Ralph Jones was restless. An avid eventer, he’d long bemoaned the lack of events near his Hunterdon County, New Jersey home when one evening it hit him: “Why not bring back the Essex Horse Trials?” He pitched his idea to a group of friends at Jim Brady’s Gladstone Gathering a year ago, proving to be the spark that set into motion the revival of the Essex Horse Trials.
First held in 1968, the Essex Horse Trials continued as one of the premier events for the next 30 years. The event has been dormant since 1998, when Hamilton Farm was developed into a golf course. So it was on that evening a year ago that Jones broached the idea of resurrecting the event in a new location.
The culmination of this idea will materialize in June 2017, when the Essex Horse Trials returns in its new home at Far Hills. Last week, a celebration kicked-off the new Essex Horse Trials with cocktails and an Invitational Derby Cross.
Ann Haller was one of the people at the kick-off party. It was her late husband Roger, course designer for the 1978 World Championships and 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, who started the first Essex Horse Trials with the help of his parents and friends at Hoopstick Farm, nearby in Bedminster, NJ. The event outgrew their farm and it moved a few miles down the road to Gladstone until 1998.
Ralph Jones, taking the reins, began touring the countryside with course designer Morgan Roswell to scope out different locations for the show. Sally Ike also became involved early on and acted as a mentor to Jones and Roswell. Ike was not only a past winner of the Essex Horse Trials, but today is Chairman of the Essex Fox Hounds, managing director for the USET and very much apart of the Essex Horse Trials’s rebirth, serving both on the board of directors and as a co-organizer.
It wasn’t until Jones and Roswell came to the 230-acre Moorland Farm, the home of the Far Hills steeplechase, that they knew they had found their place with its sweeping views, rolling meadows and ideal location just outside of town. Guy Torsilieri, chair for the Far Hills Race Meeting and formerly the chair of the Essex Horse Trials, enthusiastically embraced the idea. Torsilieri’s steeplechase routinely attracts 30,000 spectators every fall in October. It was a slam dunk. The footing at Moorland Farm is excellent and the rolling terrain naturally lends itself to eventing, and the basic infrastructure was already in place. Torsilieri and Jones became co-partners for the event.
As if waiting for this day to happen, Torsilieri had kept alive over all this time the non-profit company for the Essex Horse Trials. It was a relatively easy next step for the group to pitch the event to the USEA in Washington D.C. and they have since secured a date for June 24, 2017, which is around the time of the original horse trials.
Their goal for next year is to offer novice through preliminary and shortly thereafter build it up to a 2-star event. With the energy of this group who knows what’s in store for the future.
The surrounding community has stepped up, too. An illustrious group of people have come together to work on this effort, including James Brady, who was the last to host the event at Gladstone. Past competitor Marilyn Payne, who just returned from judging at Luhmulen CCI**** in Germany and soon to leave to be part of the eventing jury at the Rio Olympics, was also instrumental in the revival.
The group has already lined up M&M Mars as the title sponsor, just as it was 20 years ago.
The revelers at the Essex Horse Trials who came together last Wednesday night were treated to a beautiful summer evening while they watched an all star line up of twelve riders competing in the Invitational Derby Cross, including Buck Davidson (who asked to be invited), Jenny Brannigan (the winner) and Sinead Halpin. Australian Kate Chadderton offered some needed international flavor.
In the audience were past winners and athletes currently competing and original and new volunteers. There were speeches by Torsilieri, Jones, Far Hills Mayor Paul Vallone and Christie Whitman, former Governor of New Jersey. To everyone’s surprise Whitman spoke not only on the state of New Jersey’s support of equestrian sports, but on a more personal note, revealed that she was a former pony clubber and eventer.
Four star eventer and native New Jerseyan Doug Payne served as emcee for the Derby cross (his sister Holly Payne Caravella was a competitor and we’ve already mentioned their mother, Marilyn). Morgan Roswell was the course designer and Sally Ike acted as judge. It was a fun evening for all and an auspicious beginning to the new Essex Horse Trials. Here’s what Jennie Brannigan had to say after winning the derby:
Video by Marty Bauman, Classic Communications
And here’s a blast from the past: