September 19, 2014 --A dream came true with a storybook ending last night, as the Central Park Horse Show made its dramatic debut in a quintessential Manhattan venue.
Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, won the $210,000 Central Park Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, a class she had yearned to see happen -- but never believed would take place.
The rider had been approached in the past about a show in the park, and gave Mark Bellissimo the same answer she offered to others who broached the idea to her: "I said, `It can't be done. Every year, somebody calls me and good luck, I'd love to be supportive and I'll be there, but I'm not really sure it can happen.' But one lesson I always learned from my father was, the more somebody says you can't do something, the harder you have to try to get it done and the sweeter it's gong to taste when you actually do it. My hat's off to Mark, he's done amazing things for equestrian sport."
Mark, the Winter Equestrian Festival impresario who is the living definition of "can-do," was determined. With the help of another can-do guy, Donald Trump, the irregularly shaped ice skating rink (the outline is sort of like an egg) that bears the entrepreneur's name was transformed into a world-class venue fit for the fairytale it became, against the backdrop of a much-photographed portion of the city's skyline. Lights sparkled in the VIP tent that overlooked the arena (there even was a VVIP area atop one side of the arena, surrounded by trees and greenery and lit by giant round globes.)
A capacity audience of 1,800, most of whom paid $250 for their tickets, sat around a transformed Trump Rink (some know it best as the Wollman Rink) for the return of high-level equestrian sport to the city. The free seats involved climbing on the giant rocks off to one side of the rink, from which people could see only a small portion of the ring, but still enjoyed the thrill of being there, or being close, anyway.
Mark was beaming when I caught up with him to discuss the dream becoming reality. Listen to what he had to say.
The class, presented by Rolex, drew 23 riders, including Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games bronze medal teammates McLain Ward (HH Ashley) and Kent Farrington (Willow).
Georgina, however, was the one who put it all together in an unusual format with the Austrian mare Juvina, a gallant gray she calls the best horse she has ever owned.
The competition was shown on live TV via NBC Sports, so it had to be timed to the instant. Course designer Steve Stephens, who came up with fences geared to the location that ranged from Wall Street (with a bull) and the Empire State Building, delivered a challenge involving a tight time allowed of 68 seconds. Careful and slow would get you time faults; rush, and a rail likely would topple.
"We told him to make it tough. He went a little bit overboard," Mark said with a smile.
Only one rider, Charlie Jayne on Valeska, was clear in the first round, but the top six riders were brought back to insure a jump-off that would end within the time allotted for the program. Georgina's fault-free round gave her a total of 4 faults for two trips after she dropped a rail in the first go-round. Charlie evened the score by tipping a rail at the final fence in the second round.
But the winning edge between these 4-faulters was Georgina's time of 38.28 seconds, good enough for $69,300 in prize money and a Rolex watch. Charlie didn't do badly in the money department; his clocking of 38.81 seconds brought him $42,000, surely enough to cover expenses, even in one of the world's most expensive cities.
Paige Johnson had 5 faults in the first round, where the time and a rail both caught her, but was clean on Dakota on her second trip for third place, worth $31,509. Interestingly, the first four placings belonged to mares (Todd Minikus was fourth on Quality Girl) and those who rode them note that there's nothing like a good mare because she will fight for her rider.
Georgina noted how unhappy she was after the Hampton Classic last month, when she felt she and Juvina were not at their best. On the ride home, she told her 8 and 1/2-month-old son, Jasper, that she would make up for it by winning in Central Park. It was a perfect scenario.
There has been so much discussion over the years about bringing a horse show back to New York City after the National took its last bow in Madison Square Garden in 2001. A short-lived Metropolitan Horse Show on a pier was less than satisfactory, and few believed the sport would be held in the city again. Logistics, permits and expense all mandated against it, along with a crowded horse show calendar.
But destiny intervened. This show began more than 1,000 miles away, after a discussion between Mark and Donald at the latter's exclusive Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach. That facility has been the home of a very successful grand prix for the last two years, but Mark was eager (as he always is) to up the ante.
"It was not an easy situation. We never thought this was going to happen.," Donald conceded.
With the partnership of two dynamos, however, there was no choice but to make it happen.
"The rink is spectacular, the location is second to none and I would imagine with Mark and his great team, this would be a very special event over a period of years," Donald said.
Actually, the competition originally was planned for last year, but as the course designer explained, there just wasn't enough time to get together. Here's what Steve had to say.
As amazing as the show is, there's no denying that it took the ultimate effort to put it on. Riders sacrificed a bit of convenience; stabling and warm-up were at a baseball field five minutes away, so they were allowed to take a warm-up fence in the ring before starting on course.
But the real behind-the-scenes story is one of unceasing work.
I caught up with Michael Stone, Mark's right-hand man, to get the details. Here's what he told me.
You would never know what it took from a vantagepoint in the VIP tent, which seated 350 people and had the air of a permanent fixture. It's a lovely setting, complete with an area for taking photos of the well-known folks who turned out for the show and the champagne.
I chatted with Colette Bennett, national sports marketing manager of Rolex Watch USA, on her feelings about the event.
After the main attraction, a class for riders under 25 was won by Lucy Deslauriers, who seems to be following the lead of her parents, Mario and Lisa (Tarnopol), both of whom have made a name for themselves in grands prix.
The show, which has made a commitment for donations to a number of charities, continues this evening with a New York City vs The World theme for a team jumper competition. Tomorrow evening, a fabulous dressage freestyle is planned, with Isabell Werth of Germany's WEG gold medal team as a big draw, along with Steffen Peters doing a demonstration on Ravel, as the horse comes out of retirement for a few brief exciting moments.
Tickets are still available at www.centralparkhorseshow.com for tonight and tomorrow, as well as for polo ($75) on Sunday afternoon. There also will be "matinees" tomorrow and Sunday at 9 a.m. and noon, with tickets going for $30 to cover a non-competition program that includes fabulous Australian horseman Guy McLean.
If you can't make it, no worries (as Guy would say). My next postcard will be up at www.equisearch.com and www.dressagetoday.com on Sunday morning. In the meantime, go to www.facebook.com/equisearch and www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman to see more photos.