His house might be 30 minutes away, but for Kevin Babington, the Dixon Oval in Devon is home.
The veteran rider, with a career spanning more than three decades, has twice won the Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon and has competed at the Olympic Games, representing his native country of Ireland back in 2004, along with many other top-level performances. Yet, accolades and victories aside, nothing gets Babington more excited than the Devon Horse Show, which will begin its 122nd edition Thursday.
The Gwynedd Valley native will participate in next Thursday night’s Sapphire Grand Prix, Devon’s premier competition. Going up against most of the country’s top jumpers, Babington expects an electric atmosphere.
“The thing I really like about Devon is the spectators,” he said. “It’s a really educated crowd. Most of the people there are sitting in the stands and have ridden at some stage, whether it’s fox hunting, jumping or dressage. Thursday night, the place is always packed. … It just makes for a great atmosphere and the crowd really gets into it, especially for the jump-off.”
After growing up across the pond, Babington got his first taste of the United States when he came as a riding instructor for a camp in Vermont. Although the then-18-year-old had planned to return to Europe, he got a job in Somerset County, N.J., before moving to Blue Bell, where he purchased his first farm.
Riding his first big-time mount, Carling King, who was owned by Blue Bell financier Saly Glassman, Babington took a major step in his career when he earned a spot on the Irish team that went to the Athens Olympics in the summer of 2004.
“It was a dream come true as a young rider – it was something I had always dreamed about,” Babington said. “We purchased the horse as a 7-year-old, and I brought him to grand-prix level. For me, it got me on the world stage, got me to jump at the best shows in the world, so it was really exciting.”
As an individual, Babington finished fourth. Ireland’s jumping team finished seventh, but after countryman Cian O’Connor topped the field in the individual competition, his horse tested positive for banned substances. As a result, the team’s seventh-place finish was dropped from the record books.
Babington continued his career at the highest levels and first won Devon’s Grand Prix back in 2011. He won the event again in 2016, when crowd noise startled the horse of top rider McLain Ward in the jump-off.
Now, he’ll look to win the title for a third time aboard Mark Q, the same horse he’s ridden to victory in the past at Devon.
“He’s a horse that always sort of just steps up to the plate. He won a grand prix last week in Kentucky, and he’s good on the grass, he’s good on the sand, he’s good in the small ring – he’s just an all-arounder,” Babington said. “Mark Q’s the type of horse that you can say, ‘OK, you’re up, buddy.’ ”
Last year, it was Ward who took home the $225,000 prize, and this year, the stakes will be even higher with $25,000 added to the pot. Babington, currently 237th in the world in the Longines FEI rankings, will face some stiff competition, with the three top riders on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s 2018 points list – Beezie Madden, Ward, and Devin Ryan – all expected to be in the field for the event.
The Sapphire Grand Prix course, as in years past, will be designed by Kelvin Bywater, who set up a challenging 2017 course with 12 obstacles all at a height of 1.6 meters. The competition will take place in two rounds, with all riders looking to clear the course fault-free and in time during the opening stage.
Those who do so, or with the fewest faults, will move on to a jump-off, where the fastest mistake-free time will take the crown.
Babington, while not the favorite in a very talented field, is still among those with a shot at victory, and he might get two chances. Babington said that depending on how many horses are allowed in the field, he might ride Mark Q and Super Chilled, a 10-year-old owned by Philadelphia-based Debra and Kirk Wycoff of Three Diamonds Farm. His decision on which horse or horses to use in the grand prix will be determined closer to the event, after other classes have been contested.
Along the way, Babington has developed a relationship with his competitors. And although he certainly hopes to emerge victorious at Devon, there is a bond between him and his peers.
“We’re best of friends out of the ring and always hope they have a pole down if they’re behind us in the ring,” Babington said, laughing. “You end up making a lot of great friends and we all respect each other, how hard we work. … We’re very supportive of each other — except when we’re competing.”