October 31, 2010 -- The Washington International is one of my favorite shows, full of excitement and anticipation feeding on the energy of its unique location.
Remember what it was like being in Madison Square Garden during the heyday of the National Horse Show there? To me, this fixture has the same vibe.
From start to finish, it offers a whirl of high-profile competitions and special attractions geared toward spectators, while the benefits for exhibitors go beyond prize money to include great restaurants and hotels, all within two or three blocks of the Verizon Center.
Organizers make a huge effort to bring in spectators of all ages. For instance, Saturday was kids' day, with pony rides in front of the hotel where many riders stay. Today, as the show closed, children under 12 got in free to watch the World of the Horse exhibitions that might prompt them to start nagging mom and dad for a mount of their own. Terrier races, dressage and World Equestrian Games team silver medalist Chester Weber doing driving demos with his four-in-hand all added to the fun.
But nothing comes easy in the heart of a big city. Naturally, this show has a large element of inconvenience, especially since many of the horses are stabled on the street. Those avenues have to be blocked off for the duration of the show. The horses arrive and depart with military precision from Prince Georges Equestrian Center in Maryland, which means vans are going back and forth morning and night most days. The operation became even more complicated when the Secret Service got involved with shutting down yet more streets while the President was doing the John Stewart show in the vicinity.
Maneuvering backstage at the arena also takes real focus, even if you're not on a horse, in order to wend your way safely through the jumper stabling area behind the ring floor, while watching out for tractors and horses schooling in a cramped warm-up area complete with large pillars.
"It is for sure more difficult than almost any indoor venue there is, but I think by far it's worth it," acknowledges Robert Ridland, who co-manages the show with David Distler.
"The feedback, particularly this year, has been positive. We're in the nation's capital, there's stuff going on, there's electricity in the air. It's a great venue. To have our sport presented in not only the center of a metropolis, but in one of the great cities of the world is something we can't give up."
The show has a year-to-year contract at the arena, which is under new ownership this year, and negotiations for 2011 won't begin for a few weeks. The show has always looked at alternative locations (you have to be prepared) but Chief Operating Officer Tony Hitchock told me, "This is where we want to be, in the nation's capital, in this building."
The International has had several venues over its 52 years (I can remember as a kid watching Rodney Jenkins competing when it was in the old armory in the city) but this is the one that has panache.
As Tracey Weinberg, who won the amateur-owner jumper champion with Larone, put it, "There's nothing like riding at Washington, the prestige." The Virginia resident is not the least bit blase, even though she first began competing in the show 35 years ago.
"It's always exciting to end the year here. I have so many friends from the barn who are here because they can drive in," said.
The novelty of being at a major sports venue adds to the fun.
"I was at the Caps (Washington Capitals hockey) game (at the center) last Saturday and going to be at the Caps game this Friday. The week in between, I'm at a horse show doing my sport. It's cool," she said.
The riders handle the challenges with a smile; like Tracey, everyone I talked to is glad to be here. I chatted about it with Maggie Jayne, the grand hunter champion with conformation titleist Francesca, about how her stable copes with the challenges at the Verizon Center.
Bobby Drennan, the VIP concierge, was just as enthusiastic on his first visit to the show, and this is a guy who has worked everywhere from the Hampton Classic to the Winter Equestrian Festival.
"This is the most fantastic indoor event I have seen in decades. It's first class all the way," he enthused as the VIPS and riders swirled around him in the aerie of the exclusive (at least during the horse show) Acela Club high above the arena floor.
And that's what you have to say about the $100,000 President's Cup, one of the country's landmark grands prix. Michel Vaillancourt, who won the individual silver medal for Canada in the 1976 Olympics, did a magnificent job with the course. The ring isn't huge, so it's not easy to set a route for a field of 24 that includes a bunch of world class riders (McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Rodrigo Pessoa, Pablo Barrios, Todd Minikus, etc.) along with several lesser lights, but it was a safe and sound layout. It featured some fences that gave a sense of place, with standards modeled on the Jefferson Memorial and the Smithsonian Institution, a nice match for the replicas of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial beside the scoreboard.
Handicapping the class, my odds-on favorite was McLain with Sapphire, even though Rodrigo was aboard HH Ashley, who won the grand prix at Harrisburg, Pa., this month.
Frankly, when I saw Sapphire being walked up and down the street the other day (look at my gallery for visual proof) I raised my eyebrows for more than one reason. I had thought she might be resting after the WEG, so I asked McLain about her schedule.
Seven made it into the Cup's jump-off, but only three were clean. Rodrigo wasn't one of them; he had a rail with Ashley and had to settle for fifth behind another 4-faulter, Charlie Jayne on Athena.
Pablo cruised carefully on G&C Quick Star to wind up third, going for "a safe round" after a bad jump-off at Harrisburg last week, but Aaron Vale, always a scrappy contender, went for it on Paparazzi. His time of 34.87 seconds fell just short of McLain's masterful round that brought Sapphire home in 34.09.
"I got around about as good as I could have hoped," said the folksy and friendly Aaron.
"I was hoping to jump fence one and get back quickly to two, I thought that was my best chance to gain some time. I got six strides and McLain actually got five there," he said.
"Sapphire's such a great horse and she's just got a big stride," continued Aaron, noting McLain's ability to do four strides from an in-and-out to an oxer later in the course, "sealed the deal" for the winner.
"I had to put the pedal down and hope it stood up," explained McLain.
While it wasn't the best night for Rodrigo and Pablo, they got their licks in.
The evening before, Pablo won an anti-climactic puissance that only went two rounds to a mere 6-feet, 1-inch on G&C Blanchee Z. Just five starters and a series of mishaps may have sealed the fate of this class, the only competition of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. It could be replaced next year by a four bar, or something equivalent. Most riders just don't have a horse who can do the puissance; the sport has gone in a different, more technical direction that emphasizes adjustability more than power.
Rodrigo was the leading jumper rider and leading foreign rider (he rides for Brazil) by virtue of his trifecta of victories. For the Gambler's Choice costume class, Rodrigo was appropriately garbed in a real auto racer's outfit complete with helmet. That might have been his regular weekend wear if he had pursued his other interest, he said, but his speed serves him well in the one-round classes he dominated.
I asked him about his prospects for HH Ashley, a very handsome mare that I hadn't seen before.
The best get-up in the Gambler's Choice belonged to McLain. I couldn't stop laughing after watching him dressed as a rooster in head-to-toe fake feathers. Unfortunately, it was a warm night and a chicken suit raised the temp a little too much, he told me, vowing never to wear it again.
The Washington Equitation class is the next-to-last of the big fall finals, and it's quite a test. There's a hunter phase, a jumper phase (the time faults can sink a star) and a final switch of horses among the top 10.
Lillie Keenan, only 13, was in a sickbed for 16 hours last week, but she wasn't going to give up her second try for the trophy. No stranger to adversity this season, she also had to overcome her horse being out of commission, but she was fortunate enough to get the loan of Uno earlier this month from the Turner family to go after the title.
Trained by Andre Dignelli and Patricia Griffiths at Heritage, she was second in the hunter phase, moved up in the jumper phase and stayed there in the last leg, just edging Molly Braswell for the honors, 265.748 to 265.082.
The great crowd Friday night (attracted by the puissance, as usual) appreciated everything it saw, even if the evening ended too early. I was blown away by the reaction to a dressage freestyle by Pam Goodrich on Lamborghini. People went nuts when she did her one-tempis and extended trot.
I talked to her as she came, breathless, out of the ring.
People get the idea the show is in town (and are often inspired to buy a ticket)when they come up out of the Metro (subway) and find themselves practically face-to-face with the horses.
Watching the passersby stop to look at the horses behind the wire fencing that separates them from the sidewalk is fun. The grooms and owners generally are wonderful ambassadors, answering questions as they poultice, unbraid or brush the horses. I saw a groom bring over a horse for someone to touch. The man was afraid of such a big animal, darting his hand over the fence and back several times before getting up the courage to touch the horse, then bursting into a delighted smile when he finally made (brief) contact. This is interaction the equestrian community can't afford to lose.
Looking wistfully through the wire fence that separates the horses from the sidewalk outside the Verizon Center, a little girl gets a close look at a handsome hunter. | ? 2010 by Lawrence J. Nagy
The International has had some hard financial times, but CEO Eric Straus has emphasized cutting costs (for instance, finding a vendor who doesn't charge as much for engraving the show's legion of trophies). Together with a push for sponsorship, the show is getting close to break-even and has been doing well for its charities.
"We turned the corner, we're heading uphill and we're going to build on this horse show and make it better," vowed show president Juliet Reid, who is Chester Weber's sister.
This postcard is on its way to being a book, and there's lots more I can't fit in. For details on who won, go to www.wihs.org. And for more photos, check out the gallery.
This is my last postcard of the season. But I'll be in touch, bringing you news and bulletins as they come up.