Sure, football, baseball, and basketball have their thrilling moments, but, according to veteran equestrians, you ain't seen nothin' until you witness the excitement of a horse show. The last day of the Winter Equestrian Festival winds up seven weeks of competitions on Sunday, March 9, so get thee to the Polo Club in Wellington to see the horses and riders go through their paces. There are a total of 51 events, and winners aren't paid off in hay. Prize money is in the high thousands. The marquee event for this meet is the $100,000 Cosequin U.S. Open Jumper Grand Prix.
If you were there on February 23, you saw Wellington resident Olympic medalist Norman Dello Joio beat his nearest competitor by one one-hundredths of a second in a nine-jump tiebreaker. Dello Joio raked in $75,000 for his nail-biting win.
Jumping competitions come at various levels of expertise. "No two courses are alike," says Mason Phelps Jr., of Phelps and Wilkes Associates, organizers of the competitions. The courses are challenging, with a variety of jumps that only a few horses can complete without penalties. The bar can be raised to anywhere from 4-foot-3 to 5-foot-6 on a course with 15 to 20 obstacles.
The Equestrian Center features eight rings, with competitions going on non-stop between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. According to Phelps, who himself was an Olympic contestant in 1968 in Mexico City, the audience comes from across the United States, Canada, and Europe to watch these majestic animals try to outdo one another. "Weekends are the showcase events," he says.
The festival features jumping competitions with levels of expertise varying according to the age and experience of the riders. Aside from the marquee event, the Sunday program includes the Parade of Champions, the Amateur-Owner Classics, the Adult Amateur Classic, the Pony Jumper Classic, and the USA Equestrian Pony Equitation.
Spectators sit in stands or bring blankets or chairs to watch the competitions. A variety of food is available during the festival. If the weather is good, expect a sellout crowd. Just be sure to bring a hat and sunglasses.