June 3, 2011 -- The Budweiser Clydesdales have been replaced by the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, but everything else remains pretty much the same at the 2011 Devon Horse Show.
That may be a key factor in what draws people from Philadelphia's well-to-do Main Line and beyond to the 115-year-old Devon Horse Show for an annual pilgrimage that has lasted over the generations.
There may be a few tweaks here and there, but in general, you know what to expect at the Devon Horse Show; the one-of-a-kind items that can be purchased at the country fair, the fun of the mini-carnival for the kids, the Devon blue color scheme, the crustless tea sandwiches (another little change I noticed; they're using whole wheat bread now instead of white for the deviled ham and chicken.)
The biggest night is the second Thursday of the 11-day show, the evening of the new sponsor, Wells Fargo's, $100,000 grand prix. The crowd starts building by late morning, and by an hour before the class, you can't move. The compact showgrounds is filled to bursting around the Dixon Oval; it always makes me think of the English muffins advertised as having "nooks and crannies." Folks wedge themselves in everywhere for a glimpse of the action.
The luckiest are the well-dressed in the elevated boxes handed down in families like heirlooms, and at the other end of the scale, the people who arrived early in the day so they could get the coveted wristbands that allow them to set up shop for free on the ringside Devon blue benches.
With perfect weather after two days of intense heat, it seemed to me that more spectators than ever turned out.
Their enthusiasm is "the salt in the soup," said course designer Olaf Petersen of Germany, using a well-worn expression from his homeland to characterize the atmosphere that he said is replicated in few places around the world. He is impressed with how knowledgeable the spectators. Many of these folks only go to one horse show a year, but after decades of coming to Devon, they've learned a thing or two.
In contrast to the crowd around the ring, the open jumpers inside it didn't set any attendance records. Just 20 horses competed in the show's feature, with three riders showing two mounts. There's a lot of competition for competitors right now. Many U.S. riders are showing in Europe, both in the Nations' Cup and Young Rider tours; Beezie Madden and Kent Farrington, who had planned to ride here, found out they needed to catch flights for their horses heading to Spruce Meadows in Canada earlier than expected. And the Devon jumper classes are sandwiched between two HITS shows in Saugerties, N.Y., a few hours away, where riders are trying to qualify for the series' $1 million finale this September.
But there was enough quality to make a worthy grand prix, and for excitement, you couldn't beat the jump-off. Olaf, who built the routes for the 1988 and 2004 Olympics, got it just right, as he usually does.
He calls himself "the man behind the curtain," noting that the horses and riders are the actors in the sporting drama he orchestrates.
Last year's champion, Peter Leone -- who had the dubious honor of going first in the initial round -- was on track for a clear trip to defend his title on Select until he hit the Devon blue and white vertical/oxer/oxer triple combination, fences 13ABC, set before the finish line and just inches from the crowd along the rail.
He seemed to lack impulsion going around the turn to reach the obstacle, and poles toppled at the A and B elements. There was no way he could make C, and he retired. But two rounds later, local favorite Callan Solem put in a clear trip with the statuesque gray, VDL Torlando, and seven more would qualify for the jump-off before the first round wrapped up. (Actually, Blythe Marano on Urban also had a clear, but she was too slow and accumulated a time fault to miss the tie-breaker.)
Callan was fault-free again in the final round, but her time of 48.272 seconds looked eminently beatable.
"I was planning on going inside after the first jump, but my stallion got a little spooky in front of the first jump and I lost my line a little bit to go inside, so I knew that was certainly leaving the door open," said Callan.
"I had sort of a light winter in Florida not showing much, so it was nice to have him back in a bigger class and he felt like he jumped it easily."
The boldest move of the class was made by Kevin Babington on Mark Q, an Irishbred horse he began showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Kevin, who finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics, is an experienced hand who has been off the Irish team radar for awhile since the retirement of his old campaigner, Carling King, but his bold round here should put him back in the chef d'equipe's line of vision.
Bringing gasps from the fans, Kevin made an incredible turn to the next-to-last fence, a triple bar, cutting in front of a vertical that was in the line of fire, rather than going around it. Here's how he described his round.
Kevin was clocked in 46.927 seconds to win the class, and Callan had to settle for second, though she did get a nice boost by winning the McDevitt Style of Riding award.
The fastest time, an awe-inspiring 43.173 seconds, belonged to Todd Minikus on the swift Pavarotti, but a fence down at 13B, four jumps from the end of the course (the route was re-arranged for the jump-off) put him third.
Todd was lucky to be here at all, however. He was a bit pale for someone who is usually robust and tan, but it's understandable, considering all he's been through with his health this year. Here's the saga:
Six-time winner McLain Ward, considered a favorite to add to his record, didn't even make the tie-breaker. His very experienced Rothchild had an uncharacteristic stop at a vertical of (what else) Devon blue rails in a rather dimly lit corner of the ring. Poles went clattering to the ground and he was out of the ribbons.
McLain's second mount, Pjotter van de Zonnehoeve -- who had just won a big class at the HITS show -- faulted at the ninth fence, which ended a less-than-stellar evening for the country's top-ranked jumper rider.
Going back to the theme of everything remaining the same, two of Devon's perennial exhibitors exemplify that thought. Scott Stewart took the Leading Hunter Rider title for the ninth consecutive time, though he had several reserve championships but his only championship was in the Regular Conformation Division with Touchdown, who went on to take the Grand Champion Hunter Title. (Touchdown also took a junior hunter title last weekend with Tori Colvin, Best Child Rider on a Horse. Scott was joking that Tori schooled the classy chestnut for him.)
Despite the fact that Hunt Tosh took two championships in the hunter division, as I told you the other day, he just wasn't able to snag that Leading Rider title. But he's full of admiration for Scott.
Scott won the stake in the High Performance Hunter division (formerly the Regular Working Hunter division) with Carlos Boy. The sweet gray formerly was campaigned in the jumper ranks by Scott's partner, Ken Berkley, who even took him to the World Cup finals.
Ken told me, however, that Carlos Boy had what looked to be career-ending neck problems. They even had to put his food up high to accommodate him, as he couldn't bend his head to the ground. Ken was told the horse would never jump again, but Carlos Boy kept defying the odds. At the age of 16, however, it was decided Carlos Boy should switch divisions, and he has the advantage of jumping the 4-foot fences easily.
Despite his record, Scott is a neophyte compared to Kenny Wheeler. At the age of 83, the lanky Virginian took his 37th Best Young Horse title at the show with a 3-year-old Virginia-bred mare (rather unusual; geldings have the edge on this honor) by West Point named Mae West that belongs to his lady friend, Cindy Chandler. I believe he also has been Best Handler for the same number of years, but the exact figure may be lost in the mists of history.
Though Kenny loves a good thoroughbred, he notes they're harder to find for the hunter divisions today, as they go mostly to the racetrack while warmbloods have moved up to dominate the hunter industry. A case in point: There was one 2-year-old in the thoroughbred breeding division for fillies that age here, but 15 competed in that age group's section for non-thoroughbreds.
Kenny was a pioneer in the warmblood wave, however, as one of the country's top hunters in the 1960s was the German-bred Isgilde.
The show is so much more than just the horses, though of course they are the focal point, but it seems there's always something interesting around every corner.
Georgina Bloomberg did a book signing yesterday for her new novel, "The A Circuit," about life on, what else, the A circuit.
Much comment has been made about it being autobiographical, featuring a heroine with an extremely wealthy father who looks down on her equestrian aspirations. She assured me that the story could be about any one of scores of young women who come from money and want to be overly involved with horses, but she noted there's a little bit of her in all the characters in the book.
A sequel already has been finished. I asked about a movie deal, and Georgina doesn't plan to go that way; she's interested in a TV series. Think "Gossip Girl," she told me.
Show president Wade McDevitt took time out to sit down with me for a chat as we analyzed all that is Devon. He's proud that the Gold Ring now has footing to equal that in the Dixon Oval, but we covered more of the big picture in our conversation.
Listen: Wade McDevitt
That's it for me from here. Another Devon is about to become part of a rich history.
The only down side of this otherwise glorious week came as a result of the barn fire in which six horses were lost at Phillip Dutton's farm near here. It was never far from anyone's thoughts at the show.
For more information, go to Fran Jurga's blog on Equisearch. Eventer Boyd Martin was using the stable, from which five horses were rescued, four of whom are still requiring medical attention at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. Boyd and Phillip rushed in, despite the firefighters' attempts to restrain them, to rescue Neville Bardos. He was the top-placing horse on the U.S. team at the World Equestrian Games last fall and Boyd had planned to take him to the Burghley 4-star in September. Neville suffered smoke inhalation.
Fundraising by many entities is under way for veterinary bills and to help other brave rescuers who lost all their belongings when an apartment burned as well. To find out where to make a donation, go to Boyd's website, www.boydandsilvamartin.com.
Devon ends Sunday with its hunter derby. I'll have a photo gallery up for you at the beginning of next week, showing Devon's infinite variety, so be sure to come back to Equisearch to see it.