May 30, 2014 -- They groan when a rail comes down in a jumper class. They utter murmurs of sympathy if a ball bounces off a cone in the coaching competition. They cheer for the winners and clap to boost the spirit of those who suffer mishaps.
Few audiences are as empathetic as those composed of folks who make an annual pilgrimage to the Devon Horse Show, which in many cases is the only equestrian event they attend each year.
But their presence, and devotion contribute to the unique character of this 118-year-old fixture on Philadelphia's Main Line.
Happily jammed shoulder-to-shoulder and many layers deep on the rail last night, the enthusiasm of the sellout-crowd helped lift Ireland's Paul O'Shea and Primo de Revel to their first $100,000 Grand Prix of Devon victory in one of the most exciting jump-offs ever seen in the Dixon Oval.
As noted by Paul, who is charming and pleasingly humble, "the atmosphere is obviously very special here, the crowd really gets into it."
It became even more incredible as Paul went flat-out in 38.951 seconds to beat the mark of 40.798 seconds set minutes earlier by six-time Devon grand prix winner McLain Ward on his 2013 victor, Rothchild. To say the fans went wild is perhaps the best way to describe their enthusiasm during the nine-horse tiebreaker. They really got behind the riders, especially Todd Minikus, who gave it all he had, chasing Paul's time on the very speedy Quality Girl.
Making things more complicated for Todd, his top (snaffle) left rein came off the mare's pelham bit between the first and second fences as the silver clip holding it together gave way when he went to steady her to add a stride. Luckily, the bottom rein didn't follow suit. (go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman for a picture of the crucial moment). Nevertheless, the always-persistent rider kept going. He nearly caught the leader, but didn't quite make it, with a clocking of 39.633.
"I usually solely ride off the top rein," said Todd.
"There were a few moments when I couldn't figure out what the heck was going on. I felt like I had no reins, and there were a few strides where I had to pause to figure out whether I still had steering or no steering or too much steering. I think that kind of cost me the class a little bit. You never know, but maybe."
Of Quality Girl, he said, "She's a fighter and a winner and the distraction bothered me more than it bothered her, I think."
Todd, by the way, was his own groom. He only had the one horse at the show (the rest of his team is up at the Saugerties, N.Y., HITS show).
"You've got to be able to take care of your own horse. How can you instruct people how to take care of your horses if you can't take care of them yourself?" he commented.
Laura Chapot was fourth on Quointreau Un Prince (41.953), a horse she owns with McLain.
I asked Paul the obvious question, "How did you go that fast?"
To sum up the answer, it all lies in his partnership with his mount.
"I have him seven years now," he explained, "so we know each other very well. He's an extremely competitive horse, he's very rideable, he's got a very good canter. You can go quite fast on him, he doesn't get long and flat. He's experienced against the clock. I watched McLain go and I thought I just had to go as fast as I could."
Listen to what else he said.
Part of Paul's success also might be attributed to his willingness to go over the route during the course walk with Olaf Petersen Jr., who laid out the floorplan. It's not against the rules (I asked) and Olaf said he's glad to do it, while noting Paul is the only competitor who does that in detail, as opposed to just asking about a single line or combination. (Olaf added that while he may believe a line might be a certain number of strides, it can be different when someone is actually riding it.)
Paul, 37, works for the Skara Glen stable, though Primo is owned by an Irishman, Michael Hayden. The winner of the McDevitt style award, Paul (not unexpectedly) hopes to ride for his country in the Olympics one day. He has a great background. The son of a Limerick horse dealer, he spent his younger days fox hunting -- I think that must be where he learned to gallop. But he went on to work with some great riders in Sweden, from Rolf-Goran Bengtsson and Royne Zetterman to Maria Gretzer. He also was with Irish Olympic medalist Cian O'Connor for three years, received pointers from Trevor Coyle of Ireland, and these days gets help from another Irishman, Gerry Mullins.
But part of his success last night could be attributable to tips from Michael Matz, now a racehorse trainer, who spent plenty of time winning in the Dixon Oval during his riding days. Paul was in the barn in Wellington, Fla., where Michael's children rode, so the two got to know each other that way.
I caught up, literally, with McLain before the victory gallop to get his take on how the class went. He was catching a plane, so I knew I couldn't speak to him afterwards. You can hear for yourself what he had to say, though it's not the best soundbyte I ever recorded since I was on the ground and he was on his horse. That meant I couldn't get my digital recorder as close to him as I usually do.
Winning the Grand Prix of Devon is a big deal. While the prize money isn't what one might expect at a show of this standing (the determined new president, Sarah Coxe Lange, hopes to get it up to $250,000 at some point), the aura is what counts here.
Devon is an island of the past on busy Route 30 that is not afraid of the present. Change comes behind the scenes, and is rarely apparent to the average showgoer, though the move of the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby from the somnolent final Sunday of the show to its biggest day, Thursday, was a remarked-upon development. Sarah's other moves include a vastly improved program that is part of her education and "rediscover Devon" initiative, which includes being able to rent headphones for expert commentary on the various classes and the sale of a book on the show's history.
Devon is the place riders want to win because of its cachet, and those who win the big stuff at Devon often do it consistently.
As was the case last year, the professional hunter divisions boiled down to a battle between Scott Stewart, who took the Leading Hunter Rider title 10 years in a row, beginning in 2002, and Kelley Farmer, who earned it last year. Both have impressive strings of horses and between them, they accounted for all the championships in the divisions. Kelley took three (including the Grand Hunter Championship with Scripted, the Green Conformation titleist) and Scott took two, which means her name is being engraved for the second year in a row on the enormous silver tray that is the Leading Rider trophy.
Kelley also won the Derby riding Mindful, a former grand prix jumper. Originally named Grappa, she decided he needed a new moniker because everyone knows Grappa as the outstanding (and now retired) equitation horse of Sarah Willeman. Kelley has only ridden him in three shows, but they've already forged a relationship that enabled her to take the chances necessary to win a Derby of Devon's caliber.
The class drew 33 starters, and there were mishaps aplenty. Kelley fell off when Taken, one of her five mounts, did a wheelie on a corner. Winn Alden's Ariel reared before the first jump; she took it and then withdrew. Jersey Boy, the most famous Derby horse of all, hit the first fence in the first round, then had a rail in the handy round.
But his accomplished rider, Jen Alfano, went on to finish third on another horse, Maggie May, behind Airport 48 -- a stranger to many of us here. He's another former grand prix jumper, ridden by former national horsemanship champ Hayley Barnhill.
One thing that the crowd must have thought strange was the "acclimitisation" prior to the class, in which horses are led around to look at, and in many cases, sniff and touch the jumps. The fences for a derby often are different than what horses have encountered during the week at the show, but I think they should be able to jump without a preview. Diane Carney, who I call the godmother of the hunter derby, thinks that someday this exercise can be eliminated, but she feels it needs to continue for now.
I asked Jen about it. While Maggie didn't take the walk, Jersey Boy did, since he wasn't showing in any of the hunter divisions earlier in the week and she wanted him to get a look at everything.
Despite Kelley's star power, I didn't want to overlook the efforts of Hunt Tosh and the Wheeler family's Queen Latiffah, who won the Performance Hunter Stake in fine style. At Tuesday night's National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, Hunt was named Hunter Rider of the Year and Queenie was Horse of the Year by a vote of the trainers.
Hunt, a true gentleman, talked to me about Queenie after his final ride of the show.
I asked Kenneth Wheeler (Ken-Ken, as Hunt called him) why Queenie didn't appear in the Derby, and he explained she hadn't shown much this year so she wasn't totally fit and her connections didn't want to push her. That's horsemanship. To see a photo of Queenie and Hunt in action, go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
The Hall of Fame dinner, held down Route 30 about a half-hour from the show, is always a highlight of Devon's run. Presided over by Hall member Jimmy Lee, it's another chance to honor the past that is slipping away from us, and get together with friends in a relaxed, non-competitive mode.
Those inducted this year included the black mare Aldie Belle and hunter pony extraordinaire Wizard of Oz, along with the irrepressible Susie Schoellkopf, judge Brian Lenehan, rider Jane Womble Gaston and amateur-owner hunter rider Bruce Duchossois. All but one of the people honored were on hand to accept. However, Bruce is undergoing chemotherapy and couldn't make it. He was with us in more than spirit however -- larger-than-life photos of Bruce were part of the ceremony, which was the next best thing to having him there in person.
Bruce is so much more than a rider -- he's a vice president of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation and a patron of the sport, being a particularly important sponsor of eventer Phillip Dutton. He's a great sport and a great person.
I'll be sending my next postcards from the national dressage championships and World Equestrian Games team selection trials in Gladstone, N.J., June 12-15.