Oct. 30, 2011 -- Remember when horse shows were fun, and even (gasp!) entertaining? The Washington International Horse Show at the Verizon Center harks back to that era, with great competition accessorized by fun exhibitions and lots of shopping.
A big part of the Washington International Horse Show's charm stems from being in the heart of a major city, a block or two from top restaurants and good hotels, as well as museums and historic attractions within comfortable walking distance for those who have time to spare between classes.
Staging a fixture of the North American fall indoor circuit in the Verizon Center, an arena that houses hockey and basketball teams, is a challenge: For the organizers, the riders and the horses living in stables on the street -- especially when the weather turns as cold as it did yesterday and there's a dusting of snow.
But it definitely is worth it for the amazing atmosphere. You know you're at a show, not just another competition that too closely resembles all the others you've been to this year.
I love the Washington International Horse Show, but this year I loved it more, because I sensed a renewed energy and vigor. And I wasn't alone.
Brianne Goutal, who finished second in the prestigious $100,000 President's Cup Grand Prix (more on that later) felt it too.
"I've been coming here since I was on ponies," said Brianne, who won the show's equitation classic in 2004.
"It's always been one of the peak stops on my year-long circuit. To me, it's really nice to have a big final in a big city. It's a very patriotic event.
"I think they did an amazing job this year running the show. It's sort of had a revamping in the past two years and it's really nice to see a big crowd come and support the show. It's a great show to come to. You have to work a lot around the close quarters; the temperature was a little cold -- actually, it was a lot cold, but everybody works together and I love coming here."
A great deal of the energy can be attributed to its devoted president, Juliet Reid, who puts her heart and soul into it. There were several innovations this year, including live streaming Internet video of the competitions and a private VIP dining area, the Fidelity Investments Club, overlooking the ring.
I slid through the dark blue drapes there and enjoyed the view while talking with Juliet, whose upbeat presence has inspired the show's reinvention. She and I chatted about the 2011 edition.
Now that I've set the stage, you'll understand how important the President's Cup is. It's not the grand prix du jour; this class is one of those iconic athletic events people remember through the years.
Canada's Michel Vaillancourt, the course designer, had quite a challenge.
"It's a very prestigious event, it is a World Cup qualifier, so you have to respect some of the standards," said Michel who just has been named the course designer for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
"We had a very good crowd, so we also need to acknowledge them, and not necessarily do what is right just for us, but we need to provide them with some kind of a spectacle," he said.
This was an unusual year, because a number of riders who normally would compete at Washington were at the Pan American Games in Mexico, so Michel was working with a 24-horse field. With a larger group, he enjoys more chances of people coming through to the jump-off, so he had to walk a delicate line.
"I'd rather build for 50, then I can build a little more strong," he said, but it was plenty difficult. Only four riders qualified for the jump-off; New Yorker Brianne with Nice de Prissey and California's Lucy Davis on Nemo, representing the younger generation, while Margie Engle of Florida aboard Indigo (her Pennsylvania National grand prix winner earlier in the month) and Great Britain's Nick Skelton on Carlo had the advantage of vast experience.
Nick also was on a roll. He won Friday night's popular puissance, where he got a standing ovation after clearing the 7-foot wall on Unique, and also took a prize in a speed class earlier that day on the same versatile mount.
He carried that streak into the President's Cup, yet he felt he was at a disadvantage going last in the tiebreaker -- usually the favored spot in a jump-off.
Lucy had two fences down, while Brianne toppled one pole, and then Margie surprisingly had two down and was slower than Lucy.
It was all Nick's to win, and he had to choose his strategy -- go fast and beat Brianne's time if he had a rail, or go slowly to make sure everything stayed up. He picked the latter, and incurred two time penalties, but that edged Brianne's four.
Nick, an Olympic veteran and World Cup champion who knows whereof he speaks, doesn't like that kind of jump-off.
"When there's no clear and you're last to go, you have to jump clear, that's when you can make a mistake. I'd prefer if they all went clear and it was faster. At least you'd get going there...and attack." In the position in which he found himself, "You've got to be really careful," he pointed out.
Nick's precision with his beautiful gray was awesome, so his gamble paid off. A lesser rider would have been hard-pressed to make it happen. Carlo took a break last year while Nick had a hip replacement and shoulder surgery, but the two seemed very much in tune and a good prospect for next year's London Olympics.
Brianne's performance looked smooth, but there's a story behind it that explains why her runner-up finish was such an achievement.
Nick collected tons of trophies as the leading Open Jumper Rider and International Rider, not to mention a bunch of cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcakes (totally scrumptious)that came with the winners' non-edible trophies.
Georgetown Cupcakes devised two delicious standards made of real pink-frosted cupcakes for the joker jump in the Gambler's Choice costume class. After the class, spectators mobbed the fence and started picking off the cupcakes (ring dust and all) for consumption, then poking their fingers into the giant cupcakes (also real) atop the cupcake towers.
While the costume class is always fun, this year the outfits seemed better. I didn't really "get" Mark Leone as a tube of toothpaste, but Todd Minikus' Uncle Sam seemed destined to win in this capital location, and he did. Nick Skelton as a skeleton (perfect!), petite Margie in an elf outfit (also perfect)and Laura Kraut as a blonde hippie aboard a horse named Woodstock (get it?) also were standouts.
Nick was not the only Brit in the show. Scott Brash, a rising star (he came to the costume class as Harry Potter, complete with glasses and Gryffindor cap) was making his debut at Washington, and I wondered what he thought of it.
Now, about the entertainment. We had one night of the fabulous Guy McLean, the Australian I told you about last month in my Dressage at Devon postcard. He's the guy who can canter in place, get a horse to lie down and have his three others stand over her, while making everyone laugh with his commentary. If you ever have a chance to see him, go.
Chester Weber, the top four-in-hand driver who is Juliet's brother, demonstrated his prowess by weaving a team (he borrowed Josh Rector's horses) around the jumps in the ring. And then there are the terrier races. They're the same every year, over in the wink of an eye, except this time one feisty little fellow refused to leave the ring. It made hilarious footage for the Jumbotron, where we watched his exploits as he avoided determined attempts at capture until someone finally nabbed him.
Something different this year was "A Song for the Horse Nation," an exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian. The museum has a partnership with the show, so when it opened yesterday, shuttles took spectators from the Verizon Center to the museum a few minutes away.
I was lucky enough to get a tour of the exhibit with its curator, Emil Her Many Horses (his grandmother got that name because she had, obviously, many horses.) It is amazing, from stunning beadwork on saddles to incredible silver on bridles, porcupine quills decorating horse masks and other symbols of traditions kept alive despite the? government policy to move Indians away from their deeply ingrained horse culture.
This exhibit will run through Jan. 7, 2013 and keep its link with the 2012 show, so you have lots of time to see it. I asked Emil to synopsize its origin and what it's about.
There is so much more I could say about the Washington show that my postcard would become a book. It was good to see Chase Boggio finally win a finals (I was always sure he would) as he took the equitation classic.
Tori Colvin, just 13, could be another Katie Monahan Prudent or Leslie Burr Howard, according to one of her mentors, Ken Berkley, and from what I've seen, I agree. She won the Best Child Rider on a Horse title, the high junior/amateur owner jumper classic with Rivers Edge's Waminka, along with the Grand Champion Junior Hunter tricolor aboard Karen Long Dwight's Sanzibar. That matched another of her mentor's performances. Scott Stewart took the Grand Champion Hunter honors on Alexandra Crown's Garfield (who in the future will be concentrating on the junior hunters) and was Leading Hunter Rider. Go to wihs.org for more results. And check in to Equisearch again this week for my photo gallery.
I'm rushing now because I'm headed for Kentucky and the National Horse Show's debut in the Alltech Arena there. I'll be sending you another postcard next Sunday featuring the Maclay finals (that's going to be hotly contested; I can easily think of 10 potential winners) and the $250,000 grand prix.