Pony Up With the Horsy Set at Grand Prix


There was only one way to get invited into Fidelity Investments' tent and dine at tables set with blue and white linens: Be rich, and entrust your wealth to the company.

"It's a way for us to show our private wealth management customers our appreciation," said Michael Davis, a Fidelity account executive.

How much money does it take to qualify?

"I would want to be one of my clients," Davis said.

Well, how much?

"We prefer not to say," said Kim Lusty, a senior manager of Fidelity Investments' special events staff, squirming as others threw out guesses with lots of zeros. "There really is no comment."

Fidelity isn't alone in showing appreciation for its wealthy customers at the 2001 Cargill Grand Prix of the United States, at the Oaks Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park this weekend, the first show horse jumping competition of its kind in the nation.

Next door to Fidelity was Bentley Newport Beach's white tent. A black Bentley outside had a flier stuck beneath a windshield wiper saying, "For further info on this vehicle, please see Steve Gonzalez."

Considering that a new Bentley costs $200,000 to nearly $400,000, one suspects Mr. Gonzalez had a leisurely afternoon.

Those welcomed inside had bought Bentleys and Rolls Royces--the dealership sells only 35 to 40 a year--along with the rabble who bought Porsches.

But the cost of the cars paled in comparison to the value placed on the horses at the riding park in San Juan Capistrano, site of the 2000 Olympic trials. Ninety horses valued collectively at as much as $120 million showed up for the three days of competition that began Friday, said R.J. Brandes, chairman of the organizing committee.

Today is the main event, the $175,000 Grand Prix, which begins at 2 p.m. Riders include the current world champion, Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, and Jeroen Dubbledam of the Netherlands, gold medalist in the 2000 Olympics.

Spectators will fill the ringside tables that go for $5,000 each, while grandstand seats are $25 for adults and $15 for children, 4 to 12.

While jumping in this country receives less attention than roller derby, it is the second leading spectator sport in Europe, after soccer, said Elizabeth Busch Burke, who flew in for the event from her Virginia horse farm.

In Virginia, the heir of the Busch brewing fortune is a neighbor to the heir of the Irvine Ranch fortune, Joan Irvine Smith, who has her own horse farm a few miles away.

Look at Burke and you get more than a few hints that she is a horse person. She wore a horseshoe bracelet--always make sure the shoe is turned up for good luck--a snaffle bit necklace and a ring in the shape of a jump.

"Everything I've got is horses," Burke said.

Her family once owned the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Now, she prefers horses to ballplayers.

The sponsors showed themselves on the course, like the signs on a baseball field. A green-and-gold Bentley logo was centered on one jump. A 5-foot hurdle was suspended between two giant Budweiser bottles.

Another 5-foot hurdle was held by 10-foot models of Shamu the Killer Whale, the celebrated star of Sea World, which Anheuser-Busch owns.

But some of the show horses take exception to Shamu and back off when they see him.

"It's made a lot of horses shut off, those whales," Smith said.

Imagine that, a horse losing a jumping competition because of a killer whale.

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