June 21, 2002, Gladstone, NJ --
Here's how I'm looking at the Bayer/U.S. Equestrian Team's Festival of Champions: I'm using it to train for reporting on the World Equestrian Games, where I'll be going in September. So I've hopped (or when I've gotten lucky, taken a golf cart) from dressage to show jumping and reining, with side trips to scope out the driven dressage and a super vaulting exhibition. Tomorrow, I'll include the endurance competition on my travels.
All the USET's disciplines, with the exception of eventing, are on display at the team's training center nestled in the Somerset Hills, as pretty an area as you'll find anywhere. If all you know about New Jersey is the Turnpike, you should drop by the venerable team stables and offices, with the handsome sand ring behind it, and another complex of rings in Pine Meadow a short hack (or golf cart ride) away.
The Festival is a miniature version of the multi-discipline WEG, set for Jerez, Spain. And for reining, the $75,000 championship is the final selection trial for the WEG. It takes on even greater importance, though, because this is the first time the western sport will be part of the FEI's (international equestrian federation) line-up of world championships.
All the horses in the two-round competition here had to qualify and go through a semi-finals last month in Oklahoma City. But the pressure was really on for the first round, won by Tom McCutcheon aboard Conquistador Whiz with a score of 222.5.
The top 10 are all within 3.5 points of that mark, so Sunday's second and determining round will be really tense. The guys who wind up on the team will need to be made of strong stuff, since none of them - or anyone else, for that matter - has ever been in a reining world championships.
While Tom said he has shown in Italy, the WEG, if he makes it, "will be different just because I'll be representing the country. In Italy, I wasn't representing anything but my (horses') owners."
Still, this tall Texan's a cool customer, just like his brother, Scott, who's standing third with Inwhizable (220.5); Shawn Flarida, second with San Jo Freckles (222); and Craig Schmersal, tied for fourth on Tidal Wave Jack (220) with Clint Haverty aboard Roosters Wrangler. I talked with all the leaders and came away with the impression that nothing could faze any of these cowboys.
They've never been in a Nations' Cup on their own horses in a foreign country with thousands of fans from all over the world in the stands. Not to mention the fact that everyone is expecting the U.S. to win because reining is a born-in-the-USA sport. Just talking about it was getting me all whipped up, but the team contenders didn't raise an eyebrow.
"Horse showing is horse showing," shrugged Tom. "You get them (the horses) ready the same way."
And there will be a lot of preparation for Sunday. Gunner, the winner of the semi-finals and the USET Reining Championship, wasn't up to snuff on a stop in the first round and is in a four-way tie for seventh on 219 points. I watched rider Bryant Pace work Gunner in an attempt to avoid making the same mistake twice. It will be interesting to see if the paint stallion can move up in the last round to reach his owners' goal of making the four-member team.
The biggest prize here in dressage is the USET Intermediare I Championship, since the WEG selection trials at Grand Prix level were held earlier this month. This is a very interesting division. As in reining, all the horses had to qualify to come, and what we're looking at here is our next generation of Grand Prix stars. I think we have some good prospects for the 2004 Olympics and beyond; there's a lot of equine talent on display.
Talk about presence - Liberte, the dapple gray winner of the Prix St. Georges - really has it. The Dutchbred earned 68 percent to take the first leg of the three-part competition with Jan Ebeling up. The horse is owned by Ann Romney, whose last name may sound familiar. Her husband, Mitt, was the man in charge of the fabulous Salt Lake City winter Olympics and is now running for governor of Massachusetts.
Three years ago, at the age of 50, Ann decided she wanted to really ride and got herself a trainer, Jan, and a dressage horse. While he was shopping for Ann's mount, Jan came across a rather weedy looking Liberte in a German stable. He has been developing the horse ever since and believe me, the weediness is gone.
Liberte, nicknamed Lester, may be headed for the Pan American Games next year. That's the same route taken by Brentina, champion here at I-1 in 1999. On the other hand, Jan notes that Lester has many of the Grand Prix moves, so he may go straight in that direction instead.
Jan, who grew up in Germany and apprenticed with the great Herbert Rehbein, has been in this country since 1984 and a citizen since 1998. If he does wind up on the 2004 Olympic squad, he may be a teammate of his ex-wife, Lisa Wilcox, who took a track that was the opposite of her former husband's and is now based in Germany. She is in line to be a member of the U.S. dressage team for the WEG.
Jumper entries are light at the Festival, with only 13 starters in today's $25,000 grand prix, though we should see a few more in Sunday's Rolex/USET Championship. But as pointed out by both the winner, McLain Ward with Viktor, and runner-up Margie Goldstein-Engle with Hidden Creek's Perin, it isn't quantity that counts, it's quality.
McLain and Margie are numbers one and two on the USET computer list, while Kim Frey - fourth on Conawara behind McLain and another of his mounts, Rio - leads the American Grand Prix Association standings at the moment.
Many riders have headed to western Canada for the Spruce Meadows shows, because they're close to California, where the WEG selection trials will be held at the end of July. McLain and Margie think some in that group are testing their horses to see whether they have what it takes to be candidates for the trials.
"Margie and I are lucky enough, we've been to championships with our horses, we believe that if they're on and we're on, we can get there," said McLain. "There are a lot of people who are on the border: 'Is my horse good enough?' 'Am I ready?' A great place to test that is Spruce Meadows."
They like the format of jumping Friday and Sunday here, contending it's a test similar to what they'll face at the WEG, where there are multiple competitions and not just one grand prix.
"This is a beautiful venue," said McLain, who added that footing in the jumper arena, which had been a source of complaints at previous festivals, has improved every year.
In driving, after the dressage phase, Eleanor Gallagher leads the singles with a score of 38.7 penalties, just ahead of Nancy Johnson (41.3) who won the Jaguar Triple Crown last year and was ranked fourth in the world in 2001. This division is where the action is, since it's the final selection trial for these drivers' world championships, which are a stand-alone affair in France and not part of the WEG. They'll really be going for it in tomorrow's marathon -- you can bet on that. We'll be back to update you then.