By Nancy Jaffer
June 23, 2016
Even before yesterday evening’s Invitational Derby Cross competition at Moorland Farm in Far Hills, I knew there wasn’t going to be just one winner.
I’m talking big picture here, not who was taking home the blue ribbon for what basically was an exhibition. The Derby Cross and accompanying cocktail party heralded the return of the iconic Mars Essex Horse Trials in 2017 at a new location.
Essex, last held in 1998 at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, home of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, was a major fixture on the circuit and its many supporters keenly felt the loss when it was discontinued.
So it’s a win for the sport that Essex is going to be back with a bevy of sponsors as Mars Inc. leads the way, and it’s a win for the Somerset Hills area, where a long-range strategic plan calls for having more top-class equestrian sport in the area.
Essex isn’t picking up exactly where it left off. It was a 2-star, but is coming back on the weekend of June 24, 2017 as a beginner/novice through preliminary fixture, though ambitions are to have it move up to a higher level at some point.
Essex began a few miles from Moorland at Hoopstick Farm in Bedminster, where Roger Haller, his family and friends put on the first Essex in 1968. Roger, a member of the eventing Hall of Fame, died in March, but his widow, Ann, was on hand to be part of the event that heralded the revival of Essex. And the event’s signature cocktail, the Hoopstick, was perfect for a toast to the return of the event.
The Derby Cross, with 12 riders taking part, was run in front of about 400 enthusiastic partygoers on the incredibly scenic former estate where the popular Far Hills Race Meeting is staged each October.
The Derby Cross “bears no relation to any jumping or eventing competition you’ve ever seen,” said Sally Ike of Tewksbury, who acted as the judge for the event. Course designer Morgan Rowsell of Long Valley came up with a hybrid that artfully combined show jumping fences with the type of natural fences, such as brush obstacles and carved logs, that one would find on an eventing cross-country floorplan.
The route was cleverly laid out, using the up-and-down of the grassy terrain to raise the level of difficulty without raising the fences too high.
Those who went clean in the first round (some got assistance from jumping a 4-foot, 3-inch joker fence that erased one knockdown for those who cleared it) came back over a shorter course against the clock. Clearing the joker fence in that round took five seconds off the entry’s time.
It was fun and easy to understand with commentary by experienced eventer Doug Payne. He could have a career in announcing when he decides to stop riding.
The occasion was like old home week; every time I turned around I saw people I knew, many of whom were regulars at Essex. The word of the day was “exciting.” Everyone was jazzed at the thought of Essex returning to the area.
Buck Davidson went to Essex every year, as I remember, and he believes he took part in the last one in 1998. He was eager to compete at Moorland Farm yesterday.
He recalled Essex as “always one of my favorite events. I’m really excited to have this event coming back. I’m very excited for the real thing come next year.”
Another Essex veteran, Holly Payne Caravella, Doug’s sister, rode at Essex for the first time in 1998.
“I was so upset years ago when they stopped it and I was happy I got to do it at least one year,” said the Gladstone resident.
“It’s so exciting that it’s coming back and now everyone’s going to be able to appreciate it.”
She believes 230-acre Moorland Farm, with its sweeping vistas, is a perfect location.
“It’s beautiful, it’s awesome, it’s right outside of town, which is really cool, so I think it will draw a lot of local people. They’ve got tons of land and all the equipment they need to maintain the footing, so I think it’s going to be really good.”
Jennie Brannigan, who won the Derby Cross on Kilkenny, relished her time on the property because she enjoys steeplechase racing, though she has never been able to attend the Far Hills meeting because it conflicts with the important Fair Hill, Md., International three-day event in Maryland. She loved having the opportunity to ride on such special turf, and like the others, is hoping to return in 2017.
The move to give Essex a new lease on life began last year during the Gladstone Gathering at the historic USET Foundation stables. Jim Brady, whose family once owned Hamilton Farm, felt that the area wasn’t hosting as many top-class equestrian events as it once did. He revitalized the old Gladstone Equestrian Association, and came up with the idea for the party.
Tewksbury resident Ralph Jones was among those attending, and the gathering inspired him. The eventing enthusiast began working with Morgan to find a venue where Essex could live again.
“It was so well regarded back in the day,” said Ralph.
“I was just thrilled with the idea of starting it over.”
They looked at several locations, but Moorland had everything, including great footing maintained for the races. Guy Torsilieri, chairman of the board of the Far Hills Race Meeting and a former Essex chairman, liked the idea and soon Essex was off and running.
“We worked very closely with Guy to bring it back,” said Ralph, noting that Guy had kept Essex’s 501-C3 status.
“We basically took the dust covers off and started over.”
Addressing the crowd at the Derby Cross, Guy said, “There is a group of individuals, and all of you, who have decided that it is time to revitalize equestrian activity in this area. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Essex, the Monmouth at the Team show at Gladstone in August and the races are all being benfited by Rod Ryan and Open Road Auto Group; the Peapack Gladstone Bank and RWJ Barnabas Health.
“I’m thrilled it’s all coming together,” said Guy.
Also in attendance were former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and Far Hills Mayor Paul Vallone, both of whom spoke about the importance of supporting the horse industry in the state.
“New Jersey’s one of those places that once you come here, you realize how horses are really in the tradition and from growing up, even not in the area, I knew New Jersey as a horse place,” said Sinead Halpin of Branchburg, second in the Derby Cross on Topgun.
“The terrain and the land is just stunning, so I’m surprised there weren’t more events here.”
As I was leaving, I chatted with Cheryl Bock of Califon, and asked her what she thought about the revival of Essex.
“I’m glad it’s back,” she said.
My feelings exactly.