Postcard from the Hampton Classic

September 1, 2002 —
Four riders have won the grandprix at the Hampton Classic Horse Show twice in a row, a fact that amazed me when I looked it up.

So why was I surprised? This is an extremely difficult competition, with a course designed by the exacting Conrad Homfeld. It’s hard enough to win once, let alone twice. The grandprix is held on a huge grass field that is unlike the all-weather rings we’re used to, and run before a champagne-drinking crowd whose high spirits add to the excitement.

Winning what is now the $150,000 Prudential Financial Grandprix (it’s had other sponsors previously) three times in a row seemed an unlikely feat, but if anyone was going to do it, Margie Goldstein Engle had the right qualifications. After all, she’s earned more than $3 million show jumping, and has an unparalleled record of victories. Now she can add another line to that impressive resume, because she made it three straight this afternoon, riding Hidden Creek’s Perin to a definitive victory.

My favorite adjective when describing Margie is “plucky,” but I think I need find a new one, based on her performance today. You see, Margie was dragged this morning when she fell from a six-year-old in a young horse class. Hooves pounded above her as she bumped along the ground. Finally, her boot came off (Conrad told her he thought her leg came off!) and she was free.

I doubt even a broken bone or two would have stopped Margie, but luckily, she was just bruised. You couldn’t tell from the way she rode Perin, who made light of such formidable challenges as a double of liverpools, that giant hedge for which the Classic is famous, and a stout artificial brick wall (standing 5-feet, 3-inches). It was not, perhaps, as taxing as some other Hampton grandprix courses (there was, for instance, no water obstacle) but the condition of the footing made up the difference as horses had to muster more of an effort to jump.

Heavy rain in the Hamptons had soaked the ground, which was preserved by management’s decision to cancel grand prix arena classes in the days leading up to the grandprix so the main event could go as scheduled.

The ground was still a bit boggy, and deteriorated slightly as the class went on. Several big names scratched, including Glasgow (Norman Dello Joio) and Royal Kaliber (Chris Kappler). The footing looked okay to me, but with Spruce Meadows coming up for some and the World Equestrian Games for others, discretion seemed to be more the order of the day than valor — with the exception of Margie, of course.

Anyway, she was lucky to go second in the first round with Perin and score a clear. Hidden Creek’s Laurel, who won the class the last two years, wasn’t as fortunate. She went last, when the footing was not as nice. After dropping two rails before she got halfway around the route, Margie decided Laurel should bow out.

“She was trying her best, but it made no sense to continue,” Margie said.
Only five of 32 starters made it into the jump-off. Margie didn’t go nuts, but turned in a nice time of 41.58 seconds for a clear round. She never watched the people who tried their luck after her, but she wasn’t resting easy as she rode Perin around and waited for the class to be over.

“I was worried about everybody,” said Margie. One person did go faster than she did, but Laura Kraut paid for it with a 8-fault round on Liberty to finish fifth. The others didn’t come close.

Debbie Stephens, second with Chappie in 47.68 for the only other clean round, said she’s pointing her young horse toward the Athens Olympics and didn’t think he was ready yet to tear it up, so she played it conservative. Laura Bowery on Florin Du Murier and Joe Fargis (a hometown favorite who lives in nearby Southampton) with Edgar were third and fourth respectively with one rail down.

Now Margie heads off to Spruce Meadows with the Classic as a good “warm-up.” Laura Kraut is going to the World Equestrian Games as the alternate, after Molly Ashe dropped out and former alternate Beezie Madden with Judgement took Molly’s place.

Molly, Laura, Leslie Howard and Beezie paraded before the grandprix in a presentation about the WEG, with Molly appearing in the line-up here because of her distinction as the number one finisher in the July team selection trials.
She told me she was sorry she had to drop out, but Kroon Gravin, her treasured mount, had a torn fiber in her right front coffin joint capsule. She wants the mare to recover, and decided the right thing for the team and the horse was to let Beezie take her place. She cares less about being on her first championship team than she does about her horse.

“It’s a horrible feeling to pick up the trot and feel she’s not all right, and have to kick her into the canter,” she said. “I don’t want to get in that situation. There’s no chance for us to go as a combination and perform at the top of our abilities. Beezie and Judgement have been strong now for quite a while, but it was an incredibly hard decision.”

Okay, back to the Hampton Classic. In the hunters, Strapless dominated. Period. Not surprised, are you? But she swept both the juniors with her owner, Clara Lindner up, and the regulars with Emily Williams aboard. Not surprisingly, Emily was leading hunter rider, and gushed about how well Strapless did here.

“Every single trip, she just picked up her gallop and was ready to do whatever I asked her, 110 percent,” Emily told me as she carted off the championship ribbons and other awards.

I have to mention the incredible food and settings on the tables in the VIP tent at this show. One had a stuffed fox and fox statuettes among the Brie; another offered acres of rare filet mignon and champagne bottles jammed in a giant silver trophy to cool. Then there was the table with sombreros on every chair and glass cactus Margarita glasses at each place setting, a break from the Louis Roederer bubbly that was fizzing everywhere else.

I could go on and on, but if I continue, I’ll never beat the traffic on the Long Island Expressway.