Syracuse, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2005 -- Yesterday was a looong day. Not so much for me, even though I entered the Oncenter complex at 6:30 a.m. in time for the first round of the ASPCA Maclay horsemanship championship at the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament. But the kids competing in the class had schooling starting at 1:30 a.m., and the presentations weren't until after 5 p.m.
I told you yesterday I envisioned the finals as a showdown between Brianne Goutal and Julie Welles, and it was, even though there were 146 other kids competing, too. But let me start at the beginning.
The first-round course for the Maclay did have an intriguing first fence, as judge George Morris had promised everyone Saturday. It was a wing-less structure completely covered in dark green ivy. Not every horse respected it, and it often swayed (sometimes falling flat) after taking a good shot from an errant pair of knees.
There weren't a lot of related distances, but there were plenty of turns, the hardest being at the far end of the ring, where riders curved right over a white skinny, then left over another skinny at right angles to the first, before turning right again and galloping all the way across the ring on the diagonal to an oxer of white rails.
There seemed to be a general approval of the course from ringside, though trainer Don Stewart Jr. didn't like the first fence, which demanded caution and an approach on an angle, the better to get started on the curve to the second obstacle.
"I prefer a course where it starts and ends with brilliance. It was hard to make this look smooth," Don contended.
On the other hand, trainer Frank Madden praised it, noting, "This is what the Maclay used to look like."
Fred Bauer, a past winner of the class who is a judge himself, described the course as "enough challenges, but nothing undoable," as it sorted out the class.
It was, as George had told the riders in his Saturday speech, a course where kids could shine if they knew how. That trip across the diagonal, for instance, demanded a bold gallop. Those who rode it too quietly looked completely uninspired.
Julie's trip was a well-measured one on her old pal, Lando, decked out in his usual neatly braided mud tail, and it was no surprise to find her first on the initial call-back list, a spot she held going into the afternoon finals. Brianne had the misfortune of a knockdown at the first skinny with her reliable mount, Logan; just one of those things that happens when you're jumping fences. She was called back fourth, but dropped to fifth after her flatwork--not her strong point.
The afternoon work-off for 17 riders was sandwiched in between phases two and three of the Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup for jumpers.
The first round was a speed test; the second a four-bar, a type of progressive high jump. Just as we were getting involved in that, they put up the course for the Maclay. And when that was finished, we had to wait until after the final round of the Cup to find out where the equitation kids finished. It was like watching TV with your husband when he has the remote; you just get interested in the news when he switches to a movie, and as you change gears for that, he clicks on the football game. Frankly, I found it distracting, so I won't do that to you.
I've started telling you about the Maclay and I'll finish before I get into the Cup.
Brianne put in one heck of a trip, reminiscent of vintage Katie Monahan, the equitation rider George says was the best. Brianne knew she had to do something spectacular if she was going to win the class, since she was starting out so far down in the rankings.
"When we walked the second course, there was a lot of room for leaving out strides and making turns and showing off," said Brianne, who worked with her trainers, Frank Madden; his wife, Stacia; Max Amaya and Krista Freundlich to determine what she would do to prove to George and the other judge, Susie Humes, that she should win the class.
"She went for it," said George, explaining why he and Susie pinned her first.
Julie just wasn't as brilliant. Lando looked a little tired, and Julie added strides instead of subtracting, to put her fifth.
The Maclay victory gives Brianne a clean sweep of all the major equitation championships. She won the USEF Medal last month and the USEF Talent Search and the Washington International equitation championship in 2004, which Julie won this year.
While it's an impressive record and gives Brianne "a good leg up" on her dream of being an international show jumper, as George pointed out, "it's just the first step" on the road to a riding career.
You'll be catching Brianne in some of the big grands prix next year. She already has spent time riding in Europe (her father is French, so there's a connection) and you can bet it won't be too long before we see her on a team.
But Brianne is more than a good rider; she's a good person, very sweet. Susie Schoellkopf, who with Jennifer Alfano coached runner-up Kacey McCann, noted that when she was involved with Zone II events, the first thank-you note always came from Brianne.
And the new champion, in the midst of all the fuss being made over her, asked me to mention her groom, Fernando Aranda, "who's very protective of Logan" and an integral part of the team that got Brianne where she is.
Oh, here's another neat thing. The last time Frank won the trophy given to the trainer of the Maclay winner was in 1987, and the person he coached to victory was Stacia Klein--now his wife.
This was the first year the Maclay was held at Syracuse, and while the National Horse Show crew seemed pleased with how it was handled there, a decision won't be made for awhile on whether it comes back here or goes elsewhere in 2006.
Where else could it go? There's one faction that's actively working on having it in Las Vegas, perhaps on an every-other-year basis with Syracuse, while others want to see it further south. Tampa, the Kentucky Horse Park and Raleigh, N.C., are among the places that have been mentioned to me. But I think that despite the Maclay's importance, it can't stand alone and needs to be part of another show. The advantage of Syracuse is that the riders like it; the footing and stabling are good, there's a decent warm-up area, and management does everything it can to improve the show every year.
By the way, if you want to get really up close and personal with this year's Maclay, Animal Planet is doing a six-part series on the road to the finals, which premieres February 1 at 8 p.m. EST. I was practically tripping over the TV crew everywhere I turned. It will be interesting to see the inside story.
Oh, I forgot to tell you about my celebrity sighting. Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, were on hand to watch their daughter, Jessica, compete in her first Maclay. The kid can ride, though she didn't make the cut for the flat phase. I'm sure she's got a great future, particularly under the tutelage of her next-door neighbor, Frank Madden, and his crew.
Anyway, I walked up onto the VIP area at the War Memorial (where the ring is located) and there was Bruce, sitting at a table with Beezie Madden and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Patton. He was so unassuming that I had to look twice at the face under the pulled-down baseball cap to realize it was him. He nicely posed for a photo with Beezie, which you can see above.
Another celebrity daughter, Hannah Selleck, also competed, but I didn't see her dad, Tom, around. And it would be hard to keep that great mustache under wraps; he'd be a lot easier to spot than Bruce.
Okay, now for the $50,000 Sporthorse Cup.
Frankly, I found it to be anti-climactic after the excitement of the Saturday night grand prix, though the format was intriguing. Here's the scoop: riders qualified throughout the show in a quest to be among the seven who would compete in the Cup. It was fast-moving, with Syracuse founder John Madden and other commentators on the floor trying to keep the audience up-to-date on the complicated scoring system.
The only rider to go clean in the final phase, one round over a grand prix-style course, was Aaron Vale on Luigi. But even so, he couldn't catch Leslie Howard, who had built up a lead through her performance in the first two phases (on Youp and Mevendo) to squeak to victory by 0.35 penalties.
Though we haven't heard much from Leslie for a while, three victories at Syracuse tell me she's coming back in form with her new string of horses.
That's it from here. I'll be filling you in early next month from a warmer climate, as I cover the National Horse Show in Florida. See you then!