Wellington, Fla., March 7, 2010 -- What an incredible five days it's been in Palm Beach County for anyone who loves watching horses compete at the highest level in show jumping and dressage.
That would include me, of course. I shuttled between the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center for the Nations' Cup and the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games show jumping trials, and the Palm Beach Dressage Derby down the road in Loxahatchee. What a privilege to be able to see everything, and tell all of you about it.
Sometimes, though, expectations of these big competitions can lead to a letdown if they're not up to snuff. But today's fifth and last show jumping trial, combined with a $150,000 grand prix, was a thrilling finish to an action-packed week.
Laura Kraut, who got a "bye" with Cedric for the trials after being fault-free in the first two of the five-part series, turned on the gray gelding's speed for a victory in the CN U.S. Open.
She was practically a blur as she gained a 0.15-second edge over the 48.19-second time set Danny Boy, ridden by Beezie Madden, who is likely to be her teammate on the show jumping squad at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall.
Cedric streaked through the jump-off, for which only six of the 56 first-round starters had qualified.
"I never let him go like that, and I almost lost control of him after the double. He was freaking out because he was like, 'What is she doing?'" Laura laughed, saying she had never ridden him faster. I was interested to learn it was only her second grand prix victory with the plucky little guy, since she usually is doing selection trials or competing in the Olympics or Nations' Cups with him.
This has been a difficult few weeks for Laura, who won the 2008 Olympic selection trials with Cedric before going on to take a team gold medal at the Games in Hong Kong.
Peter Wetherill, with whom she owned Cedric, died last month. On the morning of the first selection trial, Laura had to speak at his funeral. Peter was never far from her thoughts as she went through the trials process. She and I talked about how she wished he could have been there to see his horse excel once again.
Topping the trials roster was another jump-off qualifier, Nicole Shahinian-Simpson, who was far slower in 51.24 seconds on Tristan But that slow clean round put her third, since the three other qualifiers--Jaime Azcarraga of Mexico on Presley Boy and Canadians Beth Underhill (Top Gun) and Mac Cone (Ole) had multiple rails down. Jaime was jolted going over the second part of the double and lost both stirrups with three more fences to go. Undaunted, he kept on trucking and managed to finish the course in a situation that would have left a lesser rider sitting on the ground.
Nicki is getting a lot of support from her husband, Will, who earned a team gold medal at the Hong Kong Olympics. His Games horse was sold, so he's on the sidelines helping out his wife and thinking about the 2012 Olympics with horses he is bringing along. Talk about a family with riding talent; it will be interesting to see what their kids do.
Tristan and Nicki are perhaps the most exciting combination to come out of the trials. This is a really special horse.
"I'm thrilled with his progress," Nicki said. "He gained a lot of experience through the trials and I think as a combination horse/rider we've learned a lot about each other."
Everyone was wildly complimentary about the courses built by the gifted Guilherme Jorge of Brazil. I've never ridden one of his routes (he apparently doesn't design any using cross-rails) but I feel as if I understand what he's doing and get a great feeling seeing how he tests horses without stressing them.
For this course, he thought in retrospect he might have been too generous with the time allowed; he would have sliced off two seconds from the time allowed if he had to do it again. But how can you beat having six in the jump-off from such a big field? I told you about a line I liked from trial 4, so I'll mention two from this one. Coming off fence 4, an aqueduct topped by rails past the in-gate (Laura is jumping it in the lead photo) it was six strides to an triple combination that was one stride oxer to oxer, and two strides oxer to vertical on the long side of the arena.