Sept. 4, 2011 -- Everything was as usual at the Hampton Classic over the last five days: The VIP tent was full to bursting with the fancy dress see-and-be-seen party crowd, and the gorgeous grand prix field continued to be one of the best show jumping arenas anywhere, while former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived to delight photographers as always. And, oh yes, McLain Ward won the $250,000 FTI grand prix for the third consecutive year and a record sixth time since 1998. But more about that later.
Looking around today, who would have thought that a week ago, the Classic was hovering on the brink of disaster, its first three days cancelled because of Hurricane turned Tropical Storm Irene?
Basking in today"s perfect weather, one of the show officials chuckled, "Irene who?" But the wild weather was no laughing matter when it began wreaking havoc on the East Coast, only days before the show was set to begin last Sunday.
Faced with the prospect of disaster, the show"s executive director, Shanette Barth Cohen and her crew, had no choice but to take down all the tents and anything that could be blown away, which was nearly everything.
"We built a city, and we tore it down," as the show"s president, Dennis Suskind, put it.
In a remarkable display of determination, all hands were on deck once the storm passed (it was mostly wind, not so much rain out here) to make the tent city rise again so the show could go on.
I talked with Shanette (who never seems ruffled) about how the show was able recoup so fast.
By Monday night, the first horses were able to move in, and somehow the show managed to include nearly everything in its eight-day schedule into five days.
McLain gave a big thank you to everyone involved in recouping his favorite show. And then he did better than that. He opened the big bottle of Roederer Cristal champagne that was one of his many prizes and insisted everyone involved have a glass of the fizzy stuff as it foamed out after a joyous "pop."
McLain also deserves a toast for his incredible record. He was aboard Antares F, his current number one mount, since Sapphire -- who took the 2009 and 2010 renewals of the FTI -- stopped competing several months ago after a slight injury and is being saved for next year"s march to the London Olympics.
Antares was a dramatic winner; the stunning gray (who also won Friday"s grand prix qualifier) is a treat to watch at speed, and he poured it on in the seven-horse jump-off over Guilherme Jorge"s well-built course, complete with the hedges that are a traditional Classic feature.
Kent Farrington set the pace with his American Invitational and Hickstead grand prix winner Uceko, a dark dappled gray who came through the finish line in 32.96 seconds.
It was a mark that looked impossible to beat -- unless you were McLain Ward.
"Kent has always been a thorn in my side in the best way. He has made me a far better rider and made me be a lot sharper," said McLain with a generous smile.
"I thought it was going to be tough to catch Kent. I went in trying, I never give in."
He knew Kent had done eight strides to the third jump, after the solid ASPCA wall obstacle. McLain thought maybe he could catch him there, but he didn"t like the way he and Antares handled the wall.
In that instant, however, he said, "Oh well, I"ll have to commit. I wasn"t really riding for second." Putting in what he said was "basically the same round," that resulted in a clocking of 32.78 seconds, McLain commented, "I got him by a hair."
After the show, McLain and I chatted about Antares and another topic.
The jump-off was really a two-horse contest for first place. The only other clear belonged to the first Russian rider to compete at the Classic, Ljubov Kochetova. I"ve seen her a lot in Wellington, and she knows how to put in a trip free of jumping faults, though I wouldn"t classify her as a speedster.
This time, she was riding a 7-year-old Oldenburg, Royce, the youngest horse in the class, and came home with a time of 40.11 to take the yellow third-place ribbon, which she proudly pinned on her jacket.
I asked Ljubov if she were just going for a clear round, basically conceding the higher placings to McLain and Kent. I don"t know much Russian, but I understood perfectly when she answered my question with "Nyet."
That means no.
Her interpreter elaborated on the rest of her answer (which was far beyond my knowledge of the language.)
"She is a competitor who always tries to win and she tries to go so fast as possible...as the horse allows her to do (depending on) how far they are in the training," he said.
Like McLain and Kent, she is looking toward the Olympics, but the Russian team is not qualified, so she will try to make it as an individual, a proposition helped by her Classic finish.
The $1 million Pfizer Grand Prix at HITS in Saugerties next Sunday (which McLain and Antares will try to add to their winning streak) was a blessing for the Hampton Classic. It brought in a group of California riders, some coming from Europe, so it was a nice stop before going on to HITS.
Shanette told me she wrote HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri a thank you note for his scheduling, since she knew it would help out her show.
Oh, I forgot to mention -- Shanette, who is seven years older than McLain (he"s 35) used to babysit for him when she was a kid taking lessons with his parents. She called him a "handful" but they obviously had a good relationship because they are still friends. Seems as if there"s less than six degrees of separation among everyone in the horse world.
Although McLain dominated the professional show jumping ranks (he won four classes and took the grand prix championship) there was plenty of action among the amateurs too.
This morning was highlighted by the $25,000 Carolex Derby for juniors and amateurs, and it was every bit as hard-fought as the grand prix. Philip Richter, president of pokies online a financial management firm, has two terrific veterans in Norman Dello Joio"s former ride, the 20-year-old Glasgow, and the eager Ray Ray.
Philip qualified both horses for the jump-off, where Glasgow pulled a rail. He loosened up with Ray Ray, who sped around in 37.346 seconds for a fault-free effort.
"Was I fast enough," Philip asked Nick Dello Joio, Norman"s son, as he left the ring. That was a big question, because as Nick told me, the two last horses to go were naturally faster than Ray Ray. But this time, Jay Land"s Nepal was slower. Christina Kelly"s Creata Van Ten Biesen, the final entry, had Ray Ray beaten on the clock when she launched for the final fence, but a rail down there left Philip the winner.
It"s so nice to see someone as thrilled as he was at taking top honors, and the 1.40 meter amateur-owner championship as well (he previously earned the 1.30 meter amateur title on Firefly).
Congratulatory kisses were in order from his mother, author and trainer Judy Richter, who was providing moral support and grooming duties with her sister, Carol Hofmann Thompson. Philip"s fiancee, Sarah Willeman, gave him a delighted high five.
(I asked Judy when the wedding would be, and she said June, but warned Philip, "Don"t do it during Devon or Lake Placid, because nobody will come and I won"t be there either." The horse stuff always come first, doesn"t it?)
I went to visit Glasgow in his stall and talked to Philip about the biggest win of his career and what it"s like to be an amateur who has a very busy professional life.
One thing at the Classic was not business as usual. It held a USEF International Hunter Derby for the first time, and with $50,000 in prize money, there was an impressive course and 27 starters.
Amazingly, the winner among a sea of professionals was a 13-year-old, Victoria Colvin, who trains with Scott Stewart (and beat him) on Inclusive, a stylish bay with lots of chrome who leaves plenty of air between himself and the fences.
Oh wait, I take back the word "amazingly." It was just last month that 14-year-old Lillie Keenan won the $100,000 USHJA Hunter Derby Finals on C Coast Z. Lillie"s luck ran out here, however, as the attractive gray crashed through the second fence. He continued on course, but not surprisingly, finished last.
Tory, who came to Scott when she was nine to take lessons, now finds herself riding some of the country"s finest horses, Inclusive among them, from the Rivers Edge stable he owns with Ken Berkley.
Brigid Colvin, Tory"s mother, said her daughter was a natural from her short stirrup days. So what will she do for an encore after winning her first hunter derby?
"She wants to win the Medal, she wants to win the Maclay, then she wants to keep on winning in the jumpers," said her mother, who accompanies her to all the shows. Her father, Jim, is a farrier, so it"s a combination of a family and team effort that has assisted in Tory"s rise to the top.
I could go on and on about the Hampton Classic (and I see I have) but you should come out and experience for yourself what many people (including Guilherme) call one of the 10 best shows in the world. You can"t beat the location (or the traffic, either, depending on when you hit the Long Island Expressway or the Sunrise Highway. Not too many alternate routes...)
Next week I"ll be at the national dressage championships in Gladstone, N.J., which are also the Pan American Games selection trials, and the HITS $1 million and $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix. My clone and I will be busy!