Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 2004 -- There were several times at the
Washington International when I thought I was at the National Finals Rodeo
rather than a horse show. No, I'm not so far around the bend (yet!) that
I'm confusing junior hunters with saddle broncs.
But in terms of crowd enthusiasm, non-stop action and showmanship,
Washington reminded me of the NFR, one of my favorite events. Oh sure, the
weekday morning and afternoon hunter stuff is the same as at most other
shows, played for the in-crowd with few spectators in the stands. But
on the weekend nights that I attended, the International came alive at
the MCI Center.
There's more entertainment than equestrian competition on the schedule
during the evenings, but at least the show gets people in the door and
gives them exposure to the jumpers and a few other disciplines.
night's puissance (the only class of this nature left at a big show in
the U.S., to my knowledge) provided its usual thrills, even though
repeat winner Mark Leone on Diamond Safari didn't set a record after
clearing the daunting 6-feet, 8-inch faux brick wall. The wall didn't have to
go any higher because no one else could keep up with Mark's horse.
And last night's President's Cup, won in definitive style by McLain
Ward on Goldika, is one of the country's top grand prix. The crowd got
into the spirit of things with terrier racing, equine thrills and comedy
starring trick rider Tommie Turvey Jr. and a variety of special events,
like the pro-amateur barrel racing. (Show jumpers tried their hand at the speed sport, with mixed results, but Candice King sure looked great
in her purple cowboy hat.)
Washington has "grown to what Madison Square Garden (former home of the
National Horse Show) used to be," said McLain, Washington's leading
jumper rider (for the fourth time), who is not a fan of the National's new
home at Pier 54.
Indeed, sitting in the stands as the equitation horses went around the
arena, I got the same feeling I had in the days when the Garden was
great. That is, of course, except for the fences in the ring--a mini
Washington Monument and Jefferson memorial on Richard Jeffery's courses
reminded you that you were in the nation's Capital.
But wherever you are, there's nothing like a top-of-the-line arena to
showcase equestrian competition--if the show committee can afford it.
Sheila Johnson, Washington's president, says it wouldn't be financially
prudent for her to keep putting $250,000 annually into the
International, but she is hoping the rest of the board will step up to help finance
the fixture in the style it deserves.
"I'm not going to keep carrying it," said Sheila, whose term as
president has two more years to run. "Everyone needs to be vested financially.
It's a $2-million show."
With a good portion of income derived from the gate, Sheila believes
strongly that a lively and varied program is a must.
"Entertainment will bring in a certain crowd. You've got to have that
cross-over," she said. But it's not all laughs. Sheila sees the approach
as "edutainment," which informs people about riding and the courses
while keeping them amused.
I was more than amused--I was fascinated--by Tommie Turvey Jr., billed as
an "equine extremist," who learned how to deliver a slapstick punch line
while serving as the straight man for a comic circus equestrian act.
His star paint, Pokerjoe, is so amazing. He doesn't just lie down on
his side in the center of the ring, he lies on his back with his legs in
the air and lets Tommie sit on his barrel and use one of his hooves as a "microphone" for a rendition of "Cuban Pete."
Tommie's secret in training horses is doing three 15-minute bursts of
work a day, and refusing to put up with stubbornness.
"I'm not going to let them win," he told me, as he changed costumes and
rushed to go back in the ring for a Roman ride on two black and white
paints, who jump a flaming rail while he stands on their backs. Gee, and
how many people have trouble jumping normal fences while comfortably
ensconced on their $3,500 saddles?
But Brianne Goutal isn't one of them. The BET/USEF East Talent Search
winner did it again in a multi-phase championship by winning the WIHS
Tad Coffin Performance Saddles Equitation Classic Finals. Tad, the 1976
Olympic eventing double gold medalist, was on hand to present the
Brianne led throughout the hunter and jumper phases on her own Logan.
In the final segment, where each of the top 10 rode another competitor's
horse over the jumper course, Brianne was on Julie Welles' Willow, and
turned in her usual awesome performance. Julie finished second.
The finals was missing USEF Medal winner Megan Young, Brianne's chief
rival (and close friend) in the championships this fall. She was second
in the WIHS hunter phase, but completely missed the distance to an oxer
of natural rails, putting her out of the running. There will be a
rematch next weekend in the Maclay at the National Horse Show.
"I always wanted to win a final, any final, and after the USET (USEF
Talent Search) it was 'whatever.' I just wanted to have fun," said
Brianne, who trains with Beacon Hill.
The big winners at Washington this year got an unexpected bonus; cakes
from Marvelous Markets, an area restaurant and caterer. Haylie Jayne,
who took the Grand Junior Hunter Championship on Clemintine, laughingly
estimated her family collectively had gained "at least 10 pounds" from
the buttercream and whipped cream-iced confections she and her brother,
Charlie, collected with their equestrian expertise.
And speaking of collecting, there certainly was a lot to buy on the
concourse at Washington, too, with possibilities ranging from the
practical (horsey sweaters) to the outrageous (pink Der Dau tall boots at
$1,100 and pink paddock boots with rhinestone trim, $500.)
Although the show ended today, the most glamorous competitions wrapped
up on Saturday, when the President's Cup was the evening's climax.
Horses went according to the order in which they qualified for the Cup,
which gave McLain the advantage of going last. Lauren Hough, who nearly
stole the Cup on Casadora, went fourth of nine in the tiebreaker and
figured her time would be beaten.
"Goldika is one of the fastest horses in the world indoors," said
Lauren. "I did what I thought I could do," she said, bearing in mind her
mount was only eight years old, "but we've been second three times to
McLain and Goldika."
It took McLain a long while to get in sync with Goldika at the
beginning of this season, but now they're an awesome pair. They blazed around
the course three seconds faster than Lauren.
"I never want to be overconfident," said McLain about his prize mare,
"but if she goes clear, I've got to screw up to lose."
Next up for me is the National Horse Show in New York. Will it improve
with the addition of jumpers and changes to its new venue on the Hudson
River? I'll tell you all about it next Monday.
Visit Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.