Behold your top horses

Spanish horses danced, mariachis played, and a crowd of 2,800 converged Saturday night on the Los Angeles Equestrian Center for the 11th annual Fiesta of the Spanish Horse extravaganza, the capstone of four days of competitions.

Horses from Spain, Portugal, Peru and Brazil, including breeds such as the Andalusian, Pura Raza Española, Lusitano, Paso Fino and Peruvian Paso, dipped and dove, cantered and trotted as families from across the state made the annual trip to Burbank.

Valentine Godina, president of High Desert Mariachi Juvenil, looked on as his son, Eric, led the group in a song-and-dance routine outside the stadium. Inside, the USC Marching Band tore through a set of school fight songs as Hector Aguilar, better known as Tommy Trojan, rode in on Tuno IV, the white Andalusian known as Traveler.

By the time onlookers settled into their seats, they were treated to a brisk ride around the track by actress and fiesta ambassador Leslie Charleson.

“You are so very lucky,” event organizer Joanne Asman said over the loudspeaker. “It doesn’t get any better than this. And, with no further ado, viva la fiesta.”

A pair of horses made their way to the center of the ring and took turns standing up on their hind legs, ending the number taking alternate bows to the audience. Alexandria Vilardi, who with her mother, Valerie, established the equestrian center Horses of the Renaissance in 2000, entered the arena on a black Andalusian. Her white gown served as a stark contrast.

“She takes my breath away every time, and she has been riding all her life,” said Valerie, an event volunteer.

In her second appearance, Alexandria donned red and was joined by a serenading cowboy.

“It’s the most beautiful thing,” Valerie said, before her daughter returned to the ring. “I am a proud mom. What can I say?”

The Norco resident has for six years given her time to the nonprofit Fiesta of the Spanish Horse, which for more than a decade has donated more than $400,000 to cancer research. This year’s beneficiaries include the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

A “Wizard of Oz” number gave way to a series of lasso tricks in which a cowboy was able to convince one of his two horses to lie on its side while the other horse stood over it. The cowboy then stood atop the horse and performed tricks with the lasso.

“It’s not easy to get a horse to do that,” said Vice Mayor Anja Reinke, who served as a judge last year.

Maria Riggs looked on from her box seat while her daughter, Heather, browsed a concession both selling all-things horse. The festival last year drew more than 300 horses and 600 handlers, with the extravaganza attracting some 4,000. Ticket prices this year, in which drew about 1,200 fewer visitors to its finale, ranged from $15 to $50 and included a $3 service charge if purchased at the box office.

Vendors and advertisers over the weekend blamed the sluggish economy and swine-flu hysteria for the decreased turnout.

“Actually, I am not that unhappy,” Asman said midway through the show. “I was hoping the kids from Childrens Hospital could make it out, but they were kept in because of the flu scare. I am thinking others were, too.”

The competitions ran all four days and were free to the public. In the Friesian Dressage Suitability Championship, an event organizers hoped would help introduce the Friesian breed to fiesta regulars, rider Bruce Griffin rose from third earlier in the day to claim the title.

“It feels really good,” said the owner of Griffin Sport Horses in Gretna, Va., before thanking Rancho Jalisco trainer Tom Sofra.

The Fontana farm won a handful of championships and a dozen blue ribbons, Sofra said.

Established in 1990 by Burbank residents Nancy and Joe Latta, Amandalusian Farm collected dozens of ribbons, and Andres Salinas, who breeds, trains and shows Peruvian Paso horses at his Camarillo farm, said he was happy with his showings.

Since he arrived in the U.S. 33 years ago, horses trained by Salinas have won 91 U.S. National Championships, Best Bozal, and Best Gaited Horse of Show titles.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. “Overall, we’ve been very successful.”

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