Award-Winning Equestrians Prep for the Hampton Classic
by jill sieracki
For the past several weeks, equestrian activities in the Hamptons have centered on the polo tournament taking place in Bridgehampton at Two Trees Farming. However, when the Hampton Classic opens on August 25, the local riding community and its fans turn its collective attention to a different side of the sport.
Three stars of the weeklong hunter/jumper Grand Prix are also all New Yorkers: McLain Ward, two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time winner of the Hampton Classic; Georgina Bloomberg, a past gold medalist at the North American Young Riders’ Championship; and Brianne Goutal, who was awarded the United States Equestrian Team Foundations Lionel Guerrand-Hermès Trophy in 2005 (the trophy recognizes her as the Junior/Young Rider who best exemplifies the ideals of horsemanship and sportsmanship).
The weeklong Hampton Classic is comprised of a series of show-jumping derbies covering a wide range of ages, from 5- and 6-year-olds to adults, as well as varied experience levels from amateur to professionals. The event culminates in Grand Prix Sunday, the week’s final event as well as what many believe to be the close of the Hamptons social season. “It’s a really important horse show the entire week for us, and most people will bring multiple horses every day,” says Bloomberg. “Most days you’re getting there at the crack of dawn, and you’re not leaving until dinnertime.”
On top of the challenges of competing, Bloomberg also received news at the end of June that may affect her participation in the Classic. The seasoned equestrian and author of the riding-centric young-adult novels The A-Circuit and My Favorite Mistake announced she was pregnant with her first child. “I was very tired during the first few months but have more energy now that I am in my second trimester,” she says. “I haven’t decided yet whether I will be showing at all at the Classic this year and won’t decide until a week or two before. I will just listen to my body and see how I feel as each week passes. If I do show, I will just be competing two or three horses instead of the six or seven I was planning. But I will have a few of my horses there competing with other people no matter what, and I will be there to cheer them on.”
How do you prepare for the Hampton Classic?
McLAIN WARD: Jumping on grass is different from the synthetic surfaces, and it suits different horses, more or less. Managing a string of Grand Prix horses is like managing any other sports team—you have to find the balance so they stay healthy, sound, and fit, and you have to know that different venues are going to suit different personalities, better or worse.
GEORGINA BLOOMBERG: I would say it’s pretty much the same as we prepare for any show, but you try to save your best horses for the Classic to be on top of your game. We have showed there for so many years, and every year it continues to impress, especially on Opening Sunday.
This is everyone’s hometown crowd. Do you feel any added pressure knowing that you’ll have familiar faces in the crowd?
GB: The media and [most spectators] don’t care about our sport for the entire rest of the year, but the Hampton Classic is the one show that they pay attention to, so you face more outside pressure and outside attention than you do for any other horse show. And then, yes, you always have some people who don’t get to see you ride all year and then will come to the Hampton Classic, so the show is always where you want to impress.
BRIANNE GOUTAL: Most of our friends and family can only come so often, if at all; the Classic is one of the shows that everyone seems to make it out for. I don’t know if it’s added pressure or it’s just a greater sense that more people you truly care about are watching; so for me, it’s one of the most, if not the most important show in the US in the summertime.
Why do you think the Classic garners so much more attention?
GB: The media gives it a little more attention because of the people who attend, both exhibitors and spectators. We don’t get that kind of a crowd, especially that kind of celebrity crowd, at any other horse show. Also the location—the Hamptons is the place to be if you’re in the New York area.
BG: There aren’t many shows in America that have the same cultural, I would call it “stamp,” as a lot of the horse shows in Europe that have been around forever. [The Hampton Classic] is one of those quintessential American horse shows, and we don’t have that many of them anymore, so I think the media like that.
What’s the greatest challenge to competing in the Classic?
MW: The ring has a lot of natural obstacles. I wouldn’t say necessarily the course is harder or easier than other venues; it’s on par with the world’s best, but every course and every event has it’s own set of challenges. Some days it suits you and your horse, and some days it doesn’t.
BG: The Grand Prix of the Hampton Classic is one of the most coveted prizes in show jumping, so the competition is very, very hard. There are a lot of natural obstacles—a double liver pool, a hedge, a bank—jumps that are more classic for cross-country jumping, and our horses don’t regularly see those kinds of jumps. It’s a rare field because it’s fenced in all the way around. The horses tend to get claustrophobic. Even though the actual space of the field is quite large, it being closed in is kind of disconcerting. And people tend to get a bit loud—if only we had as good hearing as our horses do—it’s hard to keep them concentrated.
Brianne, you are known as a speed demon, setting some impressive times on the course. But is it better to be fast or flawless?
BG: [Laughs] How about fast and flawless? If you asked me this a year or two years ago, I would have said flawless, but the jumper division (as opposed to the hunter division) comes down to speed effectiveness. While, of course, we all love to be flawless and not make any mistakes, the object is to win, and to win you have to be very fast and very effective; sometimes being effective is not as smooth as you would like.
MW: You have to do both. You have to have no faults—if you knock a fence down it’s four faults for each rail. But what breaks ties on score is time. First consideration is jumping a clear round, and then it comes down to time.
McLain, you’re a six-time Hampton Classic winner. Does that make you the man to beat in this year’s tournament?
MW: I don’t know about that…. We try to come as well prepared for every event as possible, and we try to get it right more often than not, but we also make our share of errors and have plenty of bad days. Like other sports, it’s up and down, but you keep working at it and try to be the best you can be.
You and your horse, Rothchild, are also in the running for the Taylor Harris Triple Crown Challenge, a $200,000 bonus that was introduced last year. How does that change your preparations?
MW: It’s a great incentive. The Hampton Classic is part of the three-event series, the last part being The Kentucky National Horse Show, so since we won the first one [the Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon in May], we’ll keep trying. I don’t think it really changes it except that you’ll use the same horse because it’s a horse-rider combination.
Do you have time to see the Hamptons sights? Or are you constantly competing?
BG: What we’re doing is a job, and we work really hard, but it’s also a huge passion. Even on days when you’re tired, you’re still excited to be at the barn, and we love competition—that’s our nature.
GB: The riding world is known for working hard, but also playing hard. We all travel so much together that we’re like a big family, and we like going out together at night. I would say the Hampton Classic does make it a bit difficult to actually enjoy the Hamptons because the days are so long and the mornings are so early, but I try to take a few hours on the beach and go see some friends.
MW: It’s an extended family, no doubt, but there’s a very high level of competitiveness. At the same time, the true test for us is the test that’s set in the arena. I’m actually home for about 10 days before the Hampton Classic, which is a nice little rest because we have a big series of events starting with the Hampton Classic and then the American Gold Cup, then a number of events through September and October. The schedule is getting busier and busier. There was a time when our season was seven or eight months, and now it can be 12 months, if you’d like it to be. We try to find a balance, but we’re on the road probably a good 11 months of the year.
You are all Hampton Classic veterans; what advice would you give to up-and-coming riders?
MW: The Hampton Classic is a big stage and for particularly young riders or amateur riders the first few times there are quite intimidating. You have to block out the amount of people, the atmosphere, the environment, and stay focused on your execution and your goals.
GB: My advice to the new people coming into the ring is that you have to learn to lose as well as you win. We compete so much, and you’re going to have so many more bad days than you have good days. It’s important not to get discouraged and learn a lesson from every mistake, but then put it behind you and move on.
BG: Because we’re competitors, we all want to win, win, win, but riding is a sport that develops over time. If you look at the really great ones, they’re all in their 40s. You also don’t go anywhere without a team, and who you surround yourself with makes you in the end.
Whom do you look up to?
GB: One of my idols will always be Beezie Madden. I think everyone really looks up to the way she rides. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a couple of US tours with her. She’d come to the barn every day with a smile on her face and want to work hard. I really respected that she could fall off one day and come back and win the Grand Prix the next day.
BG: Beezie is definitely one of mine also. McLain, if you watch him, his system is so effective at this point, and if there’s anybody who has truly perfected the system, it would be him. The first person I really looked up to was Leslie Howard. She’s so fast, and she’s so consistent.
McLain, tell us a bit more about your three trips to the Olympics.
MW: For an athlete, that’s the ultimate goal in your career. In [Athens] in 2004, I was very young and had a very young horse—Sapphire, the horse that won both gold medals. It was a wonderful experience, and a little bit of a blur at the same time. In 2008 [in Beijing] it was very different. I went [there] being the cornerstone of the team, and the pressure was very high. I really felt that we were well prepared, and obviously the result was fantastic. London [in 2012] was a really difficult year for me. I had the injury [Ward fell from a horse in January and shattered his kneecap, needing three months of rehab], some personal problems, and just making the team was a pretty heroic effort. I don’t think I was well prepared, and it was a little disappointing. But again, that’s sport. You don’t enjoy the up if you don’t have a little bit of the down, and you can’t dwell too long on the disappointments or celebrate the victories too long.
The Hampton Classic also has a charity component. Georgina and Brianne, you’re both ASPCA Equine Welfare Ambassadors; how will that play into the week’s events?
GB: We do a couple of events throughout the week, including a great adoption day where they have pit bull rescues, horses, dogs, and cats. Most of them get adopted, which is great, and it gives the organization a lot of exposure. It’s a really effective, amazing day not only for the ASPCA, but also for a lot of local animal rescues.
BG: The other thing that’s amazing about the Hampton Classic is that as much media attention as it gets for the riders and the spectators, it really draws attention to other important organizations like the ASPCA.
Is there a particular issue right now that’s very pressing related to animal rescue or equine care?
GB: Horse slaughter is one major issue right now. Most people who are involved with horses don’t even know that it’s going on. Most people see the fancy horses that are well taken care of at the Hampton Classic, they forget about the ones that are not so lucky.
BG: Also, with all the natural disasters that keep happening, it’s not only people who are affected. Animals, like horses, that are large and sensitive to heat are the ones that are most easily left by the wayside. It’s very important to raise awareness and it’s amazing how little people actually know. The Hampton Classic takes place Sunday, August 25 through Sunday, September 1 at 240 Snake Hollow Road in Bridgehampton