June 1, 2011 -- The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame dinner is an oasis of tranquility in the constant pressure that is the Devon Horse Show.
Despite the demands of the country's most important outdoor hunter competition, exhibitors and their supporters manage to find the time for a trip down memory lane at the Merion Cricket Club.
Held in a building that celebrates tradition, the dinner honors the past and salutes the present with induction and award ceremonies.
The keeper of the flame is Jimmy Lee, a gentlemanly Virginian who presides with a stately flourish. I wondered if he had ever thought, when the Hall was started, that it would become such a "must do" annual fixture for so many folks.
While the Hall inductees arrive knowing they are going to be ushered into the legions of the sport's memorable figures, Rider of the Year, Horse of the Year and Owner of the Year are surprise awards.
But it was no surprise to me that Hunt Tosh won Rider of the Year. The mild-mannered Georgian topped the International Hunter Derby finals last year with Lonestar, the Hall's Regular Working Hunter of the Year, and was burning up the track at Devon this year, too.
Hunt showed up at the dinner with his wife, Mandy and adorable little girl, Madison. For him, the honor was all part of the Devon experience. Riding for Douglas Wheeler, whose father, Kenny, is a Devon legend, also plays into how he feels about the show, where he took the Second Year Green Hunter Championship with Good Humor and the Green Conformation Hunter Championship today on Cold Harbor. (He missed Leading Hunter Rider of the show, however; that went for the ninth consecutive time to Scott Stewart, who took the Grand Hunter Championship with Touchdown.)
I guess Hunt is working on Rider of the Year for the 2012 dinner, but in the meantime, he's loving what happened here.
Lonestar's owner, Betsee Parker, was overwhelmed when she was named Owner of the Year.
"I had no idea," she said, adding, "It's a long way from Wayzata, Minn., to this podium." Concerned that Lonestar might be hurt, since he isn't competing here, I asked Betsee where he is and she said he's resting, gearing up for shows later this year and indoors.
Showman, who took three First Year Green titles at last year's WEF under the guidance of Sandy Ferrell (who has taken up ballroom dancing, I'm told) was Horse of the Year for owners Alexa and Krista and Weisman.
Navy Commander, a star of the '60s and the horse of a lifetime for Betty Oare, was inducted into the Hall. A gift from Ernie Oare, who became her husband, Navy Commander had the bold look so favored by horses of that era, who ran and jumped rather than pacing out measured strides the way they do today, as Jimmy Lee pointed out.
When Ernie rode him in a class and had a fall, Betty raised eyebrows by going after Navy Commander rather than seeing to Ernie first.
Quiet Flite also was inducted, with Gary Baker calling him "the biggest little horse you'd ever find," noting he was barely 15.2 hands. After his distinguished show career under Rodney Jenkins ended, he foxhunted with Piedmont weekly as the master's horse.
Some of the funniest moments at the dinner came, as they have before, courtesy of the lively Leslie Howard. She gave the induction speech for her former employer, U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation President Jane Clark. Leslie offered insight about a woman who most people know only for her generous contributions to the sport and her roles in equestrian governance, which also include the presidency of the old American Horse Shows Association.
"Everyone in the sport has been touched by what Jane has done," said Leslie.
Jane's association with horses started at the age of four when she found a pony under her Christmas tree.
Leslie worked with Jane for several decades, saying she had two jobs in that regard: 1) Ride her horses and 2) Teach and train her.
"One was very easy," said Leslie wryly. For the other, she had to be inventive. When Jane pulled up twice at a schooling jump, Leslie warned her, "If you pull up once more, I'll throw this Coke can at you." Sure enough, a minute later, the can went sailing through the air.
Everyone got another good chuckle from Kenny Wheeler (whose 83d birthday was celebrated with a chorus of you-know-what song)when he said he'd keep the induction speech for Olin Armstrong very brief, since Olin would have a lot to say. Here's Olin's speech: "Thank you."
Betty gave the induction speech for Gary Baker, who I knew as a breeder and trainer, as well as an outspoken equestrian governance gadfly and chairman of Zone 3 for decades.
"He's the man to go to when you have a problem," said Betty.
But I never realized he was a major breeder of Dobermans and Norwich terriers, or that he had been a bank vice president who oversaw a staff of 26 in a mortgage origination department.
Gary got his start riding his father's workhorses and went on to sell horses that became national champions to the late Sallie Sexton, another member of the Hall. That's one of the many things I like about the dinner; all the factoids you pick up!
Michael Morrissey and his sons, Matt and Michael, were on hand for the induction of respectively, their uncle and great uncle, Gene Mische. I always think of Gene as a show manager and jumper trainer, the roles in which I knew him, but the photos we saw showed his involvement with hunters, another side of the Winter Equestrian Festival founder who we lost last December.
The Pennsylvania National was Horse Show of the Year and the International Hunter Derby Finals was the Hunter Derby of the Year.
The dinner is a great time to catch up with people away from the the showgrounds. It's fun to see all the folks you know in cocktail dress rather than riding clothes, while taking the opportunity to meet some new faces during the mix-and-mingle that precedes the dinner. That's where I caught up with steeplechase jockey Chip Miller, who belongs to a legendary family in that sport.
So it was a surprise for everyone watching the hunt teams at the show Saturday night to see Chip competing in an unaccustomed role. When we chatted, I asked him if he is in the midst of a transition.
I'll be sending my next postcard on Friday, giving you the scoop on the Grand Prix of Devon and more details on the hunters.