Washington, D.C., Oct. 30, 2005 -- Forget those old rumors that the Washington International Horse Show is on shaky ground. This blend of entertainment and competition has reached just the right balance, and the public responded by greeting the fall circuit fixture at the MCI Arena with enthusiasm. I mean, my ears are still ringing from all the cheering that was the soundtrack for puissance night.
"This year has been our best. We have raised close to $800,000 in sponsorship," show President Sheila Johnson-Newman told me.
"I think we have crossed the threshold where this show is going to be very profitable," she said the other day, as we sat in her luxurious skybox (it looked just like an elegant but comfy livingroom with a great bird's eye
view of the action.)
The secret to Washington's success?
"Cross-marketing to a very diverse population," Sheila said. "The way I did it was by coming up with more of a western theme this year."
That included her VIP party in the Acela Club overlooking the arena, where guests feasted on the likes of cowboy potato dumplings, chili-cured chicken and Texas millionaire cheesecake. There was bull riding on Sunday night, two days before the hunter/jumper show opened, and last night, the President's Cup grand prix was followed by country-western singer Tracy Byrd in concert. In addition, on Friday night four jumper riders, including Britain's Michael Whitaker, participated in a Pro-Am barrel racing competition. Throw in terrier racing and the finals of the WIHS equitation championship, and you can see why buying a ticket was so worthwhile.
It's great to have a show downtown in a major American city, some of whose landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian towers and the Lincoln Memorial) are replicated in models on one wall of the arena to give it more atmosphere. The plus side of being in the heart of the city means there are plenty of good restaurants and shops within walking distance. On the minus side, horses are stabled in cramped quarters in the building, or behind chain link fencing on the street, where it gives the average pedestrian pause to be sharing the sidewalk with several neatly braided hunters.
But riders put up with some inconvenience so they can appear in an important venue, especially since the National has departed Gotham. Washington is now the crown jewel of "indoors."
"The last year or two it has had a nice spark and some new life," jumper rider Todd Minikus said of the show.
"We have Sheila Johnson to thank. She stuck her neck out," said Laura Kraut, referring to the fact that the show's president was determined to make the fixture fly.
And it certainly was soaring last night, when 24-year-old Kent Farrington capped a fabulous season by winning the featured $100,000 President's Cup. He was aboard Madison, the Dutchbred mare he has brought along from a green prospect to American Grand Prix Association Horse of the Year for 2005.
His Cup performance demonstrated why Madison got the year-end award. She and Kent dominated a stellar field, including Todd, who wound up third on Flier, and Laura, missing by just 0.22 seconds aboard Anthem. Kent took special care in a triple combination (scaled back to a double for the eight-horse jump-off) where a delicate plank supported by standards that looked like the Jefferson Memorial caused a lot of problems.
Difficulty there in the tie-breaker scuttled the chances of Britain's Nick Skelton, the fifth-ranked rider in the world, aboard the usually spectacular Arko, and his countryman, Michael Whitaker on the flashy bay, Mozart des Hayettes. This coming week's Syracuse, N.Y., show collaborated with Washington to bring over some well-known (and one not-so-well-known) riders from Europe. The not-so-well-known rider was Harry Smolders of the Netherlands, number 101 on the show jumping world rankings. But in Washington, Harry got an instant reputation and let me tell you, Smolders didn't smolder; he simply burned up the track on Friday night.
That was the evening his mount, Verelst Quebec, enjoyed the unusual distinction of winning both a speed class and then the puissance a few hours later. How many horses do you know who can gallop around a course AND have the power (not to mention the endurance) to clear 7-feet, 4 and 1/2 inches?
More amazing was the fact that Harry, who's from the Netherlands, just got the ride on the black gelding two weeks ago from his boss, horse dealer Axel Verloy of Belgium. And after Syracuse, he's losing the ride. Last week, the horse was bought by a California-based Argentine, Guillermo Obligado.
But in between, Harry is having a heck of time. It sure put him on the map. At age 25, he had never competed in the U.S. before this week. Even so, he has plenty of poise, and needed it, the way the puissance turned out. The class shaped up to be very competitive, with several former winners participating along with Nick, the crowd's favorite to win aboard Russel. This is the gray stallion who attempted (but didn't quite clear) a fence that was nearly 7 feet tall in the Six-Bar at Spruce Meadows last month.
It looked as if things might be over early here when the horses who had tied in the first jump-off knocked down the faux brick wall at a height of 6 feet, 11 and 1/2 inches. I was starting to gather my things for departure when it was announced that three of the tied riders would try again.
This time, Nick; Harry, and Aaron Vale (who flew over the wall aboard Secret Love with one hand raised in the air like a bronc rider) left the wall intact and elected to go one more round. Harry cleared the wall at its new height, but Aaron didn't, so all eyes were on Nick. Unfortunately, he told me later, he got Russel in a little too close to the target, leaving Harry the winner.
"I went in the puissance with the idea (of going) maybe two rounds," said Harry, explaining he is still unfamiliar with the horse, since Washington was only his second show riding Quebec.
"I don't know what to expect, so I expected nothing and I got everything," he said happily. Quebec, he told me, "is very quiet, but he knows his job." Ditto Harry. I was impressed at his horsemanship in assessing what needed to be done in two very different circumstances. I think he could have had a real shot at the President's Cup trophy, too, had not his other mount, Exquis Oliver Q, stumbled on a turn after the first fence in the jump-off to leave him more than four seconds adrift of Kent in fourth place (but still fault-free).
While the course was being set on Friday, the Urban Nation Hip-Hop Choir serenaded the crowd of about 9,500 from a balcony above the ring. That meant there were no down moments of just looking at the dirt during the evening. That was another tribute to the showmanship (and diversity) that are Washington's strong points. Sheila understands that you can't depend on the old horse show crowd to fill the seats.
It's a new era, and the sport has to change with it in order to survive in an expensive venue geared for spectators.
Dressage used to be big at the International. In fact, the show once was the scene of the U.S. League finals for the World Cup. There hasn't been much in the way of dressage here in recent years, but manager Hugh Kincannon told me organizers hope that will be changing. This year's offering was a step in that direction, with three riders taking part in a "judged exhibition" involving a Grand Prix and a musical freestyle. The package was won by the most experienced competitor on hand, Canada's Olympic vet, Ashley Holzer riding Gambol. The horses were dusted with gold glitter for an eye-catching look and the crowd enjoyed seeing something different. It would be nice to up the ante next year, though, and have a really serious competition with more names dressage fans will recognize.
Gosh, there's so much else I have to tell you, but I'll just hit the highlights; I'm getting writer's cramp. Scott Stewart, who glumly watched last year's Washington from the stands because he was sidelined with a broken ankle, was in his usual form winning the Grand Hunter Championship with Krista Weisman's Chopard. Scott said he sees the horse doing more in the amateur-owner division than in the open section in the future, but said he still hopes to have the opportunity to compete him occasionally.
The Junior Hunter Grand Champion was Natalie Johnson's beautifully predictable Moulin Rouge, achieving a long-held dream for her owner in their final outing together. Indoors is always a time of goodbyes for the riders who have aged out of their division, and New York University student Natalie will now concentrate on the jumpers. She'll miss Moulin Rouge (who I was amazed to see didn't turn a hair about stepping out into the city noise for her photo op.) "But I still have three horses to love," Natalie told me.
All her prize money goes to a good cause--JustWorld International, which helps underprivileged children in developing countries. Natalie takes this seriously; she has even visited the kids in Honduras. Her parents encouraged her to become involved with Just World.
"My father is into doing something as a life lesson," she explained.
Natalie, who trains with Andre Dignelli's barn, Heritage, also competed in last night's finals of the Washington International's equitation classic, finishing fourth there behind winner Julie Welles, Missy Clark's student. You'll remember that Julie (who has another year left in the equitation ranks) won the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Talent Search Finals East last month. The top 10, who switched horses for the finals, were culled from two earlier rounds, one hunter style, one jumper style.
It will be interesting to watch the unflappable Julie go head-to-head with the equally unflappable Brianne Goutal (the 2004 Washington winner who wasn't eligible to ride this year) when the Maclay finals makes its debut at Syracuse next weekend. This will be my first trip to Syracuse, and I'm eager to see what this highly touted new show is all about. Keep watching this space. I'll be sending several postcards to fill you in on all the action.