Andrew Philbrick is living the dream. Virtually every world-class athlete who climbs to the pinnacle of his sport schemes of some way to continue tasting the thrill and making a living at what he does so well. With his founding of Blawenburg’s Hunter Farms, Philbrick, an international equestrian competitor, has become one of those rare few to trod this fun and sometimes profitable path.
More than 200 show jumping horses and riders gathering at Philbrick’s newly expanded show grounds to compete and strut their stuff will benefit from the Philbrick vision. Courses have been laid out by Olympic medalists with national contenders riding for purses up to $40,000. This Princeton Show Jumping event continues its three weeks of competition from Wednesday through Sunday, October 3 through 7.
Since 1982, when he bought and totally transformed a tumbledown, fenceless, and bankrupt riding facility on the Great Road, Philbrick has developed his dream enterprise with an athlete’s passion and a businessman’s stringent scrutiny.
Philbrick was always a winner. Seven Show Jumping Grand Prix cups in one year, two World Grand Prix cups, and several international competitions as a U.S. equestrian team member had ranked him among the top 100 World Rider Jumpers. “I wanted Hunter Farms,” he says, “to blend that level of excellence, with the magical experience of joy I felt with my first pony ride at age six.”
Young Andrew was raised far from horse country, in rocky Portland, Maine. Neither his attorney father nor real estate broker mom held any equestrian fascination. But Andrew always remembered that first pony ride. When attending the Kent School in Connecticut, Philbrick first had the chance to develop his horsemanship. Rapidly excelling, he competed in Germany during his summers. He rode and gained national renown during his years at Skidmore College — his bachelor’s degree in English in 1980 coincided with a term as captain of the polo team.
After college he got a job managing the Far Hills, New Jersey, Polo Club. One day he drove by the facility on the Great Road and jumped at the opportunity.
Since then the 11 acres on the Great Road have become a haven to both youngsters, getting their first taste of the saddle, and Olympic hopeful competitors. This year, when an old sod farm posted for sale 100-plus flat, well-drained, treeless acres, only two and a half miles from the Great Road on Burnt Hill Road, Philbrick snatched it up [for a reported $900,000]. “The whole property seemed like a gift from heaven,” notes Philbrick. “We have been literally bursting at the seams for years, but I really needed to keep the business all close by — good access for us and our riders,” who take more than 100 riding classes a week.
After purchasing the sunny, sprawling Burnt Hill acreage, Philbrick has wasted little time. He fresh finished two huge rings for this show’s competition. While the vast tents covering the stalls were being erected for the show, bulldozers busily laid smooth a larger, Grand Prix ring for the highest level V competitions.
“I love how they’ve laid out the course and these grounds,” says Sarah Fragomeni, one of the competitors at the current Princeton Show Jumping event. “Everything looks and feels new. There’s plenty of space both in the stalls and in the rings.” Already an 11-year competing veteran at age 17, Fragomeni and her horses have experienced their share of show rings.
She has come to the show from her home just outside Saratoga, New York, with her mother Karyn, also an avid rider, and her trainer. Having taken a collarbone-shattering tumble off her horse at the last show, Sarah must now let her trainer ride this one. “My doctor says no riding until November. I can hardly wait to get back on,” she says.
Show jumping is essentially a slalom event in which the jumps at varying levels are set to present technical challenges for horse and rider. Philbrick, who has set the course, explains these “challenges” with a wry smile. “The average horse’s stride is 12 feet. Set jumps 12 or 24 feet apart and everything is fine. But then how do the horse and rider handle a course where the first two jumps are 14 feet apart, and the next two have a 10-foot spread?”
The added thrill, and difficulty, lies in the unique coordination between the two athletes making each jump. On the training days, before the contest, riders will walk their mounts through the course so each may mentally choreograph the graceful precision required.
“Jumping well takes a certain maturity in the horse,” explains Karyn Fragomeni. At age 12, Catalina, Sarah’s massive Dutch Warmblood horse, is considered in his prime. Two years younger, their second horse, Killian, is considered just entering his peak years. Thoroughbreds may flat out pound the Kentucky Derby track at a tender two years, but it takes agility and experience to masterfully maneuver over and amongst the dozen or more hurdles pressed within the 300-foot ring.
At four years, Delilah, the Fragomeni’s most recent acquisition, is among the youngest competitors in the Princeton Show Jumping event. She remains Sarah’s confessed favorite, since she saddle broke Delilah and was the first person the horse ever felt on her back.
Partnered emotionally and physically with the magnificent horses in this competition are the bipedal riders — the other half of the team. Physically, the best riders are light and wiry. “You want the maximum strength to weight ratio,” says Philbrick. “Every pound off you is one less that the horse has to carry.” Civil War general William T. Sherman, whose hard-riding cavalry ravaged the entire South at seemingly impossible speeds, accepted only men weighing less than 145 pounds. He found that not just the horses, but the lithe riders just seemed to last longer.
Extensive training aims at making the rider overall super fit. Prime show jumping contenders embrace a cross-discipline program involving weight training, running, calisthenics, and playing other sports.
“The most decisive factor in jumping, however, is fear, not fitness,” says Philbrick. The elite rider is that individual who can take a horse at full gallop toward a six-foot wide jump and clear its five feet with utmost confidence. Terror may be natural, but it also is contagious and causes failure and injuries.
The less mentioned, but equally impressive trait required of the human members of the jumping team is dedication. A rower may stow a boat and oars in the Lake Carnegie boat house at day’s end. For a horse owner, however, there is a dynamic relationship demanding a strong commitment.
No one dabbles in show jumping. The sport of kings bears an immense amount of effort and time, and few owners today can afford to retain an equestrian staff at full salary. After each day’s competition is over, Karyn and Sarah Fragomeni will clean all the tack, groom and feed their animals, check for injuries, muck the stables, and remain on hand to tend their beloved mounts.
For show master, stable owner, and course designer Philbrick, the Princeton Jumping Show is a logistical nightmare. Imagine more athlete pampering than a pro tennis tournament and more equipment care than an NFL bowl game. The army of two-footed competitors, plus grooms, drivers, trainers, and family all demand food and lodging. The quadruped athletes require on-site blacksmiths, veterinarians, and truckloads of precision tack supplies. Yet all this labor is not solely for the love of the game.
“The jumping show is both a marketing opportunity and a market,” says Philbrick. Among the crowds of onlookers stand a small covey of buyers, eyeing each animal’s potential. More importantly, all the fellow competitors always have their antennae up, seeking out the next great Grand Prix level jumper. For Hunter Farms, this show offers a great home court advantage. The stables’ 40 horses — those competing and those not — are all on display. And many are for sale, at the right price.
How much? “That’s a little like asking how much a painting is worth,” laughs Philbrick. The Fragomeni family scooped up the unproven, unbroken Delilah for young Sarah at the absolute steal price of $2,000. Stories circulate of that rare winner who was, by the grace of the Fates, bought for a tenth of that. On the other end, Bruce Springsteen’s daughter recently acquired an Olympic medalist for more millions than one. One Saudi horse fancier paid $8 million for an Olympic gold medal jumper.
No matter what the price, most all buyers are pursuing a passion, not a nest egg. It is no fluke that shows remain the major equine sales venue in the country. People are buying the animals they love and want to ride.
For Philbrick, the passion has continued for over four decades, and become very much a family affair. As you enter the Hunter Farms office, an impressive photo shows a crouched, confident brunette taking her chestnut mount over a four-foot jump. The rider is veteran horsewoman Susannah Wise, who graduated from Hunter Farms student to wife of the owner about 10 years ago. When not out riding, running, or at her yoga class, you might encounter Dr. Wise at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital where she performs surgery. Rather than viewing medicine as an excellent occupation for one married into such a battering sport, Wise sees riding as a whole other life which provides release, and enhances her career.
“I was pregnant when I foaled my first horse,” Dr. Wise laughs. Thus, when the Philbricks’ son Alexander was born, the foal was appropriately named “Bucky” — short for Bucephalus, the famed mount which led another Alexander to greatness.
Andrew Philbrick’s competitive career spanned 28 years, a career which has seen a parade of international honors and prizes that have set him as the globally respected figure in his sport. And through it all, he has retained the passion that he deftly passes on to others. “Oh yes, my chest does swell when one of our students makes the national team,” he says, “but I still get as big a thrill from seeing the look on the face of a six-year-old who climbs up and sits in the saddle for the first time.”
Princeton Show Jumping Event, Wednesday to Sunday, October 3 to 7, 246 Burnt Hill Road, Skillman. 609-924-2932. www.princetonshowjumping.com. Competition begins at 9 a.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m on weekends. Grand prix event on Sunday begins at 2 p.m. Free admission.