North Salem, N.Y., September 19, 2009 -- It was so thrilling to watch today's rounds in the Regional Maclay Final. I always find it fascinating to watch top riders in important classes, but there was something truly special about being at the in-gate with Frank Madden sending his riders into the ring. I saw many of these riders when I was with Frank in Wellington, but today seemed different. The pressure was intense. Frank is usually upbeat and active, always on the move. Today he was positively hyper, but in a good way. Frank's enthusiasm and intensity were contagious.
This morning began with some early morning schooling. The riders got started at 7 a.m., and the Schooling Jumper class, a warm-up for the final, was set to start at 9 a.m. There was a great practice course set in the outdoor ring. Trainers brought down their vinyl jump decorations and liverpools to make the jumps spookier. Once the class began, the jumps were reset to the typical single jumps, all set in a row next to each other, so you had to get out there early if you wanted to jump what might be set in the indoor arena for the big class later in the day.
The Schooling Jumper course was set as a simple, seven effort track. This was a chance for riders get to into the ring and make sure they were comfortable. This class took about four hours to run, as there were over 100 entries. Frank's riders rode well and everyone began waiting for the Maclay course to be set.
The course began with a natural oxer jumping off the left lead. This was a bending line to the right in five or six strides to a skinny, airy vertical with no ground line. Jump 3 was a square oxer set on the diagonal, after which was a long ride to the end of the ring. Riders then went into the corner turning to the left and came off the track early to jump 4, an oxer followed by a slightly angled track out to the rail in five strides to an oxer-vertical one stride combination. Then came a tight left turn to jump 6, a vertical and then seven bending strides to the right to another vertical. From there, they rode up to the end of the ring to the left and jumped a vertical, jump 8, toward the in-gate (the in-gate is in the center of the long side), with a bending seven strides to a square oxer (this broken line ran parallel to the first line of the course. In fact, jumps 1 and 8 were right next to each other). The tenth jump was a long approach on the diagonal to a triple bar on the right lead.
The first line walked in a bold five strides. Some of the first few riders in the ring attempted the five, but found it came up in an easy six strides. There were only a couple of other challenging areas. Jumps 8 and 10 invited a lead swap on the last stride, since the horses knew they were turning afterward. Especially for jump 10, where riders were trying to show off a bold, forward ride, while making sure they got to the base of the triple bar, horses were likely to change leads there. The only other place that seemed to cause some issues was the broken seven strides through the middle of the ring, from 6 to 7. Some riders didn't ride the correct track and either got to 7 too early, or ended up with an added stride.
The word from most people was that it was a soft course this year. There wasn't a whole lot to "separate the mice from the men." I overheard one trainer calling the course "vanilla." I can understand wanting to make sure riders felt positive and encouraged when finished with their round, but this is a year-end final. I was perplexed.
Two of Frank's riders were seventh and eighth in the jump order. Both horses had similarly long strides, so he told them to do the five strides in the first line, even though no one had done five yet. His strategy was that if the course wasn't too technically difficult, it would be hard for riders to stand out. His first rider had a weak jump into the line and although she made it out in five strides, the horse dropped a rail at jump 2. It wasn't for lack of trying and the horse certainly had the scope to cover the distance, I think it had more to do with how the rider got to the first jump than anything else. His second rider to go was Grace Carucci, who nailed the five strides and had an excellent round.