Syracuse, N.Y., Nov. 6, 2005-- Who was that clown in the multi-colored wig and eye-popping polka dot costume racing over the fences in the Gambler's Choice at the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament?
Why, it was none other than nine-time American Grand Prix Association Rider of the Year Margie Engle, acting out her reputation as a jokester. And what about that well-endowed lady bouncing along on her horse? Whoops. That was no lady, that was McLain Ward, complete with red fishnet stockings, portraying a woman of ill-repute.
But none of them could match the efforts of Wonder Woman, that super-heroine portrayed in stellar midriff-baring style by Lauren Hough, who won the class on Ottaline.
The riders -- and the crowd -- were having fun with one of the qualifiers for the Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup, today's co-feature, with the ASPCA Maclay, as the show wraps up a five-day run in the War Memorial at the Oncenter in this upstate city. The Invitational features attractions like the costumed Gambler's Choice, Pro-Am events and team competition to present show jumping in a different light.
"They have a lot of new, interesting classes we haven't done before, a lot of things that keeps our interest up, too," said Margie. But it was her performance in last night's $75,000 World Cup Grand Prix of Syracuse that really got the capacity crowd of 4,500 going. While local heroine Beezie Madden, who lives in nearby Cazenovia is understandably the fans' favorite here, Margie has to be a close second.
In the first round, Margie on Hidden Creek's Perin was 19th of 34 starters to go, and posted only the second clear round. Then others followed her lead, with seven more mastering Richard Jeffery's course, which was so demanding the experts had guessed less than a handful would make the tiebreaker.
Perin isn't the quickest horse in the world, but he left the jumps standing, and that turned out to be too much of a challenge for all but one of the others in the tiebreaker. Though Christine Tribble McCrea on Promised Land came close in 38.63 seconds, she didn't quite meet Margie's mark of 38.48 seconds. Laura Kraut on Anthem, third in a ripping 34.09, had the last fence down and Beezie's Olympic mount, Authentic, started slipping to drop a rail at the wide triple bar and come in fourth in 36.12 seconds.
Margie entered the ring for the awards ceremonies on the wagon behind the Budweiser Clydesdale hitch, a perfect spot for someone who is sponsored by Budweiser.
"That's some horsepower underneath you. It's a different feeling," she said.
And she knows from horsepower. Perin is a powerhouse himself, but he has endeared himself to her for other reasons as well.
"He's the sweetest horse. I don't think I've ever seen a horse as affectionate as he is," said Margie, who will try to win the Cup for the second year in a row this afternoon.
And it's a good bet that there will be another capacity crowd on hand to watch again. This quiet university town has greeted the Invitational with gusto, even though it seems an unlikely place for one of the newest wrinkles in the fall indoor circuit. That's especially true since it occupies the dates previously held by the New York leg of the National Horse Show, which left Gotham after the cost of holding a competition there rose too high.
When the National was seen in Madison Square Garden for the last time four years ago, trainer/horse dealer/show impresario John Madden, Beezie's husband, saw an opportunity and took it.
In 2003 and 2004, he ran against the Metropolitan National, a less-than-stellar event held on a pier in Manhattan, but he has the stage all to himself this weekend since that fixture's demise.
Margie isn't the only competitor who is crazy about Syracuse, even though it's far from the lights of Broadway and the other attractions that drew people to the National in years gone by.
It is first and foremost a show that is responsive to the horsemen. Last year, the grand prix horses were stabled in a very chilly underground parking garage. John listened to complaints, addressed them and this year, the horses are enjoying a cozier, carpeted space beneath the War Memorial Auditorium, where rider Callan Solem told me all they need to wear at night is a sheet.
"Last year, we couldn't put enough blankets on them," she recalled with a shiver.
The footing is good, the warm-up area is huge, there is a series of clinics for spectators and everyone, riders and fans, feels welcome in the homey atmosphere. This is the Maclay's debut at Syracuse, and they're doing it up right. Yesterday they made a big deal out of the draw for the order of go, and presented Susie Humes and George Morris to the riders during a little informal luncheon.
George offered a useful lecture on what the Maclay means, along with a couple of pointers for competitors.
"Here come the judges," George started off, with a smile and nod to the old Flip Wilson line that had probably never been heard by the young people present (but those of us old enough to remember "Here Comes Da Judge" certainly laughed.)
George is not one to mince words, and he made his points this time. Bling is out; he wants nothing on the rider to outshine the horse.
"The horse always comes first," said George. After all, it is the ASPCA that is sponsoring this class, and, by the way, is giving a $10,000 scholarship to the winner.
"What is horsemanship? It is caring for your horse," emphasized George, who urged his listeners to draw the line on over-schooling their mounts, indicating that any unsoundness would not be ignored by these judges.
What are he and Susie looking for? Somebody who does their own thing, isn't a strict stride-counter and "gets the job done."
"We're setting a course...(on which) in a sense you can do your own thing. I like people to have their own initiative and imagination. Use this course. Think about it, analyze it according to how it best suits your horse," George advised. "Don't be afraid to show off, because brilliance always gets bonus points."
Oh, and George also promised "a very interesting first fence." Can't wait to see it.
I'm really looking forward to the Maclay, even though I have to be at the Oncenter Complex at 6:30 a.m. (ouch!) for the start of the class. I think it figures to be a showdown between 2005 USEF Talent Search and Washington International winner Julie Welles and Brianne Goutal, who took both those classes in 2004 and will have swept every major equitation championship if she wins the Maclay. But there are plenty of other contenders, too. I'll give you details on how it all comes out in tomorrow's postcard.
Now I've just got to get some sleep!