Wellington, Fla., December 2, 2006 -- Sometimes it seems as if the omnipresent orange and black colors, found on everything from coolers to cocktail napkins, are the only difference between the National Horse Show and the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) that begins next month.
Oh yes, and the National is smaller than the sprawling WEF. But to me, a veteran of decades covering the National Horse Show, it is still a little startling to see such venerable silverware as the Las Marismas or the Isgilde trophies presented under the palm trees instead of in the center of Madison Square Garden.
You know what, though? I've got to get over it. Time goes on and things change. Occasionally, however, people still show up in the traditional white tie, complete with top hat, that was de rigueur for so long at the National.
Ronnie Beard, one of the judges this year, came attired that way, despairing of those who appear in the ring for presentations wearing jeans. Luckily, there were only a few people who didn't dress for Friday night's Jumping Under the Stars gala, but the guy I saw in a hooded sweatshirt was sitting at a corner table, far from Ronnie's penetrating gaze.
Whether it was the old National or the new National, though, the competition is what the show is really about, and there was plenty to set you on the edge of your seat. In fact, so much is going on that I'm just going to give you a precis of the highlights, and continue the process with my last postcard on Monday.
That is the highlight of the show, being held here for the first time. The format consists of two $50,000 classes, one held Friday, the other set for tomorrow. Only an American can win the actual title (and share in the $25,000 bonus pool) so McLain Ward is in the lead in that respect.
However, he's in second place on Sapphire behind U.S.-based Belgian rider Eric Flameng aboard Roxanne. Flameng got the better of many of our best, and the course took care of the rest.
Molly Ashe, who won the Friday night class last year when it was the National Horse Show Grand Prix, was out early when the third element of a triple combination was dislodged by Neuville. She withdrew to save him for another day. Hidden Creek's Perin, the ride of 10-time American Grand Prix Association champ Margie Engle, had two down to stay behind when the jump-off list was compiled.
Seven of 32 starters made the tie-breaker, and Eric was first to go over a route that stumped everyone but him.
"It's always an advantage to watch the other ones," said Eric, but he played it cool and turned in a clean round in a moderate time of 37.92 seconds. McLain was faster, in 35.3, but Sapphire caught the back rail of the oxer that had messed up Molly (now part of a double) and logged 4 faults. So did the other speedster, Olinda, with Todd Minikus aboard, clocked in 35.47 seconds for third. In fact, all the other riders except Eliza Shuford had the fence down with the exception of Eliza Shuford on BCO Olymp, who dropped the first part of the double.
Having a double as the second fence on course was difficult to handle for the horses who were running against the clock.
The National Championship is missing the rider who deserves a shot at it after losing the World Championship this summer on the very last fence. But Beezie Madden doesn't have a horse ready for the class, her husband, John, explained.
The location of the championship, which is a big part of its cachet, was announced rather late in the season. The Maddens already had planned what they were doing this year.
"Our horses are resting and we have a really strict policy that every horse gets three months off without their shoes," said John, who noted that none of their horses' "on" cycles coincided with the show.
Beezie's Olympic gold medal teammate, Chris Kappler, also is missing because he didn't have a mount for the class. He used Orame in the Nations' Cup in Argentina to lead the winning U.S. team there, and his other star, Oranta, has her shoes off and is relaxing until February.
The 11,000 spectators who crowded around the International arena at the Palm Beach Equestrian Club were treated to a very interesting class, and with McLain just two points behind Eric under the class's scoring system, you can be sure that there will be another tense battle tomorrow.
Although Margie is far behind the eight-ball in the championship, she got some redress by winning the $10,000 Open Speed Stake with the fast-accelerating Hidden Creek's Calippo, a gray gelding who blistered along and turned like a Lamborghini to end up with a clocking of 60.21 seconds on the winding course. Margie just beat McLain and Larioso, who had set a pace of 61.72 seconds.
The hunters, always a big part of the National, have become predictable with Scott Stewart as the most prolific rider in the open divisions. He won four of five sections and had six of nine entries in the Open Championship competition, the National's version of a hunter classic.
Naturally, he won with Beyond, his Regular Working Hunter champ, though Ken Smith and Cosmo gave him a run for it. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would have been for Scott if he didn't win despite having two-thirds of the entries on the class?
Oh, and naturally, he was Leading Hunter Rider for the fifth time in four years.
In the junior/amateur version of the hunter championship, Megan Massaro was the winner on Lyle, making a clean sweep of all her classes. But Jack Hardin Towell ended his junior career by taking the Best Child Rider trophy.
Dressage is also featured at the show, where Jan Brons took the Grand Prix with Jourdan. A native of Holland who is a naturalized American citizen, Jan used to ride horses for Conrad Homfeld and Joe Fargis. Jourdan earned a score of 67.5 percent, but Jan was cagey when I asked what the future holds for him and his Dutchbred mount.
"There's a lot on my plate; I'm not sure yet. It's the beginning of the season (Gee, I thought, the old National was always the end of the season, but now the season doesn't really end.) So we're just taking it one more show at the time. I have a lot of horses to show in different levels." He, too, might be interested in the Pan Ams "If I can find an appropriate horse."
He made the trip to America several decades ago because, "It always intrigued me to come. I said, 'If I love it, I'll stay; if I don't, I'll just go back.' I loved it, and I'm still here."
In the Intermediaire I, Lars Petersen once again did the honors with Dacardo, taking the Prix St. Georges and I-1. It amazes me how he keeps this horse under control. I swear that after one corner Dacardo was thinking of changing leads, but Lars held him together and went on to the next movement.
The big buzz at the show grounds here isn't about the winners and losers in the arenas; it's about who will win and who will lose in a battle of the business titans over the future of this facility.
It's a long, complicated saga that may spell the end of a grand scheme, announced 11 months ago, for a world-class equestrian complex offering high-end international competition, as well as housing, restaurants and retail shops adjacent to the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club.
But last month, the board of Stadium Jumping Inc. (which puts on the shows here) vowed to find a new place for its competitions if things can't be worked out with Wellington Equestrian Partners, a group that is buying the facility.
The situation is so incredibly complicated that I won't bore you with the details. But the upshot seems to be that if Stadium Jumping goes elsewhere, it will be a short distance from the present grounds where it will have more room to grow its shows.
However, many hope things can be worked out in this location, and there have been all sorts of conferences among the principals to try to reach the meeting of the minds that will enable Stadium Jumping to stay here. Think of the people who have invested millions to live just a short hack from the showgrounds.
Tim Hooker, who lives in the heart of the show complex area, put it this way to me: "This is the place we all want to be and what we all want to be doing is enjoying our horse sports here in the good weather in the winter months."
Tim said he is in on the talks between Stadium Jumping and Wellington Equestrian Partners as a neutral party who is seeking to keep them "from melting down and doing something stupid here."
"I hope the people around the country will realize that it took a long time to get to here and thank God for (Stadium Jumping Chairman) Gene Mische's vision so many years ago to try to cultivate the horse mecca that we are getting closer to all the time.
"There are many growing pains between here and the dream we are all hoping to realize, but now is the time to put forth our best efforts and try to work together to try to achieve the incredible happiness we could all experience with the premier horse show facility in the world.
"If we're ever going to be in the same breath with Aachen and Spruce Meadows, we're going to have to have a facility that is top-notch in the world. We don't have it yet, but we could."