BRIDGEHAMPTON, NY, August 31, 2003 -- As usual, the Hampton Classic was celebrity central on its final day, with those on hand including New York City mayors past and present; TV stars, among them "The Sopranos" Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) and many other folks you'd recognize, such as designer Calvin Klein.
And just as important a tradition as the big names and bounteous buffets is the fabulous competition that always marks the show's final class, the $150,000 Prudential Financial Grand Prix. It's a crowd-pleaser, and this afternoon's renewal was no exception.
The grand prix was real edge-of-your-seat stuff, with those among the 10,000 spectators who weren't immobilized by champagne cheering their lungs out for a class that had as many ups and downs as the 13 jumps on the first-round course.
Let me set it up for you: The fences were artfully placed by Conrad Homfeld on a giant greensward, something that would seem right at home in England but is an interesting anomaly in a region known for its beaches. On one end of the field, a grandstand jammed with people presented a colorful backdrop, while yellow-and-white tents sheltering the lucky folks being wined and dined ran along the other sides.
It was awe-inspiring, and more than a little intimidating. The fences were huge and varied, from a brown harvest oxer flanked by a profusion of flowers and fruits (I saw one horse attempt a surreptitious nibble there before the victory gallop) to a brick wall that stood 5-feet, 3-inches high and looked bigger.
The brick wall was only three strides from a green and white oxer that toppled repeatedly, ruining the chances of Margie Goldstein-Engle on Hidden Creek's Jones for a record fourth straight victory. By the end of the class, it seemed to really discourage riders, ruining the rounds of four of the last five starters.
"I think horses were seeing the wall and getting stiff in their jump," says McLain Ward, who happily left it up.
"The fatigue at the end of the course had something to do with it," conjectures Todd Minikus. "That was a very difficult line at the end, so for sure, fitness was a big factor."
Others who had problems there included the Long Island East End's favorite equestrian son, Joe Fargis, on Cargill Grand Prix winner Edgar, who would have been a local favorite to win.
In the end, the field of 29 came down to a five-horse jump-off, and the three biggest guns led off the tie-breaker. McLain went first with Hurricane, a horse previously ridden in the Classic by his owner, former equitation ace Sara Willemann.
But McLain was mentally looking over his shoulder because coming right after him was his former ride, Viktor, with Todd aboard. This was the horse on which McLain won the first leg of the Budweiser World Cup finals in Las Vegas, and Viktor blazed through that speed round to beat the best in the world there. So you can understand why McLain was nervous.
"It was a flat-out jump-off," said McLain. "With Todd and Jeffery (Welles) coming behind me on great horses, I knew I needed a little luck for my time to hold up. I knew my horse wasn't as fast a type as Viktor or Penelope (Welles' mount). I went as fast as I could push my horse to go; I don't think I could have gone faster. I needed them to make a little mistake, otherwise it (a win) wasn't going to be possible."
His rivals obliged. Viktor had a rail down halfway through the tie-breaker, and Penelope toppled the green-and-white monster. Viktor's 40.10-second mark was better than Hurricane's clocking of 41.48, but 4 faults put him second, while Penelope was third with 4 on 42.03 seconds.
McLain was elated and perhaps a bit surprised by his win, because he'd had to send his two best horses to Spruce Meadows for this week's Masters, since he is riding for a new owner, Hunter Harrison, whose company is a sponsor of that show. McLain and Harry Gill, his partner of 10 years in the horse business, parted ways amicably earlier this year because Harry, Viktor's owner, is scaling back his involvement.
"This was a big deal for me," said McLain after getting his $45,000 check. "It was a big course, as big as I've seen it, and a great day to win on."
It was even sweeter because in Friday's qualifier he had "a debacle of a performance," a 17-penalty round that, he frankly admits, "was quite humiliating for me. To pull it together and rebound...for sure, it's a proud moment for me."
On -- and about -- the mayors. The current man in power, Michael Bloomberg, had a front row seat to see his daughter, Georgina, acquit herself admirably in the grand prix. She had three rails down, but coming home successfully after attempting something of this order is still praiseworthy.
Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Mike's predecessor, had an even better spot from which to appreciate the horses. A guest of Prudential Financial, he dined on filet and shrimp and lobster salad with his wife, Judith, before making the trophy presentation to McLain.
As they shook hands, he was startled to hear McLain ask about his golf game - apparently the rider followed the mayor around a New York course last week.
Although this was Rudy's first grand prix, he quickly grasped the amount of effort required to participate in an event of this nature. "The precision and courage that it takes to do what you do is admirable. You're all winners," he said.
I have to add a word about the hunter classic. The winner, Kendle Hantmann of California on Remember Me, had a 20-point edge over the runner-up, Abby Carpenter on John Courage. What is noteworthy about Remember Me is that she spent three months at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center with bacterial cellulitis. At one point, her owners were advised it might be best to put her down, but they refused and stuck with the treatment, visiting her daily for two weeks.
They have been rewarded for their faith. The little chestnut mare jumps like a dream, and winning at the Classic on her first trip to the show was a dream come true for her 16-year-old owner.