March 5, 2011 -- What's the word of the week? If you've listened to the radio or watched TV in the last few days, you know it's "win-ning."
And members of the U.S. squad definitely made it their own last night with a clear-cut victory in the country's only FEI Nations' Cup before a well-behaved crowd of more than 8,000 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
It was only the fourth time in 10 years that the home team managed to take the big prize. Naturally, McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Margie Engle and Mario Deslauriers were in an ebullient mood on the podium, as the boys squirted Veuve Cliquot champagne in celebration (a fun photo, but what a waste of good bubbly...).
They rolled out the big guns for this one. McLain was on his amazing Sapphire, than whom there is none better; Beezie brought the rapidly rising Coral Reef Via Volo, while Margie was aboard another new star, Indigo, and Mario rode Urico. In contrast to last year, when C-team horses were used to save the best for the World Equestrian Games, no stone was left unturned in the effort to top the charts. There even was a U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation pep rally, complete with cheerleaders, at the White Horse Tavern on campus Thursday night.
Despite all that, winning was far from easy. The route included three double combinations, the last of which had a vertical as the A element after the water jump, and you know that can be trouble unless a horse is good at stretching and then compressing. Needless to say, not all of them were. The next-to-last fence was an arched brick viaduct of two different heights, which had some of the horses looking and a few stopping.
McLain said the course was "the hardest Nations' Cup we've seen here," yet the U.S. at its best obviously is up to that kind of challenge. "We came with a very strong team...it' a good solid win; it's what we came to do," said McLain.
(Sidenote: The course was designed by Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens. Steve managed to focus, despite the fact that his show jumper wife, Debbie, broke her hip in a schooling accident on Wednesday and was operated on yesterday. She'll be fine, but Steve noted she faces a long recovery.)
Okay, back to the class: Canada, which had won five times, including 2009 and 2010, settled for second on 16 penalties, eight behind the winners. There was a three-way tie for third among Ireland, Britain and Australia, much further back on 37 penalties. Eight teams took part, with Mexico sixth, followed by Venezuela and Colombia.
Only McLain and Australia's James Patterson-Robinson on Niack De L'Abbaye could manage double-clears. James was imported for the occasion from Holland, where he has lived for a decade, long enough to trade his Australian accent for a Dutch one.
The day before, after Mario won the weekly WEF grand prix on Vicomte D, I asked him why this Nations Cup is so important. After all, it's not in the Super League. But it seems it's actually in a league of its own.
Listen: Mario Deslauriers