September 27, 2015 -- The Rolex Central Park Horse Show is an amazing showcase for equestrian sport, and yesterday's program demonstrated both its innovation and unique appeal.
The afternoon at the Wollman Rink was devoted to hunters, making their first appearance at the two-year-old fixture, as fearless Miss Lucy and her intrepid rider, Jennifer Alfano, won the $50,000 Duchossois Cup, presented by the Gochman family.
The evening offered a completely different vibe, with the $75,000 U.S. Open Dressage Championship, presented by the Axel Johnson Group, dominated by the gracious queen of dressage, Isabell Werth, and Santo NRW.
But if you had to pick the performance that stood out the most yesterday, it would be Charlotte Dujardin's performance on Renaissance Tyme. The world's number one dressage rider, who is the reigning Olympic, world and European champion, was without her equine partner, Valegro, who stayed at home in Great Britain.
Bravely, she took the ride on the horse owned by Evi Strasser of Canada, and with just the most perfunctory practice produced a beautiful exhibition during the break in the freestyle. (I had to laugh; she told us that when she asked show impresario Mark Bellissimo for an arena where she could practice, he gave her one "full of jumps!")
Renaissance, a big gray, obviously is quite strong; I could see him pulling several times during his dance to her usual freestyle music, "How to Train Your Dragon."
But he couldn't get the better of Charlotte, who was roundly cheered by the starstruck crowd.
Afterwards, I spoke with her about her decision to put it all on the line with a horse she didn't know. Click on the video to hear her comments.
It's interesting to see how horses react in the zingy atmosphere of the Wollman Rink. It wasn't just the big crowds (Friday's show jumping grand prix was sold out, the hunters and freestyle drew a good audience, though there were empty seats here and there for those performances). There's something about the buzz of the city that translates into excitement in the arena.
It was most clearly illustrated in the open hunter competition. Jen Alfano had no hesitation about bringing Helen Lenahan's clever mare, Miss Lucy, to the heart of Manhattan.
"She thrives in places like this," Jen said.
"She walked down, looked around and went, `Cool, all these people came to see me.'"
"I knew she'd be great. You can jump her in any ring, any jump. She's just a really special horse, and I knew this wouldn't bother her."
"It's so exciting to be a part of this, just to be here in this atmosphere and this crowd," enthused Jen.
Her chestnut campaigner performed as expected, earning a total of 178 points over two rounds to edge Scott Stewart and Empire (172). But Peter Pletcher had to cope with an undone Fifty Fifty, who had the misfortune of jumping while a helicopter rattled overhead. When he came into the ring for the second round, he started spooking at the scoreboard, and Peter found himself with quite a job getting the horse's focus. Master rider that he is, he got around, but a lesser horseman likely would have given up.
While Charlotte had some spare time to enjoy the city, most of the riders don't. Jen said she came to New York at 5 a.m. yesterday with the horses, and was leaving immediately after her class for the Capital Challenge. So much for lunch at the Plaza.
But she and others did note that their time in Manhattan reminded them of the glory days when the National Horse Show was in Madison Square Garden. And as was pointed out, the Garden is an arena; a famous arena, but an indoor venue into which the city does not seep.
The Wollman Rink captures the essence of New York.
"I've never seen a skyline like this for a competition. It's really outstanding. I'm really happy to compete here," said Isabell. She went for it with the horse she calls Ernie, abandoning the more restrained approach she took in Friday's Grand Prix.
"We could take the risk," she said, noting that with her program, each movement flows into the next in rapid succession.
"There's no break, no time to think," she said. But that's part of what makes her freestyle so appealing.
"Always when I start with the music, I feel the spectators are awake and coming with me," she said. She citing extensions and transitions as strong points, but I was most impressed with her pirouettes, which had plenty of elevation. Her score of 80.333 showed the judges approval.
Everyone has praised Mark Bellissimo for his vision in bringing equestrian sport back to Manhattan. He has no problem asking people for money to help the cause, and gains their backing because he has a reputation for getting things done.
"It's a crazy idea, but I have actually met Mark many times, always with crazy ideas, like trying to introduce dressage in Wellington, Fla. I felt he can do it, and we'll do it together." said Antonia Johnson, whose Axel Johnson Group presented the freestyle.
A Swede who lived in New York until she was 10 and loves dressage, she found the show to be a perfect answer for her passions.
"I feel this is absolute magic. We need to build this show," she emphasized.
There was plenty of agreement with that sentiment.
"To ride in here tonight was one of the most amazing things I've ever done," said Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven, a four-time Olympian for Sweden. She rides Antonia's horses but was on a different mount, Paridon Magi, to earn her second-place ribbon with a score of 76.587.
Catherine Haddad-Staller rounded out the top three for the USA with her longtime project, Rowan O'Riley's Mane Stream Hotmail, who has dramatically improved into a top-flight performer since we saw him here last year. He earned 74.250 percent, making a picture perfectly suited to the atmosphere, with Catherine's tailcoat of shiny material and sparkles that caught the light adding a note of extra interest.
"It's a magical feeling to ride in this atmosphere, it's a magical arena, the crowd response is fantastic and I have to say it makes me very proud of my country, because we're moving into the big time when it comes to horse sports and New York City proves that for us, this horse show proves that for us," said Catherine, who smiled broadly throughout her freestyle.
"You need a promoter, you need a sponsor, you need a venue like this and then the riders will come."
There were a few somber intervals during a day when the sun made the city glitter, and a full moon made it glow. There was a moment of silence for the late Bruce Duchossois, who backed so many equestrian causes and gave of his time and energy, as well as financial support, to further them. He would have loved the hunter competition that bore his name.
I can just see his enthusiastic smile as he watched the big names of that discipline compete over the iconic jumps set by Bobby Murphy in one of the world's great showcases.
In the evening, there was another moment of reflection for show manager Lloyd Landkamer, who died of cancer on Friday. While Lloyd managed such major dressage competitions as the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the Festival of Champions, he also was known for his ability to smooth out prickly situations, his sense of humor and his own efforts at breeding and showing horses.
It's wonderful that the sport honors these people who have accomplished so much for it, and hopefully have inspired others to do the same.
Things wrap up today with a master class by Charlotte. I'm eagerly awaiting an opportunity to hear her training tips. The show had a terrific run, highlighted by the visit of the Pope (to the city, not the show) on Friday. I was interested to hear how many of the riders had caught a glimpse of him from the warm-up arena as he passed through the park.
Be sure to go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman and facebook.com/dressagetoday for more photos. Now I'm headed for Pennsylvania, where I'll be sending you a postcard from Dressage at Devon. Be sure to watch for photos from there on Facebook.