Bridgehampton, N.Y., August 31, 2008 -- "Spectacular" is the word that best describes the Hampton Classic, perhaps the most dazzling show in America, where 13,000 fans and socialites crammed in to watch this afternoon's grand prix, a sell-out for the first time.
"Spectacular" also is the only description that does justice to the winner of the Classic's $200,000 FTI Grand Prix, Hillary Dobbs, who has gone from strength to strength ever since she started competing in earnest on the grand prix circuit last year.
She topped the Friday grand prix qualifier with Corlett, her German-bred mare, then turned around and did the same today. The only other person in the history of the Classic who has won both the Friday and Sunday grands prix is Joe Fargis, who set the mark in 2005. Joe is an Olympic double-gold medalist; I expect the same from Hillary someday.
That is, if she isn't too busy doing something else. She's a Harvard University junior with brains as well as athletic ability, who juggles everything without dropping a ball.
And she also is one of the most gracious people you'd ever want to meet. I asked her to talk about her feelings on winning the class, and she basically just praised her horses. Her amazing string also includes Marengo, on whom she took the Classic's national championship Saturday.
In an interesting twist, Hillary hit the ground hard at last year's grand prix here. But she had no fears about trying again with Corlett today after discussing with her trainers, Missy Clark and John Brennan, whether she should take the mare or Quincy B, who also qualified. What a difference a year makes.
At 20, as the youngest-ever winner of the grand prix at the Classic, she is a member of the next generation of show jumpers, also represented by the youngest rider in the competition, 19-year-old Brianne Goutal, the runner-up. The new faces include the third-place rider, Kirsten Coe, 27, a native Californian who works with Andre Dignelli in Connecticut and has a young, promising horse in the white-stockinged chestnut, Starlight.
If you read my Practical Horseman column on EquiSearch last week, you know I wondered post-Olympics whether there would be enough new blood to help the USA keep up its gold medal-winning ways at the Games.
After today's class, I'm not worried anymore. It was impressive to see how the top three handled course designer Conrad Homfeld's tough test in the vast grass grand prix field bounded by VIP tents, corporate chalets and the packed grandstand.
The route involved a U-turn from an oxer, fence 9, to the triple combination that ran alongside the VIP tent, where there were distractions aplenty (all those people crowded on the edge of the tent drinking champagne.)It was one of the most difficult parts of the course.
Not surprisingly, only five of 34 starters (going in reverse order of merit from the qualifier) made it into the jump-off. The 96-second time allowed was tightightight, demonstrated by the fact that 12 riders had time faults, including three competitors who were clean but missed the tie-breaker for a single time penalty.
Chris Kappler, the lead-off rider in the tie-breaker on the gray mare VDL Oranta, was very careful, leaving everything standing in 46.1 seconds. The others shot at that, but Georgina Bloomberg (whose father, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was watching intently) missed with a knockdown. Kirsten did as much as she could with her relatively inexperienced mount, finishing in 43.99 seconds.
The most decorated equitation rider ever during her junior career, Brianne came very close to winning with a go-for-broke trip on Onira in 42.830 seconds. She left Hillary no choice but to go as fast as she could.
Hillary's thought as she entered the arena?
"There's no letting up the whole way." She turned in a thoughtfully aggressive ride, not going nuts but enabling her mare to make up ground, and putting in a nicely sliced turn five fences from the end of the eight-obstacle course, about the only place where she thought she could save time.
Her clocking of 41.13 seconds elicited cheers from the crowd, who knew a super performance when they saw one.
And I've seen a lot of Hillary's incredible efforts. She took the Vox Rider Challenge award for the jumper rider who accumulated the most points here this week, as well as the show's international jumper championship. That's on top of being leading rider at Devon this year and Washington last year, as well as other honors too numerous to mention. But you get the idea; this gal is superstar material. No, wait--she's already a superstar.
I was shooting photos from a table I shared with Hillary's parents, Lou and Debi Dobbs, as well as assorted relatives, including Hillary's 83-year-old grandmother, Lee Segura, various other grandchildren and children.
It was just happenstance that we all were in the same place, but I was interested to see how the Dobbs family handled the afternoon's tension. They clapped for everyone and had something kind to say about each round. I guess I know where Hillary gets her manners.
If you'd like to watch the FTI class for yourself, this World Cup qualifier will air October 4 at 3 p.m. EDT on Animal Planet. They had a neat new Animal Planet fence, the last one in the first round, surrounded by topiary animals (you can see it in the photo of Kirsten Coe.)
Of course, there's much more to the Classic than just the grand prix. There are the hats, the wine-tasting, the table decorations, the celebrities (for more on all of the above, check out our Hampton Classic Gallery, which will be up this week.)
The show is such a production. I can't imagine how it all gets put together. I am always amazed that the Classic's executive director, Shanette Barth Cohen, can look so cool and calm in the midst of everything that's going on. So I asked her about it.
I ran into Tony Hitchcock, the Classic's longtime former executive director and his wife, Jean Lindgren, who have moved on to other things, many other things, in their alleged retirement. I asked Tony if he missed being involved with the show, and he told me, "I miss it the way you miss your kids when they leave home, but you don't want them to move back in."
The show includes a wide variety of divisions in both the hunters and other jumper sections. Jennifer Waxman was nearly as big a winner in the latter two as Hillary was in the grand prix ranks.
Jennifer, a tip-top junior rider, won this morning's $25,000 Calvin Klein Show Jumping Derby for juniors and amateurs on the neat black horse, Outline.
The victory was special to her, because the 2007 Classic didn't go that well with this mount.
Jennifer ran right from the jumper arena to the main hunter ring, where she competed in the Hermes Junior/Amateur-Owner Hunter Classic.
Although she was the show's Best Junior Rider and Grand Junior Hunter Champion with Cento, the 16-year-old from Ohio couldn't win them all. The Classic went to Samantha Schaefer, a 14-year-old from Maryland on Perfectionist, a horse she leases from Scott Stewart. Scott's partner, Ken Berkley, meanwhile, took the show's Grand Hunter Championship with Sambolino. It was a maze of tricolors today, believe me.
Jessica Springsteen won the Zone 2 Hunter Seat Medal Finals and the Best Junior Equitation Rider Award, but the Wolffer Estate Equitation Championship went to Jacqueline Lubrano, another rider who trains with Stacia Madden and company at Beacon Hill in New Jersey.
Jacqueline had her work cut out for her aboard Lennox in the two-phase class. The course for the second round yesterday was one of the toughest I've ever seen for equitation, with a big water jump and a bank that intimidated some of the horses (and riders!) I took pictures of one kid who had her eyes closed in every shot as she went down the bank. The whole thing was a challenge, and even more so for Jacqueline, who was leading going into the second round. How did she do it, I wondered?
This is some show. It's a tough drive to get here (even if you live on Long Island, the traffic usually backs up right around Southampton, and other times your car will crawl for miles before you can reach that point.) Hotels are very pricey (you could camp out in a park)but it's worth it to see a show that's unique.
Come visit next year!