September 24, 2017—As the saying goes, when one door closes, another may open, and so it went for the Rolex Central Park Horse Show when its dressage segment had to be cancelled at practically the last minute.
Although efforts were made to bring the world’s top riders in the discipline to the show, that didn’t work out, leaving a major Saturday night gap in the competition a little more than two weeks before it was to get under way. But arena eventing, which is growing in popularity, turned out to be the perfect substitute, drawing a full house to the Wollman Rink and adding a new dimension that came with a high level of spectator engagement, reflected by the noise level of cheers from the packed stands.
With a team relay approach, rather than the individual format used when the concept debuted successfully for Pennsylvania’s Devon Horse Show in May, there were thrills aplenty over a course that combined cross-country-style fences—including a bounce-bank and a giant signature Big Apple—with show jumping obstacles as the beginning and ending of the route elements.
Scoring was simpler than the penalty system used in the full-length version of eventing. Knocking down the first fence, a vertical, carried a two-second penalty, while a rail at the last, an oxer, tacked four seconds on to the total time of each team. All were named after sections of the city, with the East Village pairing of U.S.-based Australian riders Dom Schramm (No Objection) and Ryan Wood (Alcatraz) taking the win on a total of 168.31 seconds in the second round, for which six of the 12 original duos qualified. Second place, 6.81 seconds behind that, went to the Times Square pairing of Boyd Martin on Kyra and Holly Payne-Caravella aboard Burghley veteran Never Outfoxed, the most experienced horse in the class that combined 1-star fences (safety first, was the motto) with 4-star riders. Two British imports on the Chelsea squad, William Fox-Pitt and Ollie Townend, took third on borrowed horses.
“I found it a big deal to be on somebody else’s horse and I’m very glad we didn’t cause any trouble,” William said with a smile.
The $50,000 purse, while not large by show jumping standards, was enough to get the competitive juices really flowing.
The tightly-wound circuitous layout was designed by former U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips, who also did the honors at Devon. It was tough to remember for everyone; they walked the course over and over, then compared notes with their fellow competitors. Holly even wound up adding a fence in the first round.
“The biggest concern was remembering our way,” said Ollie.
William, the former world number one eventer who suffered a life-threatening concussion two years ago, cheerfully conceded that it was particularly difficult for him to remember (“My brain’s a bit slow these days”), but he pulled through with typical British resolve and deemed it “great fun. It’s really bringing our sport out there and hopefully it bodes well for big things to come.”
The course designer is enthusiastic about the increasing popularity of arena eventing, which can be run in the smallest of spaces (as was proven at Wollman) rather than the wide open spaces required by the traditional three-phase format.
“It brings the sport of eventing to a new public,” Mark told me.
“Every one we’ve done has been a sellout. It’s not the same as the real thing, but bringing it to a new audience is great.”
Show impresario Mark Bellissimo was thrilled with the outcome and the way Fite Group Luxury Homes stepped up at the last minute to be presenting sponsor. You can bet you’ll see arena eventing back at the show next year; my guess is dressage will be a non-starter. It’s a tough time of year to have a big dressage show that isn’t part of the regular rotation, and I’m thinking announcement of a new big money top-10 show in Sweden this December might have discouraged a couple of European riders from coming, though I don’t know that for sure.
Eventers are such good sports, and they were very happy with the opportunity to come to Central Park, kidding around at the way the class went.
Ryan called his team’s first round, “Chancey but not reckless.”
“We weren’t dancing with the devil quite yet,” chimed in Dom.
“My fellow (his horse) is 20 years old and has just been going novice,” observed Dom.
By the second round, he said, “ I felt kind of bad for him, churning and burning. Halfway around, I was `sorry mate.’ But he was “unbelievable, just picked himself up,” Dom said.
For more from Ryan and Dom, click on this video to listen to an interview.
Sadly missing from the line-up of eventing stars was 2016 Olympic individual bronze medallist Phillip Dutton, who had a bad fall this week while schooling a young horse (the same one from which Boyd had a fall earlier this month). Boyd said Phillip was due to get out of the hospital last night, where he was being treated for a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a broken collarbone.
For more photos from Central Park, go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
The afternoon was devoted to a series of hunter competitions, capped by the two-round $50,000 Duchossois Cup, named in memory of one of the sport’s great supporters. Liza Towell Boyd capped off an amazing show for her family and connections by winning the class on O’Ryan. The victory was particularly emotional for her because she admired Bruce and like others who knew him, feels his loss keenly.
Click on the video to hear what she had to say about him and the class.
Liza’s win was preceded by the victory of her student Stella Styslinger, who is also O’Ryan’s owner, in the $2,500 Junor/Amateur hunter class on Cassanto. Liza’s brother, Hardin, was second in the show’s featured $216,000 U.S. Open Grand Prix presented by Rolex Friday night, and his client, Jennifer Gates, took the $25,000 Under 25 Grand Prix earlier that evening.
The show was designed to help popularize equestrian sport, and judging by the interest from passerby, it was succeeding. Folks strolling through the park, many of whom had no contact with horses aside from seeing the carriage horses that traverse roads in the park, enjoyed seeing horses grazing on the lawn near the arena.
Katie Wood, Liza’s assistant trainer, said people were curious about the horses, wondering about such basics as what they eat and the kind of care they need.
“We take it for granted that we get to spend time around these horses every day, so it’s fun to come to an event like this, and have people ask questions,” said Katie, noting that on the 10-minute walk through the park from the stabling/warm-up on a baseball field to the ring, horses encounter the public and all sorts of distractions.
“I had no idea it this would be this impressive. This is something else. People are bicycling and the (horse-drawn) carriages, it’s a lot for these horses to take in,” she said.
A good number of curious people peered through the fence around the arena to watch, while others got a panoramic view of the action by climbing a boulder nearby.
Nick Trevallyan-Jones, who happened to be passing the show while pushing his 9-month-old daughter in a stroller, was delighted to see the horses. As the native of Australia noted, “It’s fantastic. First of all, it was a surprise. Secondly, I think they have put together a real range of activities in Central Park, a lot of kind of young stuff, volleyball and whatever. This is a much more interesting and skillful sort of sport; elegant, and it’s very impressive to see something like that here.”
The show concludes with a free family day of exhibitions and other family-oriented attractions this afternoon from noon to three, so stop by if you’re in the neighborhood. Next weekend, I’m changing gears and heading to Dressage at Devon. I’ll be sending a postcard and facebook photos from there; be sure to look for them.