October 31, 2009 -- Today's biggest winners at the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament were the North Run crew of Missy Clark, John Brennan and Kristy McCormack. They scored an incredible double, sending Zazou Hoffman out to win the ASPCA Maclay finals, and then, a few hours later, celebrating the victory of their stable rider, Darragh Kenny of Ireland, with their horse, Obelix in the $100,000 Budweiser World Cup Qualifier of Syracuse.
I don't recall any stable ever doing anything like this in the same day. It was pretty impressive and a testimony to the ability of these trainers.
But talk about a long day! The Maclay got under way with 150 riders at 6:30 a.m. at the War Memorial arena, which meant many of those involved got scant sleep, if any, while preparing for this.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first round course, which was lovely to look at, rather than tricky--as I've seen a little too often in this class--had the aura of an old-fashioned hunter route, with rustic rails, hedges and tree stumps. This layout, happily, wasn't in the least bit contrived. I watched a bit of the competition with U.S. show jumping coach George Morris, who won the Maclay himself as a junior and trained many riders to the title in this class. And he's designed a few very testing Maclay courses as well.
George explained to me that the course enabled riders to demonstrate their ability without stepping out of their comfort zone, which explained the lack of the heartbreaking disasters I've often seen in the Maclay. Those who were up to it could make a tight turn or hand gallop along one of the long, unrelated distances.
"There are definitely places to show off. What competition is about at the end of the day is all about showing off; based on horsemanship showing off, not something stupid," he told me.
After the flat phase, Samantha Harrison of California was in the lead, followed by Zazou, who is also from California; Catherine Pasmore, Laura Pfieffer and Jennifer Waxman. The judges, Billy Moroney (president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association) and Jack Towell came up with an unusual second round. It's apparently been done elsewhere, but never in the Maclay in the eons that I have been covering it.
Look at the course map: It was a take-your-own-line route. Sally Ike, who oversees show jumping for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, had the unenviable task of keeping track of what each of the 24 finalists chose to do, making sure they took the required nine fences and included the required trot jump and hand-gallop. Putting in a whine for myself, it was really tough to take photos of this round, because I had no idea of who was going where, so I couldn't choose the best vantage bpoint; I just had to shoot what I got, trying to second-guess what competitors would do.
They could pick a line that would emphasize their strong points. Zazou, for instance, did a lot off the left lead, because that is the best direction of her mount, Ivy.
This round was very influential, and afterwards, Zazou moved up to first, followed by Chase Boggio, who was 10th following the flatwork, when his counter-canter got interrupted by a horse bumping his mount. Samantha dropped to fourth and dark horse Morgan Hale--who was impressive but had never won a ribbon in an equitation finals--moved into third place.
I was surprised the judges wanted one more test, but they did, asking the top four to ride a conventional course without stirrups. The test did not change the placings, and Zazou's consistency earned her the top spot.
Zazou dissolved into tears when Chase's name was announced as the runner-up in the Miss America-style pinning of the class, from tenth to first. The tears took only a brief respite during the awards ceremony and post-class congratulations and interviews. Zazou, by the way, is named after old-time actress Zasu Pitts. I heard the story when I first met Zazou a couple of years ago at the George Morris Horsemastership program in Florida. At that time, I was told Zazou means "wild thing" in French, according to her mom, Winter, who picked out the name because of its resemblance to Zasu.
Zazou has come close before; she was second in the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals this year, and third in the Maclay finals last year. It was her final shot, and she hit the bull's-eye. Sadly, her parents couldn't make the trip from California to see her victory. Zazou has been living in Vermont with her trainers, but now will return to the West Coast to finish high school and begin college.
"She's such a hard worker. I can't say enough about her work ethic," said Missy, who has trained her for five or six years.
"I've been doing this for so long and working so hard at it. Everything happened so fast I wasn't paying attention to where I was in the standings," Zazou said between happy sobs.
The judges felt the class was very high quality. Billy added, "It was nice not to see all the jumps falling down all the time. I think people are learning not to wear their horses out, but to ride their horses."
Chase, by the way, is only 15. He rode a new mount, Jacqueline Lubrano's Golou II, and they meshed perfectly. He likely will be accepting the Maclay trophy one of these days, as Missy noted.
Christina Schlusemeyer, who spoke in one of the soundbytes in my last postcard, coaches Chase along with Bobby Braswell, whose daughter, Molly was 10th. They also train Amber Henter, featured in another soundbyte in that postcard. Poor Amber had to go first in the class--Christina had her wearing bunny ears and a cottontail for schooling to lighten the mood on Halloween--and then she was 13th to ride in the second round. But she overcame all the bad luck to finish eighth.
The grand prix was so different from last year, when Christine McCrea on Vegas had the only clean round to win the competition. This year's course, designed by Richard Jeffery, was more reasonable but still challenging. Christine was in a difficult position; she was third of seven in the tiebreaker and had to take into account that the two previous riders had rails down. Did she go all out to hit her mark of a clean round in 37.50 seconds?
When Darragh went, next-to-last, there was only one other clean round, his countryman Dermott Lennon on Hallmark Elite, but he was slower than Christine in 38.42 seconds.
Darragh had a marvelous trip to wrap up an amazing season for the 21-year-old, who made quite an impact on the show jumping scene this year. Obelix finished in 36.24 seconds, which was impressive but perhaps could have been beatable with speedball and stablemate Hillary Dobbs coming behind him on Quincy B. Though she gave it a good shot, Hillary fell short by a mere 0.21 seconds.
Darragh pointed out that his horse has a bigger stride than Hillary's, and that proved to be the difference.
"He jumped absolutely amazing," he said.
"I'm thrilled with this result," Hillary commented, noting she doesn't mind being second to "one of my best friends."
I didn't know much about Darragh, so I asked him to tell me a little about himself. The son of a professional horseman and horsewoman who live on a farm in Offaly, Ireland, obliged.
Darragh was in awe of the Syracuse experience, produced by its founder, John Madden.
"For me, the atmosphere was fantastic. The crowd was great, they get so behind you. It's a super show, I've never been here before," he said Darragh.
"For me, this is one of the premier shows in our country," said Hillary, who said "the atmosphere here is the closest thing we've got to the show jumping atmosphere in Europe. The fans are engaged and John Madden does an amazing job."
There are so many fun things about Syracuse. My favorite is the costume class. You'll see several photos in my Syracuse gallery, including the rider who got the prize for best costume, McLain Ward. He made a great Cruella De Vil.
Leslie Howard was rather out of character as Tinkerbell, I thought, so I asked her about it.
This afternoon, Leslie ran into problems, literally, in the ride/drive that features riders jumping a course with their horses, then switching gears to hop into a tractor for a timed race around the arena.
Leslie was going full speed, heading for the ring wall, when she realized the tractor was out of control. When she practiced for the class, she never found out where the brake was--she explained the instructions just called for stepping off the gas when the driver wanted to slow down. So Leslie went full tilt into the ring wall, unable to stop, just grateful that she didn't go through it into the VIP tables. None the worse for the mishap and laughing hysterically, Leslie apologized to the owner of the tractor. Still giggling, she received an unusual trophy--a broken headlight. All the riders signed it and it went back to the tractor owner as an unusual souvenir.
I'll be back with another postcard Sunday night as the show wraps up with the Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup.