February 29, 2016-- Peter Leone put it this way: ''I have died and gone to show jumping heaven.'' He was talking about his experience at the Live Oak International show, a very different kind of competition. Probably you could have found more than a few drivers who would say the same, substituting the name of their discipline for Peter's.
Staged by four-in-hand driver Chester Weber and his sister, Juliet Reid (you know the name because she used to be chairman of the Washington International), the show has a lovely setting on their family's plantation of nearly 5,000 acres.
To get there, you come off Interstate 75 and go a few miles through a not-very-scenic area. And then--heaven. Acre after acre of fields, all dotted with live oaks hung with silvery Spanish moss for an ethereal feeling.
It's nice that the show is a family project. Chester's wife, My, a jumper rider, helps with the planning, and Juliet's daughter, Chloe, is also part of the scene. She did particularly well in the competition this year.
The centerpiece of the show is a giant grass arena, but there is lots more to Live Oak than that. There's also a wonderful marathon course with well-built hazards, and a bevy of shops. Space is not at a premium.
The VIP tent offers not only caviar and champagne (well, for one day, anyway), but also a scenic view of the grass arena from a raised vantage point. A big party Saturday night encouraged people to come as their favorite pop star. It was a production, with a large band, and a dance floor laid down for the occasion.
There's no feeling of pressure at Live Oak. The schedule calls for only a few classes a day, run promptly and properly under the guidance of show organizer Damian Guthrie. This year's exhibition was the Budweiser Clydesdales. How nice not to see them in a cramped arena, but able to spread out and do their thing in an amount of space that shows them at their best.
I asked Chester to talk about his home show, now in its 25th year (it started with driving, adding jumping four years ago.)
Click on this video to hear what he said.
It would be appropriate to have eventing at Live Oak. Ocala is a winter base for many of the country's best in that discipline. Things have to be worked out with dates and such, but David and Karen O'Connor (he's the U.S. eventing coach) were among those who dropped in this year to take a look.
Karen's comments on the idea are interesting. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what she had to say.
No one would appreciate having eventing become part of Live Oak more than Marilyn Little. The 2015 Pan American Games team and individual eventing gold medalist started as a show jumper and has gone back to her roots this year. On Saturday, she won the $35,000 class that counted toward the Longines Rankings Yesterday, she rode the same mare, Corona, to win the featured $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Ocala qualifier. Going forward, her plan is to continue at the top level in both disciplines. So wouldn’t it be convenient to do them at the same venue? Of course!
The show draws huge crowds. There was no empty space around the arena or the marathon hazards this weekend. The people who attend boost the spirits of competitors with lots of cheering. Many are newbies, so they may not know exactly what they're cheering about. But they know who they're cheering for, and they recognize the effort that goes into competing at a venue like Live Oak.
''The crowds were wonderful,'' Chester said yesterday.
''When I walked the cones course at 7:30 a.m.,there were already a couple of hundred spectators here,'' he commented.
The cones course for the final phase of the combined driving wound around the jumps set up for the afternoon's grand prix, which posed more obstacles for the competitors.
''It was a real driving test,'' said Chester, who won his 13th National Four-in-Hand Championship yesterday.
Suzy Stafford, who won the FEI Single Horse division with PVF Peace of Mind, cited the electricity that the show jumpers also noticed.
''The crowds were really good for the horses,'' she said.
Hunny, as her Morgan mare is known, had her very own cheering section.
''Her groupies really follow her around,'' she said.
They also vote. Hunny was the U.S. Equestrian Federation's International Horse of the Year for 2015.
While she's a winner, Hunny is not easy.
''She's usually difficult in the warm-up, but I trust her in the arena. In the ring, she is all business and I try not to pay attention to anything she tells me in advance,'' Suzy revealed.
There was a very healthy entry in Live Oak's show jumping, which speaks again to the depth of the sport. Don't forget, the Winter Equestrian Festival is going on about a 3 and 1/2-hour drive southeast in Palm Beach County. As was the case with the Wellington Masters show earlier this month, there are plenty of horses and riders to go around.
With the Masters, its location half a mile from the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center made it easy for riders to participate both there and at the WEF.
It was not so easy to do that this weekend, and a $380,000 grand prix kept a lot of people at WEF. Ireland's Cian O'Connor was the only one to do both shows (with different horses, of course), finishing fourth Saturday night at WEF and seventh in Ocala yesterday. He made the trip in a small plane, which cut traveling time to 45 minutes.
I was impressed by the energy Juliet and Chester put into their production. Their effort shows. I talked with Juliet, who I met through Washington, about her thoughts on this annual spectacle.
To listen, click on the right-pointing arrow.
For driving and show jumping results, go to http://liveoakinternational.com/show-results.
Don't forget to go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman to see more photos from Live Oak.
I'm heading back up north after days of lovely sunshine. At the beginning of April, I'll be sending another postcard from the last week of the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Nations' Cup of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival.