New York, N.Y., Nov. 22, 2005 -- They're still going to have to wait until February to actually wear those eagerly awaited gold medals around their necks, but the U.S. Olympic show jumping team finally got some long-deferred recognition last night, courtesy of New York City's mayor and the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation.
The riders were the guests of honor at a reception in Gracie Mansion, the stately, storied official residence of Gotham's chief executives. Unlike his predecessors, including Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg doesn't live there (Why should he? He has his own, undoubtedly more luxurious, digs in the city). So the building is used for "house guests" (Rosalyn Carter and Nelson Mandela were among those who have stayed there in the past, we were told) and social affairs like the one for the jumpers.
Just to recap, so you know what I'm talking about here: Our show jumping team received the silver medal in Athens during the Olympics 15 months ago, but the order of placing was far from settled. The German gold medal team lost the score of Ludger Beerbaum when his horse tested positive for a prohibited substance. After getting a thumbs-down from both the FEI (international equestrian federation) and Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Germans dropped to bronze status, and the Americans were elevated to gold. But this process takes forever, and now that it's official, it's about time it was acknowledged in a big way.
Mayor Bloomberg graciously stepped up to the plate (his daughter, Georgina, is an aspiring Olympic show jumper) and presided at a party that drew USET supporters and friends.
It was a cocktail affair complete with tours of the home originally built by a Scottish merchant at the end of the 18th Century. As many times as I have been to Manhattan, I had never before even passed Gracie; it's on the East River in Carl Schurz Park, two blocks beyond First Avenue. The bucolic setting is in stark contrast to the city's towering skyline. As the mayor pointed out, the area where Gracie is located, five miles from what is now lower Manhattan, was the Hamptons of its day.
He has a great sense of humor and revealed he had been very much involved with Georgina's equine interest when she was young, even to the point of having learned how to braid! Maybe he was trying to save money. Mayor Bloomberg said he knew he was in for big expenses when the young Georgina won several first- and second-place ribbons with her pony, and the prize money didn't even cover entry fees.
It was a great night for the USET Foundation, as it got recognition for its fundraising efforts that keep the high performance program going. George Morris, who took over the chef d'equipe's job from Frank Chapot earlier this year, was recovering from a virus and sounded very hoarse. But he wasn't going to miss this chance to beat the drum for support of the team.
"The gold medal does not rest on one individual or horse, no matter how talented," he told the partygoers, citing teamwork, the contributions of the horse owners and the support of the foundation.
"It's expensive to see our athletes achieve competitive excellence. This is a team effort," he said.
The riders--Chris Kappler, Beezie Madden, Peter Wylde and McLain Ward--were genuinely touched to receive their crystal trophies, engraved with their names, those of their horses and that of the alternate, Alison Firestone, as well as Frank's.
It was an occasion not to be missed, and for Peter and Beezie, that meant an extra effort. The two flew back from Europe Monday night to attend, and left right after the party for the return trip.
"It's a dream, to be getting a gold medal with your teammates," said Peter Wylde.
"It's tricky to get all of us in the same place at the same time," he added, expressing his appreciation to the mayor for making it happen.
The guests who swirled their way through the mansion's elegant rooms were a horse world who's who, from U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO John Long and USET trustee Jane Clark to longtime team supporters, such as Judy Richter and her sister, Carol Thompson; eventing team veterinarian Brendan Furlong; Anne Meyer, who owns Peter Wylde's Olympic mount, Fein Cera, and Kathy and Hal Kamine, who owned Chris's Olympic ride, Royal Kaliber.
Royal Kaliber died of colic after sustaining injuries at the Games, as you all sadly remember, so it was quite poignant to watch the video of the show jumping that was shown during the party and see him clearing fence after fence in his inimitable style. Hal was saying he couldn't believe Roy has been gone more than a year, but on the bright side, he and Frank Chapot were comparing notes about Roy's babies. Each has one, and both look like they're going to be super jumpers, so his legacy lives on.
Among those on hand were Lori and Stephen Racioppo, the charming couple who just bought George's old stomping grounds, Hunterdon Inc. They're horse people, too, luckily. George has retired the Hunterdon moniker as he moves to his new home in Wellington, Fla., so they have changed the name of the property to Va Pensiero ("Fly, thought") after the opening words of a Verdi operatic aria. Chris Kappler, George's former associate, is staying on with his own business at the historic facility.
As you can tell, it was quite a night, and one that should convince more people to become USET supporters if it means sharing other occasions like this one. The 2004 show jumping team will be together again for the actual gold medal presentation in Wellington February 5, but I know this is an experience they will always cherish. It really was incredibly special.
I'll be sending another postcard or two to you from the National Horse Show, which gets under way next week in Florida. In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving! (Where did this year go?)