Syracuse, N.Y., November 2, 2008 -- What a wild weekend it was as the new combination of the National Horse Show and the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament wrapped up its five-day run at the Oncenter Complex with two amazing competitions.
Today's finale was the $50,000 Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup, providing a storybook ending to the show as local sports heroine Beezie Madden (frequently referred to by the show announcer as, "Your own Beezie Madden!") emerged victorious.
Reclaiming the trophy she won in 2006 also brought redemption for Judgement, her 17-year-old partner, who finished third-to-last with 21 faults in Saturday night's featured $100,000 Budweiser Grand Prix, a qualifier for the FEI World Cup finals.
But more about that later; let's deal with the Sporthorse Cup first. It's a good culmination of the competition because it's open only to the top seven riders in the standings after all the other classes have been completed. Several riders, however, bowed out because they didn't have the requisite two horses or were resting the ones they have before Toronto's Royal Winter Fair, so Beezie slid onto the Cup roster from the waiting list.
But once in the starting gate, she was ready to run, winning the first of three segments--a speed test--on Prima. Beezie switched to Judgement for the second segment, a four-bar, which is a type of high-jump class.
Horses jump four obstacles down the center of the ring, going higher in each round. The last fence, which had started at 5 feet, was 6-6 by the time this phase ended. Beezie didn't make it over the 6-6 fence; the only one who did was Britain's Ben Maher on Robin Hood W, but he had the third fence down. So Beezie was tied in that phase on 15 points with Ben, Brianne Goutal (Ralvesther) and Holland's Henk van de Pol (Dan 7). I won't trouble you with the way points are accumulated in the class, but it's enough to say that Beezie had 26 overall going into the one-round grand prix style test that ended the class, while Ben and another Dutch rider, Harrie Smolders, were tied on 24.
I was sitting next to Beezie's husband, John Madden, who came up with the concept for the Cup, and kept busy jotting down figures as he kept track of everything. I looked over at his notes and decided to just keep my eyes on the ring; it was way too complicated for me.
In the final phase, Ben was the winner with a clean round in 55.55 seconds, but that was only enough to earn him second place overall. Beezie's clean round in 58.57 was the slowest of five clears. Coupled with her other points, though, it gained her the title two points ahead of Ben.
There was no doubt it was a popular victory; the fact that Beezie lives in nearby Cazenovia makes her a favorite with the Oncenter crowd. Their cheers also do more than spurs to encourage Judgement.
This was supposed to be Judgement's last year in competition, but he's doing so well he'll be taking part in some 2009 classes before retiring in ceremonies at his favorite venue, Spruce Meadows, and then going on to stud duty. He's been around a long time; I remember when Michael Matz was trying to make the 2000 Olympic team with him before Beezie got the ride.
She wasn't sure why Judgement was such an uncharacteristic dud less than 24 hours earlier in the grand prix, but she had a theory.
"He got off to a bad start; something weird happened at the first jump. I think he scared himself a little and then was a little undone for the rest of the course."
"Today, I got to come in and do the four-bar. It's simple and something he's comfortable with...and I think that helps him a lot."
After each round, the riders were interviewed by broadcaster Doug Logan and rider Leslie Howard, a former Cup winner. They all stayed in the ring during the four-bar, watching as each of their rivals jumped down the centerline. It's an altogether different atmosphere than the usual class.
I enjoyed watching Ben Maher ride; I've been very impressed by him. He's had some restructuring to do with his string. His Olympic horse, the spectacular Rolette, has been sold as a mount for Shane Sweetnam, a native of Ireland who is based in Florida.
I could see it bothered Ben every time I mentioned Rolette, because he misses her. But he also knows that's the business, and since she was owned by elderly people who couldn't even come to see her jump, a sale was inevitable.
Robin Hood, who is totally amazing, came to him after he bugged someone in his town for two years to sell him.
In the first round, however, he rode Onike and was fourth, which made it unlikely he would win the whole thing.
I wondered why he brought her to Syracuse.
Ben said his strategy was "to jump clear to stay ahead, and I had to put enough pressure on Harrie that he couldn't beat me to stay ahead and then wait to see if Beezie knocked one down. I was told yesterday by Laura Kraut that you have to be ahead in the first round and the horse (Onike) I used in the first round, this is my first show with her...so my plan was to keep me in there and not ruin my chances. I matched Beezie the whole way through, but I was playing catch-up the whole time."
I hope I've given you an idea of what the Cup is all about. But if you want to see this unique class firsthand, tune in to Animal Planet at 3 p.m. ET January 10.
Now, I have to tell you about the grand prix: it drew some of the hottest horses anywhere--half of the Olympic gold medal team, McLain Ward with his President's Cup winner, Sapphire and Laura Kraut's Cedric; the speedy Up Chiqui with national champion Kent Farrington aboard, Hillary Dobbs' Quincy B and Redefin, the Hong Kong alternate mount of Canadian Olympic team silver medalist Ian Millar.
It was a group that awed Christine McCrea, but in the end, she and Vegas were the only ones who were up to the course and the tighttighttight 72-second time-allowed set by 2008 Olympic course co-designer Leopoldo Palacios.
The arena was sold out to the rafters, creating an atmosphere that resounded with sympathetic groans as horse after horse failed to conquer the challenge.
When Christine and her mount came in half a second under TA and left all the fences intact, the place erupted with cheers.
"I was probably as focused as I get," Christine said about her round.
"It was just the right moment for both of us: He was perfect and I managed not to screw it up."
After dismounting, she was "just watching and waiting."
What she saw was failure after failure. Two riders gave the crowd hope of a jump-off. Todd Minikus on the reliable Pavarotti produced a clear, but not a double clear.
Though the fences stayed up, the clock clicked 0.23 seconds past the magic number. A big disappointment for Todd, whose first child, a boy named (appropriately) Colt, was born last month.
Ben Maher thrilled fans with Robin Hood who (as one spectator so aptly put it) jumps like an impala. He leaps higher than he needs to, however, and wastes time in the air, so his clear round with a clocking of 75.35 didn't come near the time allowed, but did enable him to be third.
Sapphire had not only a rail but also a time penalty to finish sixth. The mare's Olympic teammate, Cedric, didn't even finish. He stopped twice at the clever ASPCA wall that had been used during the Maclay finals earlier in the day, and was eliminated.
Laura told me that he doesn't like walls and had never jumped one indoors; despite his Olympic credentials, he's still a newcomer to the big time circuit.
I caught up with Christine after the class and chatted with her about her victory.
While Christine was thrilled not to have a jump-off, the rest of us weren't. Todd said he thought the class was as hard as the actual World Cup finals in Las Vegas (is that karma for Christine's horse, or what?) will be this April.
I asked Leopoldo how he would change things if he could do the course over again to insure a jump-off and he told me that he'd still make the layout as hard, though he might have changed one distance. But for sure, he said, "I would give the time (allowed) a couple of more seconds."
Oh well, hindsight is 20-20, and it was still an amazing roller-coaster of an evening.
This show went by so fast. Having the National here put a gloss on the Invitational and National Chairman Mason Phelps told me that for sure the two competitions will be together again next year.
There are a couple of more things I should mention. First, a news bulletin--it looks as if George Morris will be staying on for four more years as the show jumping team coach. There's nothing official, and it hasn't been finalized, but he got a unanimous mandate during the riders' meeting here and that's what he's been looking for as a sign for his future.
George, who has now guided the U.S. team to two consecutive Olympic gold medals, received the Jane Forbes Clark High Performance Development Award during the show. He, in turn, presented the style of riding award to Ian Millar.
Gracious as always, Ian gave George a hug after receiving the stauesque cup and said that his only regret is "that I will never be able to ride on a team coached by George." Remember, Ian's a Canadian.
ASPCA Maclay winner Jessica Sprinsteen wound up with yet another prize here, the gold medal in the yearlong Bates Equitation rankings. That earned her a trip to next year's George Morris Horsemastership Clinic, a Bates project that provides all-around learning, including horse care, to a group of talented young riders who may someday represent the U.S. in international competition.
View our gallery to get some more glimpses of Syracuse, including the fun of the Gambler's Choice costume class--can you imagine McLain Ward in a belly-baring harem girl outfit, a la "I Dream of Jeannie?"
Okay, that's it from me for awhile. I'll be sending you a postcard in December with the story of the Rolex National Jumper Championship and a 3-star dressage show from Wellington, Fla. Hard to believe we're heading back there again--where did the year go?