Final Postcard: Winter Equestrian Festival 2016

The world's longest (and largest) horse show, the Winter Equestrian Festival, wrapped up in Wellington, Florida with dramatic competition in the jumper and hunter ranks.
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Nancy Jaffer
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The world's longest (and largest) horse show, the Winter Equestrian Festival, wrapped up in Wellington, Florida with dramatic competition in the jumper and hunter ranks.

April 3, 2016 -- Week 12 of the Winter Equestrian Festival: a time to say goodbye to everything but the memories.

For some, it's been a long three months in Florida, and they are seeking new pastures, heading north and west to try their luck elsewhere. For others, it offered a great start to the season, giving them a leg up on other goals, such as the Olympics.

But for everyone, it's time to change gears. The circus is leaving town.

The farewell weekend was a busy one. We saw two terrific jumper classes last night, the $130,000 1.5 meter Suncast Championship, followed by the richest competition of the circuit, the $500,000 5-star Rolex Grand Prix. As always, the stands at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center were full at night with fans who have discovered show jumping here, and love it.

The Suncast had its first round beginning at 11:30 a.m., with 62 starters. The 18 who were fault-free got to take a break and return at 6:30 p.m., which is different than the way classes are run today for the most part.

“The horses jumped hard this afternoon in the heat, get put away and think they're done and come back. It's a test. We don't do that a lot anymore, we don't have big Nations' Cups where you do two rounds in a day. I think some horses were a little bit shell-shocked by it,” said McLain Ward, the winner with the consistent HH Carlos Z.

McLain Ward won the $130,000 Suncast Championship on HH Carlos Z. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

McLain Ward won the $130,000 Suncast Championship on HH Carlos Z. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

“It's tough. The end of the circuit, you have a lot of horses in form. With only 40 in the (Rolex) grand prix, you have people trying to get some gas money to get home. So it (the Suncast) is a pretty competitive class, always.

“You saw some problems in the first line. It rode unexpected, it got you very anxious when you saw horses really struggling with it. They were staggering over the first jump. It was a leave-out, and they weren't doing it very well.”

The second jump was by the water and a TV camera, which undid several mounts. Katie Dinan's Bijou de Balou, for instance, was having none of it and reared repeatedly until she was excused from the ring.

McLain's mark of 43.92 seconds in the tiebreaker was more than a second ahead of the runner-up, Rosana du Parc, ridden by Eric Lamaze of Canada to a 44.96-second finish through the timers.

Shane Sweetnam, who won the Suncast series held weekly throughout WEF, was disappointed at not being in the ribbons in the final installment with Buckle Up, but was proud to have used five different horses during the season to be the high-score rider and win a year's lease on a Land Rover Discovery Sport.

The Rolex class ran practically on the heels of the Suncast. McLain was in contention to win it for the fourth time, and he had the right horse, HH Azur, a joy to watch over the jumps. Seven of the 40 were fault-free in the first round, with six coming back for the tiebreaker after 19-year-old Chloe Reid opted to just stay in seventh place with Codarco.

Intermittent rain during the evening was never heavy, but it's usually somewhat of a factor, and you can't be quite sure what role (if any) it played, so it's worth mentioning that it wasn't a perfect night weather-wise.

The clever course included three doubles, and no triple combination. The last line, a vertical/oxer double three strides to a bright orange plank and five to the big Rolex oxer, accounted for plenty of rails in both rounds. But McLain did not get caught until the jump-off on the B element of the double, where a pole dropped as he was going for time, trying not “to leave anything on the table.” However, he conceded that maybe he began pressing the mare a bit early on the approach.

His mishap opened the door for British Olympic team gold medalist Ben Maher on Sarena, a mare that it has taken him a year to get to know, and vice-versa. It sounds as if the horse, owned by former U.S. Equestrian Team Chairman Jane Clark, was overfaced before she bought it, and Ben had a lot of confidence-building to do.

British gold medal Olympian Ben Maher had the finish line of the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix in his sights as he cleared it with Sarena on his way to the winner’s circle at the Winter Equestrian Festival. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

British gold medal Olympian Ben Maher had the finish line of the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix in his sights as he cleared it with Sarena on his way to the winner’s circle at the Winter Equestrian Festival. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

The work he's done showed in Sarena's performance. He didn't push for speed, noting when he's done that previously “she runs backwards a little bit.”

Ben explained, “I decided to play it a little safe and leave the jumps up. That's not my nature, normally, but I think I played a smart game.”

It was so smart that he wound up with the only clear round in the jump-off.

He conceded, however, that he probably couldn't have outrun McLain, had he not dropped a rail.

“It's the first class she's won, and I think there will be many more,” said Ben.

He was clocked in a leisurely 53.72 seconds, compared to 46.10 for McLain's 4-faulter.

Calling Ben a great winner, runner-up McLain noted his rival is “a super, top, world-class rider, one of the best in the world. It is always nice to win, but you can live with being beaten by a guy like this."

German rider Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, who was third on Fibonacci, echoed that. She smiled as she said that when German coach Otto Becker reads the names of the first- and second-placed riders, he would know it was a tough class and that she was in the best company.

I was pleased to hear McLain praise Anthony D'Ambrosio's course. He was very unhappy with Anthony's routes for the 2015 Longines FEI World Cup™ Finals in Las Vegas, and said so publicly. His comments about this class put things on an even keel.

Although he is all about winning, McLain has to be happy overall, because he earned the most prize money at WEF, more than $300,000.

After the grand prix, we talked about his horses, and what's next for him on the road to the Rio Olympics.

Click on this video to hear what he had to say.

The final class of the show was this afternoon's $50,000 USHJA Hunter Derby, with the handy round held on the grass field over at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival venue a half-mile from PBIEC.

The winner of yesterday's first round, Kodachrome, was picture-perfect again today for rider Russell Frey. This was the first derby victory for Russell and Kodachrome, but seeing the dependable way the horse goes, it won’t be the last. The horse was bought for him by Nina Moore, with the idea of doing derbies. Kodachrome has a wonderful, tidy front end, and the rest of his body goes along with that.

Russell Frey and Kodachrome on their way to winning the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at WEF. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Russell Frey and Kodachrome on their way to winning the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at WEF. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

“He looks like a hunter,” said Russell in a masterpiece of understatement.

Russell, the oldest rider in the class, talked after the competition about his history in the sport.

Second place went to Samantha Schaefer, riding her amateur-owner hunter, Classified, who stepped up to compete with horses handled by professionals.

Second-place Samantha Schaefer negotiates the tricky table with Classified. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Second-place Samantha Schaefer negotiates the tricky table with Classified. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

After flipping him in his first derby, she vowed never to do another, but then tried again in Ocala, where she finished ninth.

After that, she said, “What the heck--go for it and try to win some money.”

Her total was 374 points, to 385 for Russell.

Kodachrome was unfazed by a test that confounded others. Four of 24 starters were eliminated or withdrew; I don't remember that many departing unceremoniously in previous derbies that I've covered at WEF.

A centerpiece on Bobby Murphy's course was a table, or bank, edged with bright flowers, and a view of two topiary rearing horses.

That upset Amanda Steege's first mount, Loxley, who didn't want anything to do with it. But it set the stage for success with her next horse, Zidane, because she knew just how to ride him there. Zidane made quite the comeback, going from 14th after the first round in a ring at PBIEC to second in the handy segment, where extra points were given for jumping the high side at four option fences, and for making neat, focused turns. He wound up third overall on 363 points.

Amanda Steege and Zidane, third in the hunter derby. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Amanda Steege and Zidane, third in the hunter derby. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Listen to what Amanda had to say about the class by clicking on this video.

Zidane is owned by Susan Darragh, who bought the Dutchbred as a two-year-old and pays for his board and showing by working as groom for Amanda.

Susan also rides the horse in the pre-adult hunters..

“He's never certain whether the jumps will be 2-3 or 4-3,” chuckled Amanda.

Missing from the lineup was one of the most successful derby riders, Kelley Farmer, who had flight delay problems coming from Texas and missed the first round. She was supposed to be on Because, who was ridden instead by his owner, Jane Gaston, who had a fall at the second fence and was eliminated.

I have a feeling that next year, a lot is going to be different at WEF. Success has its downside, and with thousands of horses using the facilities, there have been the problems that come with congestion, footing that is constantly used, crowded schooling areas, stabling issues, etc.

A meeting was held on Thursday for everyone to hear how these situations, some of which are of long-standing, will be handled by Wellington Equestrian Partners, which owns PBIEC, AGDF, the Wanderers Club and will close this month on the International Polo Club.

Michael Stone, Mark Bellissimo and Hunter Harrison were in the hot seats at a packed town hall-type meeting on the future of the Winter Equestrian Festival. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Michael Stone, Mark Bellissimo and Hunter Harrison were in the hot seats at a packed town hall-type meeting on the future of the Winter Equestrian Festival. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Those who have suggestions are invited to email feedback@equestriansport.com. To find out what happened at the meeting, go to nancyjaffer.com, while anyone who is particularly interested in what will happen with dressage should click on http://bit.ly/1N0sSyk.

Robin Parsky, a show jumping owner (Kent Farrington rides with her) and longtime supporter of the sport, attended the meeting. I asked her what she thought.

Listen to what she had to say by clicking on the right-pointing arrow.

Be sure to check out the other photos from WEF 12 at facebook.com/practicalhorseman.

Now I'm switching gears again and heading for Rolex Kentucky at the end of the month. If you can't be there in person, please be there vicariously by enjoying my postcards each day of the event.

Until then,

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