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First Posted Sept 2, 2009
Aug 3, 2010

Show Jumpers Need Skill, Time and Money

Show Jumpers Need Skill, Time and Money

New York Times Sports, Tuesday, September 1, 2009, by Jillian Dunham

Two weeks ago, 21-year-old Hillary Dobbs became a professional show jumper. Her first competition as a pro, the Hampton Classic that began last week in Bridgehampton, N.Y., included one of the country's most competitive Grand Prix events, with Olympic veterans and other top international jumpers competing for $250,000 in prize money. It was not an easy way to start, but Dobbs, the daughter of Lou Dobbs of CNN, had won it the year before, as an amateur and as the youngest rider to do so.


Hillary Dobbs at the Grand Prix show-jumping event Sunday at the Hampton Classic
Photo by: Maxine Hicks

Grand Prix show jumping requires the horse and its rider to clear a course of fences more than five feet high and as wide as six feet. If multiple competitors complete the course without any misses, they ride against the clock in a jump-off. The fastest rider with the fewest faults wins.

The sport is prohibitively expensive; the horses trained for this level are valued at six and even seven figures. Getting this far usually requires family wealth or a fairy godmother.

It also requires experience. International show jumping has been historically dominated by Americans, but in recent decades, riders from Europe and South America have taken the lead. The United States Equestrian Federation, which chooses the Olympic team, has begun to refocus its efforts to send young riders with Olympic potential, including Dobbs, to compete in Europe.

"Watch the world's best riders," said Missy Clark, Dobbs's coach, citing the two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward of the United States, among others. Clark said "the common denominator" was that they exhibited the correct fundamentals in style and ability, which are often honed by early international experiences.

On Sunday, Ward, aboard Sapphire, became the only rider to win the Hampton Classic's Grand Prix four times. He also rode Sapphire to Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008.

Dobbs, unable to repeat her 2008 performance, finished ninth. Georgina Bloomberg, the daughter of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, finished 12th. Brianne Goutal, a 20-year-old who finished second to Dobbs last year, was just out of the prize money.

Goutal competed in Europe with the equestrian federation's developing rider tour in 2007, as part of a team that included Bloomberg. The team won a Nation's Cup competition in Hamina, Finland.

"It's another experience, how riders differ from country to country, the way their horses jump," Goutal said. "It's great for your riding and training."

Young riders like Goutal have helped form a committee to improve the U.S.E.F. developing rider tour. Sally Ike, the federation's managing director of show-jumping programs, said the athlete pipeline for competitions like the Olympics had become increasingly important.

"If we don't take care of these riders who are coming up through the ranks, we're not going to have a McLain or a Beezie," she said, referring to Ward and Beezie Madden, who also won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008.

This year, the Grand Prix at the Hampton Classic was a qualifier for the World Cup, one of the major international competitions that riders like Goutal and Dobbs aspire to compete in.

"We'd like to have some good results, to keep it an option," Dobbs said.

The World Equestrian Games, the most important international competition outside of the Olympics, will be held next summer in Lexington, Ky.

Asked about the developing rider program, Ward, 33, recalled winning a talent-search competition at the Hampton Classic when he was a teenager.

"That was my first exposure to this kind of venue," Ward said, adding that the program would give riders the exposure they needed to be competitive internationally.

"It takes years of getting your feet wet to get comfortable," he said.

Goutal called participating in the Hampton Classic bittersweet because it came so close to the end of the show season and the beginning of the school year. She and Dobbs will return to college soon; she is a junior at Brown and Dobbs is a senior at Harvard. But if all goes well, they will be in Wellington, Fla., this winter for the selection trials of the World Equestrian Games.

"There's nothing better than to represent your country" as a part of a team, Dobbs said. "I fell in love with that."


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