As commuters shuffle off the escalators at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station this week, they come upon streets emptied of cars and suddenly full of stables. The sounds of the city are still there, the buses wheezing, the horns honking, the trains rumbling underground. But the mix in the air -- of pine shavings, leather, hay, liniment and manure -- sure doesn't smell like the city.
The Washington International Horse Show, which opened Tuesday and ends Sunday, has turned areas around MCI Center into horse country.
The transformation came in a frantic blur last Sunday night: Trucks dumped 1,400 tons of dirt into and around the downtown arena, where the Washington Wizards had played basketball hours earlier. The court got packed away and the hoops pushed aside. Police shut down sections of F and G and Sixth streets NW.
Now, people in business suits and heels share the sidewalks with horses, grooms and women carrying terriers that will compete in a mini-steeplechase. Every so often, a firetruck screeches by in a lane left open next to the outdoor warm-up area, and men in jodhpurs try to soothe their mounts.
In this oasis of herringbone and Parisian leather saddles, women ride horses in precise circles. And Eugene Joe Johnson motors around in a cart with a shovel and a broom in the back, trying to keep the streets clean and the mirage in tact.
The sudden change has made for some odd moments. A drunk guy came out of the Metro station on a recent night and serenaded the horses with an emotional song welcoming them to Washington. Last year, a bull got loose inside MCI Center and ran into an administrative office, slamming into walls until the cowboys subdued him. This year, no more bulls.
This week, a line of children from the day-care center at the Government Accountability Office pressed up against the fence outside the warm-up area and cheered when a rider soared over a jump. "I would like to ride a horse," said Isabelle Trueblood, 4, staring up at a gray trotting by in a tweed blanket.
Wanda Silas took her lunch break nearby, hoping for a glimpse of a famous dressage rider as she ate her ham-and-cheese sandwich and grapes.
"A lot of us look forward to it," said Mary Bucklew, who works at the Metro headquarters on Fifth Street. She loves seeing the horses up so close. "They do that, whatever that thing is, when they shiver, or bristle. . . . " She shook herself to demonstrate, and almost -- but didn't quite -- neigh.
"It's worth having to watch your step. But they clean up," Bucklew added, "after each little . . . incident."
Sure enough, Johnson hopped off his cart nearby, swept, scooped and then buzzed off to a giant trash bin.
Karl Galle had to get used to watching for horses at the crosswalk on his way home from work at the Institute of Medicine. "You expect to see cars with lights shining," he said. "Instead, these big things are coming out of the shadows. It's a peculiar mix. On the one hand, the horses are there. On the other, there are these giant glass-and-steel buildings."
It's not easy to turn the center of the city into an equestrian showplace.
The Wizards' preseason game ended about 9:30 p.m. Sunday. By midnight, the fans were gone and the floor of the basketball court had been lifted so crews could begin unloading powdery dirt into the arena.
Trucks with 4,000 bags of pine shavings shipped from Canada arrived for the stalls. Workers unloaded 500 bales of hay. They put up metal frameworks for the stables, created the practice area on the street and decorated inside MCI Center for the main events.
By noon Monday, horses began arriving. They are shuttled each day from an equestrian center in Prince George's County, in shifts, because there's no way to find room for 600 horses in downtown Washington.
About 200 horses sleep in their stalls inside the arena or on the street each night, despite the funny urban noises. But the people at the show -- many of whom, like Johnson, travel from town to town with the horses -- don't seem to sleep: Security guards keep an eye on the animals, some of which are worth more than $1 million. Workers water the 10,000 chrysanthemums. A florist arranges silk flowers to adorn the jumps. Competitors practice riding in shifts throughout the night.
And cleaning crews make sure that when trash trucks come, the 100 or so cubic yards of shavings, manure and cocktail napkins get hauled away. Some days during show week, Johnson said, he works from 3 in the morning until 11 at night.
Krista Hunter gets to the arena at midnight to braid manes. She stood on a stepladder Tuesday morning with a comb, green yarn, a crochet hook and dark circles under her eyes. Her fingers were flying, but Bogey was only her sixth of 10 horses she has been hired to braid. "Coffee doesn't help," she said.
The Washington International Horse Show, now in its 46th year, draws thousands of spectators for both the equestrian events, which feature Olympic-caliber competitors, and for extras such as stunts, musical entertainment, dinners and a silent auction. Show organizers said profits are donated to several charities.
It has been held at MCI Center since 2000. "It's nice to have shows in the city; it makes it a more special event," said John Perry, a steward from West Palm Beach, Fla. "But it is a pain in the butt."
After the last awards ceremony, crews get back to work, taking down jumps, scrubbing the floors until they're shiny and blue again. "We finish showing at 7 on Sunday night," said Hugh Kincannon, the show manager. "At 7 a.m. Monday morning, you won't know we were here."