September 24, 2016 -- It's a tradition at Rolex-sponsored shows to have a contest in the press room for journalists to guess who would win the big class. The reward for the best prediction? A bottle of champagne.
But it went unclaimed last night at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show because the smart money was on World Number Two Kent Farrington, World Number Four McLain Ward, Irish speedster Conor Swail (my pick) or sentimental favorite Georgina Bloomberg, who won the debut grand prix in her hometown two years ago.
No one figured that the top placing in the $216,000 Rolex U.S. Open CSI 3-star feature would go to Jimmy Torano, a 51-year-old Floridian better known at this point for his TV/live stream commentating than his riding.
He was as surprised as anyone else to find his 37.05-second fault-free trip on Daydream in the 10-horse tiebreaker was good enough to take the honors. Jimmy was rewarded by a champagne soaking on the podium with top-drawer Laurent Perrier bubbly from runner-up Sharn Wordley of New Zealand, who had the only other clean round in the jump-off on Barnetta, and third-place Conor, who was fastest with Cita but dropped a rail. I would have rather had a toast with the champagne and sipped it, but the fans enjoyed the moments of mayhem.
Jimmy, who is never at a loss for words, seemed a bit dazed by the glory of performing a victory gallop before a sold-out house at the Wollman Rink, where the lights of towering skyscrapers made a dazzling but almost surreal backdrop for a horse show.
There is no question that he was a longshot, starting with the fact that he almost didn't get into the show.
Jimmy wasn't on the original list of qualifiers, but hoped someone would drop out, so he asked for permission to jog his mount at the horse inspection. When one spot opened up, though, he gave it to his wife, Danielle, figuring she had a better chance to do well with her 9-year-old Callas III than he did with the less-experienced Daydream, who he bought two years ago as a 6-year-old. Then as his luck would have it (seems like destiny in hindsight) another slot became available and he was in.
But Jimmy wasn't even having a Daydream, so to speak, that he would wind up on top.
“I didn't think I was going to come in and win the class,” marveled Jimmy, whose wife finished out of the money with 4 faults in the first round.
While he was a longshot, so was the show. For years, people had talked about holding a jumping competition in Central Park, but dismissed the concept as undoable. Most, I think, were looking at staging it on grass, perhaps in the Sheep Meadow section, but Mark Bellissimo had a better idea by putting it in the rink.
Mark, who runs the hugely successful Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., and the Tryon, N.C., International Equestrian Center, believes that the Central Park show can get more people interested in horses and show jumping. The top ticket price is $125, which limits the audience, but admission to tomorrow's exhibitions are free.
Perhaps Jimmy was rewarded for a good deed--he saw a ticketless mother and daughter looking longingly at the show ring from outside the fence, so he made their day by giving them two wristbands that got them in the door. Karma for sure.
Even with nearly a third of the 34 starters making the tie-breaker, it was obvious that the course was quite a test. It snaked around the relatively narrow confines of the odd-shaped rink, used for skating in the winter, and required a horse with power steering rideability.
The last fence, topped with a delicately balanced white plank at the maximum height of 5-feet, 3-inches, drew a moan from the crowd when Peter Wylde had it down with Aimee. Frankly, I thought it would cause more trouble than it did, but faults were scattered around the course.
That's typical of the routes laid out by one of my favorite course designers, Guilherme Jorge, who just returned from doing the floor plans for the Olympics in his native Brazil.
I asked him about the test he set. To watch the video of what he had to say, click on the right-pointing arrow.
Jimmy, fourth to go in the final round, had the first clear score and an eminently beatable time of 37.05 seconds. Three trips later, Sharn logged what would be the only other clear round in 41.39 on a horse he concedes is slow.
Conor had produced the speed for which he's known and why he was my bet, but he dropped a rail when he angled too close to the first part of the double and his clocking of 33.12--the fastest in the class--only put him into third place.
He was almost apologetic when we talked afterward about his dilemma, noting that with Kent and McLain coming after him, he figured his only chance was to hustle. I empathized, agreeing he had no other choice.
But surprisingly, McLain dropped a pole at the first fence with HH Carlos Z. It was another twist of fate for McLain, who had turned his usual bad luck in Central Park around on Thursday when he won the speed class. It wasn't all bad for McLain though; he won the $25,000 U.S Open title for the sum of his performances in both classes.
Georgina had a refusal with Crown 5 and then a rail at the last, which was now a Rolex vertical.
So it was all up to Kent and the lively chestnut Creedance. The winner of last week's American Gold Cup a few miles up the road in Westchester County, Kent ran into a problem halfway through the course with a rail at an oxer. We were stunned. When the class was over, people were wondering, who won? Jimmy Torano? Huh?
It could mean a resurgence of his riding career for the multi-talented horseman, who is judging the hunters at the show this afternoon. Jimmy, who was joined for the awards by his delighted children, Natalia and J.J., may be seen more often in the victory gallop after the biggest win of his life on his Dutchbred mount.
To find out what Jimmy had to say post-game, click on the right-hand arrow.
On Thursday night, another last-minute entry shared a victory in the puissance. McLain was chatting in the car that afternoon on the drive down from his home in Westchester with his barn manager, Lee McKeever, who basically dared him to try the high jump.
Never one to turn down a challenge, McLain accepted, post-entering with ZZ Top VH Schaarbroek Z, a horse he has bought and sold five or six times who went earlier in the evening in the $25,000 Under 25 Grand Prix.
Disappointingly, Susan Oakes--who was hoping to set a side-saddle high jump puissance record--had a fall in practice and didn't compete. So there were seven starters attempting to jump the wall at its first height, 5-3. When it went a foot higher, only McLain and Andy Kocher on C'Havinia were clean to try again at 6-9. That was a big jump, going up six inches in one fell swoop, and both horses knocked blocks off the wall to tie for victory. The puissance is an exciting addition to the Central Park show, which adds something new every year.
Liliana Rivera, the show's foreign judge from Bolivia, was impressed by what she saw in Central Park.
We talked about that; it was interesting to get her viewpoint as a first timer. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what she had to say.
The show ends tonight with dressage and an exhibition by Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin on the fabulous Valegro. I'll be back with another postcard tomorrow to tell you all about it. In the meantime, look for photos at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.