Postcard: Washington International

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Washington, DC, October 24, 2002 — I’d never been to the MCI Center before today, but when I walked into the arena for the Washington International Horse Show, it felt like home. There’s something about holding an equestrian competition in a big, all-purpose facility like this that heightens the excitement.

I was reminded of all the years I covered the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, the Meadowlands and then the Garden again before it headed south for Florida, where it will be held next month. The National’s departure from the fall indoor circuit makes Washington the big kid on the block now, and it’s exerting itself to be “the most prestigious show in the country,” in the words of its executive director, Jody Newman.

“We’ve got to stop looking in a rear-view mirror,” said Sheila Johnson, Washington’s energetic president. It’s no longer about wearing gowns and the President (of the U.S.) showing up. We’re in a whole different age; we’re in the age of business.”

That’s why the Maclay horsemanship finals and the hunters were held this afternoon, while the evening was devoted to show jumping, trick riding, terrier races and bucking bulls in an attempt to attract spectators with fast-paced attractions.

“When you’ve got the public out there, they need to be entertained,” Sheila explained.

So just the equestrian family was on hand for the Maclay, being staged for the first time outside the National Horse Show, but those who didn’t attend missed a riding lesson from the top finishers in the hunt seat equitation class. The Maclay has become, as trainer James Hagman pointed out, “a three-phase event.” There are the regional qualifiers, which got 100 starters from all over the country to the elimination rounds last weekend at Prince Georges Equestrian Center in Maryland. That is another big test, and then there’s the pressure cooker of doing it all again in the MCI Center. Only the top 15 made the trip here, and their scores carried over from their Prince Georges performance.

The top two coming into today’s final test were Erin Stewart of Florida, the daughter of trainer Don Stewart, Jr. and his wife, Nancy (who seriously thought about NOT watching the finals, because she was so nervous), and Californian Jamie Taylor.

They both handled the challenges of two courses designed by Phil de Vita, who judged the class with Chrystine Tauber and Frank Willard. Part of the test in the initial course involved counter-cantering around a turn after a double. The judges thought that would be hard, but the kids aced it.

Frankly, in a lot of ways, I think jumping the course must have been easier than judging the class.

I kept asking what made Erin the winner and put Jamie second.

“They were close the whole way,” Phil said, noting the final score was 92 for Erin and 86 for Jamie, who was coached by James Hagman. Basically, Phil explained, the difference simply was “riding style,” and all the judges were unanimous in selecting Erin.

The two rode again for the officials over a shorter course before the class was pinned and as Frank pointed out, Erin “hit the canter…and her style never altered” until she completed her round.

Third was another Californian, Katie Gardner, coached by Nick Karazissis, but she had started the afternoon in 13th place and a terrific trip couldn’t move her up past the leaders.

Erin was trained for the occasion by Bill Cooney and Karen Healey Bauer. “I just told them what to say,” Don Stewart told me with his usual quick sense of humor. The winner’s victory came exactly 30 years after her godmother, Leslie Howard, won the class. I was there to cover that one too, and I wish Erin the same kind of success Leslie has had in succeeding years. But Erin is not sure what she wants to do. Next on her agenda is competing in the amateur-owner jumpers for a year while she ponders a choice of colleges. As for the others, Jamie said, “I’d love to go pro; I’d love to stay in the sport,” while Katie hopes to “be a vet and have a hunter on the side.”

It’s especially notable that all three have long-term trainer relationships. Erin’s is obvious; her dad has been coaching her since she was a baby. But Katie has been with James since she was 6, and Jamie has taken lessons from Nick since she was 7.

“I feel like I’m losing a child,” Nick said of his protege’s “graduation” from the junior ranks.

In the hunters, the amateur-owner grand championship went to Estrella, owned by Betty Oare, who also was leading amateur-owner hunter rider. Betty is one of the great ladies of the sport. Not only is she lovely, she’s gutsy. On Aug. 17, she had a horrific accident in the warm-up area at the Culpeper, Va., show. Her foot hooked on another rider’s stirrup, and she broke her right ankle before falling off and breaking her right shoulder.

The pain, she said, was worse than childbirth. But at the age of 61, she got busy with therapy and seven weeks later, she was back in the saddle. This was Betty’s first show since the accident.

“We expect nothing less than a blue ribbon,” Betty’s therapists told her.

“I’m going to the Super Bowl of horse shows,” she protested, telling them not to get their hopes up. But she exceeded all expectations at the show, where she won her first championship in 1958.

Being the kind of person she is, Betty gave no credit to herself and plenty to a cast of dozens, including her husband, Ernie; her brother, Bucky Reynolds and Sandy Ferrell, who showed the mare to the Regular Working Hunter Championship. Needless to say, Estrella–who is by a Holsteiner stallion and out of a mare by the Dutch stallion Best of Luck–is not for sale.

In the jumpers, the highlight today was the qualifier for Saturday’s feature, the $100,000 President’s Cup. Only 20 of the 30 who showed this afternoon were invited to come back on the weekend. Dropped rails shut out two big names: Chris Kappler aboard Royal Kaliber and 2000 Olympian Lauren Hough with Clasiko.

The one-rounder went to Kimberly Frey on Bergerac. She didn’t mean to go quite so fast, since she wanted to save her fiery chestnut for the Cup itself, but she noted “sometimes I think I mess him up by going conservatively and slow.”

She’s very interested in doing well in the Cup, not only for the obvious honor of winning a big class near her home turf in Virginia, but also because it’s a World Cup qualifier. With the Cup finals in Las Vegas next year, you’ll see more riders than usual working to get to this contest.

I’m ready to hop back on the Metroliner train, which I decided to take to Washington as a precaution against the sniper(s) who wreaked havoc along the Maryland-DC-Virginia corridor. Now that two suspects are in custody, I hope people won’t be reluctant to venture to this exciting show. The crowds were light tonight, but maybe by tomorrow, folks will be more ready to get into being entertained after easing out of the fear mode.

If you can’t make it in person, tune in to Fox Sports on the afternoon of Dec. 5 for an hour-long rendition of Washington International highlights. Check your local listings for time.

My next stop is the Fair Hill International event and driving competition up the road, where I’ll be writing you my next postcard on Saturday.

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