Washington, D.C., October 30, 2006 -- If, as they say, 60 is the new 40, then it's not a stretch to contend that Washington, D.C. is the new New York--at least when discussing horse shows.
The Washington International Horse Show gets better every year, refining its ratio of entertainment to sport, all nicely orchestrated to make an evening fly along. It has neatly filled the niche once occupied a week later on the fall indoor circuit by the New York National. Though the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament is next weekend, it only has jumpers and equitation, so Washington, like the National used to be, is the last indoor stop for hunters in this country.
While the Verizon Center (formerly the MCI Center) lacks the cachet of the National's former home at Madison Square Garden, it still is a major venue in a major city, and that carries with it an extra note of importance. The hotel where many of the exhibitors and officials stay is diagonally across the intersection from the arena for the sake of convenience. Wonderful restaurants, as well as good shopping and museums, are all in the neighborhood.
Stabling, though, is a problem, as it was in New York. There, horses were crammed in back of the arena floor. In Washington, some horses are kept in the Verizon building, but many others are in stalls behind chain link fences on the street, an attraction for curious passersby.
I saw children patting a hunter pony being led on the pavement, and thought what good P.R. that was for not only the show, but horse sports in general. Hundreds of people had a chance to look at the horses and talk to the riders. I'll bet that some wound up attending the show.
The outdoor warm-up area is a small footing-covered patch on the street next to the building. But as was the case with the inconveniences of holding a horse show in New York City, people who want to ride in such a prestigious competition put up with a lot, because that's simply the price of participation.
The hardship is forgotten when the cheers of more than 10,000 fans fill the building, the way they did for the puissance on Friday night when McLain Ward won, jumping the 7-foot, 2 and 1/2-inch simulated brick wall on the slick black Hanoverian, Optimum Pozitano.
McLain repaid the support of the crowd by riding alone in the final round when Great Britain's Nick Skelton, with whom he had tied over 6-feet, 11 and 1/2 inches in the previous round, decided to drop out to save his stallion, Russel, for the $100,000 President's Cup grand prix the following night.
McLain elected to go back by his lonesome and try the higher wall. It was the first time he'd ridden Pozitano in a puissance, but McLain is a bit of a specialist in these classes, rarely held in this country, and decided to give it a go.
"We really thought they make such an effort to put on this class, and the crowd supports it, that we should try to put on a little bit of a show," McLain explained about his return to the ring. He did not, however, try for a record, as the horse is for sale.
Just as it did in New York, the puissance drew the biggest crowd of the week, though "barn night" on Thursday also filled many seats with a large contingent of high-decibel enthusiasm from kids who used cheerleader-style pom-poms to root for their favorites.
Dressage plays a role in the show too, with a four-horse invitational and riders lured by the thought of not only a $25,000 purse, but also performing before a big crowd indoors. This was not, however, an educated dressage audience, like those you find in Europe where a missed one-tempi draws groans of sympathy. In this instance, one-tempis, piaffe and pirouette all variously drew applause, startling both horse and rider.
"Definitely, the clapping in the 'ones' surprised him," said Courtney King, who won the Grand Prix but had to settle for third in the freestyle after her horse missed the ones and wasn't listening to her in the pirouette. Still, she had fun.
"It was really a blast," she said, a sentiment shared by the freestyle and overall winner, Canada's Ashley Holzer, who took the title on Pop Art.
Amazingly, his first Grand Prix competition was in Thursday's class, which counted 50 percent, as did the Friday freestyle.
The crowd caused some problems, but Ashley was just thrilled to be a part of things.
"To be amongst George (Williams, who was fourth overall on the combined scores) and Courtney (second) and Suzanne (third)--it's pretty fabulous," said Ashley who also welcomed "the opportunity to get in a ring like this." She noted North American riders have so little opportunity to compete indoors that they are at a disadvantage in the World Cup finals.
The size and enthusiasm of the crowd was a bit in the baptism of fire realm for Pop Art, but the mileage of his rider paid off.
"He was nervous, so I had to change a few things around in there. Because he was a little scared of the clapping, there were a few occasions where I might have been ad libbing in there," she admitted.
Her total over two days was 70.189 percentage points, to 69.427 for Courtney.
Trying to hit all the notes, Washington's exhibitions included polo, terrier races and barrel racing. The best part about the latter was watching show jumpers take a stab at it.
"I should have been bowling; I was knocking everything over," laughed Candice King, who set two barrels on their sides, even though she had ridden western as a youngster. But try hopping on a strange horse while trying to turn at top speed and see how you do.
Even though the show ended yesterday with pony competition, its finale really was the $100,000 President's Cup Grand Prix Saturday night.
Steve Stephens, who will also be doing the routes for the Hong Kong Olympics in 2008, set a course that qualified nine of 25 for the jump-off. That provided excitement for the crowd, but at the same time was challenging enough to cause trouble for major players.
Among them was Kent Farrington, last year's winner with Madison, who had a refusal at the third fence, then took it but knocked it down and dropped a rail at the next before Kent called it a day. Nick Skelton also elected to retire after Russel toppled poles at fences 3, 4 and 9, so you can see that making the jump-off was no easy task.
Harry Smolders of the Netherlands wowed the crowd last year with victories in a speed class and the puissance, but failed to make a clean sweep of it by winning the Cup.
He made up for that this year with Exquis Oliver Q, who went second in this World Cup qualifier's jump-off, too early in the order to shoot for a competitor's time. He set such a pace that he pressed the others into making mistakes. No one could catch his clear round in 30.55 seconds. In fact, the only other clear round belonged to Lauren Hough on Casadora, who was clocked in a far slower 36.62. She decided caution was better than valor in this instance and didn't try to make the time, because second place still got her a good number of World Cup points, and her goal is to go to the finals in Las Vegas next year.
Coupled with her performance throughout the show, Lauren also wound up as the leading jumper rider. (Listen to her thoughts on that and the Washington International in the sound byte below.)
The big question is whether Washington will be held at the same place, and during the same time frame, next year. It got caught up in the U.S. Equestrian Federation date snafu that has caused so much confusion, though I hear that appears to have been solved.
Then there is the question of a new contract with the Verizon Center. It sounds like things are on track, but it has yet to be signed. The most difficult problem involves negotiations with the city for the street closings necessary to make the stabling and warm-up area happen. The space situation is very difficult; show manager Hugh Kincannon told me that they were short 12 stalls at one point this year. He was glad some space was found for them. Otherwise, he told me, he would have had to tie the horses to lamp posts!
Show chairman Jorge Carnicero, who is succeeding Sheila Johnson as president, said Saturday, "I can't tell you today where we're going to be next year." But he's hoping it will be in the Verizon Center, though I understand there has been talk of moving the show to Baltimore or somewhere else if everything doesn't fall into place. Let's keep our fingers crossed that it does; being in Washington is important to this show's success.
There is so much to tell about Washington that I'm going to have to skip some things, but I did want to mention what three junior riders achieved. Jack Hardin Towell, Jr., won the Washington International hunter seat equitation championship, and was Best Child Rider to boot. Jack is an "aw shucks" kind of South Carolinian, very modest and cute. (I love the way he calls me "ma'am" in his southern accent.) After his equitation victory, I saw him in an emotional moment hugging his horse, and I thought that showed what a sweetheart he really must be.
His trainer, Missy Clark, always told him he'd win a finals someday, but he admitted he was getting worried with only two chances (Washington and the Maclay) left.
In the junior hunters, 15-year-old Sara Green of Ocala, Fla., rode Wellington, a former equitation horse, to the grand championship. She was sharing the cake that goes to Washington champions (a delicious custom) with her trainers, Bobby Braswell and Kate Conover, and groom Amanda Longo.
The win was really special to Amanda because someone broke into her boss' truck when they arrived in Washington and stole all her clothes. It was a bummer of a way to begin the week, but Amanda was just glad that no one got hurt. She was thrilled when Sara won the championship, noting that made up for the problems.
Then there was Maggie McAlary, who earned the junior jumper championship with Pedro, even though she had a stop in the last class, because she had won the first two. Maggie, who trains with Andre Dignelli, also teamed with Beezie Madden to win the American Hunter Jumper Foundation Nations' Cup Hunter Challenge. Done on a variation of the concept's debut at the 2005 World Cup finals in Las Vegas, this paired five jumper riders with juniors in a two-round challenge. Geoff Teall provided the commentary in tandem with the irrepressible Don Stewart, who entertained with his usual no-holds-barred comments.
And I can't neglect the retirement ceremony as they appropriately played, "You're the Tops" for that great equitation horse, Grappa, who took four riders to titles in seven finals. Missy, who was his trainer, got very emotional over the farewell. It's not often that you see this resilient lass with a tear in her eye.
Grappa is 20 now and still looks fit and ready, but his owners, Sarah Willeman and Anne Meyer, wanted him to go out on top and then relax on the trails in Vermont. Sounds good to me right about now, but I'm far from through for this year.
Check back on EquiSearch.com next week, when I'll wrap up my reporting on the fall indoor circuit with a visit to Syracuse and the Maclay finals.