November 3, 2003 -- After a year's absence seems to have made a lot of hearts grow fonder. The 120-year-old show--having adopted a far different format than the one utilized during its heyday at Madison Square Garden--was a hit with many exhibitors in its incarnation as the Metropolitan National.
Or you could just call it Horses by the Hudson. The new venue was Pier 94 and the Show Piers down by the river, with a good view of both the New Jersey and New York skylines, depending on where you stood. It was right on the water; if you went outside for a breath of fresh air, there was the river.
Inside, the layout included a long, narrow arena with a big warm-up area and wide aisles lined with stalls and boutiques. Spectators could wander throughout, unlike the situation at the Garden, where security barred all but exhibitors and officials from the "backstage" areas.
The story of the reinvented National may be a bit unfamiliar to some, so here's a quick recap to get everyone up to speed: The National's last appearance in its traditional home, Madison Square Garden, was in 2001, when show officials couldn't come to a long-term contract agreement with the arena. Last year, the ASPCA Maclay hunt seat horsemanship championship, a New York tradition, was sent to the Washington International and the National was held in Wellington, Fla., on Thanksgiving weekend--too late a date to host the Maclay so it could dovetail with other fall circuit horsemanship championships.
Now we have a plethora of Nationals. This year, the Florida version has been dubbed the outdoor National, featuring the American Grand Prix Association Championship and what once was known as the Grand Prix of New York. Next up, we have the indoor National in Las Vegas including a variety of breeds, though there are questions about what's happening with it because of the California wildfires. National officials will be meeting today to decide their options, among them whether to cut the number of days for the show or run it in one ring instead of two, because so many of the horses entered are from the West and have been displaced by the inferno. Meanwhile, box office ticket sales were halted for at least the moment, according to National Manager Bob Bell.
The Metropolitan's main function involved being a showcase for bringing the Maclay back to New York City. "That was the most important factor," Bob Bell told me. The venerable class really was the main attraction, since there were no open jumpers on the program. They were up in Syracuse, N.Y., at John Madden's new tournament. With the financial burden presented by the prize money the jumpers require, "and not knowing if they'd come," because of Syracuse running opposite the National, as Bob pointed out, they were not part of the equation.
So yesterday was almost completely devoted to the Maclay, with the incongruous exception of the pony hunters who appeared center stage between rounds of the horsemanship championship.
The Maclay started at 7 a.m. with 100 juniors from all over the country who had qualified at various regional ride-offs. After an initial trip over fences and the flat phase, 23 were named to compete again in the afternoon.
The fences were predominantly rustic and decorated with foliage ("like things I'd drag in from the woods," trainer Christina Schlusemeyer said cheerfully) or painted white, neat and effective. Called out on top for the second round was Californian Randy Sherman, followed by another from his state, Katie Gardner. Addison Phillips, the New Yorker who was a big winner this fall came next in the ranking, with USA Eq Medal winner Lauren van Eldik of Florida fourth; Courtney McKay, another Floridian, fifth and Matthew Sereni, sixth.
A lot of rails dropped along the route, with Randy and Katie among those whose horses tipped the poles groundward. That scrambled the standings, with five returning for a final test, led by Matthew, with Randy second, Courtney third, Katie fourth and Addison fifth.
The riders gathered at the end of the ring to await instructions. When word came, it was repeated several times by the announcer and seemed very confusing. I wasn't the only one who went, "huh?" I was standing next to last year's winner, Erin Stewart, and she was just as perplexed. Luckily, a steward clarified things for the riders, who were to pick three fences and jump them in any order they chose, as long as one was at the hand gallop and another at the counter-canter. A rustic vertical was to be taken at the trot, and a halt had to be incorporated somewhere.
As he watched the others go, Matthew, said "my heart was pumping" until he came up with a plan for a bolder and more difficult route, basically gambling with his first-place status. He rode the gamble well and it paid off in victory for the California Polytechnic Institute freshman. Courtney, who is coached by Christina, wound up with the reserve championship.
Asked how the winner was determined, judge Hap Hansen said, "They both really galloped. He just invented a little bit more of a difficult way to do it and got away with it. He could have had a mistake doing what he did; it would have been easy to have something go wrong there."
"He thought it out. He knew it was difficult and he knew his horse well enough to know that he could do it," said Julie Winkel, who also judged the class.
The horse, Fareniente, was the key here. Although Matthew had often qualified for horsemanship finals with the chestnut, he never rode him in the finals until this year. People had criticized the horse for being "short and fat," Matthew said, in other words, lacking the prized svelte equitation look.
But the animal, originally bought as a 3-foot hunter for an amateur client of Matthew's trainer mother, Debbie, enjoys a special bond with Matthew, who had brought him along and became teary-eyed as he talked about Fareniente.
"He's the perfect horse in every way," said Debbie, citing the gelding's loving disposition among his many attributes.
Debbie trains Matthew in conjunction with Archie Cox, once a successful equitation rider whose best Maclay finish was ninth in 1985--which as Matthew enjoyed pointing out, was the year that he was born.
Archie got special help from Don Stewart, the father and trainer of last year's winner, Erin, who I mentioned earlier. When the five for the final ride-off were announced, and Don didn't have anyone in the group, he gave Archie his lucky jacket and tie that he wore for the Maclay's 2002 renewal. The tie was perfect--it had a rabbit jumping out of a hat, an accurate depiction of what Archie did to wind up with the first Maclay winner of his training career.
It was a very long day for the Maclay riders (and me!), but at least there were plenty of breaks that enabled me to talk to a lot of people and get their feelings about the show. Those who enjoyed it praised the "intimate" feeling that kept everyone close to the action and appreciated all the work that went into the concept.
"It's wonderful," said Cornelia Guest, a New Yorker who was champion in the adult hunters. "You're in the greatest city in the world, and they've done a great job here."
"This beats the heck out of being the poor sister at Washington," said California trainer Karen Healey Bauer, recalling how the 2002 Maclay was run at the International on a Thursday before a handful of spectators.
"There's no place like New York," commented New Jersey trainer Leo Conroy. "It was great for the first time, and there's so much potential here. I think they can build on what they've done."
But praise wasn't universal, and some expressed a feeling that more needed to be done to counteract the Home Depot-like atmosphere of a big, boxy setting.
"My first reaction was it wasn't glitzy or fancy enough," said New York trainer Andre Dignelli. "The end result needs to be a bit more special with all the cost and time it takes to qualify (for the Maclay.)"
Trainer Missy Clark said, "I know everyone's trying hard; they certainly put forth a great effort." But she added that a venue for the National needs "to be worthy of this horse show, which has such a long history and should be showcased in a special place. To not have open jumpers takes a little away and some of the classes offered (such as adult and children's hunters) are more consistent with what you see at a local show."
While she insisted, as she often has, that "I love New York," Missy conceded finding the right venue could mean having to move the show to another city.
While the Maclay was nicely ridden and well-judged, with a worthy winner, it did seem to lack the extra tingle that it had in Madison Square Garden. It's hard not to miss being in the world's most famous arena, but it's time to just remember those days fondly and move on. With the addition of the Syracuse show and the Marshall & Sterling show in Massachusetts, the fall circuit is a whole different animal than it used to be.
And it's not over yet! If you're interested in finding out what happens at the rest of the Nationals, be sure to look for my postcards from Las Vegas and Florida.