her a leg up on the competition. But it was fitting that the winner of the "best of the best" class demonstrated real horsemanship by having brought her mount along from a green prospect.
The hunters were completely dominated by Scott Stewart, who took the grand championship with Mimi Tashjian's Prove It, was named leading hunter rider, earned three divisional championships and snagged the overall championship on Prove It by winning the hunter-classic style finale of the open divisions. Betty Oare dominated the amateur-owner hunter division at the 2002 National Horse Show.?? Nancy Jaffer
Betty Oare scored the equivalent of Scott's sweep in the amateur-owner section, taking the grand title with her Estrella. This may well clinch the Horse of the Year title for that mare. It's all pretty amazing, since Betty had a major accident during the summer and didn't show again until the Washington International, where she also was grand amateur champion. You do remember me writing about that in my October postcard, don't you?
Not everything was perfect at the show, of course. Friday night's program didn't finish until nearly 1:30 a.m. Saturday. By that time, everyone who stayed was freezing as temperatures dropped (yes, it's not ALWAYS 80 degrees in Florida). The feature of the night, the high jump, didn't go off until about 1 a.m., but at least the show didn't have to deal with union double-overtime, the way it would have at Madison Square Garden.
In this case, however, the spectators who left early were the real winners. This was one ugly class. A $250,000 bonus was offered to anyone who could jump 8 feet, 2 inches and break the world high jump record. McLain Ward went for it with Achat, a horse who specializes in high jumps and puissance. Even though he didn't make it over 7-feet, 4-inches without a knockdown, he decided to try for the record. He didn't make that either, and got flipped off, as did three other riders in the class, which only drew seven entries. Achat has been sold to Princess Haya of Jordan; maybe she'll have better luck.
But the other horses were jumping badly. Todd Minikus' mount, L'Esprit 9, went off to the left of the fence and threw his rider, then trampled him. Todd was taken to the hospital and operated on because a caulk from the horse's shoe went deep into his leg. I was told he'd be in the hospital several days, and then would need to recuperate for a month or so.
Some riders felt the lights glared in the wrong place on the fence, which was hard for the horses to see and judge. And as somebody noted, trying to break a record in the cold after midnight was just a no-way scenario.
Meanwhile, Gene Mische, the National's chairman, said he thought that next year the high jump should be run in the daylight. There are many, however, who felt it shouldn't run again at all.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of next year, Gene says the National will be coming back here. However, the show still has a board that needs to vote on the 2003 site, and Las Vegas is continuing to make overtures, according to show president Alan Balch. But my money is on Wellington again. The publicity effort spearheaded by Mason and Beverly Lake Wilkes did too much good to have its fruits abandoned for another location. Banners everywhere, TV and stories in the Palm Beach Post, a show sponsor, introduced everyone to the glories of horse showing.
I've got so much else I could tell you, but I can't just keep going on and on. Well, let me mention one more important thing. There was a moment of silence at the show for Dr. Robert Rost, who died on Thanksgiving. Doc was in the vanguard of modernizing shows. From course designing to developing timing for jumper classes, he made countless contributions to the horse world.
"He probably loved this sport more than anybody I know," said David Distler, the USA's steward general.
And now completely off the topic of the National, I need to mention that the International Olympic Committee won't make a decision about dropping eventing from the Games until February. We all expected a vote last week, but the only thing that happened was the IOC accepting a proposal to make eventing at the 2004 Athens Games a CIC; that is, eliminating roads and tracks and steeplechase, and running cross-country on its own.
The FEI (international equestrian federation) converting to a CIC will cut down on costs, one of the prime objections to the sport by the Olympic Program Commission, which recommended cutting it. Will making eventing a CIC be enough to keep it in the Games past 2004? We'll have to see.
Okay, enough from me now. On December 15 I'll be sending you a postcard from the National Finals Rodeo, so be sure to look for it.