Wellington, Fla., December 9, 2007 -- For those of us who remember the National Horse Show's history and glory days in Madison Square Garden, the very mention of the show strikes all kinds of chords.
The 124th year of this venerable entity is, of course, very different from the way it was run through part of the 19th Century and most of the 20th, when it was held in New York City. There it was an occasion, a formal occasion, to be sure; replete with white tie, top hats, tails and ballgowns. And lots of important jewelry, of course.
We'd make sure we had different outfits for every afternoon and evening of the show (it was eight days at one point) and those of us in the know (which was almost everyone who attended regularly) called it "The Garden," rather than the National.
The good old days came back for a few moments in the front room of the VIP area here, where grainy black-and-white films, translated to video, were shown over and over on a flat-screen TV.
There was "Pessoa and Gran Geste." No, they weren't talking about Rodrigo, who hadn't been born yet, probably. Those were films of his father, Nelson, competing in the Garden. I watched Bold Minstrel go once again as I stood next to Betty Oare and her husband, Ernie, in front of the TV.
"Okay," I asked them. "What special distinction did Bold Minstrel have?"
My mouth barely was closed when Betty (who is so sharp!) responded, "He was in both the eventing and show jumping in the Olympics." Right you are, Betty.
It's seeing people like her, and so many others from "the old days" that makes the National special, along with its silver trophies and orange-and-black color scheme.
Basically, though, these days it's like Winter Equestrian Festival Lite. Because it's held at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, a far cry from the glittering lights of Manhattan, it's certainly not the old National.
But whatever you call this show, and no matter how much you mourn the past, we've had some really special moments here.
The highlight is always the show jumping; in this case, the grands prix. The Friday night $25,000 class and the Sunday $100,000 class were both part of the Rolex/U.S. Equestrian Federation National Show Jumping Championship. The latter was also a World Cup qualifier AND the National Horse Show Grand Prix, which used to be the Grand Prix of New York. (Thank goodness they haven't started calling it the Grand Prix of Florida.)
Friday night's class, under the lights, or Show Jumping Under the Stars, as it was called, went to Canada's Eric Lamaze. He's earned more than $1 million this year, and was in fine form with Narcotique de la Muze, as he topped a 15-horse jump-off. Yes, it included nearly half the class of 32, but the crowd loved it.
Second went to Kent Farrington and the incredible Up Chiqui, who has won 11 grands prix this year. McLain Ward, the Rolex defending champion, went just a little too fast with Larioso and had a fence down, so his 42.17 time was only good enough for eighth. Ouch! McLain likes to win and he did so the next day in the $10,000 seed class with Larioso, who was in the stable for the final, double-points leg of the Rolex championship today.
Instead, McLain rode Phillipa, his new sensation, the 9-year-old chestnut Dutchbred mare who won at Syracuse last month.
Pierre Joliecouer, taking the lighting situation into consideration Friday night, made the course a little soft. He went in the opposite direction today. The result: Only McLain went clean. Eric had a rail and a time fault. Margie Engle, on Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold, logged just a time fault, finishing second. Kent dropped a rail at the next-to-last fence in the first round, eliminating himself from the jump-off that never materialized.
How hard was the course? There was a tough triple combination near the end, and then options on the two final fences, a pair of oxers on a bending line to three vertical choices, one of which was topped by a delicate. plank that came down three times.
Anyway, McLain, who was the defending national champion, wound up taking the $30,000 first prize without the need to participate in a tie-breaker, while Kent had enough points after finishing fourth (coupled with his Friday night result) to beat him by one point for the right to be called national champion.
He was smiling appropriately, but felt he had made a mistake that caused Up Chiqui to drop that rail, so it wasn't his finest moment--even after a year in which he had won 11 grand prix with that talented horse. No question that this guy is a perfectionist, but that's what makes him so good!
This has been a whirlwind of a weekend. Yesterday was the show's hunter championship, two rounds of great performances. But how terrific that it was won by Cortie Wetherill, taking his last ride as a junior on the lovely Take Away. I know the show hunters don't actually go out in the hunt field, but this horse would be so great to ride behind the hounds, with his long stride and smooth jump.
Cortie won one of the junior hunter championships with him, got the high score award for the hunters (for a 92 he earned in the juniors) to earn the Overdressed Challenge Trophy and was Best Child Rider. Quite a way to finish his junior career.
Take Away is being sold to get Cortie a big-time jumper, and he was understandably emotional about going separate ways from his partner.
There was a dressage show held in connection with the National. It was rather small. People either were resting their horses at the end of the season or weren't quite ready to start tuning them up for the beginning of their season.
But Marco Bernal, who lives five minutes from the showgrounds, was on hand in a big way. He won in several categories, from Grand Prix to Third and Fourth level.
This native of Colombia spent years in Germany to become a certified instructor, and taught at that country's national training center in Warendorf.
Marco does things the classical way, and invites people to his stable any time. No draw reins there, he assured me.
He's hoping to ride in the Olympics next year with Diamore, a chestnut mare who earned 68.333 percent in the Grand Prix. He also has other horses coming up through the ranks, assuring that he will have sufficient stock through the 2012 Olympics at least, and probably beyond.
While the show was fun and lively, it was threaded with an air of uncertainty. That was due to ownership transfer of the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club showgrounds and the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Mark Bellissimo is the point man for Wellington Equestrian Partners, which paid $135 million for the grounds and property nearby, the old polo stadium at Palm Beach Polo.
The mantra here became, "It is what it is," as folks face the future either with excitement or apprehension. People keep asking each other what is going to happen in the transition from Stadium Jumping Inc., which has run the WEF since its inception. I decided I'd prefer to get my answers from Mark, so we met this weekend out at the polo stadium.
I can remember when the stadium was one of the country's most glamorous venues, attracting polo-playing celebrities on the order of Prince Charles. I hadn't been there in years, which made it very disturbing to see the graffiti and disarray into which it had fallen.
Mark, however, is looking at what will be, rather than what was or what is, and it's a pretty impressive vision. Eventually, the field will be encircled by refurbished grandstands, a fountain and flags to set the scene. The field will remain as grass, but it is only going to be used on Friday and/or Saturday nights for big events.
The Internationale Arena at the present Equestrian Club is going to all-weather footing after the National. The only grass that remains will be a border where people can sit. The feeling is that the use in the arena is far too heavy for grass, and although the field seems moderately good now, I can see where it would look more like toast by the second week of WEF, which is starting earlier than usual next year.
Mark has a multi-pronged concept for the new enterprise, called the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
There has been talk that the international aspect may be lacking, because WEF 2008 is not going to include a big money Global Champions Tour event. But that requires some explanation. Global Champions has a new mandate from the FEI that would involve bringing over dozens of riders and horses from Europe, at a cost of at least $1.6 million. Though Mark isn't ready to do that yet, he and his consultant, former FEI Secretary-General Michael Stone of Ireland, assured me that seven or eight foreign riders will be brought over for the Nations' Cup in March and one other weekend. Of course, anyone who wants to pay their own way can come from anywhere. They're also looking at solving inequities that U.S. riders complained about, since they hadn't been getting a stipend for expenses the way the Europeans did.
The show jumping and dressage riders have met with Mark, who is ready to listen to their concerns, but of course, the jury is out until the WEF gets going next month.
I asked McLain what he thinks the future holds at the showgrounds. This is what he told me:
As far as the National Horse Show goes, Mark wants to keep the fixture, which marks its 125th year in 2008, but its board is looking at other options. I've heard Syracuse mentioned as one possibility, since that would put the show back together with its jewel, the Maclay. It just can't be held this late in the season; it would be out of sync with the other fall equitation championships.
Some people would like to revive a plan from a few years ago, which never came to fruition, and hold the National in Las Vegas.
Perhaps Mark will make the show an offer it can't refuse, if his project materializes the way he is sculpting it. If not, he says he would put on his own show on this weekend, and my guess is that it would be a gala production, since he's going to London's Olympia Christmas show this month to see how they do things.
So tune in next year and we'll see how it's going. Change is always difficult, but Mark seems determined to take horse sport to the next level. He wants to get more spectators, which in turn would bring in sponsorship.
We have a gallery of my photos from the National online, so you can see more of what went on if you couldn't make it down to this balmy clime yourself.
Next weekend, I'm switching gears and going to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. It's one of the great events, so come back December 16, and I'll tell you all about it.
Until then, best wishes and good luck with all your holiday shopping and planning.