Kent Farrington walked away from the Rolex Central Park Horse Show with virtually nothing in his pockets following a win in the $216,000 U.S. Open Grand Prix, but in one very important sense, you could say he was the richest man in town last night.
His victory in the heart of Manhattan, with the glittering lights of skyscrapers as a backdrop, demonstrated the compassionate side of the world’s number one-ranked show jumper. He had announced prior to the competition that any money he earned in the class on RCG Farm’s Creedance would go to Direct Relief, an organization helping victims of disasters such as Hurricane Irma, which left so many in need.
On top of that, he gave away the Rolex watch that he won to his mother, Linda. Like many others, she had left her Florida home earlier this month to escape Irma, but was able to stay in New York with his sister, Kim. Kent was thinking of those who were not that lucky when he made the magnanimous decision, with the support of his mount’s owners, to offer a contribution.
While the disaster did not hit the Florida resident personally, as the worst of the weather veered away from the equestrian center of Wellington, he showed great empathy for those not as fortunate, adding another dimension to the psychic wealth of his character.
So earning the winner’s $71,000 share of the purse seemed justified not only by his skill, but also his generosity. Of course, his global ranking had made him the favorite to win, but it seemed to me that another hand may have helped make sure he could fulfill his pledge.
Even so, taking the title in the tight quarters of the egg-shaped Wollman rink was difficult. Kent had a mere 0.12-second edge over runner-up Hardin Towell on the ever-improving Lucifer V in the nine-horse jump-off. Creedance is a high-strung horse—I was taking photos by the ingate and those of us in the vicinity were issued a warning to stay out of the way when the revved-up white-legged chestnut Dutch warmblood came through, eyes wide and blazing. The atmosphere has a real effect on sensitive horses, who have to come through the dark from a distant warm-up area before entering a brightly lighted ring surrounded by an audience that filled every seat in the house.
As Kent noted, “This is a very special venue, and it's very impressive for the horses. Warming up in the back of the park and walking up here, some of them are a bit star-struck.”
He praised 2016 Olympic course designer Guilherme Jorge for building a “fair” route that enabled one third of the 27 starters to come through to the tiebreaker. Not only did those who bought tickets get their money’s worth of excitement, but the class had a whole other group of non-paying spectators on the outside of the arena, eagerly peering through the fence and sitting on giant boulders to get a view of the competition.
Mark Bellissimo, the man behind the show that many scoffed couldn’t be done in this difficult urban venue, is a big believer in reaching out to expand the sport’s reach. The Central Park show, now in its fourth year, certainly demonstrates that the discipline can attract an audience beyond the crowd one might expect to be interested.
Knowledgeable fans, both inside and outside the fence, had a chance to study the contrasting approaches of the top two, who based their efforts on an intimate knowledge of their horses’ styles, as well as their weaknesses.
Although he knew that Hardin had been fast, Kent didn’t let that sway what he needed to do.
“I try to just have my own plan, because he’s very fast and I have to play to his strengths,” said the winner.
“I tried to make it up early in the course and then slow him down a little bit to the last fence, because sometimes he can get running too fast and knock it down,” he continued.
“So my strategy today was to win it early and be able to ease off at the end.”
Last weekend, Hardin wasn’t happy with himself after finishing third in the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping New York, so he upped his game here after winning Thursday’s speed class, with a tactic that was the opposite of Kent’s.
In 2016, he said, he “gave this class away” on the Rolex double of green and yellow rails, knocking down the vertical element where he thought he was too quick.
"I told myself I would take a little more time there and be quick to the last couple, so when they had the split afterwards where Kent was 6/10ths of a second up on me, I knew it would be close because I know his horse quite well, too,” Hardin commented.
“I knew he would take it easy at the last and not be quite as quick, so we both had our plan,” continued Hardin, who did his best to capitalize on his horse’s strong point, long gallops.
“We know our horses and we stuck to it. Tonight was his night," he said of Kent.
Murray Kessler, president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation who was on hand to watch, cited Kent’s initiative.
“We've done nothing at the U.S. Equestrian Federation for the past weeks but deal with hardship on the (Caribbean) islands and in Houston and then in Florida. The entire USEF membership has poured their hearts out trying to help, but this was a great act of compassion and generosity," said Murray of Kent’s contribution to the effort.
I have often talked to Kent about Creedance, a 10-year-old with whom he has worked since the horse was seven. I’ve admired the way Kent has brought him along, never asking more than the horse can give at any point, and showing the type of patience that is the mark of a true horseman.
Click on this video to listen to our conversation about Creedance and the class.
The other feature of the night was the U.S. Open $25,000 Hollow Creek Farm Under 25 Grand Prix, won by Jennifer Gates on Alex, a horse she has had only since July. The class involved a three-horse jump-off, with Jennifer trying to beat the 28. 08-second time of Sydney Shulman aboard Curby du Seigneur, after the third contender. Irishman Jordan Coyle (brother of Daniel) toppled a rail with Chuckles.
Jennifer achieved her goal with a clocking of 27.14 seconds, but that’s only a starting point.
“I'm hoping to grow our partnership and work on being a bit faster," she said.
As befitting its setting, the show offered up the glamorous side of the sport. A VIP tent sparkled on one side of the ring, with those watching from there including Jennifer’s father, Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. The whole arena looked a bit like beautiful mirage after a walk along the winding paths of the park. Passersby coming upon the oasis of sport often stopped in wonderment at its inclusion in the woodlands where millions walk, ride their bikes and come for a bit of nature to brighten the concrete of an urban existence.
Be sure to check out www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos from Central Park.
The show continues this afternoon with hunter competition, featuring the $50,000 Duchossois Cup, and the debut of arena eventing in this venue. Come back tomorrow morning for my next postcard.