September 21, 2014 -- Dressage in New York City's Central Park: It seems like a fantasy, played out against a backdrop of towering buildings, in a ring surrounded by greenery, twinkling lights, adoring spectators and new fans.
But it all became reality in the most emotional way last night during the new Central Park Horse Show, complete with a worthy winner, a final appearance by the great Ravel and the retirement of the beloved Rafalca.
Having a landmark equestrian competition in Manhattan appeared to be an impossible scenario after the National Horse Show left Madison Square Garden for the last time in 2001. But Mark Bellissimo and his amazing team made it happen in style, complete with top riders imported from Europe and two of the most special horses that America has produced in the sport.
When I woke up early this morning after less than four hours of sleep, I briefly wondered if I had dreamed it -- seeing Isabell Werth's powerful winning freestyle with El Santo NRW (90 minutes from my home, instead of in Europe), watching Steffen Peters do his trademark one-handed one-tempis with his longtime partner Ravel, hearing the applause as 17-year-old Rafalca powered her way out of the ring with Jan Ebeling for the last time.
Then there was the post-show Mumm's champagne toast for the hard-working team that made it all possible in a crazy six-week window that ended with the transformation of an ice skating rink (where I actually had skated!) into a horse show arena that hosted some of the best jumpers and dressage mounts.
Mark insists that this four-day show (which ends today with exhibitions and polo) is only the beginning of a seven-year run that has plenty of hurdles of its own. Think about all the red tape it takes to stage anything in New York and the challenge of stabling horses in tents on a baseball field that's a five-minute hack from the arena. Canada's Karen Pavicic, a good sport who rode Don Daiquiri to third place behind Isabell and Hans Peter Minderhoud on Glock's Flirt, thought it was fun trail ride.
I talked with Mark's wife, Katherine Bellissimo, about her impressions of the event. She is no woman-behind-the-man; Katherine is a real partner who is very creative and was the guiding force of the boutique that sold all kinds of souvenirs. Here's what she had to say.
And for additional insight, I chatted with logistics expert Jim Wolf, who told me what was involved, including the tension of doing live TV on the first night of a new show. (That was the NBC Sports' airing of the $210,000 Show Jumping Grand Prix, presented by Rolex.)
Participation in the Central Park extravaganza demanded an extra measure of effort beyond what an ordinary show requires. Horses were shipped in and out, from the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Gladstone, N.J., headquarters, to abide by the park's rules that limited transport to the hours between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The public was separated to some extent from horses in transit along the park paths, but it was not possible to truly isolate the equines. Here behind the barriers there was a baby carriage; over there stood a giant yellow Big Bird (on his way to Times Square, no doubt) and I nearly tripped over small children running along the way. I wondered what my horse would do under these circumstances and knew instantly that he would stop, back up and keep going until he reached New Jersey.
It was all worth it, though, to see a very unusual dressage competition. The $40,000 Central Park Dressage Challenge, presented by Axel Johnson AB, drew in a public which included many people who had never heard of the discipline.
I talked with a number of showgoers at random, and they all came up with comments like these I heard from non-horseperson Casey Dalton of nearby Connecticut, who accompanied a horsey friend who came from South Carolina to see the show.
"I thought it was absolutely beautiful. I was taken aback by it," said Casey, who "absolutely" plans to come next year.
"What better environment for this and what a beautiful night for this," she commented.
The $40,000 class was not recognized by sport governing bodies, so it was possible to run it in an unorthodox fashion. With the warm-up area far away by the stabling, horses were given a chance to stretch their legs in the ring before the bell rang.
The king of the FEI judges, Stephen Clarke, gave a commentary on each ride that was illuminating and offered insight into what the officials are looking for.
About Isabell's performance, he said, "the technical side was unbelievable in parts; the risks that the rider took -- full extensions, full collections, huge elastic steps in the trot half-passes and canter-half passes."
While he mentioned a "tiny mistake" in some of the changes, he noted Isabell was "clever enough" to insert more changes that boosted her score, and he mentioned how she went from one difficult movement to the next. It all earned her a whopping 82.042 percent.
I really appreciated Hans Peter's crisp execution of his freestyle to Spanish-themed music,which received a score of 78.833 percent. From the moment the Dutchman came into the ring, he and his horse took command.
"Maybe there could have been a slightly higher degree of difficult," critiqued Stephen, adding he also would have liked to see the flying changes a little straighter, but cited "huge ability in all of the exercises," while commenting on the "energy, expression and interpretation of the music was lovely and to me a really top class horse for the future."
If every dressage show included commentary such as what Stephen offered, I think the sport would take a huge leap in helping people understand it.
Karen's total was 73.500, while Catherine Haddad Staller on the ever-improving Mane Stream Hotmail was the top American, marked at 72.542 percent. Ravel and Rafalca were the only horses in the nine-entry field that were not scored.
Rafalca's performance had Jan wondering if, at age 17, she was retired too early. But there's no going back. Plans call for breeding her and while it's likely there will be embryo transfer, he also envisions seeing her out in the field with a foal by her side.
Anne Romney, who owns Rafalca with Jan's wife, Amy, and Beth Meyer, talked movingly about the exciting journey on which Rafalca has taken her human entourage, as well as how riding helped her cope with multiple sclerosis.
There also was a center-ring reappearance of the famed red foam finger (Dressage is Number One). Remember that brilliant retort to Stephen Colbert's nasty remarks about dressage when Anne's husband, Mitt, was running for president two years ago? That certainly had the opposite effect of what he intended, bringing Rafalca, and dressage, into the limelight.
When I watched Ravel, I marveled once more at the unique partnership he had with Steffen. There is a real melding of minds and bodies there. Ravel's owner, Akiko Yamazaki, was on hand to watch with husband Jerry Yang (their daughter, Miki, also was involved in vaulting demonstrations) and deserves credit for keeping Ravel in show-shape since he left the public eye after the 2012 Olympics.
The word "bittersweet" was used a lot to describe the departures of Ravel and Rafalca, and I totally agree it was the perfect description. Sorry to see them go (bitter) but wonderful to see them again (oh so sweet).
The riders all loved New York. I asked Isabell what she had been doing in the city, and how she enjoyed the show. (I should add she was hefting a large, unopened bottle of champagne at the time.) Here's what she told me.
The show was a nice combination of competition and exhibitions, most of which were highlighted in matinees this weekend. One of my faves is Guy McLean, the Australian who lets his horses run loose to do his bidding. Talk about a mind meld there. They added a running free note that was in sync with the verdure and terrain of the park around them, contrasting with those skyscrapers.
We went back to the stables to meet with Guy, and were impressed to see him taking care of his own horses. They know exactly where their hay is coming from. I asked what it was like to perform in this impressive venue.
There were a lot of comments about the $250 price tag on evening tickets, and Mark indicated that is being evaluated, along with everything else. He did note that the few empty seats for the night events came from give-away tickets (and I also was told corporate buyers who didn't show up) and mentioned that some people won't bother to come for something that's free. They are hoping for more seating next year (although the site's footprint is small). And there was great demand for the first-come/first-served spots on the giant rocks outside the wrought-iron fence, from which it was possible to see at least a small part of the performances and feel like part of the action without buying a ticket.
The final verdict on the Central Park Show? A huge success, blessed by enormous foresight and good weather. Exposure in the country's busiest city will only help horse sports. I'm sure its presence and the TV show heightened awareness of a sport that wants to expand its boundaries and include many more people in the magical experience that is horse sport.
I'll be sending another postcard next Sunday after Dressage at Devon wraps up, so be sure to come back to www.dressagetoday or the magazine's Facebook page to look for it.