November 30, 2003, Wellington, FL -- Whatever happens to its twigs in New York and Las Vegas, the National Horse Show appears to have put down real roots at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club here. The success of last year's inaugural running of the venerable event at the home of the Winter Equestrian Festival turned out to be more than just the show's value as a novelty. Crowds returned in respectable numbers this time, though they did not overwhelm the grounds as they did in 2002, when food and programs both ran out.
But the competition this weekend was solid and the atmosphere festive. Riders now seem to regard the show in this location as a regular stop on the circuit.
"This will be an annual fixture for me and my customers," said California trainer Archie Cox, who coached the winner of the Maclay finals earlier this month in Manhattan's Metropolitan National, and would have gone to the Las Vegas version of the National had it not been cancelled after the California fires took their toll on an already light list of entries.
Archie, a Californian, really has to travel to make it to Florida, but he thinks it's worth it, echoing the sentiments of most other exhibitors, many of whom are based in Wellington just a short canter from the showgrounds.
"Stadium Jumping Inc. does a beautiful job of hosting this show," he said, and that was particularly evident in the show jumping grands prix, a one-two punch of excitement with $100,000 classes Friday and today.
The two were very different, with Friday's National Horse Show Championship run as part of "Jumping Under the Stars" in conjunction with a black tie party at night. That one went to Norman Dello Joio on Glasgow, the runner-up in the National Grand Prix last year, with Margie Goldstein-Engle forced to settle for second on Hidden Creek's Perin after facing the disadvantage of going first in the tie-breaker and feeling her way around the course.
But for the rest of the weekend, things went Margie's way. She won the American Grand Prix Association Championship for a record eighth time, taking the AGA Horse of the Year title with Hidden Creek's Perin. After accepting those awards Saturday night, she came right back this afternoon to win the AGA Championship with Perin, who was also jumper champion as she was named leading jumper rider. It was game, set and match for the plucky Floridian as she logged her 125th grand prix victory, another record.
"I'm going to have to build another room on my house," said Perin's owner, Mike Pulaski, as he toted trophies out of the ring and wondered where he would put them.
Having been denied the pleasure of a blue ribbon on Friday night, Margie was out for blood today. Unfortunately, Norman was a non-starter. He told me he thought Glasgow had done enough for the year, and 2004 is worth resting up for, what with the Olympics scheduled and eight stops at big European shows for American teams now that the USA is part of the Samsung Super League of elite show jumping nations.
Even with a field of just 20, however, Margie faced plenty of competition. In the jump-off, she was shooting at a clear round posted by Alison Firestone on Casanova in 39.5 seconds.
Perin's hoofbeats echoed off the ground in rapid fire as Margie roared across the starting line as if she were shot out of a gun.
"I steeplechased the first four or five jumps," she said happily, and I have to admit that as I watched, all I could think of was how this gal could have been a Triple Crown winner if she had become a jockey. Her penchant for speed, however, didn't stop her from being careful. Too many of the eight riders in the tie-breaker were forgetting themselves as they neared the end of Pepe Gamarra's course, toppling the final fence, a 5-foot-high vertical, in their drive to make it through the timers. Margie didn't fall for that temptation, though, and left everything intact to finish in a scalding 37.52 seconds.
After so many victories through the years with Perin, a bay with a ground-consuming stride and tons of scope, Margie would like a bye from the Olympics trials.
"I'm hoping this would help him not have to do the trials. He's so seasoned, I don't have to show him a lot before I take him in the ring. He's withstood the test of time and I feel he's a true Olympic horse."
Earlier in the day, we had the last leg of the Victor Hugo-Vidal horsemanship championship. This is a three-round test on the flat, over a hunter course and then a jumper course, open only to those who have placed high in other horsemanship championships throughout the season.
It boiled down to a brother-sister match-up between Charlie Jayne, 17, and Maggie, 19, last year's winner. Following the jumper segment, the judges asked to see the two switch horses and do the course again.
Charlie dominated the competition. He had an edge, having ridden Maggie's horse before, while she had never ridden his. But Maggie's horse knocked down the middle of the triple combination and helped cook her goose.
It was, as Charlie pointed out, a no-pressure situation, since once the test was announced it was obvious a Jayne of some description was going to win. He was an enthusiastic victor.
"I think it's a good class. It's kind of like the USET and the Washington thrown together," said Charlie, who has one more year in the equitation division and could well dominate it in 2004.
Charlie and his sister were tied with 14 points going into the final phase, where Michael Morrissey -- winner of the USET Talent Search East -- was leading in the last competition of his junior career with 19 points. But his seven-year-old mount, Truffle, had never shown on the wide open spaces of the grand prix field before, and the bay gelding was, as trainer Missy Clark put it, "starstruck."
Michael's other horse was hurt, so this was a substitute who had trouble leaving all the fences up as he gazed at his surroundings.
"The horse got green. Bummer," said Missy. But Michael, the nephew of Stadium Jumping impresario Gene Mische, has bigger fish to fry with a great career as a professional horseman ahead, no doubt.
Some of the hunter divisions had fewer entries than expected. Gene thought it was because several key hunter trainers are either suspended or on the brink of it for violations of USA Equestrian's drug rules.
Dressage wasn't heavy either, but it was exciting for two reasons. Lars Petersen of Denmark, ranked in the top 10 in the world at one time, has a new horse, Dansko's Success. This gray Trakehner won the Grand Prix, his first time starting at that level, and looked great, light and obedient.
The next day, in the Special, Lars didn't come back but Robert Dover made up for it with his first dressage performance outside of a schooling show since he rode on the 2000 Olympic bronze medal dressage team. He was aboard Kennedy, a former Danish team horse bought for him to ride by Jane Clark, his longtime sponsor. Although he really isn't used to the horse, the test went well, and his score of 69.7 percent was the highest of the show.
"I played it a lot by ear," Robert said of his ride, noting that when he's better attuned to the cheerful chestnut who knows it all, he'll be shooting for 73 percent and probably won't have a mistake in the one-tempis. Robert thinks that is quite doable.
Jane, meanwhile, insists that she didn't buy the horse so Robert could make the Olympic team. The object, she explained, was to put a smile on his face -- which Kennedy did. Robert also wanted to ride again to make his parents happy, since they had both suffered severe illness this year. And they were looking good at ringside to watch the fine performance he produced, which put a smile on their faces, too!
The National Horse Show officials were having a pow-wow at this show to work out their plans for next year. The Florida version of the National is a go for sure in 2004, when it moves off the Thanksgiving holiday to a week later, which may help entries in some divisions that were light.
New York seems likely to happen again too, but we'll have to see what the deal is with Vegas. I expect the concept will be retooled and it's uncertain what that will bring. Next year, because of the date rotation that happens every few years, it would be on Thanksgiving weekend, a busy one in Sin City. So don't mark your calendar quite yet.
Well, that wraps up the horse show season for nearly everyone, including me. My next and final stop for 2003 is the National Finals Rodeo in mid-December, a whole different event that's lots of fun. If only horse shows could put 17,500 bodies in the seats for 10 nights. Anyway, I'll send you a postcard to tell you all about it.
For more Columns and Postcards by Nancy Jaffer, click here.