When the Hampton Classic was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, it was a big disappointment for the exhibitors, spectators, and organizers who look forward to the week-long show every year. If there was a silver lining to be found, it was that the newly revamped grass Grand Prix field — which had gotten a $1 million facelift in 2018 — would have another year to mature and take root. It had debuted to rave reviews in 2019, and the prevailing thinking was that another season of undisturbed growth would only make it better.
That, unfortunately, did not turn out to be true.
It was clear, during the first class held on the field on Sunday afternoon of Opening Day — the $30,000 Open Jumper Challenge — that the footing was not optimal, and that the way the grass was coming up, particularly during takeoff and landing near the jumps, was beyond the usual wear and tear natural grass fields endure from pounding hooves.
“Everyone thought the field would be ideal for this week, but when we saw that class yesterday, it became apparent very early on that, for whatever reason, it did not take hold, and it was a problem,” said Marty Baumann, the president of Classic Communications.
It was apparent to the horses and riders as well. Seeing what was happening out on the field, several riders chose to scratch, while others bowed out after completing only the first few obstacles on the course. Baumann estimated that a third of the field did not finish.
Mario Deslauriers, a three-time Canadian Olympian who won the Grand Prix in 2019, came out on top with his horse, Wishing Well Farm LLC’s Emerson. Carly Anthony of Redmond, Washington, and Heavenly W, owned by Portfolio Horses LLC, placed second. Deslauriers and Anthony were the only riders of the 24 who completed the course to go clear, and Delauriers was slightly faster, giving him the edge. Six-time Grand Prix winner McLain Ward, who recently returned from his fifth Olympics appearance, representing the United States as part of the silver medal winning team, took third on Catoki, owned by Van Buren/Russell. They were 15 seconds faster than Deslauriers and Anthony, but had one rail down.
Despite the disappointment of what happened with the grass, Baumann emphasized that no horse or rider fell or was hurt. He also commended the show organizers for doing the right thing and taking immediate action — 30 minutes after the class concluded, they decided to pull up the grass and replace it with sand footing for the remainder of the show.
“I highly commend the leadership of the show,” Baumann said. “They knew what the situation was and they did not hem and haw.”
Before the day was over, bulldozers and other equipment entered the ring and got to work. The bank, which is often featured in some of the top level jumper and equitation classes that take place in the ring during the week, remained in place, although Baumann said it would not be used. The crews also kept little grass islands around the hedge jumps to keep them intact, and took pains to make sure the ring would still look good, leaving a grass outline.
Of course, the work required the show organizers — already weary from having to take down and reassemble the tents and infrastructure just a week ago because of Hurricane Henri — to scramble and come up with a revised schedule, another task they completed in less than 24 hours. Classes scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were moved to nearby Jumper Ring 2, which Baumann said would mean longer days for the exhibitors scheduled to compete there, but would, essentially, work.
Rain that was in the forecast for Wednesday and Thursday added another wrinkle to the plan, but Baumann said he felt confident that riders would be back in the ring by Friday, the day of the Grand Prix qualifier, and that competition would continue there on Saturday and Sunday, culminating with the main event, the $300,000 Grand Prix. He pointed out that the new, state-of-the-art drainage system, which was part of the $1 million renovation, is still in place, and said it would greatly mitigate any potential impacts from the rain.
“We’re very hopeful that things will go the way we expect,” he said.
What will happen with the field once the show is over is still up in the air, with the organizers focused on the only task that matters at the moment — making sure the show goes on. Baumann said the organizers didn’t yet know why the grass field failed to properly take root, and would begin the work of addressing that question once the show was over.
“After Sunday, there will be meetings and discussions that take place, and we’ll go from there,” Baumann said.
On Monday, he said he was happy to see the decisive action taken by the show, and the support from the exhibitors who regularly compete in the Grand Prix ring.
“I was walking the grounds and a few riders stopped to talk to me, and the support from them is 100 percent,” he said. “They know the horse show did the responsible thing and put the safety and welfare of the horse and rider first. It’s disappointing for everyone, but the riders I spoke to 100 percent support what we’re doing.”