May 29, 2015--The threads of past Devon Horse Shows seemed ready to be woven together last night in the $100,000 Sapphire Grand Prix, but instead, they unraveled dramatically in a completely unexpected ending.
The class, playing before an elbow-to-elbow capacity crowd, was named for the first time in recognition of McLain Ward's late, great mare, twice a winner of the competition before she retired at Devon in 2012. Later on that emotional evening, McLain won the grand prix under major pressure with Antares F, thus proving he was ready to be on the U.S. squad for the London Olympics after injury had sidelined him for more than four months.
McLain was back at one of his favorite venues yesterday to try for his ninth win in the competition with both HH Ashley and Rothchild, who was victorious in 2013. Luck didn't go his way this time, however, and he wound up near the bottom of the heap.
Ashley ran into trouble at the double combination, while Rothchild shocked fans by running out at the middle element of the triple combination along the rail, where a wall of people jammed between there and the grandstand, which also was packed.
Meanwhile, Antares made an appearance with his current rider, Beat Mandli of Switzerland, but he finished out of the ribbons as well after dropping a pair of rails.
So two of the most accomplished riders in the class, both Olympic medalists, surprisingly did not write another chapter of their long and illustrious stories.
It was the next generation who showed the way this time. Kelli Cruciotti, 17, won her first open grand prix (and only the second in which she had ever competed) with a speedy Swedish mare, Chamonix H, while her close friend, Michael Hughes, 18, finished second in the seven-horse jump-off on his longtime Dutchbred partner, MacArthur.
"The youngsters kicked butt tonight," declared course designer Michel Vaillancourt of Canada, faced with the "mixed-bag" task of building a route that could challenge the most experienced riders in the 28-horse field, while not overfacing those with less mileage dealing with the challenge of riding under the lights before the vocal fans.
Kellli, who got a diploma from her on-line high school just last week (skipping the Skype graduation ceremonies) got good advice for the tie-breaker from trainer Peter Wylde, an Olympic team gold medalist and individual world championships bronze medalist. But she didn't take it.
"He said `go medium and nice,'" Kelli recalled.
"Luckily, everything just kind of showed up off the turn. She really came through for me. I came out (of the ring) and he (Peter) said, `That's nice-medium?'" Her time of 38.678 posed a challenge for Michael, but he fell just short of Kelli's mark in 39.498 seconds. Another youngster (this one of the equine variety) 8-year-old Cooper, finished third with 33-year-old Devin Ryan up. Devin's time was 40.58 seconds, but he didn't want to push his mount and was happy with his placing. Unlike the first two finishers, who had advice from the Olympians (Michael got some help from McLain) Devin was working on his own.
Chamonix was campaigned in Europe by Swedish rider Helena Persson and then Belgium's Olivier Philippaerts, helping her handle the excitement of the Dixon Oval.
"She's used to it; I'm not so used to it, so it's a nice combination," said Kelli.
"She trusts me and I trust her, so that helps a lot."
Poised and polished, the Colorado resident is as impressive off her horse as she is in the saddle, which I discovered when we talked about Chamonix and her Devon experience.
Click on the right-facing arrow below to listen to Kelli Cruciotti:
I asked Michel (who coincidentally designed the 2012 grand prix course here) what made the triple combination so difficult. I thought that perhaps having the crowd so close might have caused McLain's refusal at the middle element, a vertical, which also derailed ISHD Dual Star, the mount of Laura Chapot, who has been Devon's Leading Jumper Rider for three of the last five years. Other horses dropped poles in the triple, but Michel gave a different explanation for the problem.
He cited the solid base, painted like a little stone wall, for the B-element, a contrast to the lighter yellow, white and pale blue striped rails.
The base "will draw the focus of the horse a little bit low," he said, adding, however, "I did not expect horses like McLain's horse to stop. That was a very unusual scenario that occurred for him. The light-colored rails made the wall look quite dark...it was an optical illusion kind of thing. It kind of did its job in that sense. I thought the rest of the course was just about right."
Devon, Michel emphasized, is unique
He pointed out, "This is the one horse show, in my opinion, that produces this kind of atmosphere. This is, to me, one of the greatest horse shows in the U.S. There is no other show like this. I hope that exhibitors keep supporting it."
It's nice to see fresh faces at the top of the standings here, where the same names tend to be inscribed on the silver trophies in the jumper division over the years.
I spoke with Kelli's mother, Cindy Cruciotti, about her reaction to her daughter's amazing achievement.
Click on the right-facing arrow below to listen to Cindy Cruciotti:
The grand prix is always the show's high point, but was preceded during the afternoon by another major competition, the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby.
This year's edition drew 43 horses for the opening classic round, featuring four fences along the course that offered an option of taking the high side or the low side, with extra points awarded for those who attempted the taller obstacles.
Twelve came back for the more exciting handy segment, where jumping the high side and being daring with tight turns was the way to earn extra points. The best example of the latter was Liza Boyd, a pro at derbies, who moved up from 11th in the first round to third with her handy performance on Sterling. It included a rollback turn to an oxer that even she considered impossible. But she pulled it off and got "9s" for her handiness. She was the only one who tried the cut, and the only one who received the double 9s from the judges.
But leader Maggie Jayne played it just right with The Answer, omitting one of four high options that wouldn't have worked out for her, finishing on a score of 380, just four points ahead of runner-up Jen Alfano with Miss Lucy, who had the highest score in the handy round but couldn't catch up to Maggie. Liza was much further back with 360.
Maggie "inherited" the ride on The Answer (otherwise known as Louie) from her sister, Haylie, who is pregnant and watched the class via streaming video, texting her excitement to Maggie.
The Derby is a test of fitness for horses who just finished two days of intense competition in their divisions, but the class also includes entries who didn't show earlier in the week.
Leading hunter rider Scott Stewart, who took that title for the fourth time in six years, was not part of the derby scene. He explained it takes a particular horse to pull off a derby, and he doesn't have one at the moment.
Kelley Farmer, who won the Grand Champion Hunter title with Mindful, wasn't able to find a way for him to successfully defend his 2014 Derby crown. The black gelding did not make the second round, looking as if his efforts over the previous two days in taking the High Performance Hunter Championship that earned him the Grand honors may have taken his edge.
Jersey Boy, a longtime derby star, just barely made the cut into the second round for Jen. He perked up in the handy to finish fourth. When I asked Jen what happened in the classic round with her often quirky mount, she noted, "he was better in the second round, but he was a bit of a handful today. If I knew how to control him, I'd..." and here she just began chuckling.
The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame's induction dinner is staged during the Devon show's run, though it is held about a half-hour away at the Merion Cricket Club. It's an old-school place, sedate and wood paneled, with a stairway decorated by oil portraits of previous presidents..
What better setting than an enclave that's a slice of the past could be found for a Hall of Fame? A slideshow during dinner highlighted the memorable figures (human and equine) of the sport, from the relatively recent years -- such as Rodney Jenkins, Carol Hofmann Thompson and Rox Dene --to the long-distant past, Hope Montgomery Scott, Gordon Wright and Bonne Nuit among them.
In addition to inducting people into the hall of fame, annual awards also are given. That includes everything from Show of the Year (The National) to Rider of the Year (Hunt Tosh).
The inductions are the core of the evening and always sentimental; tears often are shed. Elizabeth Johnson of the Traders' Point show in Indiana was welcomed into the hall, along with New York state trainer Jack Frohm, Californian Susie Hutchison (best known to most of us as a jumper rider), Ralph Caristo of New York and posthumously, former National Horse Show co-manager Leo Conroy of Florida.
Leo, you may remember, had a stroke last year while on Long Island to judge at the Hampton Classic, and died in January. His good friend, Ralph, best known to many as the perennial successful Zone 2 coach for the North American Junior and Young Riders Championship, paid tribute to his friend in a moving acceptance speech.
I caught up with Ralph between judging assignments at Devon the next day and asked him his thoughts about being inducted. You know just where you stand with Ralph, who puts his heart into everything he does.
Watch this video to see what he said about his induction.
Hall of Fame President Jimmy Lee, a prominent judge who made his reputation as a trainer in the hunter ranks, always ends the evening by telling those in attendance to go out and make more history. And they do.
While tradition is Devon's strong suit, the show has been under new leadership since December, when a major change took place after there were rumors that the showgrounds might be sold. It was all too easy to believe, because the facility is in a busy commercial area where land is much in demand.
But president Rich O'Donnell, who has been working nearly non-stop on the show for more than four months with a new administrative staff, told me emphatically that such talk was without any basis at all.
Click on the right-facing arrow below to listen to Rich O'Donnell:
He and board chairman Wayne Grafton talked about plans for improvement of the property along Philadelphia's Main Line, noting facilities need an upgrade and it's time to act on deferred maintenance items. Permanent box seats will be built in the East IV grandstand, which now is under a tent, and a VIP reception area already has been transformed into a permanent building since last year. It's all part of a five-year, $5.5 million facelift.
Another aim is to increase prize money. Prestige isn't enough to draw the top jumper riders these days, not with HITS Saugerties running against Devon in New York and the new Tryon series in North Carolina at the same time, so it's a wise move to make sure the quality of exhibitors remains high.
While "a Devon blue (ribbon) is worth its weight in gold, Devon has to make itself competitive," Wayne commented.
He also warned that a new group which has no connection with Devon is seeking funds for its "preservation," but he stated that contributions should only be made to the Devon Horse Show & Country Fair or its foundation, if people want to make sure they are giving for the purpose they intend.
It's nice to know there will always be a Devon. The world seems to be constantly changing, and the equestrian part of it is evolving just as rapidly. But there is some refuge in coming back every year to the buildings and grandstand painted Devon blue, where families break out their high-end picnics, just as their parents -- and in many cases, their grandparents -- did over the decades.
Next year is Devon's 120th, and it's comforting to think that when we return, the midway, the country fair, the lemon sticks and fudge all will be here, a backdrop for the beautiful horses that are the centerpiece of the multi-breed show. Whether you're a fan of the hunters, jumpers, saddlebreds, coach horses, ponies or Friesians, Devon offers a rare opportunity for eclectic equine appreciation in this era of specialization. All the little touches add up to a one-of-a-kind experience.
Wednesday, for instance, is always Ladies' Day at Devon, focusing on the hat contest that gives women a chance to show off their imagination and artistry if they make the headpieces themselves (though you also can't underestimate the joy of buying a fancy hat readymade).
It's fun to see them parading around the grounds. Categories for the contest have been expanded from just hats to, among others, hat and purse and "head to toe." I met one of the contestants in the latter group, and was incredibly impressed by her outfit (though sadly, she didn't win). But you can enjoy how she looked by clicking on this video.
For lots more photos from Devon, be sure to check out www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman and keep scrolling down.
My postcard-writing hand is taking a break until July's Pan American Games in Canada. Our eventing and dressage teams will by vying to qualify for a spot in the 2016 Olympics (the jumpers qualified at last year's World Equestrian Games), so I'll be keeping you up to date on how the race for Rio is going.