Bridgehampton, N.Y., September 4, 2005 -- Retirement was on a lot of people's minds here at the Hampton Classic, as its executive directors, Tony Hitchcock and his wife, Jean Lindgren, were saluted for wrapping up a three-decade run with a fixture that they have nurtured since its beginning.
"Good Luck, Tony and Jean" was written across a plank at the bottom of the first fence on course for the $100,000 Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate Grand Prix that ended seven days of competition at one of the country's classiest (and most expensive) horse shows.
It seemed the perfect script when the prix was won by Joe Fargis, a part-time resident of nearby Southampton who is a member of the show committee and long a friend of Tony and Jean.
"Maybe I should retire, too," the silver-maned Joe told Tony playfully while they were in the winner's circle for the presentation of the trophy and a humongous bottle of champagne. It was the first major grand prix win in two years for the 1984 Olympic double-gold medalist, who is 57. What a perfect moment to call it a career.
But talk seriously about retirement, and it's obvious Joe isn't ready.
"If I end up being old and I don't have any horses, I probably will slow down," he told me as he was leaving the grounds, during a conversation punctuated by congratulations from fans who wanted to shake his hand and wish him well.
"I always question myself about being too old, and then something like this will happen. I never expected something like this," Joe explained.
"I have no plans for retiring -- or continuing. If God or the universe gives it to me, I'll take it and love it. I'll take life day by day."
He couldn't have asked for a better day, or week, than this one. Joe became the first person ever to win the Friday qualifier for the grand prix and the big class too.
At one time, that would have earned him an extra $100,000. But the insurance got too expensive for that contingency, and so the show dropped the idea, Tony said. Still, it was an achievement, and Joe added to his laurels by taking the style award and the jumper championship today (he won a third class earlier in the week on Diams III.) Hey, when you're hot, you're hot.
And luckily it wasn't extremely hot at the Classic, where we had one of the most beautiful days I can remember. The 12,000 or so in attendance seemed to think so, too, loving the action, wandering through the boutiques (I met several people who bought the $2,400 Fendi handbag with an embossed horse on it) and most of all, partying. There were a few celebrities on hand (Alec Baldwin, who wasn't going to lose any weight at an affair overflowing with the likes of lobster rolls, prime beef stuffed with red peppers, brownies galore and champagne; Lorraine Bracco and Christie Brinkley). As one astute person noted, they were, "the usual suspects" for the Classic. Bruce Springsteen; his wife, Patti, and their daughter, Jessica, who won in the pony jumpers and equitation, went home yesterday.
They missed a great class, the type of finale that a finale should be. Course designer Conrad Homfeld, who rode on the 1984 Olympic team with Joe (Conrad won the individual silver) had a difficult task.
It involved building for what he diplomatically called, "a diversified group." The 30 entries included some young horses, such as McLain Ward's 7-year-old mount, Alias, and some younger riders, including Paige Johnson, making their debut in the Sunday competition. And then there were Chris Kappler, Anne Kursinski and Joe, Olympians all.
Conrad wasn't surprised to see Joe win.
"He is, after all, an individual gold medalist, and there are not that many of them walking around," said the designer, who was trying to make a course that was safe, "still fun and the right kind of standard for $100,000."
Eight came through for the tiebreaker, the perfect number to draw the line between suspense and boredom. The distances required a little finessing and the jumps were both formidable (the Prudential oxer) and delicate (the Jaguar gate that seemed light as a feather in the standards.)
Chris started the final round with his new horse, the gray mare VDL Oranta. This is his first great hope since losing Royal Kaliber last year after the Olympics, and the Dutchbred was excellent in their first jump-off together. So he wasn't able to push her, being satisfied with a clean round in 44.46 seconds. Candice King was easily able to top that with Tarco (42.02), but it wasn't until the last two that her lead was threatened. Anne Kursinski on the swift Roxanna -- who she competed on for the first time here last year -- laid down a trip in 41.82. But Anne conceded she realized she had pulled back a little too much on the turns to feel secure with Joe coming behind her. And her fears were realized, when he did just enough to finish in 41.69 seconds on Mary B. Schwab's 16-year-old Hanoverian, who isn't always the most consistent horse but has other moments when he simply shines.
The Classic is a mixed bag, conspicuous consumption that raises money for charity (the Red Cross and its efforts for New Orleans were prominent here), and great athletic performances that are admired and inspired.
Tony summed it all up in his final speech ever at the show:
"This has been an incredible week. We were prepared to have our spirits dampened by the tragedy down South, but we've been able to raise a lot of money for humans and horses. We did our share of fundraising this week, but in the end, the stars of this Hampton Classic, as they always are, were the horsemen and the horses. What a week!"