May 31, 2013–McLain Ward was a familiar face in the prizegiving at the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon after scoring his eighth victory in the class last night, but who were those guys in second and third place? And what happened to such big names as Beezie Madden, Margie Engle and Todd Minikus?
The sport’s next generation made its presence felt here, as Andrew Welles finished second on Boo Van Het Kastanjehof and Devin Ryan was third with No Worries (put in a period here). (add they were, as in) They were ahead of Callan Solem (VDL Torlando), who has placed regularly in the top three at the Dixon Oval and Beezie, fifth in the five-horse jump-off with Vanilla (eliminated in the jump-off after two refusals) and sixth with Cortes C after scoring one time fault in the first round.
But as has often been the case, the “feisty” (his rider’s apt description) Rothchild was untouchable and McLain soared aboard him once again on what almost could be called his home turf. After all, the New Yorker has taken ownership of it so many times since his first grand prix victory in 1999 at the 117-year-old show that he has become a hometown favorite on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
“It’s always been an incredibly special place for me,” McLain said after a victory gallop during which the crowd along the rail greeted him as one of their own, waving and reaching out as he sped by.
“There are some stops along the way (where) things go your way and this has always been that kind of a place for me,” said McLain, who also won the style award for the second year in a row.
“Not only is it an incredible venue with great tradition, but I think this is as good a crowd as anywhere in the world and the best in the U.S. and North America.”
He cited, “just the vibe you feel, even after I’m getting (to be) a little more of a veteran and obviously experienced winning it enough. Still, it’s an electric feeling.”
Doing well in this iconic grand prix is a sign for any rider that he or she has arrived.
“This is definitely the biggest result of my career,” said a dazzled Andrew. He was more than two seconds behind McLain’s mark of 33.564 seconds on the unorthodox but brilliant Rothchild who is achieving superstar status.
“With the atmosphere and the crowd, it’s awesome,” Andrew said of his first $100,000 Devon grand prix experience, with his mare turning in a very credible time of 35.815 seconds.
Andrew and Devin shared the emotion that McLain always feels here, but even more strongly as unfamiliar faces on the periphery of victory in this venue, where people begin reserving their places on the ringside blue benches before breakfast on grand prix day and there is no spot anywhere within viewing distance of the ring that could squeeze in one more body.
“A lot of times, we’ll go to the grands prix and you’ll have 100, 200 people watching. To go in and you feel like you’re in a real stadium, the feeling after you have success in that stadium is pretty amazing,” said Andrew, who has been in business for himself only since 2011.
“I’m still on Cloud 9 after that round. I knew I’d done as well as I could. Second? I couldn’t be happier with it.”
Devin, who has been running his stable for 10 years, said his grand prix horses have just moved up to the level where they are competing in the premier competitions.
Of his finish on Barbara Rowland’s Selle Francais, a handy bay that he broke himself, Devin said, “It’s awesome. He’s such a naturally fast horse.” But asked if he could have cut a few more corners had he been last to go instead of first, he advised, “I’ve gotten myself into trouble before thinking too fast and having a rail, so I said `be smooth, be nice and try to put in a clean round.'” His time was 36.124 second, slower than Callan’s 35.978, but she toppled a pole.
I love watching Sagamore Farm’s Rothchild, whose determination matches that of his rider. Following his first round, the brilliant chestnut bucked, as if to say, “Hey, I did it, just like I always do.”
“He’s a little bit of a unique horse,” said McLain. “You’ve got to meet him in the middle but he keeps rewarding me. He’s getting better and better and more consistent. He’s slowly but surely racking up a lot of big grands prix.”
Rothchild could be a contender for next year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in France, where it seems likely the team may include some new faces. Asked how he felt about being flanked by two rising stars, McLain said, “I think it’s really exciting. In the U.S., there’s a big coming of younger riders and younger professionals and it’s great to see them doing well.
“We need more depth and we need more people that not only are good riders, but good horsemen all around and do a better job if we’re going to be successful at the highest levels of the sport. It can’t fall on the shoulders of just two riders.”
Oh, and to answer the question about Margie and Todd; she was out of the ribbons on Royce with a rail and two time faults. Todd finished eighth after a knockdown aboard Uraguay.
The artful course was designed by Olaf Petersen Jr. of Germany. He’s the son of a two-time Olympic course designer, but the younger Petersen has forged his own reputation and does an incredible job. He handled the 28-horse field just right with his layout. It was not discouraging for the less-experienced, but provided a real test for those with the most mileage. Eleven had faults for exceeding the 71-second time allowed, which Olaf called, “really a factor, just enough enough to chase them to ride a little bit more. The time allowed was definitely jump number 14.”
We talked after the class about Devon and how the grand prix went.
First place in the grand prix was worth $30,000, but McLain seemed equally excited the previous evening winning $90 as he took the blue ribbon in a special five-gaited class for jumper and hunter riders. Naturally, the money wasn’t the point here. Aside from one brief fumble in the canter, McLain did a beautiful job aboard Ceil Wheeler’s lovely gray mare, Callaway’s Born for This (almost as if McLain were born for this) and raised the slouchy fedora he wore in a jubilant salute to the crowd.
McLain and the other riders — Peter Pletcher, Todd Minikus, Hillary Simpson and Jen Alfano — all had a blast and were such good sports to accept the challenge offered by the multi-breed show’s co-managers, David Distler and Peter Doubleday.
The class was the idea of Ken Wheeler (the son of legendary hunter trainer Kenny Wheeler) who is ecumenical in his equestrian pursuits. Ken’s mother, the late Sallie Wheeler, was equally well-known for her saddlebreds and her hunters.
“We’re all in this to promote horses and sportsmanship,” said Ken. “I would love to do it again…it was just fabulous.”
I spoke with the judge, Gene VanDerWalt, about his assessment of McLain’s skill, and that of the other riders, after they had just one brief session with saddlehorse trainers.
“It was really an awesome job,” he told me.
“If you’re a horseman, you can ride anything. I thought it was an amazing initiative. Everyone? had a whole lot of fun and we did a whole lot of good.”
One of the nicest things about Devon is that it always feels the same, year-in and year-out, as the rest of the world buzzes along at a faster pace. That continuity often extends to who’s winning; for example, McLain.
But there was a big shake-up on the hunter front this year, as Scott Stewart wasn’t able to clinch his 11th straight Leading Hunter Rider title.
It went to Kelley Farmer, the busiest hunter rider, taking the Leading Hunter Rider honors and the Grand Hunter Championship with Back Story, champion in the Green Conformation Hunters and reserve in the Regular Conformation Hunters. Earning the Leading Rider title that seemed to be Scott’s exclusive property was understandably exciting for Kelley, whose comment was, “Wow, what an honor.”
As she also observed with a chuckle, “To dethrone him, it’s amazing, but I’m sure payback is going to be hell.”
She noted she’s particularly well-stocked with horses at the moment.
“Sometimes you have one, sometimes you have none and right now, I’m lucky to have a barn full.”
That can change fast. For example, Jersey Boy, that wonderful hunter derby star, tripped on the flat for no reason after clearing a schooling fence last weekend and as a a result, didn’t compete.
Scott, who won the Conformation championship with Showman and the High Performance title with Dedication, was incredibly gracious about not having his name engraved on the trophy yet again.
“I think Kelley really deserves to be Leading Rider. No one works harder than she does, as many horses as she rides; she puts a lot into it,” said Scott (though you could say the same about him.)
Asked if Leading Rider had been her ambition, Kelley replied, “My horses going well is first and foremost. Then the rest comes.”
Trainer Larry Glefke keeps track of the points, but he didn’t have to do much math, since Kelley went off to a runaway lead, and never looked back.
Back Story, a long-strided Dutchbred, is owned by Tia Schurecht, the girlfiend of trainer Jay Golding, who was on hand for the presentation photo.
“You don’t have to go anywhere fast; he’s scopey. There’s nothing that’s not available to you,” said Kelley, who commented the horse will be going in the adult hunters with his owner.
Although it’s not part of Devon itself, the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame induction ceremony is always a feature of the week here. It’s held at the very traditional Merion Cricket Club, about a half-hour’s drive from the showgrounds. The greats of the sport are honored and you hear some memorable reminiscences.
Among those inducted this time were Chantilly, the first pony in the Hall; the lovely mare War Dress, who enjoyed great success as a junior hunter; the late Frank Hawkins, joining his sons Artie and the late Steve as a member; breeder Diana Dodge, show manager, rider and committee chairman Bryan Flynn and the late Junie Kulp of All-Around Farm
Okay, a few of the speeches went on a little too long, but you couldn’t say that about George Morris’ induction of Hall Chairman Jimmy Lee into the ranks of the enshrined.
George was hilarious, telling all sorts of tales about himself and his University of Virginia classmate and lifelong pal. Jimmy told me he breathed a sigh of relief about some stories that weren’t related to the packed dining room.
“We were bad boys,” George admitted happily, recounting that the friends were more about parties than they were about classes.
“I was a fairly good student until I went to UVA,” he noted wryly.
I talked with Jimmy about his induction.
Better yet, if you’ve never been to Devon and you’re within driving distance, you should go. Get in the car now — there’s still time. The jumpers wrap up tomorrow night with the $50,000 Idle Dice Stake, but until then there’s a whole lot to see; coach competition, amateur-owner hunters and saddle horses, not to mention Devon fudge to eat and a country fair with all kinds of interesting items you likely won’t find elsewhere. For the kids, there’s a midway that also attracts riders. Who can resist trying to win a stuffed animal, or taking a break from the show ring to ride a quieter horse on the carousel? Sunday, the only competition is the hunter derby, wrapping up 11 days of intense competition.