Wellington, Fla., December 6, 2004 -- The National Horse Show has been held in Florida for just three years, compared with the century-plus it ran in Madison Square Garden. But I've already gotten used to the juxtaposition of palm trees with venerable (and valuable) silver trophies. Hey, it works.
In case you're confused after reading my postcard last month about the Metropolitan Horse Show, I should remind you that there are now two Nationals; the Metropolitan at Pier 94 in Manhattan, and the other here at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club. This is the one that carries the designation of the 121st National, but in 2004 the name was changed to the National Horse Show & Family Festival.
The NHS&FF includes the $100,000 Lexus National Horse Show Jumper Championship and the $100,000 Budweiser American Grand Prix Association Championship. But the family festival added a special dimension, with an amusement area and pony rides for kids and the Taste of Wellington. That drew a crowd, as free food always does. It was courtesy of area restaurants who provided a variety of delights, from pizza to pate, for all comers to vacuum up.
There were also entertaining exhibitions. My favorite was the mules (something you don't usually see at a fancy show like this one). I had a nice chat with mule farmer Desiree Vaughn from Lightning S in Palm Beach County.
"Mules are not like horses," said Desiree. "You can't work them to death." So, you see, it's not that they're stubborn, they just know when to stop.
All these attractions, along with a vast array of shopping opportunities, makes the NHS&FF more than a horse show. That's a good thing. People aren't stuck in their seats here. If they get tired of watching, say, the hunters, they can always traipse around the grounds and do something else. So it gives them a nodding acquaintance with what a horse show is about without boring them to death. (How long can YOU watch the children's jumpers?)
But make no mistake--there was plenty of competition worthy of the National's traditions. Take Friday night, when McLain Ward shone in the NHS Championship with Quickstar II Z, who lives up to her name. The class was held on the big grand prix field, which was emerald green after eight months of rest following the Winter Equestrian Festival (where heavy use tends to leave it threadbare).
The course had been set by Conrad Homfeld, one of the toughest and best designers in the world. That was why only two of 29 starters made it into the jump-off.
Leading the way was the queen of the Metropolitan, Georgina Bloomberg on her lively Riviera. She did a creditable job of going around clean during the tiebreaker, with a time of 42.48 seconds. Then McLain just blew her doors off with a 38.85-secound round atop Quickstar. His major concern was not to go so fast that he made an error. Remember that, because it became a factor later in the weekend.
"When we first walked the course, everyone commented how soft (easy) it was," Georgina said. But as she pointed out, "under the lights, you never know what's going to happen."
Nine horses had a single rail down, and only one other entry, Alison Firestone on Casanova, left all the fences standing. But the tight time allowed got her, with a single penalty putting her third.
I asked McLain how he felt about having the National in Florida.
"It's definitely different," he said. "Nowhere's the same as Madison Square Garden. One of the few grands prix I've actually cried at winning was when I won the first time at the Garden (in 1997)."
Still, he noted, "this is a great show that Gene (Mische) has put on, it's a wonderful event and still very exciting to win."
I thought for sure he was going to make it a double yesterday in the AGA Championship. The format called for eight riders to come back for a second round over an 11-fence route, longer than the usual jump-off. If only two had been clear again, the top eight, no matter what their faults, would have qualified to go back in the ring.
But Conrad, genius that he is, designed the perfect course. Or a "PC," as those in the know call it. He got eight clears.
The first to go clean in the final round was 20-year-old Maggie Jayne, making her AGA Championship debut on Jubulent. She came in the ring after Molly Ashe had an uncharacteristic pair of knockdowns with Resolute at the in and out, and Georgina's Riviera dropped a rail midway through the course.
But Maggie's conservative time of 65.33 seconds could easily be beaten, and Laura Kraut was the one to do it, putting in a 58.82-second clear aboard Anthem.
McLain went last, and Quickstar--who he has compared to a rabbit--scampered around. However, she worked up such a head of steam that she got careless, knocking down the last two fences. She had the time, 55.47 seconds, but wound up fifth. McLain was rueful.
"I needed to slow her down a little," he told me as he walked back in the arena to accept his pink ribbon and reflect on what went wrong.
"She was running out of gas and that's a lot of jumps. If it was a normal jump-off, I would have won," he said with a smile and characteristic confidence.
Laura was nothing but smiles, understandable since she had been trying to win the AGA Championship since 1987. Interestingly, she was the one who sold Quickstar to McLain's sponsor, Hunter Harrison. So she knows how fast the mare is. Instead of watching McLain go in the jump-off, however, she was simply praying for the victory.
Alison, who was third again, actually helped Laura win. Though she had done the last line in nine strides, she told Laura as she left the ring that she thought it was possible to gallop down it in eight. So Laura did, and that was a key to her victory, finally, at age 39 in one of the most prestigious classes of the season.
In the professional hunter ranks, it was all Ken Berkley, who is partners with the better-known hunter rider, Scott Stewart, at River's Edge in New Jersey.
Ken won the Grand Hunter Championship with Truly, the leading hunter rider title for himself, and then the two rounder that is a sort of a hunter classic (don't ask, the real designation is way too complicated) with Good Point.
Scott is still recovering from a broken ankle he sustained at the Capital Challenge when a horse fell on him. Though he's able to ride, he continues to limp and can't do a lot of jumping, which means Ken (who is more interested in the jumpers) had to fill in for him. I'd say he's done that admirably.
There was quality in the professional hunter divisions, but not tons of quantity. Gene, who is president of the show and the man behind its presenter, Stadium Jumping, said he will give the professional hunter divisions one more year. If the turnout isn't better, he will drop their sections, he told me. So if you have a horse that can do one of those five divisions, maybe you should think about a trip to the NHS&FF in 2005.
There's a dressage show held in conjunction with the National, but here again, the number of entries isn't very impressive. The dressage crowd just hasn't begun figuring the National into their schedule, but they should. Last year, the National marked the successful debut of Robert Dover's partnership with Kennedy, who wound up being U.S. Dressage Federation Grand Prix Horse of the Year for 2004. We also were introduced to Dansko's Success, who went on to win at Dressage at Devon and came back this year to win the Grand Prix here with former Danish team member Lars Petersen.
At this point, I like to think of the National as the place to spot horses with potential. Foremost among them is Marco Bernal's ride, Maybach, a 3-year-old Westphalian stallion. The German import got out of quarantine the day before the show, but still managed a 78.462-percent score at training level, making him the high score of the show.
I know, I know, it's only training level, but this is a horse with a head on his shoulders. And his entourage is a regular League of Nations. Marco is a Pan American Games team silver medalist from Colombia (and he hopes to represent his country with Maybach in the 2008 Olympics) while the horse's owners, Sandy and Moti Shahak, are from Israel.
Marco, who lives in Wellington, can't talk enough about Maybach. "He's naturally so bright and intelligent that nothing surprises him," he said. "This is his first time in a real show."
When he found the horse at the farm of his breeder, Alfonse Bauman, Marco knew right away what he had. "I said, 'This is the horse of a lifetime for me.'"
There's so much more I could say about this leg of the National Horse Show, but I think you should plan on coming down to see it for yourself in 2005. The weather alone is worth it.
I'll send my last postcard of the year next Monday from one of my favorite events, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Can't wait!
Visit Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.