The Grand Prix: It All Came Down to the Last Day at the Hampton Classic

And then there were three. Grand Prix Sunday at the Hampton Classic, itself the highlight of a week of pageantry and memorable performances, would come down to a triumvirate of horses and riders who, having completed the only clean first rounds of the day, now faced one another in a jump-off. The margin for error slighter, the pressure turned up a notch, the prize so tantalizingly close.
The win in Sunday’s 37th Annual Hampton Classic Horse Show $250,000 FTI Grand Prix by Kent Farrington on the horse Voyeur brought the Bridgehampton event to an exciting end. For the Chicago rider, the victory over 34 contenders meant even more than the title and the tidy sum of $82,500—it also adds points to the lead he was already holding in the North American East Coast League of the FEI World Cup (the World Cup Final is an international competition among show jumping horses and riders). And then, something perhaps more rewarding still.
“I think I’ve ridden in this Grand Prix for the last 10 years, and I’ve won every ribbon except blue,” said Farrington, who came in second to six-time Hampton Classic Grand Prix winner McLain Ward last year, following his 47.53-second ride to victory. “It’s great to finally win that one, too.”
Irish rider Shane Sweetnam finished second in the jump-off on the 12-year-old gelding Amaretto D’Arco, while third place went to Molly Ashe-Cawley on Carissimo, who slipped on a 180-degree turn and demolished a jump. Ashe-Cawley, of Wellington, Florida, attributed it to her horse’s losing a shoe at the second fence. “So he really lost his footing on the turn, and I would have liked to circle [to get the horse steadier on its feet] but you really can’t do that when you’re going for $250,000,” because it makes the trip too slow to win.
In the horse world, the Hampton Classic is an important show for amateurs and professionals, and if you know the difference between the two basic kinds of riding—hunter and jumper—you’re probably a rider yourself or have friends or family members who are. A hunter is basically judged subjectively on beauty and style, while a jumper competes on its ability to clear five-foot-high fences fast without knocking down the rails.
One of the best things about the Hampton Classic is its appeal to people on a number of different levels. On Sunday’s closing day alone, fans could admire the Grand Prix riders who devote their lives to jumping fences that exceed five feet, but they could also see the cute-as-it-gets Leadline Equitation Division contenders, some tots just past toddler stage, showing their skills on ponies led by someone like mom or dad or grandpa, where everyone gets a prize. Judges in the former keep track of time and fences knocked down, those in the latter have to steel themselves not to be influenced by the cuteness of any hair ribbons.
Hampton Classic goers showed that you don’t have to be horse-crazy, or even like horses, or have the first clue as to what is going on other than that it’s best if the rider and horse make it over the fence together. You could be one of us who likes to shop at boutiques like Hermes or Ariat; you could take the kiddies for face painting; you could get yourself invited to the VIP tent to mingle with the fashionable and the famous, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, maybe inching up so close that the bodyguard now in your face is not smiling.
But of course the whole raison d’etre of the show is that it’s a sport, and sports are about competition.
Asked to define the biggest thrill in competitive riding—is it the anticipation that goes with entering the ring each time, heading toward a fence or being just over it or landing—Ward, of Brewster, NY, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a competitor in this year’s Olympics, put it simply. “The biggest high is when you win.”
Beezie Madden, another two-time Olympic gold medalist who competed in Bridgehampton on Sunday, narrowed it down further. “The really biggest thrill is winning a jump-off.”
Ward—who came back following a broken knee he incurred earlier this year when he hit a jump standard—won four classes during the week, including the $50,000 Spy Coast Grand Prix on a fast horse with a gleaming reddish coat and the unwieldy name of Pjotter Van De Zonnehoeve. On Saturday, he guided Vocas to the top prize in the $30,000 Pilatus Cup. This was his second consecutive victory in the Pilatus Cup and his third victory in the class in the last four years. Asked if it’s a little scary being up there at the pinnacle of his profession, if he’s at all haunted by losing that status, Ward admitted, “Every day when I get up, it scares me. But that’s the life I’ve chosen.”
Focus is vital in any sport, but in riding it’s life or death. Both horse and rider, have to tune out all kinds of distractions, like groans over a knockdown or applause before they’ve completed a course, or the Long Island Railroad chugging by when you’re in mid-air, or the fact that they don’t want to dissapoint family members who might be sitting so close to a jump that the rider could see their fingers crossed. Mayor Bloomberg’s daughter, Georgina, in her first big class on Saturday since surgery on her back to relieve a riding injury, said, “Having my dad there was very nerve-wracking because he hasn’t seen me ride so often lately.”
It’s not so easy on the family members, either. Bobbie Braun of Bridgehampton was so nervous at the prospect of her son, 27-year-old Derek, riding in his first Grand Prix that she had been near tears all morning. Winning may be everything, but riders have to learn something else important: the art of losing. While Derek Braun didn’t win a prize this time out, his mom said, “I’m really proud of him. Believe me, this is only the beginning of his Grand Prix career.”
Even super-competitive Ward, who had his three-year Hampton Classic Grand Prix winning streak snapped, doesn’t get morose when he fails to bring home the top prize. “Sometimes I have to be happy with second or third.”

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