Allentown, N.J., May 11, 2008 -- Many of this year's eventing competitions have been providing a roller coaster of emotions, and the Jersey Fresh 2- and 3-star this weekend was, unfortunately, no exception.
We had the victories of a pair of worthy Washington competitors, a pretty amazing coincidence, considering they were the only two at the Horse Park of New Jersey hailing from that West Coast state--which is not exactly a hotbed of the sport.
Amy Tryon topped the 3-star with Leyland, making his debut at the advanced level this year, and Maya Black, competing in her first 2-star on Kejsarinna, dominated it. Both took the lead in their divisions after cross-country and didn't let it go. Each has brought along her horse with careful and patient training, and it paid off. Their smiles during their victory gallops were infectious; it made spectators happy just to look at them.
But on the flip side, the sport suffered another tragedy. Tigger Too died six fences from the end of cross-country. The 17-year-old chestnut off-the-track Thoroughbred had an acute abdominal aortic rupture and went out playing the game he loved.
Why these ruptures happen is the subject of research, but as Tigger's owner, David O'Connor, noted, the horse was fit and fresh yesterday until a few strides before the lighthouse jump. Tigger, who was third at Fair Hill and a top-15 finisher with David at Burghley, was ridden by 20-year-old Lauren Kieffer, who works for David and Karen. Last year, Tigger earned her the Markham Trophy for Young Riders at Jersey Fresh. This year, in what was to be the final event of his career, they didn't make it to the finish line.
Tigger broke into a trot moments before reaching the fence, then "charged" at it, Lauren said, tumbling over the narrow rolltop. He died moments later. Luckily, Lauren was uninjured even though the horse was lying on her leg. But he did not kick her. To David, it seemed that Tigger, in his final seconds was trying his best to stay out of her way and not hurt her.
As always, I'm impressed by David and how well he handles everything, from sad incidents such as this one, to winning the individual gold medal at the 2000 Olympics and his duties as president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. When we talked about Tigger, whom he owned for 11 years, David mentioned the horse had undergone three colic surgeries. One of the fears with which David lived was that he would go into the barn some morning and find Tigger colicking again.
Lauren, though obviously distraught, also was being brave. The tears kept coming, of course, but she accepted the opportunity for the chance to talk about Tigger when I asked her what he had meant to her.
David has been wrestling with the whole eventing safety issue as it came to a head this season; how distressing and ironic that it would be his own horse who died at a competition.
Let's not, however, confuse this with other deaths and accidents caused by rider error or poor judgment. What occurred really came down to the hand of fate, and until the research is complete, there isn't much more you can say about these mishaps. It's a bitter coincidence that the same sort of thing happened last year at Jersey Fresh to Laine Ashker's Eight St. James Place just after he completed cross-country.
Veterinary matters such as these will be among the four main topics at the Safety Summit being presented by the USEF and U.S. Eventing Association, June 7-8 in Lexington, Ky. The summit is a pro-active step the federation has taken in an effort to decrease the unnecessary risk factors in the sport. If you have any thoughts, pass them along to the organizations; they will be welcome. Read my column On the Rail: Stemming the Tide of Eventing Tragedies for more information.
All that being said, I must emphasize that conditions were perfect at Jersey Fresh after rain during the dressage phase. The ground was just soft enough, the weather was cool and John Williams did a super job on the cross-country courses. They were interesting without being too strenuous; a proper test geared to horses and riders at each level. Aside from Tigger's death, this is the way eventing is supposed to be.