March 4, 2013 -- I can't say how many jump-offs I've watched in my decades of covering show jumping. Certainly hundreds; maybe even more. But today's tiebreaker in the 4-star $150,000 Wellington Equestrian Realty Grand Prix was one of the most exciting I can remember.
I have to tell you the punchline first: Kent Farrington on his new mount, Blue Angel, clipped Beezie Madden atop Cortes C by 0.01 of a second to take the class in 38.24 seconds. Wow.
The jump-off had been building to a crescendo, with the crowd cheering on each rider as they gave it a go.
In fact, the top five all were clear and within 0.62 seconds of the winner. Kent had the last of the clear rounds. The only competitor who went after him, Laura Kraut on Cedric, had a rail early on, so there was no doubt who the winner was before the class ended.
The lithe and lively Blue Angel, registered in the Anglo European studbook, and Kent are a dynamic combination. He took over Robin Parsky's mare in January, and there really hasn't been much of a getting-to-know-you period.
"It's a special horse. It's actually the type of horse I grew up riding, a more thoroughbredy type," he explained.
"We had a lot of horses off the racetrack and I used to race ponies as a kid, so I was used to riding really hot, small horses like that. That's sort of right up my alley." Remember Up Chiqui, his incredible speedball that retired just last November at the National Horse Show? Yes, Kent knows what to do with horses that can go fast.
He and Blue Angel were practically an instant match.
"We sort of jumped in the deep end of the pool," Kent conceded with a smile.
"We did the meter 30, the meter 40 and we were off and running."
And running was what they had to do in the jump-off, after 11 of the field of 53 qualified for it.
The last line was the original triple on Anthony D'Ambrosio's course, reduced to an oxer/vertical double for the jump-off, and then seven or eight strides to the final fence, a vertical standing at 1.6 meters that was one of the tallest obstacles on the course.
Beezie, on the muscular, nearly black Belgian warmblood who is Blue Angel's physical polar opposite, reached that jump in seven strides. Kent went right after her, and as I saw him take a pull and put in an extra stride, I thought, "Uh, oh, looks like Beezie's got it." Wrong. Yes, I looked at the clock and couldn't believe he was an instant faster. So I asked Kent about that.
Kent, like Beezie a member of the U.S. gold medal Nations' Cup team here, now has one of the best strings of any rider anywhere. I guess that gives him confidence; he always looks so cool and unflustered. That's what it takes to do what he does so successfully. But the rest of us tend to show our emotions.
Alex Warriner, Blue Angel's groom, is fond of the 10-year-old mare by Luidam and was a bundle of nerves as she watched her go.
Third in the class went to charming Irish rider Conor Swail, who met his wife (she's from Connecticut) at the WEF years ago. He was aboard Lansdowne, a Dutchbred stallion owned by Lothlorien, the same stable whose horses are ridden by Captain Canada, Ian Millar. Conor, who finished on 38.52 seconds, noted it's great to have Ian available for counsel when
He generally produces horses and sells them on, so he's grateful for a chance to keep riding the horse in his new job with the Canadian outfit, because he can show at the highest level consistently.
"You learn a lot by being in this company," said Conor, who looks to me like he knows an awful lot himself.
I told you all about that Friday night senior Nations' Cup victory in my last postcard (it's at this website if you haven't seen it yet).
But WEF, always in the vanguard, also held Nations' Cups for children, juniors and Young Riders, an innovative juxtaposition. I have to tell you, it made for a very loooong day (and night) yesterday, but it was special for the adults who understood its significance, as well as for the kids.
It's all about "the pipeline," giving riders a start at an early age on a road that could provide mileage for them if they want to try for senior teams.
Show jumping team coach Robert Ridland was very enthusiastic about what he saw, praising the "spirit" he felt in the air as the kids learned about jumping for a squad representing their nation, instead of just for themselves. Young people abroad do a lot of such team competitions; I think we'll be seeing more of it in this country.
There's talk about having a Young Riders' division and realigning age groups for competition; perhaps starting the amateur-owner division at a later age, which would keep those who turn 19 in the Young Riders' division instead. Change is in the wind; keep watching.
Robert is part of the change. As you know, George Morris stepped down from the coaching job at the end of last year, but he emphasizes he isn't retired. So a ceremony in his honor Saturday night wasn't a retirement ceremony; it was just to thank him for all he's done, and what he's going to keep on doing, giving clinics and teaching, and being available to Robert as a resource.
It was great to see all the people who marched into the ring for George's ceremony. I'll just name a few: Anne Kursinski, Norman Dello Joio, McLain Ward, Jeffrey Welles, and Chris Kappler among the riders; veterinarian Tim Ober, steward Karen Golding, Sally Ike, Lizzy Chesson and Jim Wolf among the support staff; well, I just realized this was a mistake, because I could go on and on and run out of space and still leave people out. Suffice to say it was a great turnout. And U.S. Equestrian Federation President Chrystine Tauber, who was the master of ceremonies, made a point of saying that George "is not riding off into the sunset."
The amount of prize money at the WEF is staggering. The $150,000 grand prix was just a financial warm-up for a $300,000 grand prix and at the end of the month, a $500,000 competition. Then there was the VDL auction Thursday night, with 16 horses going for more than $2 million, and one horse accounting for nearly a quarter of that (you can see his photo at facebook.com/equisearch and facebook.com/practicalhorseman).
Some might consider all these numbers crass, so it's nice to find out that there's a spirit of giving at the WEF. You probably all know about the Great Charity Challenge, a show jumping event that gave $1.5 million to local charities at the end of January.
But I learned this weekend about another effort, the Pink Party, an annual cancer research fundraiser organized by Carrie Stanton, a groom who works for McLain. (She's in charge of Rothchild.)
The party, held at The Triple Bar, a restaurant adjacent to the showgrounds, is only one part of Carrie's efforts. She had a group of "Pink Riders" who wore, you guessed it, something pink when they competed this week (go back to Facebook and look at the pix of McLain and Brianne Goutal). These riders all went out and obtained pledges. Carrie, a native of Great Britain who has lived here for years, has done an amazing job. Listen to what she said about what she's doing.
I'm coming back at the end of March for the $500,000 grand prix (yes, money talks), and whatever else is happening as WEF ends its three-month run. So be sure to look for my next postcard.