GRIFFITH PARK—A dash of Kentucky Derby, a spritz of Santa Anita (minus the risk of losing your shirt on a trifecta), commingled with the thrill of victory and the ignominy of defeat—all this was on amply display Memorial Day at the Griffith Park Equestrian Center before a crowd of 2,500, their eyes riveted on riders from six-countries facing a hair-raising obstacle course and competing for a $30,000 purse.
Aussie Lane Clark, came in on McLord's First John, with a winning time of 47.306 seconds (owner Mickey Hayden). Second place went to Burbank's Jenni Martin-McAllister and Union Jack (Brittany Albrecq, owner) with a winning time of 48.396 seconds. She rode Union Jack. Showing both versatility and mastery, Lane Clarke took third place in 48.966 on yet a second horse, Casseur de Prix (Granville, Equine, owner).
Even though Clarke has been in the U.S. since he was eight and has a perfect American accent, the audience was regaled with two canned versions of the Austrialian national anthem.
First place prize was $9000; second place was $6600; third, $3900. Each tenth of a second, that separated second-place rider from the third-place rider was worth $450. It's a vivid illustration of how split-seconds really count in horse jumping.
The Memorial Day Classic is one of four Grand Prix held yearly at Griffith Park, in this intense and precise equine sport that transcends borders and nationalities and draws riders and loyal fans worldwide. At Monday's Grand Prix included riders from the U.S., Austrailia, Puerto Rico, Ireland as well as several Olympians.
Keeping with the Memorial Day spirit, the American flag was brought into the arena by Davida Oberman's statuesque white friesian, a hairy-hooved breed from Holland, ridden by Bryan Ludens, in formal military whites and wearing the National Service Medal and Iraqi Service Medal loaned by two horse-loving veterans for the occasion.
The jumps themselves could be Disneyesque, bookended by giant wooden chess horseheads or horseshoes—adorned by white lily bouquets that served to disguise the very real perils (I daresay treachery) posed by these five-foot-high obstacles. Legendary jumper Hap Hansen discovered this the hard way. His plan to celebrate his hundredth Grand Prix victory and retire after a stellar three-decade career were foiled, when he uncerimoniously fell off his horse mid-jump.
“He tried to force it and leave the ground too soon,” observed one jumping devotee.
Eight riders endured the first round with clean runs—no bars knocked off—to make it to the dramatic jump off. On Monday, against a background of majestic still-green hills of Griffith Park, they vyed for the top three spots. When Jenni Martin-McAllister bested Lane Clarke's leading 49.39 time (she ran the course in 49 seconds flat). For a moment it looked like the Burbank rider would take first place.
Aficionados of the sport describe its as an intimate horse-human partnership. The youngest horse at the Memorial Day classic; the rest all had ages in the double digits. Lane Clarke rode a 13-year-old. Like bullfighting bulls, these horses spend their lives training for one thing: to jump. They're raised for this highly specialized sport. “The horse has to want to jump and like it too,” explains Marnye Langer, a competitive rider and event organizer. The rider's needs the diamond-cutter knack of knowing exactly when to take off—so crucial in a sport where a thousandth of a second can count.
“Every young girl's dream is riding in the Grand Prix and qualifying for the Olympics,” declared Krista Borges a rider from Santa Barbara, clad in slim white breeches and those smooth lustrous riding boots that reach the knees. She was the first in her family to fall under the spell of jumping shows, watching it on TV. In fact the riders in this intense sport possess a build rather like people in Cinemascope projected without the special lens: tall and lean.
The packed crowd in the bleachers felt the powerful brunt of the trotting horses and witnessed the moment when a horse reached the jump's apex and seemed frozen, suspended in the space. Breaths were held, time stopped. Loud moans issued from the crowd if the hooves of a favored riders' knocked the bar off the jump.
After the event, the audience was welcomed onto the field for autograph signing by the Grand Prix riders. There were also miniature wooden play jumps for kids and all could view the flag horse, Phantom's Music of the Knight, its corkscrew forelocks reaching the ground and donning its distinctive Swarovski crystal tiara. What better way for this reporter and his ten-year-old to get out of the house and enjoy the horses and a splendid afternoon in Griffith Park!
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