Clouds of dust kicked up at the horseshow grounds in Saugerties on a windy Sunday, Sept. 8 but that didn’t seem to bother any of the 39 rider-and-horse teams who had ponied up a $3,500 entry fee in hopes of taking home the big money in the $1 million Grand Prix event that brought the tenth season of HITS-on-the-Hudson to a close.
After a final jump-off between the top two horses and riders, the winning combination proved to be Egyptian rider Nayel Nassar, who resides in Stanford, California, and his nine-year-old gelding Lordan, riding to victory and a $350,000 share of the pot. They were one of only three riding teams all day to achieve a clean ride in the competition, expertly clearing every hurdle without downing rails or getting penalized for staying on the course too long.
The allotted time to complete the course was a maximum of 83 seconds. (Nassar’s first fault-free round that brought him to the final jump-off was 82.76 seconds.) The allotted time is set by the course designer, who is this case was Olaf Petersen, Jr. of Meunchen, Germany, designer of the Grand Prix course in Saugerties for the second year in a row. And while it may seem to the casual observer that the number of horse and rider teams repeatedly bringing down rails would indicate a course perhaps too difficult, Petersen said the fact that there were no falls during the competition indicated that the difficulty level was “just right.” Nassar, a senior at Stanford University who intends to continue riding professionally for Egypt in the U.S. after graduation, said that the course was “very technical and every stride kept us thinking.”
It’s not unusual for a rider like Nassar to travel 3,000 miles to compete in Saugerties. HITS draws horses and riders from all over the country, although one entry didn’t have far to go at all: Saugertiesian Heather Caristo-Williams rode her mount Evening Star to a 12th place finish in the Grand Prix, earning $4,500 of the prize money. In total, 20 riders and horses won ribbons and monetary prizes in the event.
The riders in the final competition also represented quite an age range, with 49 years between the oldest and the youngest rider: Hunter Holloway of Topeka, Kansas, is just 15 years old.
Many of the spectators who were there on Sunday traveled a bit of a distance to watch the shows, too. Most professed an interest in horses in general, of course, many saying that they’ve ridden in some capacity for most of their life, like Dale Horn, a lifelong horse enthusiast and rider from Goshen, Conn. who said she enjoys following the horse show circuit and goes to as many as ten shows per year. Horn keeps her own quarter horse at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, Conn. She’s been to Saugerties before, not only for the horse shows but to visit the Garlic Festival and Sawyer Car Show, too.
Nancy Paduano of Garrison, New York was at the showgrounds with her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren. “HITS is very special,” she said, noting that she appreciates the professional level of the riders who come from so far to compete there. Paduano said she herself used to ride, as did her son, and gestured toward her grandkids with a smile. “And perhaps one day we’ll be back to the ponies.”
Mike Pillows, on the other hand, a first-grade teacher from Ridgewood, New Jersey, isn’t experienced with horses and was visiting HITS for the first time with the South Jersey Camera Club, a group that travels to events with a lot of activity going on to work on capturing movement. He said the challenge at HITS was anticipating the exact right moment to press the shutter during the jumps.
Heather Finn of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania is a veterinarian who specializes in working with horses. She does ride, she said, but was at HITS on Sunday just for fun. “I don’t get very much time off, so this is nice.” She shared a table under a tent with two other women veterinarians from Westchester and their friend.
After the ribbons were awarded to the winning riders and horses, the day’s events came to a close with a concert by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell in the open air in a ring adjacent to where the Grand Prix had taken place.
HITS, Inc. has produced hunter/jumper horse shows since holding its first events in Florida in 1982. From 1996 to 2003, it ran its New York operations out of Kelly Farm in Ellenville. Before the company came to Saugerties, the site it occupies now was an unused piece of land that had once been home to the Sawyerkill Country Club. In 2011, HITS expanded into endurance sports, and now manage a Triathlon Series and running races throughout the country.
And the horses? Their next stop will be Thermal, California (outside of Palm Springs) or maybe Ocala, Florida or Tucson, Arizona with their riders to compete in the next series of HITS competitions that begin in those places in January. They’ll be back in Saugerties next May.