March 2, 2013 -- Robert Ridland is one for one in his brief career as the USA's show jumping coach, with a victory last night from a squad that delivered under pressure.
The grounds at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center were packed with partisans of the seven countries competing in the USA's only Nations' Cup, the first held in this hemisphere as part of the new Saudi-sponsored Furusiyya series that is geared to truly global participation.
The Tiki Hut restaurant was converted for the evening to "The Irish Embassy," complete with a sign signifying its affiliation, and it seemed everyone was wearing the colors of their nation of choice, whether on
their backs or on their faces. The U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation and U.S. Equestrian Federation held a pep rally, serving all-American hot dogs and hamburgers to gear up support for the home side at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival.
An Olympic veteran who has been involved primarily in show management, course designing and officiating in recent years, Robert admitted to some nerves that were understandable, but he drew comfort from the fact that he was fielding the "A" team. Although that hasn't always been the case at the Cup in Wellington, which was never part of Furusiyya's predecessors, the Eurocentric Top League and the Super League, this time the stops had to be pulled out because the U.S. wants a berth in the new league's finals this September.
The squad of Kent Farrington (Uceko), Reed Kessler (Cylana); her 2012 Olympic teammate, Beezie Madden (Simon) and Beezie's 2008 Olympic gold medal teammate, Laura Kraut (Cedric) did not disappoint, and even reserve rider McLain Ward was at the ingate to offer support. Although Beezie was able to skip the second round because the team had an edge after three riders, it wasn't much of a victory margin. Canada, which had won the Cup five times since its inception here in 2002, wound up with 5 penalties; the U.S. had 4 for its fifth win here.
Who knows? It might have gone the other way if Canada's Mac Cone had a better night. He was eliminated for a stop and a circle in the first round with Amor van de Rostal, and accumulated 17 penalties in the second. Luckily for the Canadians, only the best three scores count.
They were buoyed by the expected double clear from the ageless Captain Canada, Ian Millar on Dixon, and a less-expected double clear from Tiffany Foster -- her first in a Nations' Cup -- with Victor. You'll remember Tiffany from the Olympics, where she was eliminated in a controversial call after officials contended Victor was hypersensitive in one leg. While they didn't blame anyone for that, she was out despite Canadian team protests.
A German effort to defend its 2012 title was impressive, but 11 penalties put that team third.
After the class, I spoke with Robert, who seemed to be experiencing equal measures of joy and relief.
The time allowed of 77 seconds played a big role in how things went, and Robert noted the U.S. had a plan for that.
Since it was "a fairly important factor," he said, the strategy was for all the Americans to make an inside turn from the first fence to the second. "That really made the difference, it gave us the leeway," he commented.
Reed was the only U.S. rider to go double-clear, undoubtedly providing an inspiration to the kids competing today in the children's, junior and Young Rider Nations' Cups that are an innovation at this venue, which should help the pipeline to the top for all the countries participating.
At 18, Reed was the youngest rider ever to compete in the Olympics when she appeared in London last summer. Despite that experience, delivering on her home turf was no easy task.
"It was my fourth Nations' Cup and my first win and my first double-clear, so I'm really excited about that. To ride on the home team in front of the home crowd is a really big honor. I want to do it again," she said in her usual vibrant style.
Her comfort level was affected by the fact that, "I had an all-star group of riders on the team, so I knew I had a lot of depth for me to lean on," she added.
Cylana, Reed declared, "was awesome. This is my favorite thing, when I ride her, to hear the crowd scream. She gets so animated and so wild when she heads to the first fence. She's totally focused, but at the same time, she's like a monster. She couldn't have done better."
Beezie gave her supporters a heart-stopping moment when Simon loudly hit the box in front of the water jump. Everyone's eyes anxiously went to the scoreboard, but she was clear there and went on to produce a perfect trip. Kent dropped a rail at the last fence in the first round; then Uceko settled down in the second to produce a fault-free performance. Cedric, clean in the first round, had a knockdown from a light brush at the third fence from the end of the course, the first element of a double combination of verticals.
The Irish, highlighted by two fault-free trips on Splendor from Olympic individual bronze medalist Cian O'Connor, could have been in closer contention than fourth place with 11 penalties had Shane Sweetnam's mount, Siri, not been injured during his first trip, which garnered the 8-fault drop score for that round, and was unable to return for a second performance.
Irish Team Manager Robert Splaine said: “The boys all did a good job and Richie’s (Maloney) two single time faults with Ahorn van de Zuuthoeve measured up to a good performance, while Cian O’Connor’s double clear round on Splendor has to be singled out for praise. However, we were put at at a serious disadvantage when Shane’s horse couldn’t return for the second round."
While the top four finishers had strong teams, another threat didn't materialize as Great Britain was unable to field a squad. Although Tim Gredley and Olympic team gold medalist Nick Skelton were on the grounds, they lacked a third because Nick's teammate from the London Games, Ben Maher -- who won two major grands prix already this season at WEF -- had flown to the Masters show in Hong Kong. It was, however, perfect British weather: Very chilly with occasional sprinkles of rain. Foreign visitors who had come to Florida for the usual sunny weather as well as the Cup were unhappily bundled in parkas, as were many other spectators.
With just one more Cup finals qualifier for North America to go, at Spruce Meadows in Canada during June, the U.S. has 100 points to 90 for Canada and 65 for Mexico, which finished last here. Only two North American teams can go to the final, and Mexico would seem to be a real underdog in that department. That nation didn't have all its best combinations on hand, but even with their top guns, they'd have a lot of ground to make up in order to be part of the finals.
The three Latin teams participating, Venezuela (fifth on 34 penalties), Colombia (sixth with 41) and Mexico (seventh with 59) are working hard on raising their standard. I asked course designer Anthony D'Ambrosio how he felt they were progressing.
"A great part of their improvement is the time they spend here for a consecutive 12 weeks," he told me.
"This is a great training situation for any horse and rider, when you come to a place and you can really settle in and the horses can really relax, you can then bring them along faster than you would when you're constantly changing venues and acclimating each and every week to a new place."
He and I also discussed the course and how well it worked out. Designing for a class that combines experienced high-caliber teams with squads from countries that are still developing provides quite a challenge, but Anthony is always up to the task.
I chatted at the victory party, where the Veuve Clicquot champagne was flowing, with the USEF's executive director of sport programs, Jim Wolf. At the Olympics, our conversations consisted mostly of, "so, we didn't win a medal in (fill in the blank), what do you think?," which meant it was nice to finally be able to approach him after a victory.
I think team spirit had a lot to do with the U.S. taking the top prize, not only the pep rally, but also a team dinner that helped the squad and the owners present a united and determined front.
The Cup wasn't the only thing that provided the tension this week. An outbreak of Equine Herpes Virus that began in Ocala and spread caused great concern when a horse at the showgrounds tested positive and the entire FEI tent (where the international competition horses are stabled during the show) had to be put in quarantine. This is one of the biggest weekends of the year at the biggest show in the world, and the all-clear wasn't given until Thursday afternoon, when tests on other horses came back negative.
The man in the pincers on this one was Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions, which presents the WEF. With the trouble in the rear view mirror, he and I talked (over the babbling of the auctioneer) at Thursday night's sport horse auction a half-mile from the PBIEC at the Global Dressage grounds.
So do you think we've had enough excitement for one weekend? No way; it's the WEF. Tomorrow is a $150,000 grand prix. I'll be interested to see some of the top riders in action again; Cian O'Connor has to be a favorite, and Germany's Daniel Deusser, double-clear in the Cup on Cornet D'Amour, also is impressive. There will be a whole lot more American contenders than just the four team members vying for this one. Come back Sunday night for my next postcard, and I'll tell you all about it. In the meantime, don't forget to go to facebook.com/equisearch for more photos.