The Washington International Horse Show opening tonight at Capital Centre offers something it hasn't been able to deliver in 25 years: a gold medal United States equestrian team.
Joe Fargis, Conrad Homfeld, Leslie Burr and Melanie Smith were members of the gold-medal U.S. team at the Los Angeles Olympics in August. All four will ride in Washington, starting with tonight's $7,500 international jumping event.
The U.S. team will compete against teams from Canada and Great Britain in open jumping events each evening of the eight-day show. Professional and amateur riders from the United States and France also will compete for more than $180,000 in prize money.
Fargis, who grew up in Vienna, Va., also won a gold medal for individual riding; Homfeld was awarded the silver. They are partners in Sandron Farm in Petersburg, Va.
Life for the equestrians hasn't been the same since the Olympics. They have been overwhelmed by appearance requests, autograph seekers and endorsement offers.
Fargis, 36, who has been riding for 21 years, credits the Olympic television coverage with much of his new-found recognition.
"We used to be recognized in public, but only by fans of the horse show circuit," he said. "We could walk through the airport all the time and no one would recognize us. But now we go through there and everyone knows us and says hello."
Two members of the British team, Tim Grubb and Nick Skelton, will provide much of the competition for the Americans, just as they did in Los Angeles. Both were on the British team that won the silver medal. John Whitaker and Robert Smith are also on the British team. Canada has named Danny Foster, Doug Henry, Gail Greenhough and Washington show veteran Hugh Graham to its team.
Team jumping events are scheduled each evening of the show. Traditionally, the most popular events have been the $10,000 Puissance (high jumping) class Friday night and the $35,000 President's Cup Grand Prix next Sunday.
Last year, the show attracted its largest crowd when 15,628 saw Sweet 'n Low, a 9-year-old gray gelding ridden by Anthony D'Ambrosio, set the world high-jump record when he cleared a 7-foot-7 1/2 wall during an exciting fourth-round jump-off.
The horse show is trying to match those sort of crowds by emphasizing the competition, particularly the U.S. Olympic team's, and playing down the horsey set image of years past.
"We want to involve the general public and have it attend," said the show's new president, Julian B. Heron. "We want it to participate and enjoy the show. We also want to raise additional funds to benefit our charities. (Children's Hospital is the show's main beneficiary this year.)
The show also will feature a number of local and national amateur riders competing in various hunter classes during the day and the international open-jumper classes during the evening shows. Jack Russell terrier races and the Budweiser Clydesdales are scheduled every night and the U.S. Cutting Horse Championships will be held Friday night.
Most evening performances begin at 7:30 and Heron promises the show has been tightened up so events will end by 10:30 each night.