Bridgehampton, N.Y., September 2, 2007 -- There's nothing else like it in this country. I'm referring, of course, to the fabulous Hampton Classic. This eight-day fixture, which ends with a flourish on Labor Day weekend, might be seen by some as a festival of excess, from the tremendously tempting shopping to the over-the-top table decorations and of course, the impossible traffic.
As I sat in long lines of cars for more than four hours the other day on my way to the showgrounds, I wondered if the agonies of the trip were worth it. They are. The Classic is similar to a European show, with its ranks of VIP tables and chalets around the grand prix arena, the fabulous boutiques and the celebrities on hand to provide an exclamation point of excitement.
The competitions are what it's really all about, though, but before I get to that, let me just segue to the shopping. This morning, I almost bought a horse for $8,900. Well, I certainly would have if I had that kind of money.
This was a low-maintenance animal, a stately rocking horse, carved from English oak and meant for your living room. A creature with a real mane and tail, it can carry an adult (actually two adults at the same time) as well as a child (I know, I rode it!) There is no bucking, manure or shoeing bills. The Queen of England owns two, I was told. I'd like to have just one.
Then it was on to the hats. I tried an elegant black straw job trimmed with peacock feathers. Only $1,150. But this would have been just the thing had I been invited to sit at one real estate agency's table, set with tall vases of pastel pom-pom flowers and topiary-wrapped flat-screen TVs showing the firm's listings. It also would have suited me for a chair at a nearby table featuring statuettes of rearing horses covered in giant daisies. Champagne, whether Louis Roederer or Moet, was everywhere, flowing faster than a horse could gallop in a timed jump-off.
Which brings me to the show's feature event, the $150,000 FTI Grand Prix. I had a feeling this was going to be difficult. Course designer Conrad Homfeld knows how to test both horse and rider to the Nth degree.
In the morning's $25,000 Calvin Klein Show Jumping Derby for juniors and amateurs, no one went clean. The three 4-faulters did come back for the tie-breaker, however, with Tracey Weinberg nailing the only clean round on her sparky little Linda Z.
"I'm so overwhelmed, I can't begin to tell you," said Tracey breathlessly after collecting her blue ribbon.
"I got this mare a little over a year ago. She's quite tough and I think you always need about a year to get together with your horse. I felt it click today. It was sort of a defining moment for me and my horse being a partner."
Tracey, who went on to win the Amateur-Owner Jumper Championship, particularly wanted to snare the Calvin Klein ribbon for her trainer, Joe Fargis.
By the bye, I was told Joe looks good on Kent Farrington's former mount, Madison, with whom he was 10th in a $7,500 jumper class earlier in the week. Don't forget, Joe won two Olympic gold medals on Touch of Class, another hot bay mare.
Anyway, when I saw how challenging the Calvin Klein was, I had an inkling that the afternoon's $150,000 FTI Grand Prix was going to be a doozy. And so it was, with only three of 30 starters (who had qualified on Friday for the class) finishing with clean rounds to qualify for the jump-off.
A good number of people came close. My heart broke for Georgina Bloomberg on the floatastic (just made up that word) gray gelding, Cim Cristo. She had put in a clear round until the very last fence, a tricky and delicate gate. It came down just as the finish line was in sight. What a disappointment for her and her father, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was on hand to watch from the front row with his girlfriend, Diana Taylor. The defending champ, Anne Kursinski with Roxanna, toppled a piece on the faux brick wall to scuttle her efforts toward back-to-back victories.
McLain Ward, a three-time winner of the grand prix, told me after walking the course that he wished he were riding his gold medal Olympic mount, Sapphire. Instead, he was aboard Quo Vadis, a far less-tested ride who knocked down the second fence.
"He stumbled, and I overrode it," sighed McLain on his way out of the ring.
I felt really sorry for Hillary Dobbs, who has successfully balanced her riding with her studies at Harvard and won a big class here this week. Her horse, Corlett, chipped at fence 9B, launching her into the air. She hit the ground hard, and took a few minutes to get up, but happily, walked out of the ring under her own power flanked by trainer Missy Clark.
I had figured Canadian Mario Deslauriers would win on Paradigm, the way he had taken the grand prix qualifier, but it wasn't to be. He had the third fence down, then a foot in the water to put him out of the running. That was surprising, but not as surprising as the fact that Eliza Shuford was one of only three who made the jump-off, along with Peter Wylde and Beezie Madden. Peter and Beezie you know well. They were gold medal teammates in Athens three years ago. Peter also was the individual bronze medalist at the 2002 World Equestrian Games; Beezie took the individual silver at last year's WEG.
Eliza, a willowy 29-year-old with a cute drawl, is from North Carolina and may not be familiar to you. She began riding for the U.S. team this summer on the Developing Riders' Tour.
But she made what she learned there from Melanie Smith Taylor pay off, coupled with the knowledge of many years working with Debbie Stephens, her former coach. She put in a slick, fast round in the jump-off aboard Larentino, a Holsteiner stallion who was competing in his first big grand prix since suffering a suspensory injury earlier this year. He really likes to run and had a fault-free jump-off round in 46.810 seconds.
She enjoyed an advantage over Peter and Beezie because despite their wealth of experience, they were riding relatively new mounts. Peter had the first fence down with Campino in the jump-off and after that he just cruised, finishing with 4 faults in 51.680 seconds.
We were wondering if Beezie would claim the $45,000 check for first prize, since she had the fortunate last-to-go spot. But she pushed Select a little too hard at the fourth fence, the Classic's trademark hedge, and logged 4 faults. She was faster than Eliza in 45.430 seconds, but it was only good enough for second place.
Eliza understandably was incredibly excited about her victory.
Campino and Select are horses for the future; Eliza is a rider for the future. Although some of the big-name horses were missing because the Classic runs before next week's Spruce Meadows Masters, the level of competition still was top-notch.
I asked Conrad why only three went clean on his route, and he gave a very well-reasoned explanation.
Peter, someone who has real insight into riding, also had his thoughts on the subject.
Before the grand prix, I watched the $10,000 Hermes Hunter Classic on the other side of the VIP tent, where Cortie Wetherill was the winner with Take Away. Jessica Springsteen finished third and fourth, with Sublime and Tiziano respectively. She had won a hunter championship and reserve earlier in the week. In the opinion of the judges, she showed talent that deserved to be rewarded with the trophy for Best Junior Rider.
Watching closely was her father, Bruce Springsteen, being unobtrusive but beaming as he saw his daughter accept her award. He let her be the rock star, enjoying the limelight while he stayed on the sidelines. But I noticed as they headed toward the stables that he had an arm around her and an extremely proud look on his face.
I should also mention that our own EquiSearch.com blogger, Maria Schaub--trained, like Jessie, by Beacon Hill--won the junior jumper Style of Riding award for her efforts on Marga. Maria, who will be going to Rutgers University next year, is wrapping up her junior career. She always looks great on a horse and should be ready to take an equitation finals or two this fall.
Be sure to come back to EquiSearch.com a little later this week for the Hampton Classic gallery, photos that will show you a little more of what you missed if you didn't make it to the show.
And start making plans to come out next year. Even with the traffic, it's worth it!