The 41st annual Hampton Classic Horse Show opened Sunday in Bridgehampton, drawing champion riders and horses, celebrities and New York’s power elite to Long Island’s East End for a summer ritual expected to attract 60,000 spectators throughout the week.
Opening day began with the first competitions at 8 a.m. Riders and fans were greeted by sunny skies and cool breezes, with the temperature hovering around a merciful 82 degrees.
The Classic started as a small, informally judged horse competition, but has grown over the years into a must-go social event for VIPs vacationing in the Hamptons.
“You have to experience the Hampton Classic,” said Ramona Singer, one of The Real Housewives of New York City, in the VIP tent Sunday. “How can you be in the Hamptons for Hampton Classic week and not stop by? It’s something that needs to be seen.”
Sunday was local day: With the exception of the $30,000 Boar’s Head Open Jumper Challenge, every horse competing was from Long Island.
“Long Island is a very strong horse community, especially in the summertime,” spokesman Marty Bauman said. Local day “gives everyone a chance to compete at the Hampton Classic.”
The horse show features six show rings and riders of all skill levels competing for prizes. The hunter and jumper competitions draw riders from around the world.
“It’s sort of a benchmark in all equestrians’ lives,” said designer Mark Badgley, of Badgley Mischka. “Everyone looks forward to it. It’s amazing to have one of these shows in our backyard, on Long Island.”
He said the Classic is unique because it features grass rings — rare in modern equestrian competitions.
“It’s very old world, very old school, to go on turf,” said Badgley, who has been showing horses for 20 years.
Olympian McLain Ward, 40, won the Open Jumper Challenge Sunday, with a perfect run and the fastest time of 50.048 seconds. He was fresh from Rio de Janeiro, where his team won the silver medal in show jumping.
Ward, a native of upstate Brewster, has won the Hampton Classic’s Grand Prix a record six times — twice as many as any other rider, officials said.
“It’s always been one of my favorites,” Ward said, of the Classic. “I’m a New Yorker, so I’m very proud of this. . . . It has grown into a world-class international event.”
Ward is also a two-time Olympic gold medalist. It was his penalty-free ride — in which he took his horse over every jump without knocking down a single rail — that clinched the silver medal in show jumping for the U.S. team in Brazil.
At the other end of the spectrum, riders as young as 2 competed at 9 a.m. Sunday in the Hampton Classic Leadline, judged by Olympic gold medalist Joe Fargis. In that event, young riders between 2 and 7 paraded their ponies and horses in front of a crowd that included parents and grandparents watching from the VIP tents.
New additions to opening day this year included the Boars Head Open Jumper Challenge and the $10,000 Marders Local Hunter Derby, officials said.
“Here you show to show, you don’t show to train,” Hampton Classic President Dennis Suskind said of the event, which continues through Sept. 4. “Any ribbon here is much more important than any other horse show in the country. . . . It’s all about competing at the highest level.”
Suskind said the show also has a reputation as a leader in the prevention of animal cruelty and was the first in the country when, many years ago, it banned “poling” — a practice he said is now banned industrywide in which trainers would lift the highest bar to hit a horse’s feet as it leaps over jumps.
“We’re very proud of what we have here,” Suskind said.
Sunday also included a new Thoroughbred Incentive Bonus from the New York Racing Association, in which the agency will match all prize money won on opening day by American Thoroughbred horses.
Monday, the show will feature events for people with disabilities, a program in its 11th year.
“The first few years I went, it was difficult for me to keep a dry eye,” Suskind said. “Kids and adults who have challenges can also compete at the highest level they can, and it’s judged by Olympic riders.”