June 3, 2016--The fans jammed in every corner of the Devon Horse Show grounds welcomed McLain Ward with a roar last night, as he rode into the ring on Rothchild for the first round of the $225,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon.
Many had been waiting patiently all day and into the night to make sure they had a ringside seat for the highlight of the 11-day show. Even those who don't follow the sport regularly--but would never miss a Devon--recognized the eight-time winner of the class. After all, the grand prix was re-named in 2015 after his most famous horse, Sapphire, who took the trophy twice.
But the enthusiastic audience of 9,000 that greeted McLain also cost him the class. Blazing around as the last competitor in a three-horse jump-off, he was up by approximately three seconds on the mark of 38.430 seconds set by the lead-off entry, 2011 winner Kevin Babington and Mark Q. The other rider in the tiebreaker, Danielle Torano on Callas III, also was fault-free but slower than Kevin in 39.490.
The odds were totally in favor of McLain, fresh off his triumph as leading rider at last weekend's Rome show and on an eight-class winning streak. He slowed before the next-to-last fence to collect his mount, who isn't the best on right-hand turns, then cleared the vertical of black-and-white rails. But as he headed to the oxer standing between him and victory, the spectators erupted into a joyous roar that distracted Rothchild. Unbelievably, with victory just a few strides away, the horse known around the barn as Bongo ran out to the left. Game over. McLain circled slowly and took the the oxer to finish third.
The chestnut gelding, whose name went on the trophy in 2013, “kind of lost his focus and his way,” said McLain.
“That’s sport. I wouldn’t trade the atmosphere for anything here. I needed to be a little more aware of it. I should have compensated a little more. That’s what makes it exciting. If we know the outcome, it’s boring.”
He didn't hold his loss against the fans.
“I think it’s one of the best crowds in the world, not just in North America. That includes Spruce Meadows and Aachen. The atmosphere here is incredible,” McLain said graciously.
Kevin agrees. The Irish rider, based about 30 minutes from Devon, had his own set of dedicated cheerleaders, and other fans switched their loyalty to enthusiastically applaud the winner.
“All the students are here tonight, people I helped 20 years ago are here tonight, so it’s definitely very special,” said Kevin, whose wife, Diana, and aspiring equestrian daughters, Gwyneth, 13, and Marielle, 10, joined him in the trophy presentation ceremony.
“Where else can you have such a crowd behind you than Devon? And I tell all the other riders around, if you haven’t been to Devon, it’s a show you have to come to.”
Kevin and I talked about Mark Q, who's quite a character. Click on the video below to gain an insight into the horse and their relationship.
Danielle was beaming after her placing in the class. I remembered in 2006 when she was all set to ride Capitano in the grand prix, but suddenly felt a pain. Knowing she was pregnant and not wanting to take a chance, she decided not to compete at virtually the last minute. Her husband, fellow competitor Jimmy Torano, recruited McLain for the catch ride, and he wound up with a victory.
Danielle, now a mother of two who has been competing in amateur classes, was thrilled to finally have her shot at the grand prix in the Dixon Oval.
“I haven’t shown in the opens at Devon in a little bit, so it was nice to be back in the big ring. I am super excited about my horse. She’s only nine, so we just started doing the big classes in Florida,” Danielle commented.
“She’s a chestnut mare, so that should tell you a little bit. She was pretty up in the schooling area before the first round, which rattled me for a minute. I decided there was nothing I could do, so I just went with it.” Callas actually was unperturbed by all the people, even though “she’s never seen anything like that. As I went to the first jump, she felt super-focused, and she was amazing in the first round.”
Devon show jumping had a new face as course designer, Kelvin Bywater, whose efforts were universally praised by the riders, made his debut at the fixture. He hit all the right notes. Kelvin came from England, where he has laid out the routes at many major shows. We had a chat about his background, and what he thinks of Devon. Click on the video below to find out more about him
Devon made a huge effort to upgrade its open jumper offerings, more than doubling last year's $100,000 prize money, and making the section an FEI-recognized 4-star. Devon not only has great footing, but as we pointed out previously, incredible atmosphere, as well as offering the honor of being a part of history.
So it was frustrating for those behind the show to get few in the way of big names. Only 22 riders came out for the grand prix (though there were more in other classes). A number of regulars, including Margie Engle, Callan Solem and Todd Minikus are in Europe seeking spots on the Olympic team, and there is competition from a number of other shows, including the new series in Tryon, N.C., where a 3-star got under way yesterday.
David Distler, who co-manages Devon with Peter Doubleday, talked with me about the situation. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he had to say.
Listen: David Distler
For his part, Peter noted, “We basically tried to do everything that the riders had requested. McLain was very instrumental in trying to doing this. We want to continue our FEI affiliation and make it even bigger and better. I would love to see it supported just a little bit more. We have a great product here. We’re heading in the right direction, we did the right thing, would have loved to have some more riders.”
The hunters also have a big stage at Devon, especially in the $25,000 USHJA derby, where the spectators who came early to reserve a spot along the rail for the grand prix were happy to have something to watch during the afternoon. Their presence added to the energy.
Even though the horses are allowed to be hand-walked so they can look at the fences during “familiarization” proceedings before the class, the atmosphere in and around the Dixon Oval still adds an element of tension.
Entries were down to 24 from 43 last year, but part of that was due to unusual circumstances. Derby specialist Jen Alfano, second in the 2015 derby with Miss Lucy, was jumped out of the tack by the mare on Tuesday. The resulting fall left her on crutches with a broken tibia and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.
Indomitable nevertheless, as she rode in the golf cart on the way to the ambulance that took her to the hospital, she assigned her horses for the hunter divisions to Liza Boyd and Hunt Tosh. However, only Maggie May, under Liza's guidance, participated in the derby.
Then Kelley Farmer, another derby star, had to leave because her mother, Bibby Hill, was having emergency surgery. That dropped three horses from the line-up.
Still, the class was highly competitive and full of surprises. The first round was a classic hunter set-up, laid out artfully by Alan Lohman, with four fences offering an option between the high and low sides. Twelve came back for the handy round, where the judges could award up to 10 extra points for handiness with an emphasis on impressive turns and brilliance.
Louise Serio, standing second on El Primero going into that round, came a cropper at the second obstacle. It was a log designed as a trot fence, and El Primero wasn't the first horse that considered it spooky, running out and ruining his chances. It just didn't happen to be Louise's day. She was in the midst of a lovely performance in the first round with Rock Harbor when he knocked over one of the straw bales that made up a tricky vertical.
The leader after derby round one with a score of 191, Nick Haness on Countdown, was worried about the trot fence. A trot fence had messed him up in the First Year Green division's handy class, though the Californian luckily recouped to take the championship with Technicolor.
The trot fence turned out to be no problem and he was on his way to victory when Countdown pulled down the last fence. To learn more about Nick, take a look at the article about him in the June issue of Practical Horseman.
Liza Towell Boyd, a three-time winner of the USHJA derby finals with Brunello (who will not be contesting the event this year, she said; why push it?) was able to move up from fourth place after the first round to win the Derby on Like I Said. Her first round score was 178.5, but the mare improved in the second round.
“For me, I always like to be the underdog,” said Liza.
“I don’t mind going back a little low, because you just go for it and make the shot. The mare was a little green in the first round, she acted like a First Year horse. She shied away from the edges of the ring. That time I went I just went in, not nervous and just went for it and she just jumped higher and higher.
Hear what else Liza had to say about the class (and that trot jump) by clicking on this video, where you'll also see her 6-year-old daughter, Ellen.
The derby was presented in honor of the late Sallie Wheeler and her husband, Kenny, who celebrated his 88th birthday at the show. It was held in memory of Russell Frey, the winner of the USHJA Hunter Derby at the Winter Equestrian Festival this year, who died suddenly last week. To see an interview with him after that WEF derby, go toPractical Horseman's Facebook
In the open hunter divisions, Scott Stewart won the Leading Rider title for the 12th time--or maybe it was the 13th. He tried to figure out the number by looking at the names engraved on the vast silver tray that goes with the honor, but it appeared there may have been some mistakes in what was etched on the trophy.
Betsee Parker owned the Grand Champion, A Million Reasons, tops in the High Performance section with Scott, and also was on hand for the presentation ceremony of her Cold Harbor's third victory in the Regular Conformation section with Hunt Tosh aboard. This will be Cold Harbor's last Devon appearance in the division. Betsee is planning to have him compete in the junior hunters with Hunt's daughter, Maddie, now 9, when the child has a few more years of experience.
Hunt also was the rider on the Green Conformation Grand Champion, Patriot, owned by the Wheeler family.
The Second-Year Green Hunter title went to Truman, owned by Debbie Bass and ridden by Christopher Payne, who made a comeback from cancer to continue his riding career.
There's something for everyone at Devon, from non-stop multi-breed action (how many shows offer saddlebreds, roadsters, coaching classes and side-saddle along with hunter and jumper competition?), the country fair and a midway complete with ferris wheel.
In keeping with the thread of tradition that connects the shows from years past with the present, the “Good Ol' Days Reunion” drew Devon denizens of several generations to the showgrounds. They gathered in the grooms' kitchen near the back entrance; one person recalled that was where the old outside course was located.
Betsy Gerson Densen, a top rider in the mid-1960s, guessed she hadn't been to Devon in 50 years or so before coming to the gathering. A grandmother now, she has kept in touch with horses by volunteering to help with therapeutic riding. But in her heyday, with mounts such as Red Shoes and Tea Time, she was a show jumping sensation.
“There's a different feeling with the horses and riders today than back in the days when we owned our own and took care of our own and showed our own,” said Betsy. “It's a different world.”
The Devon aura remains the same, however, whether it's the Devon Blue color scheme, the famous Devon fudge or people who understand the importance of getting dressed up for the occasion.
Brittany and Jeffrey Parris of nearby Wayne, Pa., were the picture of tasteful elegance; he in his regimental striped tie and bowler hat, she in a feather-decked fuchsia straw hat and stunning embroidered dress.
Brittany said her husband has been visiting Devon since he was a child, and the couple has made it their own practice to come every year.
“It's just something we share. We love the horses, we love the competition and we just love spectating. This show can't be beat,” commented Brittany, who said she and her husband would love to compete in carriage driving at the show some day.
Ladies' Day may seem like an old-fashioned concept in this era, but it's wildly popular on Wednesday at Devon. The focal point is the hat contest, with several categories, and TV star Carson Kressley (who's also a saddlebred enthusiast and finished third in the amateur park horse class yesterday) charming everyone while serving as the emcee.
The Best of Devon award went to “Depicting Devon Horse Show,” a costume designed by Leslie Brown of Villanova, Pa. It featured a silver-handled whip from England, carried under her arm; a yellow hunting vest and a duster coat in a hunting print. But the topper was really a top hat, featuring three toy bears in hunting garb (sort of), secured with a belt made of little snaffle bits.
“I had a thought with my top hat and ran with it,” Leslie explained about her inspiration.
Mark Devon on your calendar for next year if you haven't had a chance to experience it. In a time of uncertainty, there's comfort in knowing there will always be a Devon (judging by its track record, anyway.)
I'm taking a break from coverage for awhile, but will have several stories on line the week of June 18. Be sure to look for them.