By Lara Bricker
HAMPTON FALLS — Olympian Norman Dello Joio and his nine-year-old Dutch gelding Malcolm posted two clear rounds and the fastest time over the jump course at the Fidelity Investments Jumper Classic to win the main event Friday afternoon.
"He's getting to be a very consistent contender," Dello Joio said of the horse he has been competing with for the past three years. "He just needed some experience and some confidence."
Dello Joio is a veteran competitor in the equestrian world, who is known for riding his horse Irish to the individual bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics. He had just returned from coaching riders from Mexico at the Beijing Olympics and is one of a number of Olympic equestrians at the top-level horse show taking place this weekend on the grounds of the Silver Oak Equestrian Center.
Dello Joio was one of only four riders to post a clear round in Friday's class, meaning his horse made it over the course of jumps without knocking any rails down. Riders are given four faults for each rail they knock down. Horse-and-rider combinations with the least number of faults proceed to the jump-off round where they jump for time over a shorter course to determine the ultimate winner.
The Welcome Stakes is considered a qualifying class for the main event of the show on Sunday, the $75,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix, explained Margaret "Peggy" Lynch, the show's manager. While horses are not required to compete in the qualifying class in order to compete in the grand prix their participation, and performance, in the class Friday determines the order in which they ride on Sunday, Lynch said. For example, horse-and-rider combinations that opted out of Friday's class will be called first to ride the course on Sunday. From a strategical standpoint, this means they will not have the chance to watch other riders negotiate the course before they go, which often helps them spot trouble spots before their own ride.
Show organizers also kept their eye on forecasts for rain this weekend from Tropical Storm Hanna, though they say the show will go on, rain or shine. Riders may use bigger studs that attach to the horse's shoes, similar to cleats, to keep their traction on the grass jumping field, said Jeff Papows, the chairman of the Jumper Classic and a competitor. They may also warm their horses up longer to make sure their muscles are limber before taking to the jump course.
"Very likely it will have very little effect," Papows said of the expected storm.
Irish rider Kevin Babington, who rode in the 2004 Olympics, placed fourth in the Welcome Stakes on his horse Souvenir. Babington, who is based at a farm in Pennsylvania, has been riding the bay horse for the past year and says the horse can be a challenging one to pilot around the course as he tends to get very excited when jumping. Babington's strategy was to settle his equine partner at the very start of the course by asking him to take shorter strides, five rather than four, along the first line of jumps in the course. "Then he settled into the bridle," Babington said.
The course, designed by noted course designer Linda Allen, allowed horses and riders to make a lot of their own decisions with their strategies for the jumps, Babington said, which is a good test of their training. "It's the technical challenges of the course that make it exciting," Babington said.
Jumping courses in the United States are most often conducted in a sand riding arena and the grass field at the local show is said to have a European flavor. It is also a challenge for some of the horses, Babington said. "Horses are a lot spookier on the grass field," he said.
Last year's grand prix winner, Kent Farrington, is bringing along his new horse, the seven-year-old mare Untitled, at the show this year. The mare did not make it to the jump-off round as she knocked down one rail in the initial jump course round, but Farrington said Friday's class was a good experience. "It's a good change to get the horse in the ring in a new venue and to get them comfortable in a new setting," he said.
He will wait until he sees the course on Sunday to decide whether to compete with Untitled, as she is not a seasoned competitor and he is still bringing her up in the grand prix level. "She's very sweet in the stable but when she's showing or competing, she's a fighter," Farrington said. "She's a tiger."