Under sunny blue skies, spectators set up chairs and blankets along the large, white fenced-in ring, surrounded by shady trees and sprawling, rolling lawns as far as the eye could see. The occasion — the 28th annual Howard Community College Columbia Classic Grand Prix.
I've attended this horse show-jumping event many times over the years, which features skilled riders of all ages, soaring over fences of various heights and widths.
Held at Marama, event committee co-chair George Doetsch's thoroughbred breeding farm in Clarksville, since 2009, the event is HCC's largest fundraiser. All proceeds go to the school's educational fund to provide scholarships for needy students. Since its inception nearly 30 years ago, more than $3 million has been raised through ticket sales, raffles and sponsorships opportunities.
In the elongated VIP tent where sponsors enjoyed a large buffet with wine and local rum and beer brews, I watched HCC freshman Ramsey Washington introduce himself to a sponsor as horses gracefully flew over fences near them. Washington received a scholarship from the event's proceeds and said he volunteered to work at the Grand Prix to meet some of the people who made large contributions to support the event.
"I wanted to meet the people who are helping to support my college education and let them know that I appreciated their donations," Washington said. "The $600 scholarship I got really helped. They based it on my high school GPA and when my grades improve, I'll get a larger scholarship, so my goal is to get a 3.5 GPA," added the psychology major.
Freshman Patrick Payne, also an event volunteer, said he received a larger scholarship that made his attending HCC less of a struggle for his parents.
"I would've come here anyway but it would've been a lot harder financially without the scholarship," Payne said.
He added that he was enjoying the Grand Prix experience, which has in the past attracted nearly 7,000 people. The VIP tent was full as usual, but this year, there weren't as many people in the lawn areas, along the fences or in the bleachers. But those who were there with friends and children of all ages enjoyed food vendors with offerings ranging from southern barbecue, hot dogs and Philly cheese steak sandwiches to deep-fried peach cobbler and boardwalk fries. The kid zone, complete with a moon bounce, hay rides and face painting, was lively, as was the covered beer garden for the older crew.
Between the amateur jumpers and the Classic Grand Prix division, which has featured riders such as Olympic gold medal equestrian Joe Fargis, a favorite event of those of all ages made an appearance — the much-loved running of the Goshen hounds.
I took a front-row seat to watch the more experienced riders expertly race through the complex course as they competed for the fastest Grand Prix time in pursuit of a $10,000 purse. Riding Rocky W, Kaitlin Campbell of Lexington, Ky., home of that other horse event — the Kentucky Derby— came in first place for the Grand Prix.
As in past years, I didn't win the Mustang convertible that was raffled off for $50 a ticket, again to raise money for the scholarship fund. I didn't win any of the other free giveaways — spa treatments, dinner gift cards — and the silent auction art work bids were out of my league, but I did enjoy the event as usual. Being on an actual horse farm has given those who attend the Grand Prix, which is sanctioned by the U.S. Equestrian Federation, a full-blown authentic experience. It used to be on Little Patuxent Parkway, on the front lawn of HCC. It moved to Marama six years ago because it outgrew the campus setting. HCC's enrollment increased to the point that they needed to build on the school's front lawn where the Grand Prix was held, which made moving a necessity.
The school's officials say they are happy with the horse farm venue and many people I talked to at the event said they like the farm better, too. I'm already looking forward to next year and hope the weather will continue to cooperate because being on a horse farm on a rainy day, beautiful views and all, is no picnic. Here's to a sunny HCC Grand Prix 2016.