Final Postcard: 2001 National Horse Show

New York, N.Y., November 5, 2001 — The closing session of the 118th National Horse Show opened with Gloria Gaynor singing her hit, “I Will Survive.” I nominate that for the National’s theme song. A lot has to be done to return the show to its glory days, but the fact that it apparently will be staying in the world’s most famous arena is a huge plus.

Show Chairman Gene Mische said he is negotiating a three- to five-year contract with Madison Square Garden, which might stop those persistent rumors that the show is leaving the city.

Crowds were very weak Friday and Saturday, but Mische was pleasantly surprised when 8,117 people came through the gate for some or all of today’s program, which included morning, afternoon and late afternoon sessions.

And what a lot of great jumping we had, with a wildly exciting $150,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of New York and the ASPCA Maclay hunt seat horsemanship championship, which was just as thrilling in its own way–especially if you knew the story behind the story.

But first, the grand prix. The field of 26 went down to 10 for the jump-off, a good number if you’re trying to please the crowd, as designer Steve Stephens wanted to do. This was a tie-breaker with lots of places to run, and Beezie Madden set a great pace with neat turns to finish in 33.89 seconds on Innocence. Only problem was, she had a rail down.

Lauren Hough, my pick for victory, was next on Windy City and left all the poles in place, but she was slower, in 34.74 seconds.

“I certainly was nervous,” said Lauren, who worried about her time being overtaken by other stars in the rest of the field.

“I knew that perhaps I could have gone faster, but I think I put enough pressure on them that mistakes sort of ended up happening, and it worked out my way,” she said.

Kim Frey on American Gold Cup winner Bergerac was so overeager that she smashed through the last fence, the Budweiser vertical, as she rushed to a terrific time of 33.49 seconds–but with 4 faults.

Nona Garson wanted to go so fast she almost left out the course’s middle loop with Capital S, and had to be guided by shouts from the crowd about where she should go next.

One who could not be tempted into pushing her luck was Margie Engle with Hidden Creek’s Perin, whose restraint was rewarded with a faultless effort.

“I saw Lauren go, and she was very fast,” said Margie, Lauren’s Olympic teammate in Sydney last year. “My horse is a very large horse, and in a small ring like this, it’s hard to go too fast with him. I just met everything kind of normal, but mine has such a huge step, when I jumped in where the four (strides) is a leave-out, and everyone else could gallop, I had to steady the whole way down there,” she continued.

Her time of 36.09 worked out fine, since having the only other clean round automatically made her second, leaving the trophy to Lauren.

“I would say next to making the Olympic team, this is probably my biggest win,” said Lauren proudly, saluting the show for continuing despite the Sept. 11 tragedy and the death of patron Sallie Wheeler than almost led to its cancellation.

Now for the Maclay, which went to Brian Walker, disappointed with being second twice in some of this fall’s other equitation classics, but leaving no doubt that he was the winner this time around.

“My opinion of Brian’s riding was that he came here with a mission, he was going to accomplish that mission and he did,” said Ralph Caristo, one of the three judges for the country’s most prestigious horsemanship title.

“I had total confidence in him,” said Missy Clark, Brian’s trainer, saying she was “beyond nervous. He has gone to that place where any kid that wins one of these or is second get to of being able to focus.”

Missy, who considers herself more like Brian’s collaborator at this point, was chosen to guide him after Brian and his mother, Corry Walker, “shopped” for a trainer. They planned his career carefully, and even considered whether he needed to continue in equitation his final year. You know how that one came out.

Brian overcame a lot more hurdles than the infamous double-bounce in today’s final ride-off in order to get his name engraved on the trophy.

Last year, his horse, Leoni, had to be destroyed after breaking a pastern bone in a pasture accident. He comforted his girlfriend, Emily Williams (the 1999 Maclay winner), when her mother died earlier this fall. And then last night, he got mugged, handing over $60 to one of New York’s most infamous.

But nothing got between Brian and his first place ribbon yesterday. In addition to the support of his mother and Missy, he had Grappa, the not-so-secret weapon. This bay Hanoverian, owned by Sarah Willeman, has won more equitation finals than any other horse.

“When you go into the ring on him, you feel so confident. You know he can do anything,” said Brian, whose ride made a statement that he really knew what he was doing over a course that showed off his talents.

“It gave you a chance to gallop, it required some turning. But it was fair, there was nothing that was impossible and was going to trap somebody,” said Brian.

Well, it wasn’t going to trap Brian, anyway, but many of the others in the top 15 encountered trouble, whether it was with the no-stride double or executing a jump on the counter-lead off a turn.

Brian was presented with the trophy by his godfather, Tony Bowers, who is Alfred B. Maclay’s grandson.

“This is an exciting day. Now it doesn’t matter to me if the Yankees win,” Tony told me before the final game of the World Series last night.

Brian, an American citizen living in Quebec who took both of Canada’s national equitation classes several years ago, will be working with jumper rider Todd Minikus before going off to school next year at the American University in Paris. I have a feeling we’ll soon be hearing about his success on the European circuit.

Californian Travis Lubow overcame some bad moments of his own to take second in the Maclay. Travis’ horse, Alleged, couldn’t make the Washington equitation finals last month after he had an injury, so he was loaned a horse. But the animal died of an aneurysm in the warm-up area before the class. He didn’t get an okay from the veterinarians until Monday that he could use his pal Alleged for this class.

The National’s new Best Junior Hunter/Jumper Rider award went to Georgina Bloomberg, easing the sadness of ending her junior career.

“I knew it was going to be emotional. I was nervous coming in and I was trying not to get caught up in the fact that was the last class,” she said of the $10,000 BET Junior Jumper Grand Prix, where Maggie Jayne won on Kinda Blue and Georgina failed to place.

“I remember watching other riders in their last class as a junior riding around the ring as a champion and waving to the crowd all emotional and hoping that the same thing would happen to me,” Georgina said. “It wasn’t completely perfect, because I didn’t win the last class, but this (the special award decided by the judges) makes it perfect.”

The Amateur-Owner Jumper high score award went to Paige Rassas on Chica Bay. Danielle Torano didn’t win a class in the division at the National, but had earned enough points previously to clinch the National Horse Sports Foundation Show Jumping Hall of Fame series for the season.

So that’s a wrap for the show many doubted would happen this year. In my column on Thursday, I’ll discuss the show’s future–and other things.

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