November 1, 2009 — Darragh Kenny couldn’t sleep last night. Restless, he texted his mentor and boss, Missy Clark, congratulating her on Saturday’s triumphs at the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, where she and the North Run crew coached Zazou Hoffman to victory in the Maclay and Darragh and Hillary Dobbs to first and second place in the $100,000 grand prix at the Oncenter Complex.
How do you follow an act like that?
“You know what?” he told her shortly after dawn. “It’s only going to get worse today.” Then he smiled and said to me, “It turns out it didn’t.”
Yes, that’s right. Triumph piled on triumph, as Darragh won the Animal Planet Sport Horse Cup, the show’s final class.
“Suppose,” I suggested to Darragh, “I had told you at the beginning of the week that you’d win all this?”
“I would have said you were crazy,” the charming 21-year-old rider retorted immediately with an engaging smile.
The Cup takes the top seven show jumpers at the tournament and pits them against each other in a three-phase deal, dreamed up by Syracuse founder John Madden to showcase different aspects of show jumping. The first round involves a speed test, while the second is a four-bar, with four jumps in a row being raised incrementally. The last obstacle got to 6-feet, 2 inches, but no one managed to clear it and leave all the rails in place.
The third phase is a grand prix-style test against the clock. Darragh went clean with Gael Force (he rode Bazooka de Muze in the first round, Gael Force in the others.) Then he had to wait to see whether McLain Ward and Esplanade 7 could go clean in a time faster than he had logged. He didn’t have to wait long; McLain’s horse crashed the second fence, ending the suspense and giving Darragh yet another big moment.
“It’s been phenomenal. I’m shell-shocked,” he said after holding the glass trophy aloft and then kissing it.
All the success has boosted Darragh’s confidence, and we talked about whether he wanted to ride on a team for his native Ireland..
“It’s what I hope. That’s every kid’s aim from when they were very young, and it was mine as well, My biggest one is to ride in the Olympics. My second-biggest is to jump on the team at the horse show in Dublin. To ride for my country would mean so much to me,” he commented.
Since he lives here, I was wondering if he had any thoughts about becoming an American.
“None whatsoever,” he replied. “I’m very patriotic. I love America, it’s a great country, but I was born and raised in Ireland and that’s how it will always be.”
The closing session carried a lot of emotion, as the stallion Judgement was retired and bid farewell to his fans.
Beezie Madden, John’s wife, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, mounted up and rode the stallion around the ring to a standing ovation. His accomplishments are legion, from winning the $1 million CN class at Spruce Meadows to victory in the 2006 and 2008 Animal Planet Cups. There was plenty in between, and Beezie will miss her stalwart partner.
We talked about what he meant to her.
On hand for the ceremony was Judgement’s breeder, Mary Alice Malone of Iron Spring Farm, who spotted his considerable talent early. The horse first went to Michael Matz, and when he retired from riding, on to Beezie.
Mary Alice and I also talked about this stalwart 18-year-old, who won more than $1.5 million in his career and looked as if he could go right out and win some more this afternoon.
After Darragh’s victory, he commented how much he had enjoyed the show and expressed an insight.
“John does a good job. He’s brilliant,” Darragh said. That sums it up. The Tournament is John’s baby. It’s unique; he has made it a reflection of what he thinks show jumping should and could be. But there are some questions about its future.
The National Horse Show joined forces with Syracuse last year, and chatter has been abundant that it might move elsewhere. I asked Mason Phelps, the National’s president and CEO to comment.
For his part, John wishes the National well, whether it remains with Syracuse or goes out on its own.
“I want the National to be tremendously successful,” said John, who said he wishes the same for the Palm Beach shows, the Hampton Classic and other fixtures.
“I want to raise the level of show jumping in the world, and I have no ego about it,” he contended. “My ego is satisfied by success.”
There has been concern in some quarters about the fate of the Syracuse show, since Budweiser–the grand prix sponsor–will no longer be a backer because Anheuser-Busch was bought by a foreign company.
No worries, John told me after the competition ended and he had his first well-deserved Bourbon of the week as he relaxed for a few minutes.
The show will go on, John emphasized. He is, however, looking for more sponsorship to take it to the next level, and will “hit the ground running” tomorrow morning to try and find it.
He figures $800,000 to $900,000 should do the trick and lure even more of the world’s best riders to upstate New York.
Sponsorship was down to $460,000 this year from $600,000 last year, the result of the recession. He has great support from his area, but needs backing from beyond that to continue the show’s progress.
While he notes that the show nearly broke even in 2008, it was run at a loss this year. But you would never have known it from the way it was staged.
“What I liked most is that we had great sport,” John said. “What I liked second most is that I did a lot less work (you couldn’t prove that by me; he seemed to be in perpetual motion from my point of view; making sure everything was running properly, acting as master of ceremonies at the presentations, chatting with sponsors, etc.)”
“We have a great team in place now,” he insisted, and I have to say I am impressed by the support the show receives from the area. Waiting to talk to John when I finished was the show’s accountant, Paul Mahalick, a volunteer who puts in more than 300 hours a year, for free.
Why, I asked Paul.
“It’s great for the community and the sport alike,” he explained. “It puts Syracuse in a global arena.”
The area isn’t affluent; we’re so used to Wellington, Fla., Aiken, S.C., Westchester, N.Y. and other well-to-do horsey areas that Syracuse is a gritty contrast. But the people are nice and they’re enthusiastic. They have a will that always finds a way.
“You can’t survive here if you’re not a survivor,” John pointed out, and I can guarantee you that he and the show are survivors.
This wraps up my competition postcards for the year. Be sure to check out my Syracuse photo gallery, and I’ll be back with you in December to fill you in on the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting.