Allentown, N.J., May 10, 2009 -- Score one for the too-often forgotten thoroughbred. Two of the three divisions at the Jersey Fresh event were won by the breed that used to dominate eventing; the third division went to a half-thoroughbred.
It was reminiscent of the old days when it took a hot-blooded mount, most likely a former racehorse, to conquer the long format of roads and tracks and steeplechase, in addition to cross-country.
Now the warmbloods rule in the short format, but not at the Horse Park of New Jersey this weekend, where the footing showed some fallout from a rainy week and the temperature/humidity index for much of cross-country day was relatively high.
No horse made the optimum cross-country time of 10 minutes, 25 seconds in the featured CCI 3-star, but Michael Pollard came closest with only 2.4 time penalties on the high-flying gray, Icarus. I was seeing a lot of tired horses on course, and asked Michael what it was all about.
Two years ago, when Will Coleman was riding Icarus here, he led after cross-country but knockdowns and time penalties in stadium jumping stole the victory from him and he ended up fourth. That didn't happen this time. Michael, whose wife, Nathalie Bouckaert Pollard owns the 17.1-hand gelding, didn't lose sight of his mission over Sally Ike's expansive course to secure the victory with a double-clear stadium round that kept his total penalties at 46.4. Second was Jan Byyny with Waterfront, also second in 2006, who had a double clear and 50.8 penalties total. The dressage winner, the French-bred Fleeceworks Mystere du Val, dropped a rail but retained his post-cross-country third place with 55 penalties for 2004 individual Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law of Great Britain.
It was a big improvement from last year, when the horse also won dressage, but had a glance-off in the water obstacle. No way the determined Leslie was letting that happen again, and 12 months of schooling certainly have paid off.
In the 2-star CCI, Emily Beshear rode a former racehorse, Here's to You, coming from second place with a double-clear to take the honors on the Kentucky-bred with 59.3 penalties. Right behind with 59.8 was her student, 21-year-old Young Rider Kate Samuels, a University of Virginia student on the French-bred Nyls du Terroir. Both horses were doing their first 2-star.
Boyd Martin, the busiest rider at Jersey Fresh (he rode four mounts in three divisions), had the same score with his homebred Shatzi W, but had to settle for third because Kate was closer to the optimum cross-country time of 9 minutes, 33 seconds. Becky Holder, the leader after cross-country on the winsome chestnut Rejuvenate, settled for fourth after two knockdowns that put her final total at 61.1 penalties.
Emily's last name may sound familiar. She is the daughter-in-law of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, which guarantees her some good tickets for next year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington. She's a real family person. Her husband, Jeff, is a veterinarian who helps her and her students, and she's the mother of 6-year-old Nicholas. Her mom, Linda Mastervich, helped Emily buy Here's To You and earned a gold star on Mother's Day for whisking Nicholas away so Emily could concentrate on her stadium jumping.
Emily seems like a lovely person, and I asked someone I respect how she is regarded.
"She's the real deal," I was told. Her refreshing enthusiasm seemed to make everyone pleased with her victory.
The CIC 3-star went to Boyd and Belmont, who is half-thoroughbred/half Dutch warmblood. Belmont jumped up from eighth to first after cross-country. None of the 19 who started the CIC cross-country made the optimum clocking of seven minutes, but Boyd was closest with only 4.4 time penalties - he was the only one with time faults in single digits. Just four of the 14 who finished the course had jumping penalties, however. Belmont was double clear in stadium to win going away. Boyd, an Australian who trains with Phillip Dutton, is hoping to be an American citizen soon and considers Belmont a prospect for the U.S. team at the WEG.
The division's leader after dressage, 1996 Olympian Mara Dean, lost her edge on cross-country but came back from fourth with just one time penalty in stadium. Her score was 70.3 penalties for second place. Mara has a habit of winning the dressage, but often doesn't get the blue ribbon (or even the red ribbon) in the end. This time, though, she has a horse who is a hot prospect.
Whoops, I forgot to mention third place. Tiana Coudray, who came all the way from California for the competition, got that spot with the handsome steel gray Ringwood Magister (from the same Irish breeding farm as Bettina Hoy's Ringwood Cockatoo) on 73.1 penalties.
Jersey Fresh was, as always, well-managed, but it can't seem to escape the pall of horse deaths that has plagued it since 2007, when Laine Ashker's Eight St. James Place died of an aneurism after competing cross-country. Last year, it was Tigger Too, owned by David O'Connor, who fell over a jump on cross-country and was found to have an acute abdominal aortic rupture. While those two deaths stemmed from what could be called from natural causes, the fatal accident that claimed Phillip's mount, Bailey Wick, yesterday was a crash at the 20th of 32 cross-country fences in the CCI 3-star. Phillip blamed himself for the accident. Although he is rated one of the world's best cross-country riders, he rightly observed that no one is infallible. He said he asked Bailey Wick to move up at the Sawtooth Oxer, but the horse couldn't make it and chipped in, somersaulting and throwing his rider clear. The horse had to be humanely destroyed at the scene, and the owners did not want a necropsy. It looked to me from photos I saw of the accident (I was on another part of the course) that Bailey Wick may have broken his neck, but of course, I'm not a veterinarian. (Coincidentally, Emily is Bailey Wick's former rider, and his death put a damper on her happiness.)
I spoke about the incident with U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor. He told me that he made a similar misjudgment some years ago at Fair Hill, and while his horse was fine, he wound up with pins in his ankle as the result of a mishap that could have been far more serious in his case -- and was in Phillip's.
David and I talked about the continuing string of accidents in eventing, which also included the loss of Kingpin at Rolex Kentucky this year (another one involving natural causes, as opposed to smashing into a jump) and the death of a rider in a 1-star competition in Great Britain last month.
The eventing conundrum is unlikely ever to be handled to everyone's satisfaction. Some riders are unhappy with the continuing march of tighter rules and regulations, while other people say it's time for the sport to go. There are folks out there who feel that if NASCAR drivers or speedboat racers want to smash themselves up, that's okay, but when an animal is involved, it's not. This isn't the place for a debate on the subject (which has been done many times) so let me continue talking about Jersey Fresh.
Although too many people think of New Jersey as nothing more than a bunch of Turnpike exits or something out of "The Sopranos," let me assure you that the Garden State still has plenty of farmland (though admittedly not as much as there used to be.) The Horse Park is adjacent to some housing, yes, but also to a wildlife management area, and it's not close to any big city. Though it has a country feel to it, there are well-maintained rings and permanent stabling. The theme is amenities without frills, and it's popular with the riders. In fact, it's the only 3-star CCI in the country at this time of year, which means it always gets the big names. The competition has had financial problems (and at this point, you might ask, who hasn't?) but plans are for it to continue, so let's hope it does.
My gallery of more photos from Jersey Fresh will be up next week, so look for it. After that, I'll be going to Devon, so I'll send you a postcard from there before the end of the month.