Twelve hundred pounds of horseflesh is galloping across the manicured green field. Thundering hoofs tear into the turf, the thoroughbred's flank muscles rippling and veins bulging with each stride. The scent of leather is everywhere, from the white lather under the saddle pad to the tall black riding boots rubbing against the horse's sweaty sides. "Eeeeeeee-yahhhhh!" comes a low growl from the rider as the mount sits back on its haunches and hurdles itself over a 5-foot-high fence.
Across the field, the echo of hoofbeats mixes with jazzy tunes as sportily clad patrons concentrate on the task at hand: eating, drinking and being merry--and perhaps more importantly, being seen-- at what has become one of the biggest social events of the season.
Welcome to the Oaks Classic, where the wild and woolly world of grandprix show-jumping meets the wheels and the wanna-be's of county society. Hosted by equine enthusiast Joan Irvine Smith (whose grandfather founded the Irvine Co.), and her mother, Newport Beach philanthropist Athalie Clarke, this weekend's third annual event draws the "top guns" in both show-jumping and social circles.
It is a curious mixture of leather and lace, of Tanqueray and tallyho. Despite the Classic's mistaken reputation as an invitation-only soiree, patrons' tickets have been available to anyone who cares to pay $200 for the weekend (or $125 per day). And for the brown-bag set, public bleacher seating costs only $8 a day. Total attendance of about 3,000 is expected.
The public has "the same basic amenities as my guests, but they sit over there," says Smith, pointing across the field to the bleachers. But the view isn't the only difference. While the patrons are whooping it up in party tents with free-flowing cocktails and a catered gourmet feast that won't quit, the public sits in the sun and pays as it goes for somewhat more mundane fare and a no-host bar.
But who's to complain? For little more than the cost of a ticket to the movies, spectators get a full day's entertainment at a world-class sporting event--and a rare peek into the generally closed world of horses and high society.
While some spectators are truly interested in the bold horses and riders pitting themselves against the rigorous grandprix course, others are patently oblivious to the equine endeavors. "A lot of people on our personal guest list wouldn't know the front end of a horse from the back," Smith says with a laugh. "They're here for the party."
"The party," as she refers to Sunday's shindig, has reaped the praise of its prominent attendees. Among them have been actress Nanette Fabray, former Los Angeles Sheriff Peter Pitchess, Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason, state Sen. Marian Bergeson, U.S. Rep. Robert Badham, the Rev. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, former astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr. and Lois Driggs Cannon, his wife.
Other socialites fly in from Texas, Virginia and all over for the festivities. The long-distance award undoubtedly goes to Jean-Louis Dumas, who arrived last year with an entourage from Paris. He proclaimed that he had "never seen anything like this" in all the jumping competitions he has attended throughout Europe.
Dumas, however, has a vested interest in the Oaks Classic. He is chairman and executive officer of the prestigious House of Hermes in Paris--whose saddles and women's purses sell for an average of $2,000 each in its Beverly Hills store. Hermes, which has counted Smith among its regular clientele for 25 years, sponsors the $10,000 Acorn Junior Amateur Grandprix class Sunday--up from the $7,500 prize money it offered last year.
Smith and Clarke have also upped the ante, adding $500 to $1,000 to each of Saturday's classes and bringing total prize money for the event to $75,000. The largest chunk of that is up for grabs on Sunday in the $50,000 Oaks Grandprix class.
While the riders are hoping to cash in on those purses, some outside concerns are hoping to hit a jackpot of their own this weekend. Range Rover, which manufactures the official vehicle of the Oaks Classic, will be sporting its $35,000, four-wheel-drive British wonders on the horse show grounds. Sold locally through Newport Imports, the vehicles come with built-in tack storage and a hitch for towing horse trailers as standard equipment. Spokeswoman Jill Amadio said the vehicle's "demographics fit those of the Oaks (attendees)--households with over $200,000 in income, two or three homes, and two or three cars."
But unlike many major jumping competitions that are controlled by corporate sponsors or run by charities, the Oaks Classic remains a private enterprise held to the strict standards of Smith and her mother. With the only outside funding coming from Hermes, Smith says she can maintain quality-control over the event.