New York, N.Y., Nov. 8, 2004--This year's Metropolitan National Horse Show involves a tale of two women whose achievements dominated the show, but couldn't be more different--even though they're both talented equestrians who are nearly the same age.
The jumper spotlight belonged to 21-year-old Georgina Bloomberg, who has a string of fabulous horses and is the daughter of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the country's wealthiest men. She won both the junior/amateur feature and the open competition, receiving the historic silver trophies as her father applauded proudly from the VIP section.
The equitation and junior hunter ranks, meanwhile, were the territory of Megan Young, 18, from Jacksonville, Fla., who doesn't even own a horse and is the daughter of a single mom who teaches riding.
Megan's victory in the ASPCA Maclay hunt seat horsemanship championship was even more special because she won it just a few weeks after taking the U.S. Equestrian Federation/Pessoa Medal, an impressive double that only 11 people have now achieved in the same year since the Maclay made its debut in 1933. Until yesterday, no one else had managed since 1989, when Ray Texel did it.
Both gals, I might add, are very nice, handling the barrage of questions and publicity that came their way as easily as they handled their mounts.
Now that you know who won, let me backtrack and set the stage for their achievements, while I tell you a little about the show.
The Metropolitan National was born last year. New York City was without a show in 2002, after the old National made its last hurrah at Madison Square Garden in 2001, after 9/11 and the death of its longtime patron, Sallie Wheeler, when it simply couldn't afford to be in the world's most famous sports arena any longer.
The National headed to the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club in Wellington, Fla., in 2002, where it seemed to have found a new home. The grounds were flooded with people (more who attended than during its last years at the Garden).
But the National Horse Show Association decided it shouldn't give up on New York and developed the rather confusing idea of running two properties with the word "National" in their names within a month of each other. That is how the Metropolitan was born in 2003 at an unusual address--Pier 94 on the Hudson River.
The big, boxy setting, next door to the cruise ship docks, most often was compared to a giant Home Depot last year. But this time it was under the chairmanship of Jennifer Oz LeRoy (granddaughter of the man who produced The Wizard of Oz). She runs the famous Tavern on the Green restaurant and is a dynamic organizer.
Under her direction, the pier had a new layout, better decor and more glitter. That's not surprising, since Jennifer is the one behind the craze for those riding helmets that sparkle with crystals. (If you wanted to get in the mood, you could buy a souvenir polo shirt with the glittering outline of a horse head for $70 at Jenny's booth.)
Anyway, the stabling was separate from the vendors (last year, they were intermingled, which was NOT a good plan) and there was a little "park" with benches in the center of the vendor area where people could relax and grab a bite. The food (not surprisingly) was catered by Tavern on the Green and got raves, as did the ambience.
Every rider I talked to said the show is "really improved over last year" and mentioned that management was "really making an effort." It was as if they all got together and decided on the same quote.
The show is busy establishing its own identity, which is a little difficult because of the confusing fact that there is still a National (now the National Horse Show & Family Festival) in Wellington four weeks from now.
The Metropolitan, however, plays to equestrians' seemingly insatiable desire to have a show in Manhattan, one of the world's least horse-friendly cities. Heck, it's all I can do to drive a car through the traffic-clogged streets, and it's the last place I'd bring my horse, but you can't deny it's fun for folks to say, "I showed in New York."
Not everyone is flocking to the Metropolitan though, because it has some competition just five hours away in Syracuse. The National's year of absence from Manhattan prompted trainer John Madden (brother of Frank, husband of Beezie) to start what amounts to a rival show upstate. It offers a World Cup qualifier, so it got the bulk of the big-time show jumpers: Margie Engle, McLain Ward, Beezie, etc. On the other hand, the major hunters showed up at the Metropolitan.
Despite the enhancements, the Metropolitan is not without problems. There was a lot of unhappy discussion about the footing, which was described to me as being similar to a trampoline or like "riding through a plowed field," making it hard for some horses to get a grip.
"The biggest issue is footing," said show jumper Jimmy Torano, whose thoughts were echoed by nearly everyone else I talked to. "It is not acceptable."
While Show President Gene Mische pinned blame on various factors, from the dirt being watered Saturday night against his orders, to Maclay horses slipping because it was the first time showing in the ring for many of them "and the kids were nervous," riders just weren't happy.
"The Washington (International) footing was perfect from the first horse on the first day," said Jimmy, who thinks the Metropolitan should have nothing less.
But that's something to be solved next year. Let's talk about this year. Both the $50,000 junior/amateur Liberty Cup and the $100,000 open Tavern on the Green Metropolitan Cup were run over three days in a modified World Cup format. I found it a little confusing to follow (despite having covered 16 World Cup finals). Riders went to Gene for clarification about how the Metropolitan Cup's last day would work, since they felt the prizelist was ambiguous. So I imagine some of the spectators were confused.
The open competition came down to a jump-off between Georgina on Nadia and Kent Farrington aboard Madison. But when Kent had the first two fences down, it was clear that things were going to go Georgina's way again, just as they had when she rode Action to the title in the junior/amateur section earlier in the evening.
"I couldn't have asked for more," said Georgina in a masterpiece of understatement, since she won everything.
Megan also started winning early and often here, taking the Grand Junior Hunter Championship aboard Navigator and being named Best Child Rider on a Horse before the Maclay even got under way yesterday.
Linda Allen, who designed the 1996 Olympic courses, laid out the routes for the Maclay. Trainer Tom Wright proclaimed the first course "fantastic," noting it was just testing enough without being too much for those in the field of 104 who were less experienced. There were no tricks, but competitors had to think every second as they dealt with a variety of bending lines.
Leading the way after the first course and the flat phase was Addison Phillips, the 15-year-old phenom whose instructor, Andre Dignelli, calls her "a super talent."
Addie's horse had gone lame suddenly, so she picked up a last-minute ride on Chagall, who belongs to another one of Andre's students.
After the top 15 went, judges still felt a need to test the top three. By that time, Addie had dropped to third, Julie Welles led the way and Megan--fifth in the first round, seventh after the flat phase, was sandwiched between them in the standings.
In the final test, the first jump was a big pile of brush topped by a split fence rail, the kind of fence you'd encounter in the hunting field and a contrast to all the striped poles in the rest of the ring. Though the kids had jumped it before, Addie's mount plowed through it.
"I think he lost his footing," she said, but added, "I couldn't blame it on him or me." The fact that she didn't know her horse well probably didn't help either.
Megan was watching carefully aboard Cresendo, the shapely chestnut on whom she had won the Medal. "I'm glad Addie went first. It helped me ride to that (the brush) a little smarter," said Megan, who took a conservative approach that paid off.
Her neat halt and back-up at the end of the final test helped move her up. Julie Welles, who had a knockdown, was second.
Megan "hung in there and it went her way. She made a little history," Andre said, referring to winning the Medal/Maclay combo.
There was, as you can imagine, great ecstasy in Megan's camp. She is trained by Bobby Braswell and Christina Schlusemeyer, who got her rides on horses she never could have afforded.
"Having the horse was always the question mark," said her mother, Katie, who runs a small training barn of her own that doesn't compete at the national level.
"I always had horses for her until they got to costing the outrageous fortunes they cost. At that point, luckily, she rode well enough to get to ride quality horses."
Katie wants people to understand that doing well at the top level is not just for the affluent, and her daughter is exhibit A in that regard.
"A child with dedication and talent can get this done. Other kids should know if they work hard and have some talent, they can make it without the billions or the millions," she said.
But there's more to life than winning, and that's emphasized in the Young household.
"I'm most proud of her for becoming a good sport and a horsewoman," said Katie. "The riding is icing on the cake."
The Metropolitan National has made huge progress in one year and by 2005 it should be even better, courtesy of a dedicated committee that is determined to keep New York City on the equestrian road map. Watch for my EquiSearch postcard from the other National on Dec. 5.
Visit Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.