Washington, D.C., October 26, 2008 -- In this era of cookie-cutter horse shows that rival each other only in their similarity, the Washington International is extremely special because it's so different.
It has glamour. Okay, stabling horses on the street behind chain link fencing may not be your ideal of glitzy, but if you want to show in a major city, that's the way it is. And it's fun when the pedestrians on the sidewalk stop to ogle the horses.
There's just something about being located a block from the Metro stop and within walking distance of nice hotels and restaurants that is so appealing, considering the number of rather boring locations where many shows are situated. Having to qualify to compete makes it a big deal, too.
The International, also unlike most shows, is geared to attracting spectators by offering more than just competition, trying to make the sport more mainstream. While I wish the Verizon Center had been packed to the rafters, those who did come certainly were never bored at the evening performances. A good mix of entertainment and a fun shopping concourse give this show another out-of-the-ordinary dimension.
Washington celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, with plenty of historic photos and a reunion of many of its past presidents. I hope it lasts another half-century (at least), though that won't be easy in these tough economic times. But how can you abandon a legacy that includes Jack and Jackie Kennedy at ringside, appearances by so many of the sport's luminaries over the years and a tradition that has its own niche?
One of the highpoints is always the $100,000 President's Cup Grand Prix, last night's tour de force over a course designed by Richard Jeffery to ask big questions. I thought the best answers would come from McLain Ward and Sapphire. After all, they've won two Olympic two gold medals and a World Equestrian Games team silver: None of the 23 other combinations in the class could make that claim, or even get close.
With eight coming through to the jump-off, McLain had to use some strategy and judgment. This wasn't one of those courses where you just went for broke and got through the timers as fast as possible.
The lead-off rider in the class and the jump-off was a newcomer, Angel Karolyi, 21, who came here a year ago from Venezuela.
He was riding Sun God, a horse who has been around -- remember when Anne Kursinski used to ride him? She was hoping he would make it to the Olympics for her, but it didn't work out. However, this electric chestnut has lots of mileage, and as Angel noted, "He's a great horse. He's just like a teacher for me. Whenever I get nervous, he just says, 'Hang on' and takes me along. He has a lot of experience."
For his part, Angel said, "I tried to go fast, but preferred the clear round first," explaining he wanted "to make the rest worried and force them to do errors."
He left the fences up in a time of 39.47 seconds. Those who chased him were not as successful. Rider after rider found themselves dropping rails as they raced. Brianne Goutal on Onira (8 faults), 2007 Cup winner Jill Henselwood of Canada on Black Ice (12), Margie Engle with Hidden Creek's Pamina L (4), and Todd Minikus on Pavarotti (4) were all faster than Angel but couldn't beat him. Following an 8-fault trip from Danielle Torano with Vancouver D'Auvrey that was slower than Angel's, McLain took his shot.
McLain observed that "Angel did absolutely the correct thing. Having a conservative clear to put pressure on was very smart. His horse and my horse are not known as speed demons. There was not really an inside option on that course. It was not a great jump-off for either one of our horses."
Here was his strategy, going next-to-last in the jump-off: "I knew I just wanted to be faster than him (Angel) and put enough pressure on Kirsten (Coe, the last rider) but not give the class away."
He was able to finish without faults in 35.79 seconds. Kirsten's horse Starlight, ran into trouble at the first fence--where McLain also had a hairy moment until Sapphire made a big effort there. Kirsten had a rail, leaving the class to McLain.
He was glowing when he entered the ring for the presentation, giving Sapphire more than one loving, appreciative pat. It was obvious that winning the Cup meant a lot to him, so I asked him about it afterwards.
Listen: President's Cup winner McLain Ward
McLain is a bit of a mentor to Angel, shaking his head with amusement at the younger man's display of enthusiasm.
"He needs to learn to act like he's been here before," McLain remarked. But you know what? I liked the fact that the runner-up was over the moon about getting himself on the map. (And it obviously will help him with the girls, too. I hear he's a bit of a Don Juan.)
My other favorite class of the show is the puissance, or high jump. It only drew five starters, because people don't carry a puissance horse with them as they used to. I can't think of another puissance in this country (and if there are more, it's probably only one or two at most) so this was a real treat.
When the simulated brick wall went to 7-feet, 1/2 inch, Michael Morrissey drew a chorus of cheers after clearing it on Scaraberas. The only other contender in that round, Charlie Jayne on the thoroughbred Thomas Edison, wasn't able to leave all the blocks in place.
Michael, the nephew of Stadium Jumping Inc. Chairman Gene Mische, who was on hand to see him, decided to go for a record after getting a lot of thumbs-up encouragement from the ingate area. The wall was re-set at 7 feet, 8 inches, dwarfing 5-foot, 10-inch announcer Brian Lookabill, who was working from the arena floor.
Scaraberas launched fairly well, but just didn't jump high enough. His belly scraped the top of the wall, and the blocks started falling.
"I knew I was in trouble when he hit the top," said Michael in a masterpiece of understatement.
The horse went to his knees as he landed along with half of the wall, and Michael tumbled off. So the 7-foot, 7 and 1/2 inch record set by Tony D'Ambrosio and Sweet 'n' Low in 1983 will stand; for now, anyway.
"If he feels good next year," said Michael, "I'd like an opportunity to try it again."
He studied for the puissance by watching a lot of them on You Tube; this guy definitely was going for it.
Many have given the puissance up for dead, and suggested another type of high-jumping class, perhaps a Six-Bar, instead. But Michael, 23, and Charlie, 22, may be representative of a more daring younger generation who could bring back such classes.
"It's fun, and it's all about trusting your horse," said Charlie.
They'd like to see more of these classes, and if you could get together a puissance mini-circuit, I'll bet plenty of riders wouldn't mind making one of their horses a specialist in high-jumping.
Hunters were out in full force at Washington too, of course. I thought the best opportunity to appreciate them was yesterday's Hunter Derby. The class, which made its debut at the show last year, is a lot of fun. You don't see the rote rounds that characterize the usual divisions and can be such a big yawn.
The top six competitors from the first round came back for a second trip, this time over a handy hunter course where tight turns and a bold approach paid off.
Jessica Springsteen had a fabulous handy trip with Tiziano, who started his career as an equitation prospect but showed his real talent as a hunter. He got all the turns right, especially an inside turn after the double combination, which was not what Jessie had planned to do.
"As I was jumping out, it just showed itself, and he does turns like that so well," she said, explaining why she took the gamble there.
Tiziano's score of 95.333 was the highest of any round in the class, but her mark from the first round, where he hit a rail, pulled her down to second overall with 176.333 behind master hunter rider Scott Stewart. His total was 181.999 with World Time, the show's Grand Green Hunter Champion.
Jessie, who won the Grand Junior Hunter title with Tiziano and also took the Best Child Rider on a Horse honors (four years after being Best Child Rider on a Pony here), had nothing but good things to say about her horse.
Listen: Jessica Springsteen
As the leader going into the second round, Scott had a more conservative approach. In a way, it reminded me of what McLain had done in the President's Cup; that is, go for it, but don't go overboard.
Listen: Hunter derby winner Scott Stewart
Scott, Washington's Leading Hunter Rider for the fourth time, didn't show at the Pennsylvania National, the previous show on the fall indoor circuit. When such a prominent rider doesn't compete, there's always gossip. Some wondered if he stuck to the sidelines because he didn't like the judges. He wanted to me set everyone straight on that score, explaining that was not the case at all; rather, his mounts needed a rest after Capital Challenge.
"It's a lot of long days, a lot of intense competition over a long period of time, so it takes a lot out of them," he explained. With next week's Syracuse show offering hunters as it hosts the National Horse Show, more is being demanded of his horses and he didn't feel he could do four shows in a row without a break. He did point out that his junior hunters and ponies competed at Harrisburg, however, and "those judges I thought did a fine job," Scott said.
Celebrity hunt teams, reminiscent of the good old days, were a great addition this year here. Margie Engle, Katie Prudent and Beezie Madden were the winners, and it wasn't easy; they had to jump the last fence three abreast.
Margie loved it, never having fox hunted.
"We didn't have anything like that in Miami when I was growing up," she said with a little grin.
Other notables involved included Karen and David O'Connor, riding with Nina Fout: That's three/quarters of our 2000 Olympic eventing team.
Harry de Leyer, now a robust 81, was on another hunt team. You remember Harry, who earned his fame with the legendary Snowman more than four decades back. Two years ago, Harry fell 60 feet while unloading hay and broke his back in five places. He's got four rods in his back, but it takes more than that to stop Harry, as anyone who knows him realizes. And yes, he's still riding well.
The other fun stuff at the show included an exhibition of American saddle horses, who haven't been part of the Washington International scene since the 1970s. TV star Carson Kressley appeared in a sparkly cowboy outfit, complete with white Stetson, on A Magic Surprise, a high-stepping horse who had flowers entwined in his tail. That really grabbed the spotlight.
I asked Carson why he decided to appear at the show, and here is what he told me, in his matchless style.
Listen: Carson Kressley
Other attractions included demonstrations by world championships four-in-hand driving individual silver medalist Chester Weber, who wove his horses expertly around the ring and offered an informative monologue to the crowd as he did so. Chester, the brother of Juliet Reid, the show's treasurer, was a real addition to the show, providing a nice introduction to combined driving.
On the high-decibel front, we had the Jack Russell terrier races, with the little dogs tearing over hurdles as the crowd urged them on. And then there was Barn Night. Thousands of screaming kids wore outfits identifying themselves as denizens of this or that stable, and they shouted with ear-splitting pride and gusto on every possible occasion.
Juliet had hoped to tone them down without dampening their enthusiasm.
"I told them to express themselves with color," she explained. So much for that attempt at acoustical control. Barn Night and noise; they go together. But it's fun to see how much the kids enjoy the evening, especially as they swarmed into the ring after the competition to pose in front of the jumps and note in awe how high they really are.
Want to see some more of what went on at Washington? View our photo gallery.
Well, no rest for the weary. I'm off to Syracuse for the Sporthorse Invitational. I'll tell you all about it in my Friday postcard.