Syracuse, N.Y., October 31, 2008 -- The socially prominent Manhattan-centric gentlemen who reigned over the National Horse Show during its Madison Square Garden heyday doubtless would be aghast to learn that the show's 2008 edition is being held upstate in Syracuse.
But times change, and the melding of the 125-year-old National with the six-year-old Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament is a marriage of convenience that is working out well for both partners.
Though we're only a little more than halfway through the five-day fixture, "The amalgamation of the two horse shows has been a great mix," Mason Phelps, the National's chairman, told me as we chatted about the inaugural year of the arrangement at the downtown Oncenter complex, where the show runs through Sunday.
While the cover of the prizelist reads, "The Syracuse Invitational featuring the 125th National Horse Show," the program cover says, "The 125th National Horse Show at the Syracuse Invitational." That transposition speaks volumes.
Mason was resplendent in an orange and black tuxedo, one of many items that kept Chinese tailors busy during the Americans' visit to the Olympics in Hong Kong. Orange and black are the National's traditional colors (no, it's not just for Halloween). The bunting draped around the arena is orange, black and gold, and the ring railing has been painted black. There are orange flowers in the centerpieces on the black tablecloths in the VIP area. A fun VIP favor was a mug inscribed with the National's name on one side and the Invitational's on the other. You get the picture.
The Syracuse organization, headed by the show's founder and chairman John Madden, "has gone the extra mile in so many areas" to make
the National welcome, Mason pointed out.
"I'd like to think we've created a permanent home for the National Horse Show in Syracuse, short of being able to return to Manhattan, which I don't think will happen," he said.
While there's no substitute for a show in the heart of one of the world's great cities, realism has to prevail.
"I don't think the National can survive on its own; we don't have the angels of the old days," Mason explained, referring to the generous donors of years past who bankrolled the show and made up any deficits.
The National, which had its last Garden performance in 2001, is operating on a one-year letter of agreement with Syracuse. While the board must vote on any contract to stay longer, Mason noted, "I've had no negative comments from any member of the board I've spoken with."
Another important positive is that this year's show reunites the National with its centerpiece, the ASPCA Maclay horsemanship championship, which has been held at Syracuse for the past four years, while the National itself was being staged during early December in Florida.
For his part, John is equally upbeat about the two shows joining forces.
"I hope we've treated the Maclay and the National Horse Show with the honor they deserve," said John, noting the Maclay's presence here was a catalyst to bring the shows together.
The National brought hunters back to Syracuse, which had them for the first two years of its existence before becoming an all-jumper show.
Richard Jeffery, the show's sport director and hunter course designer, sought inspiration from the National's storied past while designing routes for the hunters.
The first evening that they appeared here, the horses jumped several sides of a pen, an unusual arrangement. I wondered what that was all about.