Since announcing that this month's Horse Trials would be Ram Tap's last, event organizer Bill Burton has been even busier than usual. In addition to readying the Fresno venue for its potentially last set of equestrian guests, Bill's phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from friends, well-wishers, reporters and even a few who are scrambling to "Let's Save Ram Tap," as a Facebook page devoted to that effort states.
The announcement of Ram Tap's closure came about because Pacific Gas & Electric and the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District needed to reclaim 10 of the 140 acres it leases to the Burtons for the riding complex. The utilities need to create a ponding basin in the spot where the stables are now.
Relocating the stables is possible, but would likely cost between $70,000 and $100,000, not to mention a considerable amount of time and labor. After what he describes as a "very blessed life" staging the competitions, 66-year-old Bill says its time to stand down. A course builder and designer, Bill has had plenty of work offers already. "This is the end of Ram Tap, not the end of Bill!" he notes.
Bill and his wife Margaret took over the popular eventing venue from Pat and Marian Humphries, the horsemen who staged the first three-day competition there in 1957. Bill worked as a stable boy during that first trial and went on to develop a close and long-lasting relationship with the Humphries. "They pretty much adopted me," he relays. He began helping organize the events 40 years ago, and took over on his own when Pat Humphries passed away 25 years ago.
During his tenure, Bill is credited with adapting to the changing needs of the West Coast eventing constituency. "Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, there were really only three or four events in all of California and Arizona," recalls Brian Sabo, president of the US Eventing Assn. and a long time California competitor. "Bill always did a great job of having whatever we needed to have at the time, like full three-days to get ready for Rolex." These days it is particularly valuable as one of very few venues with reliably good footing early in the year. "The rest of the country has Florida and Aiken (South Carolina) to go to in the winter and we've always had Ram Tap," Brian notes.
Ram Tap is famous for great footing, but Bill says "the man upstairs" is to be credited for that. Situated on a natural river bottom near the San Joaquin River, the property features sandy loam soil that is a perfect surface for jumping.
Bill describes a friendly relationship with the utilities companies over the years and says they are sorry to see Ram Tap go. "They would love it if somebody kept it going. There are not a lot of things you can do with this property because there are gas lines underneath it, so only certain activities can go on out here."
The likelihood of another group taking over the Ram Tap events will become more clear in coming weeks, Bill reports. "There is a group that is trying to raise the funds to move the barns and everything and to take it over, and I would love to work with them. I just don't want to be in charge anymore."
The Let's Save Ram Tap group, organized on Facebook, had scheduled a meeting at the venue for Oct. 19.
The Oct 19-21 Horse Trials Bill was preparing for at presstime were set to be a wait-list only affair. "It's the first time we've been full in years," Bill notes. "I should have quit 10 years ago!" When the venue hosted upper level competition, Ram Tap often drew 400 horses. These days 160 is about average, 180 were expected for the October Trials and Bill predicted the Nov. 16-18 Trials would probably hit 220. "Which is about all we can handle at the moment."
Whatever happens with Ram Tap, there is no doubt the event and its organizers hold a special place in the hearts of West Coast eventers. Another Facebook site, "Celebrating Ram Tap– 50-Plus Years of Eventing" earned 486 "likes" since it was created on Sept. 9. The page is full of pictures and recollections from "way back when" to the present.
Brian Sabo was one of the first to share his recollections and several terrific old photos on the site. He relays clear memories of going to Ram Tap with his first trainer, Hilda Gurney, now a renowned dressage trainer, breeder and international judge. "Hilda took a few of us up there, but my mom had never seen a cross country course before. When she saw these solid fences built of logs, she decided she was not going to let me ride it. My mom and Hilda had the biggest fight over that." Hilda won that one, she and Brian's mother went on to be good friends and Brian, of course, became a top eventer.
Here's hoping a new organizer will be able to carry on the Humphries' and the Burtons' legacy and ensure that Ram Tap will continue generating great experiences for Area VI riders.