Littlest equestrians kick off world-class Hampton Classic horse show

Emma von Bargen, 6, of Massapequa, took home Emma von Bargen, 6, of Massapequa, took home the prize in her group, riding Princess Buttercup during the 2013 Hampton Classic in Bridgehampton (Aug. 25, 2013) Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

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Joe Fargis, 65, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, an imposing figure in the equestrian world and one of the sport's most elite riders.

On Sunday, the former Southampton resident stood with his arms crossed, aiming his stony stare at 2- to-7-year-olds in full riding gear as their horses and ponies, led by a handler, walked and trotted around the grass riding ring at the Hampton Classic horse show in Bridgehampton.

The kids mostly had their backs straight, heels down and hands together on the reins.

Then, Fargis cracked a smile when he asked the young riders, who lined up for him, about their horses and equipment.

"He's a legend," said Elizabeth von Bargen, of Massapequa, an instructor at North Shore Equestrian Center in Brookville. Her daughter Emma, 6, took home a blue ribbon in her leadline division, riding "Princess Buttercup."

The class kicked off the 38th year of the show, a week of premier equestrian competitions that culminates in a $250,000 top prize next Sunday at the international STI Consulting Grand Prix and World Cup qualifier showjumping class.

Sunday featured classes for riders from Long Island, unofficially known as "Local Day." The show attracts some of the best riders in the world, as well as crowds of the well-heeled and regular folk, with tents set up selling diamonds, Range Rovers, Jaguars, boats and high-end equestrian gear.

Even Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who was in the Taste of New York tent as part of his statewide sweep to promote New York tourism, stopped by. "There's no reason to leave New York for vacation," he said, standing in front of Wading River peaches.

One of the first classes of the day, though, began with the littlest riders.

And Fargis, winner of two Olympic gold medals in 1984 in Los Angeles and a silver medal in South Korea, and an inductee into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2008, was there to judge.

"Even if they don't know who he is now, someday they will say that Joe Fargis judged them," said Marty Bauman, spokesman with the Hampton Classic.

Shanette Barth Cohen, executive director of the Hampton Classic, admitted that years ago, when she took riding lessons from him, she gulped. "He's well-respected," she said. "He's intimidating. He's very direct."

Fargis, himself, seemed unaware of his own celebrity in the horse culture. "If it's true, and I doubt that it is, I'm very humbled," he said.

So why judge the littlest equestrians?

"Why not?" Fargis said. "Every kid tries so hard. The effort they put into it is immense."

Fargis, who left Long Island in the 1990s, splits his time between Virginia and Florida. He has judged the leadline events for at least 25 years, he said.

He looks for how the small riders sit on their horses -- the "best position," he said. The questions he asks of the riders, about the type of horse they are riding, their equipment and position, only come into play as a tiebreaker, he said.

But you can't predict whether a 4-year-old winner will be a future champion. "It's not possible," he said. "The sport takes so much motivation."

He called the leadline division "the perfect lead-in to the event. It tells everyone, 'Welcome to the Hampton Classic.' "

Judged by the smile on the miniature competitors' faces, the event was a success. Each competitor received ribbons.

After her class, Sam Kotz, 5, of East Hampton, stood next to her pony getting hugs from her mom and dad. She wore her hair in pig tails and a big grin. She'd been riding for a year, her mother, Catherine, said. "That picture is worth it all," she said.

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