By Nancy Jaffer
Aug. 21, 2016
It sounded like a good, if rather unusual, idea–moving the Monmouth County Horse Show–which needed a boost–to Somerset County’s U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone.
But until the show actually was held at the iconic location, no one would know for sure whether the concept worked.
It turned out to be wildly popular. Monmouth at the Team, which ends a six-day run this afternoon with the $10,000 Horseflight Mini-Prix, was a hot ticket that drew raves from exhibitors and trainers.
That was confirmed when organizers ran through 500 back numbers for riders and had to borrow more from area show managers, said Tucker Ericson, who bought Monmouth with his cousin, Michael Dowling, from longtime owners Mike Maxwell and George Richdale.
The show’s success stemmed from more than just its venue and the cachet of being able to ride in the renowned arena behind stables that once housed America’s most famous international jumpers. It also was a social event, with daily themed parties in the hospitality pavilion, where food, drink and music added to the atmosphere, attracting plenty of non-competitors as well as those who were actually riding.
New Jersey’s oldest show has had several homes in Monmouth over its 121 years, most recently at the Horse Park of New Jersey, but something more was required to make it extra special, just as it was before leaving Monmouth Park’s Wolf Hill Farm in the early 1970s.
Tucker and Michael thought a venue whose name is synonymous around the world with equestrian excellence would be the right spot for their show, especially in the heart of a community that is oriented toward horse sports.
The show drew raves from exhibitors.
“I’m super-pleased with the facility, the footing is amazing. Everything here has been very well done. The stabling is nothing but topnotch. Management is super-friendly,” said trainer James Fairclough II, whose mother, Robin Fairclough, is chairman of the Sussex County Horse Show that runs the week before Monmouth about an hour’s drive from Gladstone.
“It’s nice to come here in this atmosphere and jump in this facility,” continued Jimmy, who is based in Connecticut and Florida.
“It’s great for my students to get a little exposure to this history here at the USET without being under the pressure of the (USEF Talent Search) finals.”
Monmouth’s U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated hunters were C, not A, and the organizers were happy with that. On the weekend when many of the top hunters and hunter trainers in the country were in Kentucky at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s International Hunter Derby and Pre-Green Incentive Championship, there still were plenty of horses showing at the lower levels to compete at Monmouth.
Classes for the base of the sport were taken out of dusty back rings and moved to center stage, offering an incentive for those who were just starting to show, as well as more seasoned riders with fancier horses and years of experience who might be more comfortable with fences at lower heights during this stage of their riding.
“My daughter loved it,” said Catherine Roure-Singh of Harding Township about her child, Olivia,, who rides with Dapple Hill Farm in neighboring Bedminster.
“She came to see the (USET Foundation) grounds when she was about five years old. And she said, `Mama, one day, I want to compete here.’ She’s 11 and she did it. She competed in pre-children’s hunter and finished fourth. She was so happy. She’s living her dream.”
While Tucker and Michael will add at least two C-rated days next year to the one they had this year, they’re not going for an A rating.
“I’m not so sure that’s in the best interests of the community,” said Tucker.
“At that height level (3-6), that will limit the number of exhibitors and those who can compete. We have to keep ourselves close to the beat on what the exhibitors want and what the community needs. We’re open-minded, but at this point, it seems like the home run is at this level.”
He and his cousin, a trainer and assistant professor of equine studies at Centenary University, have found their niche, one that was under-served.
“We’re really proud of the support from exhibitors and trainers. Everyone is asking for reserved stalls for next year,” said Tucker, a horse show judge himself who also manages shows in Kentucky.
Tucker and Michael worked unceasingly to make the show a success in the run-up to its debut, and they didn’t stop there. At 5 a.m. on hunter derby day, Tucker was cleaning bathrooms, and later in the afternoon, he was behind the bar serving drinks. His cousin, meanwhile, was busy ringside training competitors.
A number of community leaders were on hand to watch the action from the hospitality tent set along one side of the arena.
“This facility is sort of like the Fenway Park of equestrian,” said Jim Brady, who revived the Gladstone Equestrian Association with the goal of bringing more equestrian competition to the facility and the area. He also mentioned the input of Leslie Sullivan, who handled public relations for the show.
Guy Torsilieri, who runs the Far Hills Race Meeting down the road at Moorland Farms, was involved in a sponsor-sharing initiative with Monmouth, an example of how equestrian groups in the area are starting to work together. Moorland will host a revival of the Essex Horse Trials next June, another source of excitement for horse-oriented fans in the Somerset Hills.
“I think it’s fabulous. I’m tickled pink,” Guy said of Monmouth, but his vision goes beyond one or two competitions.
“I’m glad it’s being reused again,” he said of the foundation’s facility, which had a paucity of major competitions in recent years, “and I think it’s just the beginning of many great things to come.”
He is on board with the decision that Monmouth doesn’t have to be A-rated, just as Essex doesn’t need to have a multi-star competition at this point, the way it did prior to its post-1998 demise.
“There’s multiple needs at multiple levels,” mused Guy, whose steeplechase draws crowds of 30,000 or so every October.
“You can have a fabulous event at a beginner level. It’s a pyramid. If you don’t have a broad base at the bottom, it doesn’t go to the pinnacle at the top.”
Monmouth at the Team has many links to its roots. Creigh Duncan, who managed the show at the Horse Park, had the same post in Gladstone. Wiss Costanza, a Monmouth starter for 32 years, enjoyed seeing the new version of the show with which she had been associated for so long.
“They’ve done a great job,” said Wiss, who was on hand as a vendor with Adequan.
“I absolutely love it at the Team, as does obviously everyone else. It’s top of the line. The Monmouth tradition continues.”
Victoria Maxwell, daughter of Monmouth’s former owner, Mike Maxwell, started her association with Monmouth in 1966, when it was at Wolf Hill and she rode her pony, Beverly, in the leadline. She was judged by the late Carol Hofmann Thompson, for whom she later went to work.
One of her fondest memories was seeing Rodney Jenkins ride so many horses there that, “they would just pull one horse up next to the other and he would just hop from horse to horse and his feet would never touch the ground.
“I’ve been to all the Monmouths at all the different locations. I’ve seen a lot of people with their hearts and souls into keeping this show going. The show has always adapted and found a way to survive and thrive. This is just terrific.”
Her father sat in with judge Mike Rosser to officiate at the $10,000 Hunter Derby, held at jump heights of 2 feet, 2-6 and 3 feet.
While he enjoyed being a part of Monmouth even though he no longer owns it, Mike conceded, “It’s kind of bittersweet. I’m so happy it’s a success, it’s a beautiful venue, they’ve done a wonderful job, but on the other hand, it’s kind of hard to let go, but I think it was time for that. I’m glad it worked out for both parties.”
There were 72 entries in the classic round of the derby, with 15 coming back for the handy round. Margot Peroni won with Orlon, a 7-year-old German import she has trained since he was two, along with her husband, Bastian Schroeder.
“Every win with this horse is special,” said Margaret, who last year topped the HITS $250,000 Platinum Performance Hunter Prix.
Although the prize money was less in Gladstone, the victory was important to her.
“To do it here at the team is amazing,” she said.
“What a cool place to get to show. I’m really excited. It was a really, really fun class.”