Wellington, Fla., December 3, 2005 -- Sitting in a ringside box at Madison Square Garden during the National Horse Show (over more decades than I care to count) was always a highlight of my year. Each memorable moment seemed electric in the days when the international teams competed there, before it became simply routine to fly horses and riders back and forth across the Atlantic.
The vibrancy of the New York City streets outside the Garden heightened the importance of the activities taking place in the world's most famous arena. Everyone dressed to the nines, day or night, which gave the show a sense of style, with jewels, gowns and top hats all to be admired.
It's quite a contrast to the competition's current incarnation as the National Horse Show and Family Festival here at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club. When I walked on the grounds yesterday amid a group of showgoers in shorts and running shoes, I was relaxed and happy to be here -- but missing the thrill that used to run through me at the season finale in Manhattan. The National has the feel of a smaller version of the Winter Equestrian Festival (which is staged here from January through March) while the wind sighing gently through the palm trees calms, rather than invigorates, like the buzz of city traffic.
Some of the traditions remain, such as the historic silver trophies that made the trip south, and the orange and black show colors (a few of the women even chose that wardrobe motif, which matches the championship coolers.)
Last night did glitter with the style of the old days, however, as the "Jumping Under the Stars" party took place in the ringside VIP area known as the Jockey Club. Orange roses graced tables set with black cloths, where the privileged dined on roasted Cornish game hen as the $100,000 Lexus National Horse Show Jumper Championship unfolded before them on the brilliant green surface of the Internationale Arena.
Genially greeting people was show president Gene Mische, the man who saved the National when the overhead at the Garden became too hefty. Times change, and everyone is grateful that Gene made sure a tradition didn't die.
But there are still those who miss the Garden -- and, I'm finding, just as many who don't.
One of the former is the very polite Jack Hardin Towell Jr. (you can tell he's a southern boy, with his "yes, ma'ams" and carefully considered words.)
The Camden, S.C., 17-year-old dominated the junior hunter divisions here, taking over the ride on Miracle and Westcliffe at the last minute when requested by trainers Ken and Emily Smith because the horses' owner, Christy Russo, had to skip the show because of a sprained ankle. Miracle was grand junior hunter champion and claimed another award as the highest point-earner in both the junior and amateur-owner divisions.
Hardin also earned the championship in his age division in the small juniors with a more familiar mount, High Cotton.
But the National isn't a "must" stop on the circuit for the talented teen, who regrets he never rode in the Garden.
"I really wish I could have. My sister (Liza) and my father did, there's so much history there," he said wistfully.
"The way they did it there was so classy. They wore the morning suits. Any way to have that come back would be great."
If not for the invitation from the Smiths, he would be at home.
"If it had been like the Garden, I would have brought my horses here," he added, however.
While Hardin observed, "They're trying really hard with the show," he thinks it's too early to come to Florida.
On the other hand, Scott Stewart, who took the championship in every open hunter division, prefers the wide open spaces here to the cramped confines of the Garden, where preparing horses was always problematical in the dance floor-sized warm-up area.
Like the other hunter riders, he enjoyed seeing what his mounts could do in the wide open grassy spaces of the Internationale arena, usually reserved for the jumpers.
"The Garden was certainly exciting, but I think this is a little more special out here on the field. I think the horses go better here," concluded Scott, who capped his season by taking the Grand Champion hunter title with Chopard and earning leading hunter rider honors.
Chopard was also Grand Amateur-Owner champion for his owner, Krista Weisman, also tops in the division for younger amateurs.
She might have had some competition under other circumstances from Betty Oare and one of her new mounts, Starbound, who shone Thursday in the competition for the over-35 riders.
But the horse came up lame yesterday and the vets are working to find out what's wrong. Betty, one of the sport's greatest ladies (she was saluted this weekend with the Virginia Horseperson of the Year award) remained smiling and gracious despite her concern.
She was making a comeback at the showgrounds, where she broke her left leg on the last day of the WEF this year. Her attitude is best exemplified by what happened in her last round on Madison, a chestnut with a cute pony face who is still learning the ropes.
He knocked down a rail at the first fence, but when Betty came out of the ring, she was beaming anyway.
"It's so much fun out there," said the woman who still loves the sport and the horses into her 60s as much (or maybe even more) than she did when she was younger.
One thing that the new National has that the old National did not is a dressage show. There was good competition in the Grand Prix, where Katherine Bateson-Chandler was the winner on Kennedy, her trainer, Robert Dover's 2004 Olympic mount.
Kennedy is one of my favorite horses to watch. He's got power, but it's neatly controlled and the veteran of both the Danish and U.S. teams knows his job.
But he and Katherine are still getting together. There were mistakes in both the one- and two-tempis ("silly rider errors; nerves," she said). So much else was good in the test, though, that she was left with a score of 68.958 percent. That was sufficient to edge Lisette Milner on Eminence, who had 68.333 percent.
Katherine just took over the ride from Robert last year, and time is necessary to be in sync with a new horse, particularly when he's famous.
"I'm getting there. But I haven't been in the ring with him a lot. I know him really well at home because I groomed him all the time that Robert rode him, but the ring is a whole different animal," said Katherine, who is thinking of trying out for the World Equestrian Games this year.
"I couldn't have a better horse," she pointed out.
Kennedy's victory was the start of a daily double for owner Jane Clark, who also saw her Neuville take last night's show jumping grand prix with Molly Ashe up.
Oh, p.s. -- Molly is going to be taking dressage lessons from Katherine on Robert's 2004 Olympic ride, Rainier. Molly just wants to improve her riding on the flat, Jane told me. Smart, huh?
Anyway, back to the grand prix: Molly won by taking one less stride between the first and second fences in the jump-off than Chris Kappler did with VDL Oranta, who was the runner-up in the World Cup qualifier and posted the only other clear trip in the five-horse tiebreaker.
After the grand prix, the gala-goers left the Jockey Club for a nearby tent that hosted the "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory After-Hours Dessert Party." Tables were covered with candy bars. There were two chocolate fountains for dipping fruit and cookies, and the music was blasting as several scantily clad women (they told me they were "professional dancers") waved their feather boas, gyrating amid the more familiar show circuit names on the dance floor. The host was public relations guru Mason Phelps, who changed out of white tie and tails to reappear in full Willie Wonka gear, with a maroon top hat, whiteface and big, round sunglasses.
Are the old Vanderbilts, Barneys, Haskells and Stones who were once the show's mainstays whirling in their graves? Possibly, but it's a new era and the new National is very much a part of it.
I'll be back with you Monday for a wrap-up of the show, including the American Grand Prix Association Championship. Bye for now!