Every year the Chronicle sends staff to the major U.S. fall indoor shows to report on all the action, and one of the standout days is always the Sunday of the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final. On that day a pair of reporters live blog and photograph every round for one of our most popular features of the year.
Senior editor Mollie Bailey has been covering hunters, jumpers, equitation and much more for the Chronicle since 2007, and she’s been coming to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to blog since 2008. Bailey, Middleburg, Virginia, takes us behind the scenes to see what it’s like to report on a championship competition in real time.
I only hit snooze once, which doesn’t feel like nearly enough after staying up too late to work on last night’s junior jumper story. I get dressed, putting on my lucky Medal Finals day socks that were gifted to me from a fellow equestrian reporter. I pack up the camera batteries that have been charging overnight and head out.
For junior weekend at Harrisburg, we’ve called in a guest star, Anabel Barnett, who interned for the Chronicle over the summer, to help handle the volume of stories the weekend produces. The two of us arrive at Starbucks, which is surprisingly busy for this hour on a Sunday. Even though we’re not that close to the horse show, there are plenty of bleary-eyed customers in breeches getting caffeinated as well. I make sure to grab a juice with extra vitamin C, as The Crud is the stuff of Harrisburg legend—spending multiple days in an enclosed, dusty space seems to lead to people getting sick. Imagine that. (I would, in fact, come down with The Crud three days later, so the juice didn’t help too much.)
I stop by the in-gate on our way up to the press room and snap a photo of the course to post online. Press officer Emily Riden has kindly lent me the key to the press room at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, as she correctly anticipated that we would be the first ones to arrive. We drop off our equipment there before settling into our table above the ring. Anabel and I get to work writing the What You Need To Know article for the class by describing the course, uploading photos of it and filling in missing information. We discuss how to accurately describe several jumps in the course—there’s always something a little creative out there—and guesstimate some striding.
Oliver Kennedy, who announces on the Medals Finals livestream stops by—he’ll be sitting at a table near us—and fills us in on who will be commentating for the day. I manage to snag a paper copy of the order of go from my friend Liz Soroka, who on paper is a technical coordinator for the show, but in reality is one of the many behind-the-scenes folks who do anything and everything to make the show happen. In the first round of the medal, I will shoot selectively and post photos online as quickly as possible for readers to see. To help plan for that, Anabel and I circle who we think will be the top candidates to return for Round 2 so I can be sure to photograph them. We circle a fair number of names, and we guess right about half the time.
Riders walk the course until 6:45 a.m., then the tractors come in to drag. There’s about a two-minute lull where the ring is empty while announcer Kenn Marash announces the judges and course designer. That’s when I climb to the very top seats in the coliseum and take a picture of the empty ring with the course set. We upload that photo and add it to the What You Need To Know article.
When the class begins I sit with Anabel for a couple rounds to help fill in the course description of how many strides riders are doing from one fence to the next. Anabel will be doing the lion’s share of the actual blogging while I photograph. She’s a former equitation rider herself and has been to Harrisburg several times to compete in the Medal Final. It’s her first time blogging for us, but she’s been practicing, and sure enough she immediately shows that she has the technical expertise to describe what’s happening and the tact to do so kindly. I publish our articles and upload them to social media. We’re officially live for the next 231 entries set to go in the first round.
The first spot where I pick to shoot isn’t working out well, but it does have the advantage of being near where our computers are set up. I photograph a few riders from there and upload the images. I’m struggling a bit with the quality of the photos—it’s a dark ring, and I can’t use the equipment I’d like for this particular course—but I experiment a bit, and the images improve.
I find a new place to shoot which suits much better, but unfortunately it’s a third of the way around the ring from the table where we’re set up. I spend the next several hours photographing riders, then trotting through the concourse to upload them as efficiently as possible and add them to the blog. By the end of the day my Fitbit congratulated me on meeting my step goal despite not doing any actual exercise.
I check in with social media and my editor at home who is keeping an eye on the blog and sending occasional feedback. When the standby lists are announced, I make sure I’m back at the table so we can double check that we write down the correct numbers.
Anabel takes a break to grab some food and decompress—it’s mentally taxing to not only pay close attention to every moment of every round but also comment on it, upload comments to the web, and proofread for errors. I take over blogging.
Anabel returns, so I go back to my rhythm of photographing; jogging through the concourse to upload, resize and post photos; checking our social media; and heading back to my spot. When the day started the vendors all chatted with me as I headed through the concourse, trying to give me samples of spreadable bacon or face cream. By now they’ve given up on me.
I realize I haven’t eaten anything, so I quickly house a granola bar then get back to work.
We have a final standby list of the 25 riders who will return for Round 2. Anabel’s mom, Missy Shaffer, has stopped by to watch the class, and she snaps a picture of the second course for us. We upload the course map, and Anabel writes a course description. I find a new place to shoot in the ring with the new course. I chat with Brian Lookabill, who is announcing the second half of the class and ask that he send me a picture of the list of the trainers of the top 10 riders for a chart we will print in the magazine. Although the live blog takes up the lion’s share of our time today, there will also be one story to write for our website this evening and one or more for the next issue of the magazine, so we need to make sure we’re collecting information for all of those.
Round 2 starts. By now I’ve switched my camera equipment, and I’m much happier with my photos.
5:30 p.m. I decide to forgo shooting the test and just watch instead from the in-gate, which is filled with stressed out trainers and supporters hoping their rider will rise to the top. The judges announce that they’re testing four riders, who are handed printouts of the test on their way through the in-gate. The test also is announced several times. Riders have to exit through the out-gate and cannot watch their fellow competitors work off. The whooping and whistling from where I am standing is deafening.
After the four riders go, I stop by our table to check on Anabel. She’s doing just fine, though she does describe blogging during the second round and test as “very stressful,” and I agree. But she’s done a great job.
I head down to the ring for the awards, along with media from the horse show and the U.S. Equestrian Federation. There we photograph the awards, and show manager Pat Boyle—who personally handles the award ceremonies and does a great job—tries to get winner Luke Jensen to do a fist pump during his victory gallop. He complies, though perhaps not as dramatically as Pat would like.
We head up to the press room for the press conference with the top three finishers plus judges Karen Healey and Mark Jungherr. While we’re waiting for them I post a photo of Luke on Facebook announcing his win, buying myself time before the web story goes up. The press conference is pretty short, and I arrange to chat with Luke and his trainer Missy Clark after the horse show for a bigger story in the magazine.
I check in with my editor about what time I will be done with the story and get to work. I edit photos first while Anabel transcribes, then we say goodbye as she leaves to get dinner with her mom. I buckle down and write a short story, upload it and photos to the website. I longingly watch other media leave to go get dinner while my stomach grumbles.
I finish my story and send it off for editing, then call in a delivery order just before the restaurant closes. As I walk through the horse show to leave, I can see a few professional horses are flatting in the main ring. Tons of trucks are bringing in horses for senior week and loading up equitation horses who going back home to rest up before their next championship in a week or two. My car is the only one in that section of the lot—most of the medal competitors have long since headed home.
Back at the hotel I answer a slew of emails, including two small corrections for the blog sent in by riders’ mothers, so I update that. Thankfully my computer waits until now to die, reminding me I need to buy a new battery. When my food arrives I realize I’ve forgotten to order silverware, so I wash a fork from yesterday’s Chipotle to use.
I briefly consider driving home to Virginia but decide I’m too tired. Instead I shower and go to sleep, another year’s Medal Finals over.