The world’s finest four-legged athletes expect to perform at their peak during the Longines Global Champions Tour show jumping competition on the sands of Miami Beach. But if they are feeling high strung or looking long in the face they can consult with a psychotherapist trained to soothe any nagging neuroses during a private session at the stable.
It’s no small feat to clear 14 fences that are up to five feet tall with a whip-wielding rider on your back and tycoons, kings, princesses and even The Boss watching your every stride.
So the horses that are the celebrities of the show jumping spectacle get everything they need to leap high. They are the opera stars of sport. Not even LeBron James is as pampered as Cedric, the venerable freckled gray champion, or Hello Sanctos, the Olympic gold medalist.
The steeds are frequent fliers on chartered cargo planes that take them to Monaco; Doha, Qatar; Shanghai, China; and, from Thursday through Saturday, a seaside stadium at 22nd Street. They have fan clubs and Facebook pages. They train in swimming pools and dine on gourmet barley. Their farriers fit them with shoes custom-made for varying surfaces. Some have their own equine therapist.
“It’s the same as a mental coach for a human athlete,” said Marco Danese, sport director for the tour. “They have to get to know the psychology of the horse. Just like with humans, every horse has a different personality.”
These horses, worth up to $15 million, are a serious investment. Owners and devotees tend to be the .01-percenters with bloodlines as impressive as those of the animals. Prince Albert of Monaco and the royals of England are fans, as is Bill Gates. Among the riders in the Miami Beach lineup are Athina Onassis De Miranda, granddaughter of Aristotle Onassis; Charlotte Casiraghi, granddaughter of Grace Kelly and daughter of Princess Caroline, and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Rock ‘n’ roll royalty is represented by Jessica Springsteen, 23, an up-and-coming talent who is the daughter of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. Her dad might be from the swamps of Jersey, but Jessica resides among the horsey set in Wellington.
Watching practice Wednesday was rider Sheik Ali Bin Khalid Al Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family; he was wearing paisley swim trunks. Champion Edwina Tops-Alexander competes in clothes designed by Gucci, one of her sponsors. Design houses such as Gucci and Hermès can trace their lineage to artisans who made saddles, boots and leather goods. The equestrian look is big on fashion runways today.
But the presence of chandeliers and champagne in the box seats doesn’t mean show jumping isn’t accessible to all classes, say, those who came up in the sport the hard way. The partnership between horse and man is one of the most ancient and workmanlike in history.
The top American rider, Kent Farrington, grew up in Chicago -- blue collar, not blue blood. He learned to ride by hanging out at the Lincoln Park carriage stables. He got his first horse when his father, a data equipment salesman, traded four used computers for a horse they named MVP#4 in a nod to their favorite quarterback, Brett Favre. Farrington ascended the ladder of the sport with the help of mentors and sponsors and moved to Wellington at age 16.
“I scrapped my way up,” he said. “There is a lot of wealth in the sport, but what we all have in common is a love for these beautiful animals.”
Rider Margie Goldstein-Engle is from a South Miami family of modest means. Dutch rider Harrie Smolders grew up on a farm.
Manure might be the great equalizer.
“Sure, we have kings walking around the stables but I’m not so quickly impressed,” he said.
Bloomberg said the hoity-toity stereotype of equestrian sports is misleading.
“It’s much more expensive to own a football team than a horse but football is not regarded as elitist,” she said.
Ultimately, rapport between horse and rider trumps pedigree, Farrington said.
“You want a horse that’s careful but brave,” he said. “Then you develop a winning chemistry, like players on a basketball team.”
He described his two horses, Voyeur and Willow, as “high-spirited, fast and competitive.”
Agility will be crucial in the small Miami Beach ring as riders competing for nearly $1 million in prize money pick their line for the course. Scoring in the co-ed sport combines time and number of faults when jumping the obstacles. If a horse steps in the water, he’s penalized four faults, for example. If he refuses to jump twice, he’s eliminated.
“The difficulty is placing the horse at the proper takeoff point based on your stride options,” he said. “There are wrecks, of course. You can’t be a downhill skier and not crash on occasion.”
Does a spill bruise a horse’s ego?
“They may be treated like royalty,” Farrington said. “But they’re tough. They are real pros.”