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May 6, 2019 12:24 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Maintaining A Shining Tradition: Hampton Classic Gives New Life To Grand Prix Field

Shanette Barth Cohen, Executive Director of the Hampton Classic, alongside the show's equestrian manager, Allen Rheinheimer, who oversaw the $1 million reconstruction of the show's Grand Prix field. CAILIN RILEY
May 7, 2019 5:24 PM

There are many reasons why some of the top Grand Prix riders in the world always make room on their busy schedules for the Hampton Classic Horse Show every year.

The location, the prize money, the beauty of the venue—elements that are always a draw.

But one of the biggest reasons has been the 120,000-square-foot emerald-green field, surrounded by grandstands on two sides and VIP tents on the others, that has, more than any other part of the week-long show, become an enduring symbol of what has made the Classic so special over its 40-year-plus history as one of the premier equestrian events in the world.

Natural grass Grand Prix fields have become rare in the show jumping world, but the one at the Classic will endure, thanks to the commitment of the show’s dedicated employees, its board of directors, and the financial support of its backers.

Hampton Classic officials are putting the finishing touches on a fully revamped Grand Prix field, a project that started less than a month after the show's completion in September of 2018. The $1 million effort was a collaboration between several local contractors and the shows longtime equestrian manager, Allen Rheinheimer, who oversaw the work. The result is a state-of-the-art grass jumping field that is on par with the best in world—those in Spruce Meadows, Canada, and Aachen, Germany.

It became clear over the last few years that expansive 300x400-foot grass expanse—a potato field in its past life—was in need of more than just the standard TLC, according to Shanette Barth Cohen, the shows executive director.

Money had been invested over the past decade to keep the field in top shape for the safety of the horses and riders, with new aeration protocols, a new well, and perimeter drainage to keep the field dry. But a hot and rainy summer leading into the show, which runs in the final week of August and into the first weekend of September, had taken a toll.

“Throughout the entire Northeast, there were lots of problems with turf fields, golf courses,” Ms. Cohen said in late April, in an interview at her office on the show grounds. She was sitting alongside Mr. Rheinheimer, who nodded in agreement.

“It was just a really treacherous year,” he added.

Mr. Rheinheimer knows a thing or two about the importance of proper footing at horse shows, and he knows the Hampton Classic as well as anyone.

His company, Showtime Jump Company, has been in charge of equestrian management at the show since 1983. He oversaw the intricate and labor-intensive work inherent in keeping a living, breathing surface that is always exposed to Mother Nature healthy over the decades.

He watched during the Grand Prix last year as multiple breaks in the action were necessary to bring machines onto the field to roll and tamp down the surface before the next group of riders took their turns. The field had become less and less able to withstand the beating it took from horses and riders negotiating tight turns at top speed over jumps 5 feet high, and in some cases just as wide. It was the first year maintenance breaks were needed in the middle of the shows biggest class. It was clear something needed to be done.

Most people cannot imagine the Classic without its signature grass Grand Prix, but Ms. Cohen and the shows board of directors were staring at that possibility, at least for a little while.

In the month before the field was ripped up, Ms. Cohen and her colleagues teased out price comparisons for installing a new grass field or going to a synthetic surface, like most shows, which are a combination of a sand-like material and other materials that offer good drainage and cushioning for the horses.

Synthetic fields are enticing because they are virtually maintenance free—basically the polar opposite of a grass field.

Ultimately, the show directors chose to stay with grass—the price difference was negligible, and the extra work needed to maintain a grass field was worth it to stay true to the tradition of a show that prides itself as one of the only shows in the country to feature multiple grass jumping rings.

Ms. Cohen gave credit to Mr. Rheinheimer and his crew for putting the reconstruction of the field at the top of their priority list.

Mr. Rheinheimer travels the country throughout the year doing equestrian management for a number of high-quality shows, including the World Cup in Las Vegas, the Gulfport show series in Mississippi, and Vermont Horse Shows.

He said he did not hesitate when Ms. Cohen told him of the plans to rebuild the field from the ground up.

“I dropped everything, because I knew how important it was,” he said. “It’s important to me, too. I’ve really been a part of this show, and it was just the right thing to do.”

Mr. Rheinheimer knew what he was getting himself into, to a certain extent, but said he was still surprised at just how extensive the work needed to be, something he realized once they started digging. A deep layer of clay several feet underground had been responsible for the field holding so much moisture, meaning the crews had to dig as deep as 12 feet in some spots, although it was closer to 6 to 8 feet in most of the area. Mr. Rheinheimer compared that clay layer to a trampoline, saying it had a “gushy, strange” consistency.

“That’s not a base to build on,” he said. “You need a solid base.”

Diversified Services provided the excavating, and Mr. Rheinheimer said that he asked for feedback from several other local contractors accustomed to dealing with what he was dealing with, to make sure he was doing the right thing. He feels confident in the work now.

“We planned on having maybe 2 to 3 inches of settling, but it’s been only about an inch,” he said.

After the crews dug down, they essentially re-mixed what they’d dug up with sand and other materials to make a more solid base. They laser graded the field, created an intricate trenching, piping and drainage system, and laid down a stabilization fabric as well as a stone grid. All of that work is invisible, of course, covered now by brilliant green Kentucky bluegrass, work that was done by DeLea Sod.

It’s clear that both Mr. Rheinheimer and Ms. Cohen are pleased with the results. They smiled broadly as they looked out on the field on a sunny spring day late last month. Of course, the most important feedback will come in several months, when the world’s best jumper riders descend on the show grounds.

Mr. Rheinheimer has fine-tuned all kinds of riding surfaces at shows around the country, and said his company ultimately made footing its area of expertise, because when he’d arrive at shows he’d been hired to manage, more often than not, he’d find sub-par footing. As a result, he knows a lot about both natural and synthetic riding surfaces, but he said when it comes to what is best for horses, a well-maintained grass field can’t be beat.

“Natural grass is just a natural footing for a horse,” he said. “It gives the right amount of tension and the right amount of cushion, so it’s just so natural for a horse to run on grass. To maintain that over time is the hard part. That’s why so many shows have gone to synthetic.”

A key reason why the Classic has been able to resist going synthetic is because the show is contested for just over a week, unlike other show venues, which host a series of shows over a season, meaning there is competition on those surfaces for several weeks, causing more wear and tear.

The Grand Prix ring, in particular, doesn’t see as much action during the week as the other rings. The shows four other grass hunter rings see a decent number of classes over the week, but those are primarily hunter classes, which are not timed, and where judging is based on riding at a smooth consistent pace, with most distance between fences and without the tight turns of a jumper course.

As for the rider experience, competing on grass has several enticements, and creates a challenge that many riders welcome, as well.

“It makes a beautiful picture,” Ms. Cohen pointed out. “Some of these riders show week after week, and they have the same photos, but photos from the Classic are quite stunning. The horses really enjoy it and pay more attention, so it’s a little different from what you see every day.

“And it’s more of a challenge,” she continued. “Our hunter rings are laser graded and perfectly flat like sand rings. When I was a kid showing, almost every ring was grass, and it was normal when you were talking to your trainer to say, ‘Well, this area rides a little uphill, so you’ll have to kick a bit.’ People are used to doing that now, and when you’re preparing for the Classic, you have to practice differently. That’s part of the horsemanship, too. Hunter riding evolved off grass. It’s supposed to simulate the hunt field, and there aren’t synthetic pathways out there.”

Keeping the Classic on par with the venerated, upper echelon shows that have commanded respect for years in the show jumping world would not have been possible without the support of the board and other financial backers.

Ms. Cohen credited what she said was a “very engaged” advisory committee and horse show board. Members of those boards made generous donations out of their own pockets, and they even received donations large and small from riders and horse owners who feel connected to the show.

The show launched a million dollar capital campaign on the same day it broke ground on the field, and has so far raised two-thirds of the money it needs to cover the cost of the field. Ms. Cohen said they hoped to raise the remainder of the money in the next six months, but added that they are in a good place financially.

“We have some money in reserves, but not a lot because we are a nonprofit,” she said. “We’ve paid for everything we’ve done so far.”

With the majority of the hard work behind them, both Ms. Cohen and Mr. Rheinheimer seemed relieved, and excited for the final tweaks that will be put on the field before it makes its debut on opening day, August 25. They’re happy they were able to preserve one of the enduring symbols of one of the world’s most prestigious shows.

“I commend the board for sticking to the tradition of grass at the Classic,” Ms. Cohen said. “You hear about the Hampton Classic all over the world. It’s not just in the States. So it’s a treasure we don’t want to lose.”

Ms. Cohen is confident the horses and riders will feel the same way, and she speaks from experience. Many years ago, long before she was the shows executive director and was showing as an amateur jumper rider, she had the chance to compete in the Grand Prix ring, in an adult jumper class. That experience has stayed with her.

“It’s special,” she said. “I got to ride out there once, and it was the best experience of my life.”

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