Syracuse Sporthorse Tournament Hopes to Host Maclay

The Syracuse, N.Y., Invitational Sporthorse Tournament hopes to host this fall's Maclay hunter seat equitation championship, traditionally held in New York City.

Maclay 2004 presentation to Megan Young at the Metropolitan National Horse Show. | © 2004 by Nancy Jaffer

March 23, 2005 — The Syracuse, N.Y., Invitational Sporthorse Tournament is making plans to host this fall’s Maclay hunter seat equitation championship, which lost its Manhattan home with the cancellation of the 2005 Metropolitan National Horse Show.

“We’re taking this really seriously and want to make this special for these young people. I’m really excited,” said Syracuse organizer John Madden. “Everybody should be considered heroes of the sport for getting this done. In 2005, we have an ‘us’ instead of a ‘we’ and ‘them.'”

A contract has yet to be signed, but Madden said there was an agreement in principle while details were being worked out for the competition on the first weekend of November at the Oncenter complex.
The Metropolitan, founded two years ago to give the National a presence in New York City, was unable to succeed financially because space in its Pier 94 venue was so limited.

“You couldn’t put enough spectators in there to make the dollars work. You couldn’t sell it to a sponsor. To go in there and lose money again didn’t make sense,” said National Horse Show Association President Gene Mische.

The National left its traditional home at Madison Square Garden after the 2001 show, following the death of Sallie Wheeler, its “angel” who provided backing for the competition in one of the country’s most expensive locations.

In 2002, the only National was the one at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club in Wellington, Fla., which will continue this year. But its early December dates are a month later than those always occupied by the Maclay. So as a matter of convenience for competitors from the west who come east for the fall circuit in October, there was no possibility of moving the championship south. Though the 2002 Maclay was held at the Washington International, it was run out of the spotlight on a Thursday, which dimmed the aura of the venerable championship.

With the absence of a National in New York during 2002, Madden decided to start a show the next year in Syracuse, about a five-hour drive north of the city. Then word came that the Metropolitan would be staged in New York in 2003 to join the Florida National. Both Nationals were to be part of a family of competitions that would include a show in Las Vegas, which, as it turned out, was never held.

When the Metropolitan’s cancellation became public earlier this month, it was announced that the Maclay would be held at the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg, Pa. The original thought was to have it run on its usual dates in the same time frame as Syracuse. That raised the question as to whether riders would be able to participate in both competitions, and why two major shows in the northeast should run against each other.

Then Madden made his offer to host the Maclay at Syracuse.

“The people involved with the Maclay are helping us out with not going against us, and I think it will prove we’re helping the Maclay by hopefully doing a fantastic job,” said Madden, who noted the contract would be for only one year. Mische said there were hopes a show featuring the Maclay could be staged at another Manhattan venue, perhaps in 2006, though nothing is definite on that front.

“If something does go in Manhattan again in the future, I would hope they would choose not to go against Syracuse,” Madden said, referring to the fact that relations between Syracuse and the Metropolitan had been tense.

A feature of the Syracuse show is international jumping with horses and riders brought over from Europe, reminiscent of the setting in which the Maclay used to be held during the National’s glory days at the Garden. Many of those who ride in the Maclay aspire to compete internationally, so the presence of top U.S. and foreign riders always offered inspiration for the horsemanship finalists.

“I think the thing that really hit a nerve is that the people who have been to Syracuse and know the level of competition think that is the kind of home a major championship should have,” Madden noted.

“At this point, it’s nice for it to go to a nice venue,” said Andre Dignelli, an equitation trainer whose students have won more than a dozen finals. “It’s great for that horse show. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard nice things about it. I’m sure it’s going to be a well-run class.

The choice of Syracuse is “the right thing for everybody,” contended Leo Conroy, a National director and a member of the subcommittee charged with finding a new home for the Maclay. He said Mische told him, “do what’s right for the riders and horses and everybody involved.”

Added Conroy, “It’s a chance for us for once to show horse people can put their differences aside and do the right thing,” he added.

Regional Maclay qualifying competitions will still be held this fall as planned.

“We’re disappointed we still have to go to the regionals; that’s sort of an outdated concept,” said Don Stewart Jr., another trainer of top equitation riders, who noted it is also expensive to attend the regionals.

But plans to take as many as 150 competitors in the finals, rather than 100, should mean it is easier for competitors to make the finals, Conroy pointed out.

The Metropolitan offered classes for both hunters and jumpers. Syracuse, which had already planned to drop its hunters and is scheduled for an all-jumper format, will run Nov. 2-6.

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