Postcard From Spruce Meadows

The USET wins blue, but takes second place in the Nations' Cup, a competition in which Olympian Lauren Hough takes a horrendous tumble but shows us what she's made of.
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The USET wins blue, but takes second place in the Nations' Cup, a competition in which Olympian Lauren Hough takes a horrendous tumble but shows us what she's made of.

Calgary, Alberta, CANADA, September 9, 2001 -- The U.S. Equestrian Team won the blue ribbon yesterday in the Bank of Montreal Nations' Cup at Spruce Meadows. But I regret to tell you that in Canada, they give blue ribbons for second place; red signifies first.

And that was the color fluttering from the Irish horses during the presentation, as the folks from the Emerald Isle showed once again why they won the European Championship earlier this summer. But it was incredibly close, and incredibly dramatic in a venue that I consider the best in the world.

The most sensational moment of the day belonged to poor Lauren Hough of the USA, who tumbled from Windy City in the first round when he spooked, took an extra stride and pitched her at the fifth fence. It was a giant bicycle I recognized from the Sydney Olympics; Leopoldo Palacios, the Olympic course designer, laid out the route here, too.

Anyway, what a fall Lauren took! Her legs went straight up in the air, and there was a nailbiting wait before we found out she was okay. Frankly, I never expected to see her in the second round. But the girl has guts. She got on Windy City for that round, cleared the bicycle to a big cheer from the crowd and "a sigh of relief" from her before she went on to score only one knockdown.

When I caught up to Lauren, she already had a swelling over her right eye, where she'd been caught by Windy City's hoof.

"I was definitely a bit goofy for the first little while, but in 15 minutes I started to put everything together again," Lauren said when asked how she felt after the fall. "I pulled it out. I'm happy."

The U.S. and Ireland were tied for third on 12 faults each after the first round, with Germany leading on 8 and Switzerland second with 11. But as the second round progressed, Switzerland faltered, leaving the other three vying for the lead. The outcome of the class came down to the anchor riders. Margie Goldstein-Engle went in on Hidden Creek's Perin looking for perfection but ran into trouble at the fourth fence, the water, just as she had in the first round. The first fence of the triple combination, an oxer with pinstriped rails, also gave Margie another fault--and basically handed the cup to the Irish. Dermot Lennon, Ireland's anchor rider, dropped a pole at the bicycle with Liscalgot, but kept everything else up to help his nation finish on the right number, 24 penalties to 28 for the USA. Germany had a shot at winning if the world's number-one-ranked rider, Ludger Beerbaum, could go clear with Champion du Lys, but he had two rails (that bicycle again!) and put his nation third.

"That was a strong Nations' Cup. That was a strong course and a strong field," said USET Chef d'Equipe George Morris, who wasn't exaggerating. In addition to Beerbaum, competitors included Olympic champion Jeroen Dubbeldam and many others whose names you'd recognize.

Under these circumstances, "second was nothing to sneeze at," George said, looking very Calgary while wearing the white cowboy hat that is de rigueur at Spruce Meadows.

Margie understandably was depressed. Perin also had faulted at the water in last year's Olympics.

"He's really not that impressed by the water," she said, looking discouraged. "It's frustrating. The second time, I tried to override it." But that didn't work either, obviously. Some schooling sessions definitely are in order for Perin.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. did score a win as Leslie Howard, who was not on the Nations' Cup team, won the $70,000 BP Cup with Nick of Diamonds, beating World Champion Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil. She only hopes she can continue in that vein tomorrow, as the show closes with the first-ever $1 million grand prix, though she'll be riding S'blieft for that one.

Aside from the jumping, there was plenty going on. How about this for a half-time show? Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven riding her up-and-coming horse, Gestion Jr., to the music from For Your Eyes Only.

Except her performance was for 26,000 pairs of eyes, belonging to people who jammed in around the International Arena until there wasn't a square inch of space left. And there were more than 30,000 people outside the arena, sampling the international food, listening to bands, strolling around the vast grounds. You have to see this to believe it. The forces behind Spruce Meadows, Ron and Marg Southern, have taken the best ideas from every important show in the world and put them all together in a facility that puts athletes and spectators first. This is the equestrian example of "If you build it, they will come."