May 29, 2017—I think I’m safe in saying there are few shows in the country as steeped in tradition as Devon. Yet perhaps the reason that it has lasted 121 years is because new ideas are welcome.
A perfect example was last night’s debut of arena eventing, a huge success in which some of the biggest names in the sport played to a packed house.
Fans were undeterred by steady rain. They just hoisted umbrellas, crowding the rail or filling the box seats and grandstands as they will for Thursday night’s grand prix, a staple of the show for decades.
Devon has one of the best audiences for equestrian competition that can be found anywhere. They are quite knowledgeable—while many only go to this one horse show a year, they have been coming every year and picked up an appreciation of what horses and riders do in the spacious Dixon Oval or the neighboring Gold Ring. Ringside boxes are heirlooms passed down through families, for many generations in a number of instances. The fans’ favorite color is the Devon blue that is seen everywhere on the showgrounds (a cross between robin’s egg and a May sky on a sunny day).
The first Sunday at the 11-day Devon show has always tended to be rather quiet. The competition schedule of the carriage pleasure drive and pony and adult jumpers got jazzed for the evening this time with the addition of arena eventing.
And you may ask, what exactly is arena eventing? Only a few shows, including Toronto’s fabulous Royal Winter Fair, offer the class. It’s a combination of three-day eventing’s cross-country, using solid portable jumps of familiar shapes, such as tables and corners, mixed in with show jumps. The $50,000 feature presented by Mid-Atlantic Packaging had no entry fee and was open both to eventers and show jumpers. Eventers needed to have earned a qualifying score in a 2-star CCI (longer format event). The field included Olympian Boyd Martin, along with such popular stars as Jennie Brannigan, Doug Payne, Ryan Wood and Colleen Rutledge.
Show jumpers who had competed over fences 1.40 meters in height also were eligible, but only one showed up, noticeable for wearing a riding jacket and plain helmet while everyone else was attired in their cross-country colors. Sadly, the show jumper jumped outside the flags on two fences and was eliminated. But when I heard show jumpers were eligible, I couldn’t imagine a Devon regular like World Cup champion McLain Ward trying to leap a wooden cottage or one of those corners on HH Azur.
No, this was about eventers, but tough as they and their horses are, they still needed “acclimation” as an introduction to the fences in an unusual setting. You’ve seen acclimation before and you’ll see it again here Thursday morning, as hunters prepare for their derby. You won’t see it at Rolex Kentucky, but Devon was an unusual situation for these horses used to running during daylight in the countryside.
Competing in an arena under the lights with a huge crowd was quite a different experience, so it was felt in the interests of safety it was important that the horses knew what was going on. So they were ridden or led around the fences, which also gave them a look at the grandstands and the lights of the ferris wheel that stands out from the little carnival near the shops on the compact grounds.
Former U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips, who designed the clever course that ran in both the Dixon Oval and the Gold Ring, explained the acclimation was important for horses who had never seen anything like what they would experience at Devon.
“It’s such a different atmosphere,” said Mark, who needed to make sure it wasn’t “a total surprise.” The cross-country fences “don’t knock down. You don’t want the horse to be spooked when it comes in the ring.” He also made sure the first couple of obstacles were show jumps that do knock down when struck, not solid pieces, so horses could get into the groove without an instant challenge.
In the first round, horses started jumping in the Dixon Oval, then galloped down a narrow passageway into the Gold Ring, where there was more jumping before they came back into the Dixon Oval.
The prospect of using both rings had intrigued Mark, who designs the Burghley, 4-star in his native Great Britain and also is designing the route for next year’s World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C.
The event was Boyd’s idea and Mark came to Devon during a break in last autumn’s Washington International show to take a close look at the grounds.
Having horses go between rings gave them a bit of a breather before taking on more fences (there were a total of 25 in the first round, and 15 for the jump-off against the clock for the top 12 entries in the second round.)
The scoring involved five faults for a knockdown and 10 for a refusal, with two refusals eliminating. The brilliance of Mark’s work was that it sorted things out nicely. There were some surprises, like the refusal of Boyd’s Jersey Fresh mount, Kyra, at the beautifully carved wooden fox fence in the jump-off and a stop by Waylon Roberts’ Mindful one fence away from home.
The bogey fence was the final obstacle, an 8-foot narrow oxer of white rails with brush behind the first rail. Mark learned the “grand prix trick” of using that brush from Devon’s show jumping designer, Kelvin Bywater, and promised we’d be seeing it again on his courses.
The win went to Sara Kozumplik Murphy on the gray Selle Francais Rubens D’Ysieux, the “magical” horse known as “the unicorn” around his barn.
He was excited (Sara took the precaution of using a “bigger bit” than usual), but he handled the jump-off course blithely in 75.03 seconds, a clocking that could not be beaten.
I had my eye on Jennie, the last to go, who gallops race horses in her spare time. There was a long run to those white rails at the end of the route, and I expected to see Jennie make the most of it. So I was surprised when she took back a bit on Cambalda to finish in 79.05 seconds.
When I asked why she didn’t go full bore, Jennie rightfully explained that a lot of good riders had that fence down (eight in the first round, four including Boyd on Ray Price W in the jump-off) and a glance at the clock showed she likely couldn’t beat Sara anyway. So she played it safe, which put her nicely in second place in a time of 79.05 seconds to collect a $10,000 check. Not bad, considering that “Ping” had won a CIC 2-star at the Virginia Horse Center on the same weekend!
Since he’s 15, Jennie doesn’t want to keep putting him in 4-stars, and she didn’t want to sell him, so arena eventing could be a niche for this gallant campaigner.
Sara earned $12,500 for the win on a “really wicked horse” (that’s a compliment, in her parlance) who is “so careful and so smart and he’s so happy” she started riding in September.
“I was excited about the opportunity to come to atmosphere and pressure and practice that,” she said.
“I think there’s very few opportunities that we have to do that in this country…before we have to go down that gladiatorial walk into Rolex (the Rolex Kentucky 4-star), it’s nice to be able to have some practice.
“Devon is an incredible place,” she continued.
“It’s an honor to ride here; I always wanted to ride here, but I’m not good enough in dressage or show jumping, so thank you for having this.”
Watch the video of my conversation with Sara by clicking on the right-pointing arrow.
Third place went to local rider Erika Nesler on Right Above It, finishing in 80.92 seconds. It was so cool to see her in the press box in a different capacity than when I first met her. Several years ago, she used to help Sara Cavanagh with handling media at the show, and would always go down and bring the riders up for us to interview.
It was, as she pointed out, really neat for her to be on the other side of the table this time around.
Mark was all smiles after the class, understandably so. When you’ve got a hit, you enjoy it. And let’s face it, no one was sure how it was going to go.
See what he had to say by clicking on the right-pointing arrow.
There are seven more days of Devon ahead of us. Why not drive over to this suburb on Philadelphia’s Main Line (or take the train) and see what it’s all about. Thursday night’s grand prix is always a sell-out, so you might be better off trying for the Saturday grand prix, or one of the other evenings. Devon is an all-breed show, a rare animal these days, which means it's fun to see everything from hackney ponies (the show’s symbol) to coaching, hunters and side-saddle among the varied offerings.
I’ll be back with you Friday morning with another postcard. Until then,