Postcard: 2004 Hampton Classic

Bridgehampton, N.Y, Sept. 5, 2004 — First an Irish rider took the world show jumping championship. Last month one of his countrymen earned the individual Olympic gold medal. And now another competitor from the Emerald Isle won the $150,000 Prudential Financial Grand Prix at the Hampton Classic.

Was it the luck of the Irish? Darragh Kerins seemed to think so in his case, and was probably as surprised as anyone that he won the prestigious class on his first try.

“I don’t even remember what I’ve done out there,” said Darragh in a happy daze after the victory gallop around the arena to the cheers of a crowd of 10,000 that included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor Alan Alda, among other celebrities.

Darragh is a charming, self-effacing fellow who came to the U.S. 10 years ago for a six-month look-see and now has his own business here at Whipstick Farm in South Salem, N.Y. His horse, the Belgian-bred Nabucco, owned by Bonnie and Frank Cunniffe, was purchased recently from Jeffrey Welles. A two-time winner of the class, Welles’ best effort was only good enough for third this time around on Armani.

In truth, it wasn’t the toughest field that has ever competed in the Prudential fixture. The Olympics, next week’s Spruce Meadows Show and the Samsung Super League finals in Spain two weeks from now drew away some horses that would normally be seen on the big grass grand prix field here.

But the course design by Conrad Homfeld made it as much of a test as it ever has been. Only three from a roster of 26 starters were clear on the first-round route, making it a short jump-off in perfect weather for one of the country’s most posh resort areas.

Difficult spots included not only the juxtaposition of a water obstacle six strides from the 5-foot, 3-inch vertical that was the last of 17 jumping efforts, but also a line with a double that tripped up many of the horses when they were halfway home.

“From the hedge jump (number 8) to the combination at 9A and B to the vertical (number 10) after that was definitely a test on the course because the hedge was a big jump and you had to ride across it a very short five strides to the vertical, which was the ‘A’ part of the combination,” said runner-up Robin Sweeley. “You had to ride out of ‘B’ and then arrange to get to the next vertical. The water jump away from the ingate to that last vertical, that was hard to do, to get the stride back and reorganize.”

In the jump-off, Darragh set the pace with a clear round in a respectable time of 47.29 seconds, which could have been beaten. But the big-name speedsters, Margie Engle with Hidden Creek’s Jones and McLain Ward on Quickstar 11Z, had not gotten past the first round.

Robin and Qarco V’T Merelsnest’s time of 49.14 seconds didn’t really threaten Darragh.

“My horse is a new mount for me,” Robin explained. “I just bought him first part of June and he’s only been in the States three weeks, and this is just our fourth big class. We’re just getting to know each other.”

Jeffrey posed a real threat to Darragh, and indeed, he had the time with Armani, finishing in a rapid 44.24 seconds. But a knockdown at the second jump-off fence left him out of the winner’s circle with 4 faults and put a big smile on Darragh’s face.

The trophy was presented on behalf of Prudential Financial by former New York City Fire Chief Thomas von Essen, who was in charge of the department on Sept. 11, 2001.

Von Essen said he really appreciated the effort show jumping requires after watching what went on at the Classic.

“I never realized how difficult it was until I walked out on the field and saw how high those jumps were. That body of water is a lot wider than it looks on television. I salute the horses and the riders,” he told the ribbon winners.

“I never heard them referred to as brave before, but when I think of it, how brave they must be to make that jump. It’s quite an accomplishment. I didn’t ride much in my younger years and don’t intend to ride much in my older years, but I consider it an honor to be part of this,” von Essen said.

This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to, and it’s not just the competition that makes it outstanding. There is so much here for spectators, from shopping and parties to a petting zoo and a variety of exhibitions. Part of its success, of course, is its location and slot on the calendar. The last weekend before school starts is a great time for people to have one final party, and what better place to have it than in the Hamptons?

But executive directors Tony Hitchcock and his wife, Jean Lindgren, have always encouraged innovation and aren’t afraid to tweak the layout annually to make it more effective. The boutique gardens always seem to have new stores — we particularly liked the one selling the hollowed-out, 10-pound concrete sculptures of chickens in running shoes for $350.

It is a hike to get to the Hamptons from anywhere else because of the traffic, but it’s worth it to watch a great show. And for me, the smile on Darragh Kerin’s face today was a bonus. It’s nice to see someone to whom winning is still a novelty and who isn’t afraid to show his pleasure.

“It’s certainly a tough sport. There’s more downs than there are ups. But you just got to stick at it. It’s days like this that make you want to do it,” Darrah said.

Visit Nancy Jaffer’s postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world’s top equestrian events.

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