What Happened at the 2011 Hampton Classic

McLain Ward riding Antares F
McLain Ward riding Antares F

The words “agony and the ecstasy” might best describe this year’s Hampton Classic Horse Show. Scheduled to open on Sunday, August 28, that wicked Hurricane Irene swept in like a bad fairy not invited to the party. As the hurricane charged toward the East End, Hampton Classic officials frantically cancelled, rescheduled, re-cancelled, and re-rescheduled as they tried to figure out just how long and how bad things would get, alerting owners to not bring their horses to the grounds until Tuesday. In preparation, they hastily tore down the 1,600 stalls and the trademark billowing striped tents, along with the VIP seating and exhibitor spaces. [expand]

As it turned out, two days of showing and unknown dollars for charity were lost before the first horse entered a show ring on Wednesday. Attendance for the week was down by 15,000 from the usual 50,000. “We don’t know yet what the losses might be,” Emily Aspinall, vice-president of the Hampton Classic Board, said the week after the show ended. “I still have a whole pile of bills to wade through.”

After the deluge, as the East End dealt with layers of leaves looking like they’d been through a paper shredder and downed trees hanging on power lines, Classic officials quickly regrouped. Shanette Barth Cohen, Executive Director of the Hampton Classic, said, “Our staff and crew turned out in force on Monday morning and everyone pitched in to do whatever needed to be done. ”

And by Sunday, a shimmering summer sun reigned over the Grand Prix field as McLain Ward, of Brewster, New York, made history when he won the $250,000 FTI Grand Prix and FEI World Cup Qualifier. It was the sixth time the two-time Olympic Gold Medalist had come in first at the Grand Prix, this year on 11-year-old gelding Antares F, owned by Grant Road Partners, LLC.

While some numbers were down, those of VIP attendees were not. Hampton Classic President Dennis Suskind welcomed a full house of guests that included Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Mayor’s appearance was a pleasant surprise to some because his daughter, Georgina, was not riding in this year’s Grand Prix because of a back injury, and because the Mayor had just held a press conference in New York on the controversial resignation of Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith.

Meanwhile, down the rows of beautiful tables laid out for luncheons, polo star Nacho Figueras held court with fans and posed for photo ops.

Does he ever get tired of having his picture taken?

“No, never,” he said.

Is he going to take a break from riding now that Bridgehampton Polo season is over?

“Of course not.”

In two weeks, he said, he would be off to Argentina for the rest of the year to ride on.

While most people in the VIP sections came early so they could people-watch before they horse-watched, not everyone was there for a leisurely day. For example, the table of Alvin and Patsy Topping, of Swan Creek Farm in Bridgehampton, sat empty until the last minute. Family and guests had been working at one of many other events that sometimes get eclipsed by the Grand Prix. In another ring, they had just awarded the Swan Creek Farms Perpetual Trophy to Christina Kelly, whose horse, Creata Van Ten Biesen, had won the Junior Jumper High Score Award.

And then, leisure doesn’t always equal laid-back. Part of the fun of watching the jumpers is the tension as horse and rider approach the fence. Even seasoned horse people, like the Hildreths of Hildreth’s Home Goods, can find things a bit nerve-wracking to watch. Colleen, wife of Henry Hildreth, sitting in front-row seats with her children, confessed, “I enjoy it, but I get so scared for them out there. I have to wonder if horses are really meant to do this.”

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