October 25, 2009 -- The Washington International Horse Show puts the emphasis on "show," and that's what makes it so special, whether you're watching or riding. Lots of big cities in Europe host shows, but the International is the only fixture of its kind remaining in the heart of one of this country's major urban centers.
Colorful exhibitions, terrier races and classes geared to attract spectators for the evening sessions make this as much entertainment as it is competition, and I think that's terrific in terms of popularizing horse sport.
It's so neat to see blase commuters and preoccupied passersby do a double take when they see horses strolling down the sidewalk near the Verizon Center. Stabling for most is under tents in the streets (luckily the city closes three of them for the duration of the show!), just a short stroll from hotels, great restaurants (well-patronized by show folk) and museums (who has time?). The assets of a great city on the doorstep of a show definitely heighten the chemistry. It reminds me of the National Horse Show during the years it was in Madison Square Garden.
The only place to ride at the Verizon Center while classes are running is in the tiny warm-up area, punctuated by large pillars. That reminds me of the Garden, too. You want to be in the city? You have to make some sacrifices. Everyone gets time in the saddle on a schedule, but that means the place has to stay open all night, and lots of alarm clocks are set for odd hours.
Ashley Holzer, the New York-based Canadian dressage rider who gave a series of fabulous freestyle exhibitions here, longed her horse, Pop Art, at 4:30 a.m. daily. She seemed to take it in stride, as did her good-natured groom, Holly Jones, who set the land speed record for braiding, getting the job done in 15 minutes every evening in the very cramped quarters behind the ring, where the jumpers are stabled. At least the street horses have fresh air.
I asked Ashley whether this was all a bit much to go through for privilege of appearing in the nation's capital.
By the way, Poppy looks terrific. Everyone better watch out for Ashley next year at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Course designer Richard Jeffery, who laid out the hunter routes and is a regular at the show, had his own thoughts about what organizers and staff face in Washington.
Eric Straus took over as the CEO in August, and was drafted to present lots of the show's historic trophies (most of which looked very heavy; it had to be the equivalent of a nightly weight-lifting workout under a spotlight for him). His real work, of course, involved supervising the myriad details that go into this massive effort.
"It's one thing to hear or read what the logistics are. It's a whole other thing to experience them inside-out. The dedication and knowledge of our staff to be able to make this all work is beyond words. It's the most intricate mosaic I've ever seen," said Eric, a former executive director of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's predecessor, the American Horse Shows Association.
The folks in the seats don't know anything about what it really takes, of course, they just appreciate what they're seeing. That's especially true of the puissance, a class that is run all too rarely these days. It's sure a crowd-pleaser though, especially with an attractive new wall that Washington is sharing with the Charlotte, N.C., show. No one carries a puissance horse with them as they used to a few decades back, but you can always count on McLain Ward to give it a good shot with whatever is available to him.
This time it was Vancouver, a Dutchbred imported from New Zealand who McLain had only shown once before tackling the wall. He made it into the third jump-off at 6-feet, 10 inches, then misjudged his approach and the wall came tumbling down. Well, parts of it anyway. But Ohio professional David Beisel, riding in his first puissance, literally tackled the wall himself, falling into it when his mount, Patoille, adamantly refused to try the final height for a second time.
So McLain won again, another blue ribbon in a record year for him.
However, his two-time Olympic gold medal ride, Sapphire, was absent--she's through for the season--so McLain was not a cinch to win the $100,000 President's Cup, one of this country's landmark grands prix.
He was aboard Couletto K. James, whom he first worked with early in the horse's career, before the gelding went on to other riders, including Kim Prince and Katherine Miracle. He's now doing the junior jumpers with Katie Dinan, who kindly loaned him the horse when Sapphire went on sabbatical.
The course was set by Guilherme Jorge of Brazil, whose career highlights include the World Cup finals and Pan American Games. The 2016 Olympics should be added to that list, since they'll be held in Rio and Guilherme is the only course designer of such elevated international caliber in his country. He'll only say he's hoping he'll be chosen, but he's a modest guy.
As is the case at the World Cup in Vegas, the crowd is very close to the ring in Washington, which heightens the level of difficulty. Carlos Boy and Ken Berkley, fifth in the jump order, had the first clean round, but a time fault put them out of the jump-off--which I worried might not even occur. Five rides later, Kate Levy and Lirving du Voisin managed a 0/0 effort, but no one else could beat the course until new American citizen Mario Deslauriers did it with Vicomte D, 22nd of the 29 in the class to run. Mario was joined in the clean round club by Todd Minikus on the German-bred Irish import Alaska, four from the end, so we were finally cooking. McLain, a two-time Cup winner and the defending champion, was last to go, but he was done in by fence 11A of 13 obstacles, an oxer that started off the triple combination.
Kate set a decent pace, achieving her goal of a clear round in 36.32 seconds. It was eminently beatable by a rider of Mario's caliber. He was the youngest person ever to win the World Cup finals, doing it in 1984, when he was 18 and a Canadian. (Mario, who rides for U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation President Jane Clark, switched allegiances, he told me, because he has been based in this country for a long time. Being married to an American, former international rider Lisa Tarnopol Silverman, could have a bit to do with it as well.)
While Mario's time was an impressive 34.48 seconds, a rail down at the last fence finished his quest for the prize. It was, unfortunately, getting to be a familiar ending for Mario.
"The last two big classes I did with him, in the jump-off I had the last fence down. Tonight he really put on a good show. It's just a matter of keep at it and luck will come back," he insisted.
So the luck was with Kate for awhile, but it didn't last through Todd's ride, as he went after his first Cup victory since 1990, when he took the prize on Thrilling.
Todd failed to better Mario's time, but he came close in 34.55 seconds. More important, he left the rails in the cups with Callie Seaman's attractive dark brown gelding, who exudes pure quality.
"He's a careful horse, very good with his technique," his rider observed.
"He doesn't have enough mileage at this point, but he always gives it a good effort. When he guesses, he usually guesses with the right answers," added Todd, who has an incredible string at the moment. He wound up as the show's leading jumper rider, denying Hillary Dobbs, the winner in 2007 and 2008, a hat trick in that category.
The Leading International Rider was Andres Rodriguez, a charming 25-year-old from Venezuela who used to ride with the Pessoa family in Europe.
Now he's based in the U.S. and pointing toward the WEG, if he can get someone to join him and Pablo Barrios on a team. Andres won the hilarious Gambler's Choice costume class, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, so appropriate for his long, thin build.
The class was a riot. Imagine Jimmy Torano as a samba dancer in a ruffled yellow skirt, or Allison Firestone Robitaille as an Indian chief. Best of all was Kent "Alice in Wonderland" Farrington, cutting quite the figure in a little blue dress. He's part of my Washington photo gallery.
Washington isn't all jumpers, of course. The hunters get a pretty good piece of the show and as always, Scott Stewart gets a pretty good piece of the hunters. He was grand champion of the professional divisions with Declaration, and it looked as if he were going to win the $15,000 Hunter Classic Derby with him, too. The class, open only to champions, has one conventional round and then a handy round over a different course for the top six. Scott not unexpectedly was leading the way with Declaration and standing second with Way Cool. In the handy round, he went for it with Way Cool, a stunning chestnut, knowing that dark chocolate-colored Declaration probably would take the prize. Whoops--and then there was the trot jump...quite awkward. I'll let Scott tell you about Declaration's mishap.
No worries, though. The master horseman was first and second, just in an order that was the reverse of what he'd counted on.
Washington's equitation championship has gotten more prestigious over the years, even though it doesn't have the lengthy history of the ASPCA Maclay and Pessoa/USEF Medal. But it sure is a test, with a hunter phase, a jumper phase and a final round in which each of the 10 best rides a competitor's mount. While it can be difficult to handle a catch ride like your own horse, these equines are so professional that it may not be quite as tough as it sounds.
Trainer Kim Stewart had a strong feeling that her student, Samantha Schaefer, would do well here and texted the 16-year-old to that effect after she blew the USEF Medal work-off earlier this month.
"Is the suicide watch off?" Kim typed. "You're going to win the Washington."
Right she was (but darn it, she wouldn't tell me what the stock market is going to do.)
Samantha kept the lead and took the prize. She gets her equitation fine points from Andre Dignelli, who is never far from the winner's circle. Kim said Don Stewart also contributed to Samantha's victory. Chase Boggio, who won the eq title at the Capital Challenge as indoors got under way last month, was the reserve.
The most moving moments at the show involved the Army's Caisson Platoon, which provides the horses used in military funerals. The black horses, with smartly uniformed riders, pulled the caissons around the arena in solemnly impressive style. Then they switched gears to demonstrate another duty of their horses, providing therapy for our wounded warriors. Those brave souls benefit from a specially designed carriage (it has a ramp for wheelchair access) and riding the horses with military sidewalkers helping them out.
I hope this offered some insight to folks in the audience who aren't aware of what therapeutic riding is all about. Molly Sweeney knows very well, and she's trying to convince others of its value. She's the president of the Horses and Humans Research Foundation. Listen to what she had to say about her group's work.
By the way, if Molly's name sounds familiar, it's because she's the mother of amateur show jumper Brian Sweeney. He is married to the former Debbie Dolan, whose victories included such grands prix as the Hampton Classic before she switched gears to concentrate on motherhood, rather than international show jumping.
I asked Molly how she got involved with therapeutic riding. She told me it started when one of her kids outgrew a saddle and she wanted to give it to a therapeutic group.
"They didn't take the saddle (it was a flat jumper saddle and therefore unsuitable) but they took me and talked me into volunteering," she recalled.
Horses and Humans was a natural outgrowth of her interest. Read more about it at www.horsesandhumans.org.
The next stop for me is the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, which runs in conjunction with the National Horse Show. Be sure to come back to read my postcards from there next weekend.