San Juan Capistrano, Calif., May 22, 2004 -- The Olympic show jumping selection trials are racing to an exciting--and complicated--finish at the Oaks Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, a fabulous setting in which to see the best horses and riders our country has to offer in the discipline.
Let me quickly set the stage: The first three rounds were held south of here in Del Mar. Today's was the fourth of six rounds, with the final two going on Sunday, back to back
Peter Wylde, who rode Fein Cera to one of three perfect rounds this afternoon, is at the top of the standings now, displacing Beezie Madden who had been first after the three initial trials on De Silvio. She's still with us in third place with De Silvio, who has seven penalties to Peter's 4, and fourth with Authentic (8 penalties). McLain Ward jumped up to second with the amazing Sapphire who had only a single time fault in today's one-rounder, where the 90-second time allowed was tightightight to make her total 5. Close behind are 2000 Olympian Lauren Hough with Clasiko, who also had one time fault to be fifth overall on a score of 9, and Nicole Simpson with El Campeon's So Long, another one-faulter with a 10-fault total in sixth place.
Clare Bronfman, who has lived in Europe for several years, took the first three rounds by storm, surprising everyone by standing second with Irco Sun before today's test. But it didn't last. Irco Sun went out in a hail of rails, being assessed 31 penalties this afternoon to drop himself to 23rd.
|Are you confused yet?
See what I mean? It is complicated. Lots to keep track of. You should see the sheaf of results I'm carrying around with me. But one thing's for sure: Peter Wylde and Fein Cera, that lovely dappled bay mare, are as good as they were when I saw them win the individual bronze medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Spain, where Cera was named Best Horse.
There were a lot of people who had doubts about Peter making the team. They pointed out that Cera hadn't done much recently.
Hey folks, there's a reason for that. Peter believes in giving the mare a nice, long rest between major competitions. So she went on vacation last December after London's Olympia show and was spotted just here and there in 2004 in order to be ready for the trials. Peter had hoped to be excused from the trials, as Chris Kappler was with Royal Kaliber, but it didn't happen. So this very with-it guy, who is based in Maastricht, Holland, had a Plan B and stuck with it.
|"I really felt the pressure today," he confided. "This is a great venue, there was a great crowd, great footing and great everything. I felt it." And he handled it.
Peter actually tied for first in the class with Beezie on Judgement, who was less-than-perfect in Del Mar, and Todd Minikus on Gardenio. Ditto.
I would say neither are factors in the Olympic race, although as one of the riders so correctly put it, we really can't say what's going to happen until the last horse goes on Sunday. Leopoldo Palacios, who designed the courses for the Sydney Olympics, is a genius who knows how to ratchet up the challenge to the point where only the best can show their colors.
There are two notable absences here. One is Glasgow, who had perfect trips in the first two rounds of the trials with 1992 Olympic individual bronze medalist Norman Dello Joio aboard. Glasgow dropped out of contention with a front suspensory problem that I'm told is minor, which means he needs a rest but should be back in competition in three months.
|"It's very disappointing. It was a real blow," said Norman, who is generally not emotional, so that tells you how hard this hit him.
He isn't a fan of our selection procedures, contending the trials are not a meaningful way to pick an Olympic team.
"I don't think it should be based on a couple of weekends in California at basically a cocktail party," said Norman, eyeing the VIP tent overlooking the arena, where the wine flowed.
He doesn't want it to sound like sour grapes. But he does think the top American riders should go to Europe and be selected for the Games after they show what they can do there against the same competition they will meet in the Olympics.
"The trials are not it. How many times are we going to spend our money to do this exercise and basically destroy our horses while the rest of the horse world looks on and laughs," he asked. (I must tell you though, that Peter Wylde feels the trials are it, and that he prefers this to what the Germans do, jumping and jumping and jumping in big shows until a team is selected. Gee, a difference of opinion in the show jumping world. What a surprise!)
The key rider absent from these proceedings is Margie Goldstein Engle, who was high on everyone's list of Olympic possibles until Friday, Feb. 13, when a horse collapsed on her and split her left femur. She has pushed her recovery, but after turning in a clean trip in the first trial round on Hidden Creek's Perin -- unbelievable, considering she is just hobbling around -- she elected to sit out the rest of the trials. The strain on her muscles and tissues were just too great. Doctors and Perin's owner, Mike Pulaski, prevailed in getting Margie to give herself some more time for healing. U.S. team physician Craig Ferrell believes that if Margie lets the leg rest she should be fine by June, when the U.S. squad will be warming up at German shows. But the selectors will have to decide whether to use their only remaining subjective team choice on Margie or even whether to use it at all. It's a tough call since there are top riders in the first five places in the trials.
This is the third time championship trials have been held at Oaks Blenheim, which also hosted the 2000 Olympic and 2002 World Equestrian Games selection outings.
This fabulous facility is the brainchild of R.J. Brandes, an extraordinary businessman and entrepreneur who had a concept of what horse shows should be like and followed his vision in spectacular style.
This 100-acre melange of perfect grass fields and arenas took shape after R.J. visited a variety of shows to watch his daughter Katharine ride and "saw a need."
"I decided I could do it better," he said, and he did.
The word is that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be presenting the ribbons for the trials' finale, the $175,000 Cargill Grand Prix of the U.S. I believe it, since I've seen R.J.'s photos of himself with the Gov (and President George W. Bush) in his handsome house on the property.
Conditions couldn't be better for show jumping, so I'm looking forward to a dramatic finish. It's sunny, a bit breezy and the footing is perfect, which means it should simply be a test of who's the best, without any extraneous factors to skew the result.
I'll have another postcard for you with the results first thing Monday morning. Just don't expect me to give you the official team line-up (though I'll certainly tell you my thoughts). The selectors have 48 hours to get reports on the horses' soundness after a Monday jog and then take whatever time they need to make up their minds on who will represent us in Greece this August.
Read Nancy's second postcard from the Final U.S. Olympic Show Jumping Selection Trial on May 24, 2004.