One of the year’s best shows packed in the fans and VIPS, who shared the excitement of a suspenseful grand prix

There’s nothing like the Hampton Classic. The setting in quaint Bridgehampton on Long Island’s posh East End is beautiful, made even more intriguing with a lavish boutique garden and a VIP tent where the champagne flows at tables decorated to the nines.

Lavish table settings are the rule in the VIP tent at the Hampton Classic on grand prix Sunday.

Lavish table settings are the rule in the VIP tent at the Hampton Classic on grand prix Sunday.

The biggest deal at the Classic, of course, is top riders vying for honors as well as prize money. The Classic’s king is McLain Ward, who starting winning the grand prix here in 1998 and keeps repeating his success. His victory today in the $300,000 feature presented by Douglas Elliman was his seventh time taking the trophy over the two decades he has participated.

McLain Ward gave the crowd a thrill with his victory gallop on Gigi’s Girl.

McLain Ward gave the crowd a thrill with his victory gallop on Gigi’s Girl.

The odds didn’t favor him this afternoon, though. You know how it is when riders are on a roll, and Ireland’s Shane Sweetnam was in the midst of a hot streak. He took the big classes Friday and Saturday with Indra van de Oude Heihof (better known as Ivy) and had a huge lead in the Longines Rider Challenge for the competitor who accumulates the most points in FEI classes.

Shane switched horses for the grand prix, riding the reliable Main Road, whose quirk (every horse is entitled to at least one) involves bucking after he’s done a particularly good job. Because of his record at the show, Shane went last in the grand prix, shooting at the mark set by McLain on HH Gigi’s Girl, a 10-year-old gray Dutchbred mare he has been riding for just a year.

McLain thought Gigi was a little more experienced than she turned out to be when she came to his stable, but she makes up for it by being brave. That, and that fact that she loses time in the air by jumping high, prompted him to take a chance on footing that wasn’t the best (more on that later) and make a tight approach to the Jaguar vertical that was the next-to-last fence on the jump-off route. His time of 39.32 seconds was a wow, achieved even with a little stumble.

“I had Shane coming behind me, who’s already a very fast rider, and he’s been on great form this whole week, so I knew he was going to be a threat,” McLain recounted.

“I thought I could maybe risk it back on the vertical a bit,” he said of the turn.

“It was one of those things. If it shows up, you’re a hero and every once in a while, it doesn’t show up and the result is different.” This time, however, it showed up and Shane had his work cut out for him as he cantered into the ring on his 10-year-old Swedish warmblood.

He fell short in 41.24 seconds, but Shane looked on the bright side.

Shane Sweetnam missed victory with Main Road in the grand prix, but wound up winning the Longines Rider Challenge title for the second time for his performances over the week.

Shane Sweetnam missed victory with Main Road in the grand prix, but wound up winning the Longines Rider Challenge title for the second time for his performances over the week. 

“McLain was hungry and wanted it, and I was there, or thereabouts. I’m very happy with the week,” he said. His string of brilliant performances netted him that Longines Rider Challenge title (and lots of fancy watches). His only other serious contender for the Challenge, another Irishman, Richie Maloney, lost his shot early when Freestyle de Muze slipped at fence four, the water, and the rider retired.

Third place went to Lucy Davis, McLain’s teammate on the 2014 World Equestrian Games bronze medal squad and the 2016 Olympic silver medal team. Lucy, a Californian who now works out of Westchester County, N.Y.’s Old Salem Farm, is bringing along Caracho 14, a 9-year-old Holsteiner, and this was a landmark finish for him. It was a great day altogether for Lucy, since her student, Lindsay Douglas finished fifth with a slow clean round on Butterfly Tibri Z, and another student, Taylor St. Jacques, won the amateur-owner/junior jumper championship. (More on that later).

Five horses from a starting field of 34 made the jump-off in the grand prix, though there were nervous moments for course designer Michel Vaillancourt early on, as 12 horses went before number 13, Canada’s Mario Deslauriers, went fault-free on Bardolina 2. I was standing next to Michel part of the time, and he really was rooting for the riders to handle the challenge of his route and qualify for the tiebreaker.

Footing had been an issue all week. It seems rain and perhaps a fungus dealt harshly with the big grass field. Show manager Dean Rheinheimer told me during the class he couldn’t wait to dig a trench so he could analyze what had happened with the surface. Sure enough, as soon as the victory gallop finished, he was out there with heavy equipment making an incision on the turf.

Some riders with whom I spoke told me they were disappointed that the footing wasn’t up to the standard expected for the Classic, but a huge effort was made to improve things as much as possible while the show was going on. The surface was rolled several times during the classes, and workers kept busy tamping down the areas where hooves had dug in.

Even so, some riders felt it was judicious to scratch, which McLain did with Clinta for Saturday’s Longines Cup. McLain made the U.S. team for this month’s WEG in North Carolina with two horses, Clinta and HH Azur. Azur had slightly injured herself at Aachen, so Clinta could well be number one on McLain’s hit parade for the WEG, and he didn’t want to take a chance with her after riding her in a class earlier in the week.

Find out what McLain had to say about the footing and his win by clicking on this link. 

Shanette Barth Cohen, executive director of the show, was forthright about the arena problem.

“There will be dramatic changes to that field by next year,” promised Shanette, who believes hot temperatures and lots of rain this year kept the grass from putting down deep roots and thriving.

“We’re all on the same side when it comes to the riders and as an organizer, we want the best possible field we can have so we have the best sport and the safest conditions for the horses. We’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen,” she noted.

The answer may be an arena with artificial footing as opposed to grass, but that has yet to be decided.

“We have done quite a bit over the years from the top, but to do it from the bottom up is a major undertaking,” Shanette said. The show has been trying to raise funds for that over the years, but now the board is going to make a decision and start a major capital campaign at the same time.

“We will absolutely do a major change of this field so everyone can be confident it will be excellent next year,” she concluded.

The morning’s feature was the $25,000 DAWTS Junior/Amateur Owner 1.45m Show Jumping Derby, with Taylor, who is 19, finishing ahead of 25 other entries on Qantor Des Etisses. They were the only combination to post a double-clear in the class.

Amateur-owner jumper champion Taylor St. Jacques and Qantor des Etisses on their way to winning  $25,000 DAWTS Junior/Amateur Owner 1.45m Show Jumping Derby.

Amateur-owner jumper champion Taylor St. Jacques and Qantor des Etisses on their way to winning $25,000 DAWTS Junior/Amateur Owner 1.45m Show Jumping Derby.

“I thought the first-round course was large, and quite long,” said Taylor, who wound up with the amateur-owner championship.

“I was a little nervous going in, but frankly I think that worked to my advantage – I had to really ride every step. My horse went in there and he was doing exactly what I asked. He was waiting for me to tell him what I wanted him to do.”

Her mount is incredibly special to her. Find out what she has to say about him by clicking on this link

“Winning a class like this is unbelievable,” she said.

“We don’t get the chance to ride over the natural obstacles –- up the bank and over the hedges -– very often. The atmosphere at the Hampton Classic is amazing, with all the spectators and such a beautiful venue. To win this class really means a lot. It was one I was gearing up for this year as one of my peak shows.”

The Hampton Classic is so eagerly anticipated that it’s always hard to believe that the week has galloped by when it’s over. But so many of the riders, including not only Shane and McLain, but also Mario, Amanda Derbyshire and others are looking ahead to the WEG and representing their countries on the biggest stage.

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