TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Some days I really love my job. One such day was Sunday, Jan. 4.
As I sat in the shuttle bus, heading south on South Ocean Blvd., the choppy swell of the ocean was the only sign of the distant arctic storms blasting the rest of the country. There was snow in Las Vegas, but South Florida basked in wall-to-wall sunshine. I arrived at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club ready to watch the Trump Invitational and rub elbows with the rich and famous. The setting was as much a star as the event.
The festivities kicked off with a poolside welcome reception. Decorations included a pair of life-sized horse topiaries and a large, thick punchbowl carved of ice, roses embedded within.
The steps leading up from the pool to the ballroom were faced by imported Spanish tiles bearing the words “Plus Ultra,” Latin for “further, beyond” and the motto of, among others, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The tiles were old and worn but, like the mansion, spoke of an earlier, grander time. I stood awhile in the Gold and White Ballroom, the only room of the mansion open to the likes of me, and imagined it filled with guests during the Roaring Twenties.
Mar-a-Lago, Spanish for “Sea to Lake,” covers 20 acres and is bordered by both the Intracostal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. It was built in 1927 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, then Mrs. E.F. Hutton. The white walls and ceiling were festooned with golden decorations. Even the large mirrors at the back were gilded. A small stage dominated the front, and I imagined the many events that once held sway, such as the annual International Red Cross Ball. Attire: white tie, tails and tiaras. Think an American version of Downton Abbey.
I strolled across the northern-looking grass (thin springy blades, no fire ant mounds) to the huge L-shaped tent shielding hundreds of tables from the sun. The stables and warm-up ring were located along the short side, and the jumping arena within the L, right along the Intracoastal. By 11 a.m., the riders and trainers were walking the course, striding off distances, gently rocking poles to see how deeply they set in the cups. The course, 13 imposing fences in a very tight space, was designed by Anthony D’Ambrosio.
Gabriela Mershad had shown in the class two years ago. “The course looks good, really solid,” she said. “I’m excited; a little nervous. I’m riding a different horse this time. Ledgepoint is more experienced. I’ve only had him eight months, but we recently started clicking. This will be a good test.”
It was rider Callan Solem’s first time doing the event. “It’s a nice course, good footing,” she said. “This is a beautiful venue, a top group of horses and riders. I’m grateful to Mr. Trump and Mr. [Mark] Bellissimo. I’ve had my horse, VDL Torlando, since he was 6. He’s 15 now. I’m happy to share this day with him.”
Back in the tent, servers brought platter after platter to the buffet lines: whole turkeys and roasts, vegetable pad thai, sea bass with coconut rice and spiced papaya, Balinese fried rice, roasted beef couscous, a 6-foot spread of seafood, Mary Trump’s meatloaf. The desserts took up further real estate, including a Trump chocolate cake, looking every bit as rich as the name.
Guests meandered over from the pool and found their seats. All the linen was white with deep brown accents. Table runners of banana
leaves were weighted down by small, smooth gray river stones sprinkled with purple and gold orchid blooms. The centerpieces were rough-carved dark wooden bowls filled with more stones and orchids. Every white-draped chair offered a white Rolex-embroidered ball cap.
The field of 35 professional riders featured some of the best in the world: Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Todd Minikus, Margie Engle, Candice King, Lauren Hough, Ian Millar, McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut and Kent Farrington, who’d won both of the previous Trump Invitationals. Thirteen hopeful riders filled the second offering, the $5,000 Low Junior/Amateur-Owner Speed Class.
The first rider was on course at 1 p.m., ignoring such novel Intracoastal distractions as wave runners, kayaks and flocks of pelicans.
One problematic fence was jump No. 3, an oxer over a liverpool framed by giant champagne bottles. Many riders had that one down. Some went for speed right out of the gate. Kent galloped around, finding impossibly long spots and making them. Two riders went clear but had one time fault.
Some of the big names dropped rails: Todd Minikus had 8 faults; McLain Ward 16; Ian Millar; Candice King and Lauren Hough 4 each — but 13 went clear for the jump-off, including Gabriela and Callan.
Callan went clear again and finished seventh in 43.10 seconds. Gabriela had 6 faults and finished eighth. Kent rode second to last and was blazing around when he took the last turn a little too fast, and his horse slipped, almost going down. They regrouped and continued, but had a rail down over the last fence. They finished ninth, with four faults but the fastest time of 36.81 seconds.
The last rider was Laura Kraut on Cedric, a 17-year-old Holsteiner gelding, and they managed a clear round in 39.96 seconds to win the class. The pair have had many success together, including the team gold at the 2008 Olympic Games and numerous grand prix victories.
Other top winners included Darragh Kenny of Ireland on Fantasy, second; Brianne Goutal on Ballade Van Het Indihof, third; Margie Engle on Indigo, fourth; Beezie Madden on Vanilla, fifth; Sweden’s Alexander Zetterman on Flecu, sixth; and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum on Atlanta 541, 10th.
Three riders went clear in the $5,000 Low Junior/Amateur-Owner Speed Class and returned for the jump-off. All three went clear again, and Sophie Simpson on Woopy 14 won with the fastest time of 57.004 seconds. Addison Geirkink rode Tiffany to a second-place 58.369 seconds finish, and Joyce Green on Cassidy came in third at 63.919 seconds. This was the 17-year-old Simpson’s first time at the Trump Invitational. She had also participated in the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session presented by the USHJA in Wellington the previous week.
The temperature had climbed to the high 80s as I headed back to the shuttle bus, wearing my white Rolex hat, sated, satisfied and looking forward to coming back again next year. Truly, the Trump Invitational is a show like no other.
For more about the show, visit www.equestriansport.com.