By Emily J. Weitz; Photography by Michael Heller
The main event of the Hampton Classic, the $250,000 Grand Prix last Sunday, was a show fit for a grand finale. The course, designed by Guilherme Jorge, proved extremely challenging and put all 35 riders to the test. After a nail-biting competition, just three riders from the first round moved on to the second round.
All eyes had been on McLain Ward going into the competition, as he has won the event six times, including the last three summers. In addition, Ward recently returned as a gold medal winner from the Summer Olympics in London. He led off on Sunday, moving through a clean course until the very last jump, where he knocked over a rail. That four-point fault excluded him from the next round, and from a chance at the newly launched Taylor Harris Triple Crown Challenge, which would have awarded a $200,000 bonus to any rider who wins the Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon, the Hampton Classic, and the Alltech National Horse Show.
Dozens of other riders suffered the same fate on that last jump, moving through the complex and playful course smoothly until arriving at the end. The thud which accompanied knocking down the rail and the collective groan that followed from the grandstand became familiar.
“By that last jump, a skinny vertical, the horses are tired and it’s an awkward line,” explained Kent Farrington, the rider who went on to win the blue ribbon. “It’s a test of the horse’s ride-ability.”
One of the primary challenges for riders at the last jump, was that they were also racing against the clock. The Grand Prix is a timed course, meaning if the rider doesn’t finish in 90 seconds he or she will lose points. No rider with a time penalty was allowed into the second round. In other words, the only riders who moved on to the second round were those who finished the first round perfectly and in perfect time.
“It’s also about working the time allowed,” explained Farrington. “The last jump was a short distance [from the preceding] and you had to be careful. You had to know your horse and know what was best for you.”
“With riders like this,” said course designer Jorge, “one or two seconds makes a big difference. I wanted to keep it an exciting first round for the duration. The riders had to think about the time allowed.”
Farrington, who rode ninth, was the first rider to clear the round penalty-free, and he immediately moved to the first place slot. Candice King on Kismet 50 stepped in to second when she cleared all the jumps on the course, but she had two time penalties. Cara Raether rode Saskia 269 through a clean course as well, but had one time fault, bumping King to third place. Farrington was alone at the top, though, and it was looking like he may not even have to defend his first place position until Shane Sweetnam, who represented Ireland in the Olympics, came into the ring. Sweetnam rode Amaretto D’Arco and cleared the round, completing it in 88.85 seconds, leaving him with no penalties at all. He moved in to second place. But when Molly Ashe-Cowley on Carissimo, who rode 32nd of 35 riders, cleared the round in 88.16 seconds, she took the first place spot.
The three finalists would move on to a second course, called the jump-off. The time allotted was slashed to 59 seconds, and in response, Kent Farrington came out of the gates flying. Voyeur, a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood gelding, was in perfect form as he glided over the fences. The pair didn’t knock down any rails or even chip anything, and finished the course in 47.53 seconds.
It was a tough score to beat.
Sweetnam came out on Amaretto D’Arco, a 12-year-old warmblood stallion. He moved through the course slightly slower than Farrington, but was looking great until he knocked down the fifth jump. The rest was completed cleanly, and he finished the course in 48.04 with four faults. Ashe-Cowley was up next, and when she also knocked over a rail on one of the jumps and finished in 55.19, it left her in third place.
On the heels of his first Hampton Classic victory, Farrington was glowing, and had a lot of love to share with his horse.
“I’ve jumped this Grand Prix 10 times,” he said. “I’ve come in second, third, fourth. I’ve probably gotten every place except first. So I finally won it. Voyeur built up quick — he is such a talented horse, with so much quality. I think he could be one of the top horses in the world.”
Other big wins this week included Heather Caristo on Chabalouba Sun taking the $20,000 5-Year-Old East Coast Young Jumper Championship and Jeffery Welleswon on Billion taking the $30,000 Split Rock Farm 6-Year-Old East Coast Jumper Championship. Meg O’Mara rode Sinatra IV to victory in the $25,000 David Yurman Show Jumping Derby, and Stephanie Riggio and Breitling claimed the Manhattan Mortgage Amateur-Owner, 3’3”, Hunter Championship on Saturday.
McLain Ward, Olympic gold-medalist, may have lost out in the Grand Prix, but his time at the Hampton Classic certainly wasn’t wasted. On Friday afternoon he rode Pjotter Van DeZonnehoeve to a blue ribbon in the $50,000 Spy Coast Farm/Young Horse Show Series Grand Prix Qualifier, and he also took home the third place yellow ribbon on Antares F. In between was Kent Farrington on Venus.
“McLain is my friend,” said Farrington in a press conference, “and you always want your friends to do well. But you always hope that you can do a little better.”
Farrington got his chance in the main event.