New York, N.Y., November 3, 2001 -- If you like hunters, the National Horse Show was the place to be for the last few days. So many of the big-time horses were here: Strapless, Classic Importer, St. Nick, Hollywood. In fact, I'm about huntered out and ready for the $150,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of New York.
Maybe that's what potential spectators were waiting for too. The strategy of heavy on the hunters, light on the jumpers, didn't pay off in drawing an audience. There weren't more than a few thousand folks here this evening on what used to be one of the show's big nights.
But, as more than one person has said, we have to be glad there's a show at all. It came close to being cancelled because of September 11 and the death of National patron Sallie Wheeler 10 days later. The time lost in the limbo of will-we-or-won't-we was hard to make up when it came to promoting the show in Madison Square Garden. And being held in New York in the middle of a Yankees World Series didn't help the National, either.
I wish tonight's $100,000 hunter championship had started off the evening, rather than following junior and amateur-owner jumper classes, as well as a parade of hunter champions and an appearance by Olympic eventing gold medalist David O'Connor, much as we all love him.
We had to wait until 9:30 p.m. before the first horse went on course, and it was getting close to 11 p.m. before the awards were over. By the way, I should have brought my calculator. First we got the scores of the three teams of two judges. Then we got a total for each round, an average for each round, and then the total added to the horse's cumulative score for the last two days. Whew. That's more numbers than I care to think about.
Before the Classic, there were a slew of division hunter championships. To accommodate the National's short time frame, each division had only two over-fences classes and one under-saddle. They dispensed with jogging for soundness after every class, and ribbons from second through sixth place were pinned in the warm-up area, so recipients could do one lap of honor as the winner was pinned in the ring. Good idea, that one.
The top 14 point earners in the divisions moved on to the championship. Got it? G.G. Valentine, the champion green hunter, topped the $100,000 class. That made a good day better for a deliriously happy rider, Jennifer Alfano.
"My God, I'm so excited. I'd never won a blue ribbon here before," she said.
Of G.G. Valentine, a bay German-bred Mecklenburg, Jennifer observed, "She's perfect. I'm lucky to have one as good as her."
Even more impressive was the fact that this first-year horse beat the very hot Strapless, a regular working hunter with more mileage who took the $100,000 grand prix in Palm Beach during February.
Rider Emily Williams was pleased with Strapless last night, and she actually beat G.G. in both the evening rounds, when Jennifer's horse was tiring. But Strapless didn't beat her by enough in tonight's trips, and when the division scores were added, G.G. prevailed by just 1.51 points.
"It couldn't have happened to a nicer rider," said trainer Susie Schoellkopf, who said it looks as if Jennifer is on her way to her third Horse of the Year title in first year green over a five-year period.
Owner Barbara Kearney was understandably thrilled with G.G., giving Jennifer an extremely heartfelt hug as she rushed to congratulate her. The first time she glimpsed horse and rider together "I knew there was something magical there," she commented as Jennifer tried to hold the tears back at a very emotional moment in the world's most famous arena.
Now I'll give you a rundown on the other division championships. The most interesting battle was among the younger amateur-owners, where Caroline Moran on St. Nick and Dawn Fogel on Osczar had the same score not only for the final class, but also identical overall totals. The most points over fences was the deciding factor, so the tricolor went to Osczar.
Out of the mix was a former National champ, Danielle Torano with the 19-year-old Classic Importer. She had hoped this would be his last show; she's still 99 percent sure, but not 100 percent. Even so, she said, "he's been great. I can't ask for anything more."
St. Nick, by the way, was champion in the regular working hunters, with Havens Schatt riding. This stallion was previously owned by Princess Marta of Norway, but when he couldn't make it as a jumper, she sold him. Caroline figured that if St. Nick wasn't a good hunter, he'd be a great low amateur-owner jumper. She was right the first time, and kissed him on the neck as she left the ring after her great performance yesterday.
Tracy Weinberg, who won the older amateur-owner title with the Dutchbred San Siro, really wanted to be champion.
"I got up this morning, looked in the mirror and said, `this is a lifelong dream. All I need to do is stay cool and hope he rises to the occasion.'" He did.
Regular conformation champ Aspen only got into the show as an alternate, but then he was unstoppable with Holly Hays Orlando in the saddle -- despite not having his name in the program.
The dark bay gelding inspired his groom, Martin Ochoa, to name his Long Island soccer team for the horse "because he's pretty."
The judges obviously thought so. Aspen won the model, then took two over fences classes.
Green conformation titleist Hollywood has been a big winner this year and showed the same kind of style again with Tim Goguen up, augmenting his glory by also taking the grand hunter championship for the most points in any hunter division. Hollywood's owner, Paula Polk Lillard, the grandmother of seven, dotes on her classy gray gelding.
"It's the dream of a lifetime to own a horse like that," said Paula, who enjoys riding Hollywood when she can. "He's just as smooth and easy to ride as he looks."
Georgina Bloomberg with Dialog L and Erin Stewart with Dance Away split junior hunter honors. Dance Away, a thoroughbred who Erin's father, trainer Don Stewart, got "dirt cheap," is temperamental.
"If it's cold out, don't think about riding him," said Erin, who was lucky that today was unseasonably warm.
It was Georgina's last junior year, making it important for her to do well at the Garden -- especially since she's a New Yorker. Like her other junior hunter, New Hope, Dialog L will be going to a new home with Paige Johnson, whose father heads BET.
The first leg of the Maclay hunt seat finals whittled the field from 54 to 30, with Brian Walker--second in two major equitation classes this year--leading the way.
The Good Hands saddle seat championship was decided, with 16-year-old Sarah Thordsen of Waukesha, Wisc., coming home the winner over Devon Garone of Richmond, N.H.