It was hard to tell who was having more fun at the third annual Virginia Celebrity Freestyle: the celebrities or the riders. While over 185 people dined in an elegantly appointed tent, nearly 500 spectators filled the seats around the arena, with a tailgating party also in attendance.
Forty thousand dollars was grossed at the event this year, a whopping increase over the $28,000 raised the year before. "It takes time to build support for a show like this", Chairwoman of the event, Marlene Eagleburger, said. "The first year was like shooting in the dark; the second year we changed venues and came to Keswick, so in a way we were still finding our legs, but this year we've really established ourselves in the community. We're here to stay."
The Keswick Horse Show grounds are 110 years old. A month before the Celebrity Freestyle the same ring held the $100,000 Keswick Grand Prix Jumper class. The show grounds are small and give spectators and riders a feeling of intimacy and closeness that larger venues and colliseums can't offer. "The spectators feel like they are a part of the rides, and the riders feel like they are with the audience", Show Manager, Nancy Lowey commented.
Prior to the featured FEI classes in the evening, the show hosts a Calcutta Auction. With a professional auctioneer, each FEI horse and rider are auctioned off to the audience. Whichever horse and rider have the highest score of the evening, the person who won the bid on that team gets 40% of all the money bid. This year's winner was Danish International Dressage rider Lars Petersen, who bid $400 on Alison Head and Calhambeque. Alison's high score of the evening, 69.01% earned Lars $1,650. Lars commented that the atmosphere of the show was great, the footing was good, and that he'd like to ride an exhibition next year.
Alison Head aboard Diane Boyd's Lusitano stallion, Calhambeque, won the Grand Prix with a 69.01%. Her ride to a selection of pieces including Malaguena, Hernando's Hideway and Zorro brought the crowd to it's feet. "The whole atmosphere is just so much fun", Alison said, "my horse loves it. He loves the lights, the applause, the attention of the audience. I like the non-competitiveness of this show. The riders all support each other." Technical judge, Libby Andersen said that the highlight for her was Alison's ride. "Her freestyle was the way a freestyle should be, fluency of the music to the horse; the music told a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end."
Fellipe and Jim Kofford took second place with a 66.13%, and Gomerant and Rebecca Langworst finished third with a 65.47. Gomerant, who has been out of the show ring for a year and a half recovering from an injury, wowed the crowd with his powerful and expressive gaits.
The hotly contested Intermediare, with seven riders, was won by Jennifer Hatch on Ashanti Farm's Delacroix, 68.95% on a ride designed to broadway music by Barbara Gardener. Second was Peggy Minnich on Fearless Legend wit h a 67.67%. "The highlight for me was the audience cheering", Peggy said, "I thought that made it awesome as far as the competitors felt. And everytime the audience clapped for a movement they liked, I could feel my horse just rise to the occasion."
Roy Toppings aboard his seven year old Westphalen gelding DeNovo won the First level Freestyle and the High Score of the show with a 74.13%. His ride to the music, "I Hope You Dance" was choreographed by Roy.
The Celebrities from actress Sissy Spacek to writer David Baldacci, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Poetry, Rita Dove, movie producer Hugh Wilson, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, PBS NewsHour correspondent Margaret Warner, and local Country Western singer-songwriter Duke Merrick all want to return next year.
Libby Andersen, who judged with the celebrities last year said, " They've gotten more confident in their judging, and really contributed to the show. Everyone knows it's fun. And even though they don't judge the technical they know the artistic side." Author David Baldacci even bought dressage tapes before the event to bone up on the sport. "He wanted to do a good job of judging", Celebrity scribe, Anne Tate, said.
"The Celebrity Freestyle brings together horse people and non-horse people", Marlene Eagleburger commented, "all for the common goal of raising money for spinal cord research and the Quality of Life Grants that the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation provides. And one of the many benefits of this endevour is that it also brings our sport into a more spectator-friendly atmosphere, showcasing the beauty of dressage as well as the fun."