By Nancy Jaffer
The pieces are falling into place for a revival of the Essex Horse Trials, just 20 years shy of the iconic eventing competition’s final bow in the Somerset Hills.
Plans call for holding it on June 24, 2017, at Moorland Farms, home of October’s Far Hills Race Meeting.
Called the Essex Horse Trials at Moorland Farms, it would be the first equestrian event aside from the steeplechase races to be staged at the 230-acre facility, once part of the 5,000-acre-plus Schley estate that stretched all the way to Bernardsville.
For three decades, Essex was a highlight of the discipline’s spring season, drawing the top riders and plenty of fans, who also enjoyed its social aspects.
The event began at the Haller family’s farm on Lamington Road in Bedminster, then moved as it grew to the U.S. Equestrian Team’s Gladstone headquarters nearby at Hamilton Farm. Sponsored during its heyday by M&M Mars, Essex last was held in 1998.
A golf course being built at Hamilton Farm took up much of the land formerly used for the event, which featured 1- and 2-star CCIs. Essex vanished from the landscape when plans to hold a CIC, with a shorter cross-country course than a CCI, were scrapped in 2000 after costs and the logistics became prohibitive.
In its new incarnation, Essex is starting with a program that goes from beginner novice to the preliminary level, but if all goes as expected, the format could be ramped up in succeeding years. The event will fill a slot once reserved for Music at Moorland, a concert and fireworks extravaganza that ran for 14 years but was dropped because it didn’t work financially.
Ralph Jones, an eventing enthusiast from Tewksbury, and cross-country course designer Morgan Rowsell of Long Valley, had been mulling putting on an event in the area, but it all crystalized after the Gladstone Gathering, That June party at the stables of what is now the USET Foundation was the idea of James Brady, who reformatted the old Gladstone Equestrian Association. The affair was geared to bringing equestrian-oriented people together with a goal of having more competitions in the area.
At the gathering, Jones chatted about his interest with Sally Ike, a noted course designer for the show jumping phase of eventing, and the idea gathered momentum. A key was the involvement of Far Hills Race Committee Chairman Guy Torsillieri, president of the National Steeplechase Association and treasurer of the old Essex Horse Trials committee.
The effort has a feeling of “We’re getting the band back together,” with a number of the same players who had been involved in Essex becoming part of the initiative.
Roger Haller, who played a big role in his family’s organization of the original event, has been mentioned as a possible technical delegate.
He said Rowsell had mentioned the idea to him several times, and Haller told him, “Go for it guys. This is a great idea. I am thrilled. Far Hills and the Bedminster Township area are a great location for a horse trials. The community supported Essex and Somerset Hills (Horse Trials) and the team event and everything else when they were at Hamilton Farm.”
An Essex revival required, he noted, “finding a place and getting a nucleus of people who wanted to do it and it sounds like it’s come together.”
The sites originally under consideration were Hamilton Farm; Natirar, a Somerset County park in Peapack that is the home of the Essex Foxhounds’ Master’s Chase and Moorland.
“Morgan fell in love with Moorland,” said Jones. Particularly appealing to Rowsell was the emphasis Torsillieri and his crew put on the racing surface there.
“He has dedicated, and Moorland Farms has dedicated, a lot of effort to getting this to be the best (steeplechase) footing in the country. We’ll bring that technology to our track,” said Rowsell, referring to the cross-country route he is putting together.
The racetrack itself won’t be used, so work involving a variety of equipment will take place to improve other sections of the property.
“There’s a good base there,” said Rowsell, explaining workers will “decompact it, fertilize it and water it all throughout next year.”
“We talked about running in ’16, but we all thought, `Let’s do it right, let’s not rush it,” he explained.
“We want to do a really quality job they can get behind,” he said of eventers, noting that if the response warrants it, Essex could have a second day of competition on its weekend for its lineup..
“We’re looking to have the best (cross-country) footing in the country,” Rowsell commented.
Last week, Rowsell explained what he is thinking about for the layout, touring the property with Torsillieri, Jones, Ike, riders Holly Payne Caravella and Clarissa Wilmerding and Olympic eventing judge Marilyn Payne, who has a broad background in the sport.
Unlike the situation for the Rolex Kentucky 4-star and the Fair Hill, Md., International in Maryland, which use all-weather footing, both dressage and stadium jumping for Essex will be held on the grass.
Asked whether that was a concern, Wilmerding pointed out that is the way it’s done at Great Britain’s Mitsubishi Badminton and Land Rover Burghley horse trials, the world’s two oldest and most revered 4-stars.
Jacqueline Mars, an eventing enthusiast and member of the family that owns M&M Mars, said she was “thrilled” by the news that Essex is returning, noting an event of that nature is very much needed.
Rowsell pointed out, “This event will be highly spectated and if it’s highly spectated, all the little kids want to learn about eventing, and it all moves forward.” He noted that would be a help to grassroots eventing.
The organizing committee includes Sandy Hance of the GEA, former Essex Foxhounds joint master Hank Slack and Ron Kennedy, vice chairman of the race committee, in addition to Jones, Torsilieri, Brady, Ike, and Rowsell.
“The fact that it’s at Moorland sort of has a buzz to it,” said Rowsell.
“I anticipate a lot of support from potential sponsors,” agreed Torsillieri..
“We already are getting a lot of calls and a lot of excitement from local people to get involved with it.”
Torsillieri has appeared before the Far Hills council and presented the concept to its members.
“I think it’s really a great idea,” said Far Hills Mayor Paul Vallone, noting the area has a long history of equestrian involvement.
“It would be a wonderful opportunity to revive an elegant sport and I think it would have a lot of positive impact on the community at large.”
Essex, once known as the training ground of champions, always drew a large number of “name” riders, including two-time World Champion Bruce Davidson, Stephen Bradley and Phyllis Dawson.
“Essex was awesome,” said Caravella, who finished third in the 1-star in 1998.
“My goal was to ride there and once I was finally old enough, I did it just one time and then they shut down,” she sighed.
Torsillieri is hoping to have a cocktail party and demonstration this summer to show off the venue.
“What’s interesting about this is the blend of board members; the people who have the expertise with eventing and then veterans of the races,” he commented.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic, the interaction that’s going on between the vision of, at the top end, entertainment, versus what we’re going to provide in the beginning stages of low-level eventing.
“We think we can marry the two, (having) low-level eventing, yet providing a real high-end upscale hospitality for sponsors, where they can come out and have a wonderful day and it doesn’t have to be a 1-star. We think we can get some real corporate opportunities and entertainment values in year one.”
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