Washington, D.C., October 14, 2007 -- Getting off the Metro, this city's version of the subway, pedestrians walking out onto F Street during the run of the Washington International Horse Show get a pleasant surprise as they find themselves facing a long row of stables.
Okay, so the stalls are behind chain link fence and barbed wire to discourage folks from walking in or worse, but the set-up does afford a glimpse into a way of life that is totally unfamiliar to most of those passing by.
I was fascinated to find that nannies regularly make a point of bringing their young charges by every morning of the show to watch the action in the outdoor schooling area, a temporary footing-filled enclosure on the street in the shadow of the Verizon Center sign. I talked to an artist who eagerly was sketching four-legged subjects he doesn't usually see around town.
And there are some "impulse buyers" who spot the horses and then purchase a ticket. Show manager Hugh Kincannon told me there was a lot of walk-up box office traffic on Friday night, when the arena looked as if it were pretty close to its capacity of 13,000 spectators for this show. I'm betting many of them were folks intrigued by seeing the horses on the street.
The urban experience isn't a joy for many of the exhibitors and their mounts, of course. The lucky riders stay in a lovely hotel across the street from the arena and enjoy the wonderful restaurants in the lively Penn Quarter area.
In some of the divisions, however, horses have to be shuttled back and forth to the more capacious Prince Georges Equestrian Center in suburban Maryland. It means running on the official vanner's schedule (no space for parking equine transportation in downtown Washington) and thus long nights for grooms, trainers and riders. And everyone works in close quarters with little room for exercising horses. But there are pluses that have to be balanced with that. Washington is a one-of-a-kind show, exuding a generous share of the cosmopolitan aura that used to shine when the National was at Madison Square Garden.
I asked jumper rider Georgina Bloomberg what she thought about showing in Washington, and she's pro-city despite the inconveniences. Of course, that's not actually a surprise, since she's from New York, where her father is the mayor.
But she made some good points as she discussed the subject with me.
Washington was missing one component that makes it special, the European riders. This show in the past picked up part of the tab for their expenses, along with Syracuse and Toronto, which usually follow it. But because of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's chaotic date change situation and the ensuing clash with the start of the arena's basketball season, Washington switched weeks with the Pennsylvania National. That meant there was too long a stretch before Syracuse for a cooperative arrangement on the foreigners to work.
Their absence most affected the puissance, or high jump, always a high point (forgive the pun) at Washington. That's one reason the crowd at the Friday night show was so big--they love the puissance, just as fans did in New York. The puissance basically has vanished from North America, but it's more popular abroad, so the Europeans used to fill out the class at Washington.
As it was, there were only four entries trying to clear the faux brick wall, but as show manager Hugh Kincannon pointed out, even two entries are enough if they avoid knockdowns so the wall can go higher with each round.
The class went to McLain Ward, a puissance specialist if you can call him that when he only competes in one a year. But he returned on a previous winner, Pozitano, borrowed from Alexandra Cherubini for the occasion. In the third round Pozitano gave the blocks atop the wall a good rub, but they stayed in place, and he went on to clear 6 feet, 8 and 1/2 inches. The only other horse to try the wall at its highest, the always impressive Conejo, toppled the blocks with Karen Cudmore of Canada in the irons.
Pozitano's day job is as an adult amateur/low amateur-owner jumper (wouldn't you like to know you had that scope to call on!) But even with a horse like that, you shouldn't try to jump the really big fences at home, kids. You need to know what you're doing, and I asked McLain about that.
McLain said the old puissance horses, like Idle Dice and San Lucas, were power jumpers for the power competition, but that isn't the vogue today.
"Nobody keeps horses for this type of event anymore," he pointed out. "The modern grand prix horse is not built to jump this; these little catlike horses we have today to jump these toothpick rails in a tight time-allowed. It's a different sport; it's changed. Now the sport is about the Authentics and the Goldikas."
He thinks the puissance has had its day at Washington, and figures next year it will be replaced by a four-bar class, where the fences can go up to more than six feet, but is more suited to the style of this era's horses.
I asked Hugh about that, and he said the scarcity of entries prompts the show committee to discuss eliminating the puissance every year. Even so, he gave me a "we'll see" answer when I asked about the future of the class.
Part of the Friday night crowd also probably was there to watch the dressage freestyle. It's done in an invitational format, with only four riders invited to have a go at $25,000 in prize money, with $10,000 for the winner.
It was no surprise that Courtney King-Dye (she got married last month) was the winner with Idocus. She earned a score of 75.375 percent from judges Michael Poulin and Jeanne McDonald for a performance to the same blend of show tunes and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" that Courtney used when she was second by a whisker at Dressage at Devon a few weeks ago.
Originally, Courtney planned to bring Mythilus, her up-and-coming grand prix horse, but she kept him home knowing she'll be making a trip to Europe this fall and wants to avoid any unexpected disturbance to his equilibrium when it's still in the formative stage.
She does, however, believe in the Washington show, and told me how important it is to compete there, even before she heads off to Stuttgart on a road that she hopes will lead to the 2008 Olympics.
Second was the vivacious Jane Hannigan on Maksymilian with a score of 68.875 percent that would have been better had he not been a little reluctant to move forward into his freestyle at first, and then missed on his one-tempi changes. But this big black horse was very convincing otherwise, and Jane's delight in the appreciative crowd gave an extra flourish to her performance as she beamed and waved enthusiastically on her way out of the ring.
She owes a lot to her sister, Kerry Munz, who not only put together her music, a blend of Vivaldi and tunes from a band called Bond, but also kept her horse in shape before the class while Jane went on a long-planned vacation to Hawaii. Never mind that Kerry hadn't ridden in 20 years, she did what she had to.
"It's a big family story," Jane said, noting her mother, Sibley, helped her buy the horse.
"That's why we're Team Hannigan," Mom chimed in.
Even minutes after she dismounted, Jane had not come off cloud nine.
"My last extended trot just made me smile," she said. "To be invited to the Washington International Horse Show is one of those things every rider wants to do."
The dressage and puissance are all part of the variety that makes Washington so appealing. Added to that, the program had a new wrinkle this year with the $15,000 High Performance Hunter Classic.
The classic format, featuring natural jumps such as a wingless (fake) stone wall, a giant log with brush beneath it and a rustic rail snake fence, marks a return to the "old days" of the hunter division. Organized at the behest of George Morris, the high performance concept brings excitement to what has become, at least for most spectators, a rather dull division centering around stride-counting.
The second round of the class was a handy hunter competition, with long gallops, quick turns and bold jumping the order of the day. Judges even had the option to award extra points for brilliance.
John French of California on the flashy chestnut Wesley tied with junior rider Cortie Wetherill of Malvern, Pa., on Take Away. Amazingly, each achieved a score of 178.666 points. John got the nod on a tie-breaking provision that hinged on which combination received the highest scores from judge number one. Unfortunately, in the rush to break the tie, the wrong numbers were used--the highest score in the first round, instead of the sum of both rounds--and John was declared the victor.
"That's too close," said John afterwards.
He was right. Several days later, the mistake was rectified and Cortie became the winner, though he had to miss out on a victory gallop with the blue ribbon fluttering from the bridle of his 12-year-old Oldenburg.
Cortie was a good-natured runner-up who enjoyed the experience with Take Away, who has Regular Working Hunter miles on him and the scope to prove it.
"I thought it was a lot of fun. I think that handy portion is awesome," said Cortie.
The feature of the show, as always, is the $100,000 President's Cup, renamed this year to honor the late President Gerald R. Ford. His daughter, Susan Ford Bales, made the presentation and was the show's honorary chairperson.
If I'd been able to bet on the class, I would have picked as the winner McLain Ward on Larioso, Kent Farrington with Up Chiqui or Lauren Hough on Casadora. All those riders (but not their horses) were previous victors.
But Richard Jeffery had laid out quite a test, and they didn't even make the jump-off, which included six of the 23 starters.
Pan American Games gold medalist Jill Henselwood of Canada, who has had a heck of a year, was the winner with the spectacular Black Ice, another jumper who spends time with his owner in the amateur ranks.
Jill was clocked in 32.11 seconds for a performance she compared to barrel racing, and the way she took the twists and turns, that certainly was apt.
Todd Minikus fell just a little over a quarter of a second short in the time of 32.37 with the intrepid Olinda.
"I thought at the first part of the jump-off I had banked a little time, then I went a little wide to the triple bar...and that's where the door was open," said Todd, who congratulated Jill on "a heck of a good job."
Jill, who still seems to get an incredible kick out of winning despite doing a lot of it in 2007 with both Black Ice and Special Ed, hadn't been to Washington in years, not since she was a member of the Canadian team in the days when the show still held a Nations' Cup.
I asked Jill why she came back this year.
Richard, who I saw in the stable area after the class, had a pleased smile on his face when I asked him to assess how he thought things went with his course.
In addition to the grand prix, last night featured the Tad Coffin Performance Saddles Equitation Classic. EquiSearch.com's own blogger, Maria Schaub, did a great job leading through three rounds to win the class, two weeks after taking the equitation title at the Capital Challenge.
Second, all the way from California, was Tina DiLandri, who won the Junior Jumper Championship with Chanel.
Maria's making her last year as a junior rider really count. Don't think it's easy. The WIHS class has a hunter phase, followed by a jumper segment. Then the top 10 riders change horses and ride a new course at night in front of a big crowd. That's pressure, and no one rises to such an occasion better than Maria.
She was switched from her regular mount, I-Toon, to Valvert, a horse that belongs to Carolyn Curcio, who finished sixth. Maria had ridden the horse once before on the flat, but basically was unfamiliar with him, and that's the way she preferred it.
"I wouldn't have wanted it to be any other way. I wouldn't have wanted to know the horse. I really wanted to do it the real way. That's what this class is about. I was really just trying to be consistent--consistency in this final is the most important thing, even if you have little mistakes," said Maria.
Maria is coached by Stacia and Frank Madden and the Beacon Hill crew that includes Max Amaya and Krista Freundlich. They're three-for-three, having also been involved in the training of USEF Talent Search East winner Nikko Ritter last weekend.
I have so much more I'd like to tell you about Washington, but it's one of those events that you just have to see for yourself sometime. If you're going to attend, make it next year, when the show celebrates its 50th anniversary in style. And be sure to look at our photo gallery from this year's Washington show.
Next up, I'll be writing to you from the Fair Hill Invitational, featuring eventing and driving. Check for my postcard on October 22.