Syracuse, N.Y., November 5, 2006 -- Syracuse may not be on your wish-list of travel destinations, but if you want to see one heck of a horse show, give it a try.
The Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament gets better every year because its founder, John Madden, not only is a horseman who knows what exhibitors want, but also has a showman's understanding that a competition must be entertaining enough so people will want to buy tickets.
"I think our sport has gotten too much the same all the time," John told me when I asked for his thoughts behind the show's offerings.
"We started with the premise that we didn't want all the money in the grand prix," continued John, noting that while it is worth $75,000, there is a total of $350,000 in prize money at the tournament.
"Riders can come here and not place in the grand prix and still have a good week," he explained. "The other premise is that you want to make entertainment for the fans, and you have to come up with some creative things to entice them to come back next year."
A big drawing card is the series of clinics and demonstrations in a building adjoining the War Memorial Arena, where you could also shop and meet the Budweiser Clydesdales (as well as their donkey mascot).
Every afternoon and evening, there was the usual great line-up of events,from the Gambler's Choice costume class to the $75,000 Budweiser World Cup Qualifier of Syracuse Grand Prix, where Great Britain's Michael Whitaker scored a resounding victory.
Then there was the ASPCA Maclay finals and the $50,000 Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup, where John's wife, Beezie, was a popular winner.
The way everything was staged added to the crowd's understanding and enjoyment. John and 1984 Olympic team gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor were among those on the floor of the War Memorial Arena wielding microphones to offer extra insight on the action.
The only instance in which they didn't do that was the Maclay, and it probably could have used some analysis for those in the audience who weren't sure why Maggie McAlary was the winner, rather than Julie Welles, who came in second.
But equitation is judged subjectively, and Maggie's style seized the day in a very close race.
"It was fantastic riding," said Ralph Caristo, who judged the class with Scott Williamson. "The top four could have gone any way, and it was hard to separate them."
The class, run over two days rather than the usual one, started at 6:30 a.m. Saturday with 147 riders interpreting a course featuring several options. It stumped some, who just weren't ready for a test like that. Others tried to show off with cuts that were beyond their capability, so one can only hope they were satisfied to come away with a learning experience, rather than a ribbon.
At the end of the first round and the flat phase that followed, U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Finals West winner Nick Haness was in first place on a borrowed horse, the six-year-old Landano. Julie was second on Sander and Maggie third on Chagall, Natalie Johnson's former ride who was leased as a children's hunter.
When her own horse went lame last week, Maggie's trainer Andre Dignelli said he went through his barn and "body clipped everything that could jump" seeking a replacement not only for her mount, but also something that Addison Phillips, his other star, could use.
The course set today for the top 25 did not seem quite as challenging as the original course did to me. While there were options, I thought the judges were looking for smooth trips, rather than ones that made the most daring cuts.
At the end of that round, Nick had dropped to third, Jennifer Waxman moved up to fourth from seventh and Julie was in the lead, with Maggie right behind.
The test for the top four required, among other things, a hand-gallop to the first fence, then a halt (where Jennifer dealt with a restive mount) and a counter-canter to a vertical. That's where Nick lost it. In the halt, the inexperienced Landano, obviously feeding off the electricity of the crowd, was not positioned properly to go into the counter-canter on the right lead. So he picked up the left lead, and though Nick quickly changed it, he was cooked and wound up fourth, with Jennifer ahead of him in third place.
I asked Nick why he would take a six-year-old in a class likely to call for a sophisticated test, and he answered cheerily, "beggars can't be choosers." He doesn't own a horse, and this was his best shot. Though I don't know Nick, my brief meeting with him impressed me. I think he's a nice kid, and expect he'll have success turning professional now and working for his trainer, John Bragg.
Maggie looked stylish as always. While her halt wasn't perfect, she got the counter-canter work accomplished on the money. Julie didn't have a smooth transition to the sitting trot that was called for after the last fence, but it was the counter-canter approach to the vertical that sank her to second.
"I suspect they felt the counter-lead jump was a bit too deep," mused Julie's trainer, Missy Clark, searching for answers, but resigned to the results.
Ralph's comments bore out her belief.
"In today's test, maybe the deciding factor might have been the counter-canter," he said.
"Maybe Maggie in our opinion was a little smoother as opposed to Julie, but there's no separation between the two of them. That's just the way it worked out."
"I don't know what it is about Julie, but she's always had to claw her way up," sighed Missy, who tried hard to hide her disappointment, just as Julie did.
"She reminds me of Alydar," Missy said of Julie, referring to the great racehorse who is probably best known for finishing second to Affirmed in each of the Triple Crown races.
Still, Julie had two big wins in her equitation career, the Washington International and the USEF Talent Search East, which will help her as she turns professional and works with Missy.
Maggie played it cool in her first round with Chagall, whom she had never shown.
"I was a little conservative yesterday," she said after the awards ceremonies. "Today, I thought he was a little more loose, and I trusted him."
Maggie, who won the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals last month, is only 16, so we'll be seeing her in the equitation in 2007, as she tries to get first place in the USEF Talent Search East and the Washington International.
"One more year," she said as she headed out.
"But there's not that much more left to do," Natalie pointed out.
I asked Andre to talk about Maggie, and here's what he said: "She exemplifies this division. She has a great work ethic. A lot of kids can find the jumps, but she does it with style."
While the insiders love the Maclay, for most of the fans--like the capacity crowd of nearly 3,600 who watched the grand prix--the jumpers are what the show is all about.
This year's grand prix was incredibly exciting. Course designer Richard Jeffery didn't "build down" because he knew he had a top international field, and the result was first-class jumping.
The evening was marred, however, by the fall that Denmark's Tina Lund took off Zamiro. At the second jump of a troublesome triple combination, which ended the course, Tina was unseated and lost her reins. She tried to grab them back before the final fence, but her horse leaped high and she hit the ground from about 10 feet up. Her helmet was askew (please everyone, make sure your chin strap is tight!) and she was moaning while lying on the ground. It really was heart-wrenching, so much so that a spectator in the VIP section passed out. The medics were on the scene quickly for both victims, and happily each was checked out at the hospital and sent home.
Five from the field of 35 made it into the jump-off, which got everyone really revved as the riders kept going faster and faster. Chris Kappler set a speedy pace of 39.740 seconds with VDL Oranta, as the gray mare gobbled up the ground. Then Margie Engle came in on her World Equestrian Games mount, Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold, and bettered his mark by 0.03 seconds.
It looked blazing to me, but Margie said she knew she could be beaten after her horse stumbled and her neck snapped back, breaking the flow of her ride.
Michael Whitaker, that veteran of veterans, was the man to do it. The mainstay of so many British teams made the right cuts look easy on Insul Tech Portofino (with the exception of just narrowly missing a flowerbox) and he would up with the wining time of 37.02 seconds.
In the closing feature, today's Animal Planet Cup, you could see John Madden's genius at work. This class is his creation. Seven riders earned their way into the Cup based on their record at the show. Limiting the numbers meant the competition was just long enough. The first segment was a faults-converted-into-seconds speed test; the second, a four-bar (a variation of a six-bar, with horses jumping four verticals two strides apart in every three rounds until the last one reached 6-feet, 3-inches.) The final phase involved a one-round grand prix-style course.
Last year's winner, Leslie Burr Howard, was first in the initial phase on Youp, with Beezie fourth on Conquest II. Then the tables turned, and Beezie went into the lead as she switched to Judgement (riders could use more than one horse) for the second and third phases.
Her victory in the class on her fourth try was a popular one, since she lives in nearby Cazenovia.
I hate to admit it, but my favorite class of the show was the Gambler's Choice in costume. What fun to see Schuyler Riley as the pirate queen and her Cincinnati Kid dressed to match, with a black patch drawn on his eye and "walk the plank" written on his rump. I wondered why Kim Prince chose not to wear breeches with her ballerina costume. And I got a giggle from watching Laura Kraut in a car hop outfit.
But my favorite was the winner, Candice King, dressed up like Raggedy Ann with red yarn pigtails and big red circles on her cheeks.
Although she dumped the pigtails when she changed into street clothes, she told me she forgot about her cheeks until she went out for drinks and the bartender gave her a very funny look! I guess he thought Halloween was over...
This was, believe it or not for those of you who are still reading, the short version of Syracuse. Come on up and see it for yourself. I must say, everyone I've met up here is very nice, which makes for a pleasant trip. One driver even slowed down so I could move from the center lane into the right lane ahead of her. Can't recall that ever happening in New Jersey, where I'm from.
Next up for me is the National Horse Show in Florida at the beginning of December. Be sure to check back here then for my last postcard of the year--I'm almost out of stamps.