By Nancy Jaffer
Aug. 14, 2016
If there is an iconic image of New Jersey show jumping, it’s a horse clearing a jump at the Sussex County show with the colorful lights of a ferris wheel in the background. Generations of riders and spectators relish that scene and return year after year to see the grand prix that is the highlight of the show, which stretches over 10 days (or 11, if you include the quarter horse show that precedes the U.S. Equestrian Federation-recognized fixture.)
Sussex is celebrating its 80th birthday this year, and hasn’t looked this good since the days when it was held in the tree-shaded ring in Branchville, a few miles away, a scene that is immortalized on its logo.
But the show, in the midst of the New Jersey State Fair, bears little resemblance to its early days or even the time just before its move to Augusta in 1976. The fair has expanded exponentially around it, and there are all sorts of features that those who were involved in it during another era wouldn’t recognize, even though some still call it Branchville. (Old habits die hard in the horse world)
But what remains the same is the involvement of the devoted people who work to make the show happen and insure it continues.
Robin Rost Fairclough, a jumper rider and trainer who is the show chairman, has the right bloodlines for her job as the daughter of Dr. Robert Rost, the show’s manager and guiding spirit, and her mother, Joan.
I asked her before the grand prix yesterday how her late father would react if could have seen what was going on at the fairgrounds, where stands and boxes around the arena were pretty well packed with thousands of spectators, despite high temperatures and threatening weather.
“He’d be looking down and smiling,” Robin believes.
“This is his baby. And I’m so proud to be here and represent him. It’s a thrill, everyone loves to show here in front of a crowd,” she added.
Rich Hammler, who is chairman of the exhibitions committee and pitches in wherever else he is needed, has been coming to the show since he was three years old. He is now 71 and hasn’t missed a year. I wondered what keeps him coming back and volunteering so many hours.
“When I see the people smiling and having a good time, it’s great a reward for me. I’ve loved horses since I was little boy, and I feel like I’m giving back to something that made me happy growing up. I enjoy working with these people,” he said, referring to the show committee.
Like them, “I’m very dedicated to the horse show,” he said.
A grand prix regular, McLain Ward, was missing last night, but he had a good excuse. He’s competing at the Olympics. (Check out the On the Rail section of this website to see what’s happening in Rio with the U.S. team.)
Also missing was Todd Minikus, who had four horses entered in thte class. Todd, who was on the short list for the Olympics but didn’t make the team, was injured Friday when he was helping a friend working on an antique truck and boiling water came blasting out of the radiator, Robin said. Todd suffered burns on his chest and one arm that precluded his participation, she noted.
So a field of 18 started over the Mike Nielsen-designed course in the shadow of the ferris wheel and the lights of the midway. It takes a well-schooled and cooperative horse to deal with the glitter and the crowd. Some expressed their feelings with refusals, understandable, as it is quite a different stage for most of the animals competing there.
Four entries made it through to the tiebreaker, with Michael Desiderio of Chester leading the way in the jump-off on Temptation as lightning crackled in the distance. He had a knockdown in a brisk 43.70 seconds, but the next rider Amanda Flint, was clear on VDL Wittinger in 44.61. Cassandra Kahle challenged that with Calvados, leaving the rails in place but slower than Amanda in 46.38 to finish second.
The last rider, Ailishe Cunniffe, had a stop with Casper and wound up with 9 penalties, including time faults.
Michael’s participation brought back memories for his mother, Stephanie Desiderio, who has been riding at Sussex since she was 14, and she’s now 52.
“The show’s changed for the better, they do a great job, the footing is better, the rings are nicer, the lighting is better,” she said.
It was the first grand prix victory at Sussex for Amanda, of Long Valley.
“I love it. It’s great for the horses, I brought 25 here this week. It’s a great experience for them and the fair is fun for the people,” she said.
Amanda last year started riding Wittinger, previously shown by Callan Solem, and noted he had been a Dutch approved stallion until he was gelded.
“We thought he was going to be a sale horse or a lease horse, so we started showing him and he’s paying his way, so we kept showing him,” she said.
Amanda won’t be competing at the Monmouth at the Team show that begins Tuesday at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, but she is bringing customers and enjoys having a New Jersey mini-circuit.
“It’s close to home and I can sleep in my own bed,” she explained with a smile.