Following a drag line just a couple hours' drive from Manhattan and within reach of the salty spray of Long Island Sound might seem a world away from the northern Virginia mecca of traditional foxhunting, but the Smithtown Hunt - the last remaining pack on Long Island - prides itself on offering keen sport behind its Crossbred hounds. Member John Wittenborn proved his preparation was as good as anyone's when he and his Clydesdale-Thoroughbred, Socrates, earned top honors at the Theodora A. Randolph North American Field Hunter Championships.
Soccer showing fine form en route to winning the Championship. Photo by Liz Callar.
Wittenborn has been a professional trainer for 35 years, currently at BG Show Stables in Bridgehampton, NY, which focuses on hunters, jumpers, and juniors. Having spent years preparing students for the show ring, he was ready for a new challenge when he began foxhunting ten or twelve years ago. "It really gave me a new angle on horses," he said, and led to his current role as first flight field master and occasional whipper-in at Smithtown, along with numerous trips to hunt in Virginia.
Socrates, nicknamed "Soccer," was a six-year-old prospect with no hunting experience when Wittenborn traveled to Myrtle Beach, SC to see him. "I was told he had a great mind, and while I was trying him out, a dog wandered into the ring and stood underneath one of the jumps. Soccer sailed right over it, dog and all, and I said, 'I'll take him!'"
Despite pulling a front shoe, Soccer impressed the judges. Photo by Liz Callar.
The flashy dark gelding with four socks and a blaze has earned that confidence - he's now going on 15, and this was his third appearance at the Championships. "Our first time, I didn't really know what to expect; I had done Virginia Hunt Week, but that was it. He pulled shoes repeatedly during the qualifying hunts, so I decided to just enjoy the week and take it all in." When they returned next time, the judges placed Soccer third in the always-competitive field.
This year, Wittenborn rode strategically. "Soccer doesn't love water, so I planned to start the week toward the back of the field. Once he'd followed the others over a few streams, we started to move up." The pair were tapped for the final competition at the second qualifying hunt, hosted by Blue Ridge. "That also left him with enough energy that by the final day, he was ready to jump really well!" When the judges asked two other riders to return for an additional rideoff, Wittenborn figured he'd be taking home the yellow ribbon again. But the rideoff was for reserve champion, and despite pulling a shoe (again) at the start of his individual test, Soccer's tight knees and jumping style earned him the tricolor.
Soccer and Wittenborn with some fine awards to take back to Long Island. Photo by Liz Callar.
To learn more about the Smithtown Hunt, please click here.