Syracuse, N.Y., November 5, 2007 -- There's something a little unnerving about getting out of your car and hearing hoofbeats overhead, but that's how it is when horses are stabled in a parking garage.
Though everyone makes compromises in order to be part of a city-based horse show, at the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, there is no compromising on the important things.
Number one is the footing; the riders universally praise it. And number two is the way the horse show is run. You can count on the accuracy of the minute-by-minute schedule that is the competition's Bible.
The War Memorial Arena is not, of course, Madison Square Garden, where the National Horse Show was run on these dates for decades. But nevertheless, the hockey facility has atmosphere, provided by vocal fans who are having a good time. That helps make this fixture so special.
The Syracuse show is the brainchild of trainer John Madden. He constantly expresses appreciation to the sponsors and, the way Ron Southern used to do at Spruce Meadows, takes the microphone in the center of the ring to laud them and connect with the crowd.
John has a clear mission and won't be distracted from it with unnecessary foolishness. We talked about it yesterday, and here is what he told me.
Speaking of the connection with the crowd, it was key in yesterday's finale, the $50,000 Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup. John came up with this idea for a class with the help of sportscaster Tim Ryan on the plane returning from the 2004 Athens Olympics, where Beezie Madden was part of our gold medal team.
The concept didn't fly with other show managers who John approached, though, and that's one of the reasons he started the Syracuse show.
The Cup is a little complicated. There's a speed round, a four-bar high-jumping competition and a mini grand prix. Riders can use two horses (most chose a speed specialist for the first phase), and penalties are cumulative. On the plus side, one knockdown doesn't put a competitor out of the running, the way it would in a traditional grand prix.
To help the audience follow along, Melanie Smith Taylor (the 1984 Olympic team gold medalist and 1982 World Cup champion) and Doug Logan, director of Time-Warner sports in Syracuse, explained the format and interviewed the riders between rounds.
Competitors earned points throughout the show to be among the "Syracuse Seven" contesting the class.
It was a close race for the top group. Beezie got a standing ovation when she set a show record by jumping a 6-foot, 4-inch obstacle in the four-bar on Judgement. The four-bar has the suspense and thrill of a puissance, but involves four fences, each two strides apart in the middle of the ring, with the last one set the highest.
Lauren Hough jumped 6 feet on Quick Study, but declined to go any higher on the 8-year-old. She took the microphone to apologize to the crowd, and they understood when she said it was for the good of the horse.
Because of a rail down with Onlight in the first phase, Beezie had just a fraction more penalties than Lauren when they went into the final round over the grand prix-style course. Beezie went over the 60-second time allowed to get one time penalty. Lauren did the same, leaving her the winner. She really likes the format, which is unique to the Syracuse show, and told me why.
Even as the class was going on, however, John was working on refining the scoring for next year. The crowd got it, of course, with the help of Melanie, Doug and the riders' comments, but anyone interested in figuring the nuances probably would have liked a little more assistance. Beezie, the defending champion, briefly was identified as the winner before the situation was resolved and Lauren raised the handsome silver cup high over her head.
But there was no confusion at all on Saturday night about who won the $75,000 World Cup Grand Prix of Syracuse.
The arena was sold out for the occasion, as more than 4,000 people cheered on their favorites, especially Beezie (she's from nearby Cazenovia), though unfortunately she missed the jump-off after dropping a rail in the first round with Authentic.
All you need to know about the nine-horse jump-off was two names: Kent Farrington and McLain Ward. The rest were doomed to be also-rans in the wake of these men who know how to ride fast and clean.
Kent was aboard the fabulous Up Chiqui, who has won a dozen or so grand prix this year. His blazing round was breathtaking and frankly, I thought the class was over when he blazed through the timers, even though McLain was yet to ride.
McLain was aboard Phillipa, a Dutchbred chestnut mare who has only been competing in grand prix since May. But she coped with Leopoldo Palacios' course like a veteran, showing incredible agility and speed.
Even McLain didn't believe he could beat Kent, but he did it, with a tiny 0.14 second margin. Kent thought the difference was his relatively slow approach to the first fence, or an extra stride before an oxer.
Third, more than a second behind McLain, was a Syracuse newcomer, William Whitaker of Great Britain, the 18-year-old nephew of 2006 Syracuse grand prix winner Michael Whitaker. William has a super mare in the snowy-coated Arielle. Visit our gallery of photos from Syracuse; I've included her picture.
McLain is wildly enthusiastic about Phillipa, who he thinks could be his ride for an Olympic gold medal next year. She was just bought by Debbie Dolan Sweeney and her family, and McLain is counting on campaigning her through the Games in Hong Kong.
I asked McLain to tell me a little about Phillipa, and here's what he said.
Now it's time for me to give you a few more details on the Maclay that didn't run in the bulletin that we put up Saturday night.
If you read it, you already know that Kimberly McCormack, who took the Pessoa/USEF Medal at Harrisburg last month, was the winner. She joined 16 other top riders in the history of the sport who took both competitions in the same year since the two became a coveted double in 1937.
Kimberly was the "definite" winner, according to George Morris, who judged the class with Linda Hough. She came from behind--called back fifth for the final round--but nailed the course on her own Sundance. (Bonus: Download the Maclay course maps at the end of my earlier bulletin.)
"She's a very natural, very free rider," said George. "She's got a good sense of distance. She stood the test of the day; the first round, then flat work and the second round." The way things played out made George recall the last time he judged the class here in 2005, when Brianne Goutal (also victorious in the Medal) was the winner.
She, too, had been fifth before the final round, but really fought for it the same way Kimberly did.
Want to know what Kimberly thought? Listen to her sound byte.
I believe Kimberly's older sister, Kristy, who has been riding in Belgium, was even more excited than the winner.
"It's amazing. I can't believe she won both. This is an awesome day for us. I'm not the one who won, but it's like I'm right there with her," said Kristy, who topped the USET Talent Search East herself a few years ago, so you know she's no slouch.
She trained Kimberly to the victory along with Missy Clark and John Brennan.
Coming from behind is less pressure than being in the lead in a class like this, as our EquiSearch.com blogger, Maria Schaub, learned the hard way.
A good first round and a stellar performance on the flat made the class hers to win. She was called back first for the afternoon test but wasn't able to hold on to her standing.
An outside turn, rather than a bold inside turn, to the third fence didn't work for her, and a rail down at that oxer sealed her fate. She finished seventh, but still managed to smile graciously for the presentation photo.
There was some question about why Maria took I-Toon around the outside, when the inside path, which Kimberly took, was obviously a winning strategy (George recalled how Brianne pulled off a similar tight turn to win.)
So I asked Maria what happened and she explained that I-Toon, "got a little strong after the second jump, and got a little green in her mouth. I was trying to make a rider decision based on how my horse felt and give her more time to take a breath and soften."
It didn't work out, but Maria doesn't seem to have regrets.
"I'm so proud of her," Maria told me, pointing out the mare is still green. "She has come so far."
Here I should mention that Maria's trophy cabinet is far from bare. She gathered the lion's share of honors this year, from winning the Ronnie Mutch, to being Best Child Rider at Devon and taking the equitation championships at Capital Challenge and the Washington International.
Speaking like a true horsewoman, Maria said, "I made a decision that didn't work out, but I still learned something from it. When you're in the show ring, sometimes you have a split-second to make a decision, and I think what makes a rider great is practicing these decisions."
We'll be hearing lots more about Maria, I can guarantee you. Although her junior career is over, she'll continue riding (and blogging for us). As her mother told me, "It's not an ending, it's a new beginning."
Those of you who are wondering where the Maclay is going next year should have a definite answer soon, but I'm told by a good source it's headed back to Syracuse. The show, which has hosted this important class for three years, does a great job with it, and at this point it seems to me there aren't many alternatives. The riders love the tournament and the organizers go out of their way to please exhibitors, so it's a fine choice.
So that's it from here. I'm heading home today, but I'll be writing postcards for you on the second weekend in December from the National Horse Show in Florida.