September 26, 2015 -- Imagine what it's like to stage a horse show in Central Park, the verdant acreage in the heart of Manhattan. Now imagine what it's like to stage a horse show when the visit of Pope Francis is added to the mix.
There were dozens of street closings as thousands of pilgrims poured into the city, hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff at least. At the most, they sought a ticket to his Madison Square Garden mass or a chance to watch his procession through the park. Often, they had to settle for simply buying a T-shirt or some other souvenir as street entrepreneurs energetically plugged their merchandise to passersby.
Security was incredibly tight, led by the Secret Service with the New York City police department going all out, and assisted by other law enforcement agencies, including the TSA. Much of the park where the Pope would pass was a "frozen zone," keeping out people who didn't have tickets to see him and giving an airport-type screening to those who did.
During the afternoon yesterday, horse showgoers who left the park had trouble getting to their hotels, having to walk blocks out of the way to get there because of street barricades and massive crowds. They also encountered difficulty returning to the park. Mark Bellissimo, whose organization put on the Rolex Central Park Horse Show, had to talk his way back in.
We discussed the whole crazy situation. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he had to say.
Showgoers were not deterred, however, and the stands were full for the afternoon's dressage grand prix, won by Isabell Werth of Germany on El Santo NRW, a name that drew much comment because it was so appropriate for the Pope's visit.
The grand prix was more like an exhibition, a preamble to tonight's main event. That's the freestyle under the lights, which Isabell won last year on the same horse.
I asked what she thought about practically every seat being taken for the class on a Friday afternoon, and she was enthusiastic and recounted wryly what it was like to deal with being in the city (and trying to return a rental car) at a very special moment in the city's life.
Afterwards, we talked about how one prepares a horse coming from overseas for a show under extremely unusual circumstances. (She noted that another of her grand prix horses, Don Johnson, probably would not have had the same acceptance of the situation as "Ernie" did.
Watch this video to hear more of what she had to say.
Isabell and I chatted about the sensational Bella Rose, her up-and-coming horse who made a huge impression at last year's world championships, but has been rehabbing since. Isabell said she's on track for a comeback. That's the good news. The bad news is that this multi-multi gold medal rider won't be competing in Florida this winter, as we all had hoped. She explained that the European Reem Acra Dressage World Cup qualifiers are going on at that time, so she has to support them.
Isabell's score of 75.10 percent for an admittedly conservative ride (she's saving the big-time sparkle for tonight) topped a seven-entry field that was missing the much-touted appearance of the world number one dressage horse and rider, Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin. Charlotte came over from Great Britain but Valegro didn't, after a tiring European Championships outing last month.
She got the ride instead on a substitute, Evi Strasser's Renaissance Tyme, who didn't appear in the grand prix but will show us how they work together after a brief collaboration during a demonstration in the course of the freestyle. Tomorrow afternoon, Charlotte is giving a mini-clinic to show how she prepares a horse for competition and what she does to fill in on an understudy.
Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven of Sweden on Paridon Magi--who, like El Santo flew across the Atlantic to get here--was second with 73.167 percent and 17-year-old phenom Juan Matute Jr. of Spain finished third on Don Diego Ymas with 69.967. He was just a touch ahead of the USA's Catherine Haddad Staller on Mane Stream Hotmail (69.933).
Juan, based in Wellington, Fla., is amazing--and I'm not just talking about his riding. He is unfailingly gracious, extremely intelligent and an example not just for his age group, but for everyone, on how to conduct himself. Under the tutelage of his father, Juan Sr., I fully expect to see him in the Olympics four years from now.
After the class, we discussed the Central Park experience. Click on the video to see more.
The jumper division here consisted of a speed class on Thursday, won by Ireland's Conor Swail on Simba de la Roque, and last night's grand prix, presented by Rolex. Before the competition, course designer Guilherme Jorge said he hoped for eight clear but added he would be happy with five, citing the difficulties presented by the teardrop-shaped ring with skyscrapers towering in the background and the electricity that seemed to buzz through the air.
I figured getting five would be no problem. There was no fence higher than 1.55 meters, and with McLain Ward on his Pan Am Games gold medal mount, Rothchild; Kent Farrington (Uceko) and Todd Minikus (Quality Girl) in the lineup, they seemed likely to be part of a tiebreaker. Ditto Conor, who was on track for the $25,000 leading rider prize. And then there was last year's defending champion, Georgina Bloomberg, though she was not aboard her 2014 winning ride, Juvina.
But in the end, the class boiled down to just two riders: Colombia's Daniel Bluman and New Zealand's Sharn Wordley. Shane Sweetnam wound up third, caught by a single time penalty in the first round with Chaqui Z, and Mark Bellissimo's horse, Kismet 50, piloted by Candice King, had the same problem. She finished fourth with a slower time. While 10 of 27 starters had time penalties, the designer was satisfied that the 82-second time allowed was correct.
Several of the best hopes were shattered by piles of rails. Rothchild uncharacteristically refused twice, pushing into the Wall Street vertical to have the poles topple. Todd had the same experience at the Radio City jump, but once was enough for him and he retired. Kent dislodged a rail at the third element of the triple combination, an oxer, while Georgina dropped two rails with Caleno. The biggest heartbreak belonged to Conor, who tipped a rail at the last fence as the crowd groaned. He wound up fifth as the fastest of six 4-faulters without time penalties, and lost the leading rider check to Bluman, who won the class with a clear trip in 41.39 seconds on Conconcreto Believe. Sharn had a careful clear on 43.35 aboard Barnetta, a son of the famous Baloubet du Rouet, who I saw compete many times with Rodrigo Pessoa up. I always enjoy watching the offspring of horses I covered during the Olympics, World Cup or other world-class competitions.
Daniel is a dynamic guy, and very emotional (getting a Rolex watch as a prize can do that to you.) But I had a hunch concerning his horse's name, so I asked about that. Click on the video to learn what he said.
It's tough on the course designer when things don't go quite as planned (though it must be said it was a very good class) so I asked Gui (as he is known, it rhymes with key) for his thoughts.
Click on the right-hand arrow to hear what he had to say
By the way, he pointed out that even if they are riding under foreign flags, all three of the class's top riders are based in the U.S.
In other jumper action, Jennifer Gates won the $5,000 junior/amateur class presented by Price Waterhouse Coopers on Everest De Muze, as her father, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates, watched from the VIP tent that lined one side of the ring.
Mark Bellissimo, whose many big dreams already have become reality (he's the force behind the Winter Equestrian Festival, Adequan Global Dressage Festival, the Colorado Horse Park and the new Tryon show facility in North Carolina) is looking to build on the Central Park experience. Noting that this show has 32 sponsors, Mark commented that most of them are corporate, rather than the families or stables that usually back shows.
An event with the glitz of Central Park can bring in more sponsors and help grow the sport, he believes. Mark hopes the jumpers, now 3-star-rated, eventually will be 5 stars. Meanwhile, he wants to brings more shows to the people in cities, rather than expecting them to travel for a sport that's still relatively obscure, and he has some locations on his radar already (but wouldn't tell me what they are).
The jumpers have gone home (though you can still enjoy them when the grand prix is aired on NBC Sports from 9-10:30 p.m. Sunday) and the hunters take over this afternoon before the evening freestyle. Look for my postcard tomorrow morning and I'll fill you in. In the meantime, you can see photos of Isabell and Daniel at www.facebook.com/practical horseman, and of Isabell at www.facebook.com/dressage today.