TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Even the grass looked expensive. That’s the first thing that hit me when I arrived at Mar-a-Lago on Sunday, Jan. 6 to watch the kickoff event for the 2013 Winter Equestrian Festival season — the Trump Invitational $100,000 Grand Prix.
The event supported the FTI Great Charity Challenge, which has given almost $3 million to 67 local charities over the past three years, and it was the first equestrian event ever on Palm Beach island.
As a member of the media, I was directed to park a few miles away in Palm Beach, then transported to the venue on a handy mini-bus. The real guests, about 600 of them, paying $1,250 per seat, drove through the front gates where they were met by valets. Golf carts whisked them back to the tent.
We bus riders arrived at the back and walked. It didn’t matter. We were there, too, wearing nice clothing (“garden glamour” as per instructions, so we wouldn’t ruin the ambiance) and following directions on where we could and couldn’t sit or take photos.
This was a well-organized event, with nothing left to chance. A reception, complete with cheese bars, salad bars and regular bars, was underway around the mansion’s swimming pool, which sported horse silhouettes floating on Astroturf-covered Styrofoam rectangles, a nice touch.
Guests mingled and chatted, sipped and nibbled, air-kissed and took pictures in front of a logo-covered backdrop set up just for that purpose. There were plenty of bare shoulders, big hats and Jackie Kennedy-esque sunglasses. Security men in navy shirts and khaki slacks discreetly watched everyone and everything, walkie-talkies in hand.
The walk (or golf-cart ride) between the mansion and the horse show was lined by cars from Braman BMW Motorcars in West Palm Beach. There were coupes and convertibles of all sorts, including a BMW M6 Coupe ($122,595), a Porsche Panamera Turbo ($159,260), Bentleys and Rolls-Royces (if you have to ask the price, it’s not for you).
The back part of the property was given over to the horses: a stable tent with portable stalls and a good-sized warm-up area. Beside it stood a large L-shaped tent where the guests would sit, eat and watch the class in an arena bordered by the tent on two sides, and a row of queen palms and the Intracoastal along one long side. Again, all very organized, helped along by Lance Bennett, paddock master.
“My job is to make sure everyone knows the order of go and to get them in on time,” Bennett said. “I started out on the jump crew at shows about 11 years ago, and worked my way up, following the circuit. It’s grown on me. Now I can chose my own events. I enjoy doing this, even though I don’t ride, and make a comfortable living.”
A helicopter came in low, circling the property twice before settling down. The name on its side left no doubt as to the occupant: Donald Trump. Soon enough, the master of ceremonies himself, along with Mark Bellissimo, his daughter Paige and Georgina Bloomberg stood on a stage in the center of the ring, welcoming us. Cassadee Pope, Wellington resident and winner of NBC’s The Voice, sang a few songs, accompanying herself on a guitar. We stood as she sang the national anthem, the stage was swiftly dismantled, and the class began at 1:45 p.m.
The 36 horses and riders were some of the best in the world, winners of numerous Olympics, World Games, Nations Cups, you name it: Todd Minikus, Laura Kraut, Schuyler Riley, Molly Ashe, Nick Skelton, Lauren Hough and hometown favorite Margie Engle. One after another they entered, rode the big fences and tight turns, while the crowd sometimes watched, mostly chatted, and definitely ate.
Food! The buffets contained whatever you wanted, with chefs standing ready to carve your favorite bit of turkey or roast. There were oysters, crab legs, lobster, chafing dishes containing a variety of delicacies, separate dessert tables piled high with yet more offerings. And behind it all, the steady pop of yet another bottle of champagne being opened.
About halfway through the class, there was a short break while two more charities were chosen to benefit from the Great Charity Challenge: Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Palm Beach County and Horses Healing Hearts.
The footing in the arena, which started out good, eventually succumbed to the repeated take-offs and landings. The ground crew used sod stompers — wooden squares on poles — to mash the broken grass back into place, but some spots became very problematic. Indeed, the last three riders, including Margie Engle, had the same fence No. 8 down, an oxer off a turn, and left without completing the course, being kind to their horses. Four earlier riders, however, managed a clean round, so the jump crew reconfigured the course for the jump-off.
Interestingly, during the break, the crowd came alive as Olympian Tina Konyot rode a dressage demonstration on Calecto V, her Danish Warmblood stallion. Suddenly, forks were set aside, conversation hushed, and everyone watched, mesmerized, as horse and rider completed their musical freestyle to “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” Trump and his party stood the entire time, and the whole crowd fell under the spell, laughing, applauding and cheering. Cellphones flashed, and Konyot received a standing ovation as she exited. In the midst of some of the best show jumping in the world, dressage had been the day’s highlight.
The exciting jump-off began at 3:40 p.m., and happily, the deep trouble spots no longer mattered as those jumps had been moved or eliminated. The end result: Kent Farrington, last to ride, posted the winning time of 42.62 seconds and no faults, followed by Rodrigo Pessoa, Charlie Jayne and Schuyler Riley.
Then it was time to leave and return to the real world. Off to the side, I discreetly slipped off my sandals and walked barefoot on the expensive grass. It felt as good as it looked, soft and silky, more like the grass I remembered from my childhood in New York than the harsh, spiky Florida grass. Amidst all the grand horses and fabulous food, the grass was one of my favorite parts.