February 28, 2009 -- Oh, Canada -- you did it again. The north-of-the-border team made a marvelous comeback with its final rider last night to win the Nations' Cup here at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center for the fourth time in seven years.
Canada squeaked into the gold medal with 15 penalties, while the British and Irish tied for second on 16.
The home team, which won in 2008, was shut out of the medals in fourth place after accumulating 20 penalties in America's only Cup competition before a record crowd of more than 8,000. The fans, ensconced in national interest cheering sections, gave special impact to the night as they wildly rooted on their favorite nationalities.
The Canadians were encouraged by a raucous crew of supporters, including some young men who gladly stripped their shirts and ran around the arena at half-time to show off body-painted red letters. I guess the idea was to spell out "Canada." However, they didn't run in order, so that didn't really work, but believe me, we all got the idea.
The vocal Irish, meanwhile, filled the two-story ringside Tiki Hut (renamed the Irish Embassy for the night), which was decked with their nation's green, white and orange flags.
The course of the class may well have been changed by a series of misfortunes. Todd Minikus, who has been on a hot winning streak recently, was scheduled to be the anchor rider of the U.S. squad with Pavarotti.
But his mother was in a moped accident during the afternoon and had to be airlifted to the hospital, where she was treated for serious injuries and remains in intensive care.
As a result, Todd was replaced at nearly the last minute (with the sportsmanlike consent of all the other chefs d'equipe) by Kent Farrington with Up Chiqui, who had 8 faults in the first round and did not return for the second.
Despite a brilliant double-clear from teammate Lauren Hough on Quick Study, an 8/4 performance from Christine McCrea on Vegas and 4/4 from Olympic team gold medalist Laura Kraut with Cedric meant the U.S. never really threatened.
At the end of the first round, Britain and Ireland were tied for the lead on 4 penalties each, while Canada had 6 and the U.S. 8.
Canada' mishap came in the first round when Olympic individual gold medalist Eric Lamaze, the world's number one-ranked rider on his Games horse, Hickstead, had a heart-stopping refusal at fence 11A, the first element of a triple combination that was the penultimate obstacle.
Hickstead's noseband had broken at the water jump "and it was flying around his face," prompting the stop three fences later.
"He's a very sensitive horse," said Eric. "He was quite unhappy about what was going on and he let me know. He stopped, which was a big surprise, because he was uncomfortable with what was happening around his eye."
Once Eric turned him around and pointed him toward the jump, Hickstead was back in the game despite the tack problem.
"He's such a great horse. He said, 'Okay, I got it,'" said Eric, who managed to cross the finish line with only 4 penalties for the refusal and two time penalties. Had Eric jumped a clear round, as was expected, Canada could have had an easier victory, but the crowd would have been denied the uncertainty that contributed to the excitement up through the final round of the class.
Britain benefitted from a clear trip in the first round from veteran Nick Skelton on Transmission, but he couldn't come back for the second after he found his horse had suffered an injury on his initial foray.
If Nick had been able to go, "It might have been a different result," pointed out chef d'equipe Derek Ricketts.
Three riders from each team came back for a final rematch over the same course designed by Germany's Frank Rothenberger.
Following good opening trips from representatives of several nations, Canadian coach Torchy Millar said, "We had a hard time believing we were in contention."
But things began to change. Britain's Peter Charles (Muria's Pomme D'Ami) and Ben Maher (Robin Hood W) had clear rounds, yet their side was left with a final total of 16 following a 12-fault trip from newcomer James Billington (Midnight Lady), who had the drop score in the first round and wouldn't have gone again had Nick's horse been sound. The Irish, meanwhile, stood on the brink of victory with a total of 12 penalties before their last rider, Darragh Kerins, went in the ring with Night Train, whose resume includes victories in the Devon and Hampton Classic grands prix.
Prior to that, Eric (who had a single time fault in his second round) told his Olympic silver medal teammate and perennial anchorman, Ian Millar, "If there's ever a time that you could relax, it's tonight." Eric explained, "I kind of felt that we were out of it," noting that while the scores were hard to follow, it seemed as if Canada didn't have a shot at the gold.
"I was happy as a clam," said Ian. But by the time he got to the in-gate, he heard quite a different story. His teammates and chef d'equipe Torchy Millar informed him, "You know, if you go clean and the Irish have a rail, we're going to win this thing." The pressure was on.
As Ian observed, "All of a sudden, it wasn't such a nice evening."
As always, though, Captain Canada coped and delivered.
"You really feel alive when you're doing this work," said Ian, 62, a nine-time Olympian who posted a perfect trip and then had to wait for the Irish to err. That happened five fences from the end of the course, when Darragh Kerins dropped a rail by the in-gate, giving the class to Canada and tying his nation with the Brits.
Hunter Harrison of CN, which presented the $75,000 class, mentioned that he'd like to cut that fence into firewood. The knockdown was doubly painful because his Double H Farm owns Night Train.
The class worked out perfectly in the estimation of the course designer.
While it was a disappointing evening for the U.S., Lauren's double-clear performance (only Peter Charles and Ian were able to do the same) showed the star quality of horse and rider. That demonstrated how wise chef d'equipe George Morris was to make her a discretionary choice for the squad, moving her up from eighth place on the computer list of standings, while the others on the squad were in the top six.)
I asked Lauren to tell me a little about her horse and her hopes for him.
Both Hunter Harrison and showgrounds impresario Mark Bellissimo felt the same for the big picture, as Hunter called it a "landmark" for the facility.
But tribute was paid to the past during a special presentation to Stadium Jumper founder Gene Mische, the man who dreamed up the Winter Equestrian Festival and made Wellington a horse show mecca.
The ceremony gathered several of Gene's friends as well as some of his previous adversaries, including Palm Beach Polo owner Glenn Straub, his former landlord, and Mark, who was engaged in a heated battle for ownership of the grounds. All appears to have been forgotten and forgiven, so it made for a touching presentation. The entrance to the showgrounds appropriately will be named Gene Mische Way, while the Grand Hunter Arena also will bear his name. During his tenure, Gene named several of the rings to figures of the sport to whom he wanted to pay tribute, including former U.S. coach Bertalan de Nemethy.
Just as he did when he received the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Lifetime Achievement Award last year, Gene gave credit to those who worked with him.
"It was a joint effort. I had a great staff, they deserve as much of the credit as I deserved," he insisted.
I'm doing double-duty this weekend, commuting between the showgrounds and the home of the Palm Beach Dressage Derby in Loxahatchee, about a half-hour drive. The Derby is a prestigious show, but its location at Equestrian Estates has none of the trappings of the showgrounds. It's laid out in big fields with lots of palm trees. There isn't even a VIP tent, so everyone mingles and enjoys the informality, whether they're mulling a purchase on vendors' row or standing on the grass at ringside.
The Grand Prix for the Grand Prix Special, which I watched yesterday, was won by the first horse in the arena, Olympus, ridden by Michael Barisone. This is a client's mount, imported from the Netherlands 18 months ago, that she will riding after Michael gets him going. It was his second Grand Prix, so the score of 65.362 percent was promising. He was just ahead of Lauren Sammis and Sagacious, scored at 64.468, who have moved up to Grand Prix this year after starring at Prix St. Georges/Intermediare I.
The FEI Prix St. Georges went to an exciting new combination, Katherine Bateson-Chandler and Dea II, a mare she got from Great Britain's Carl Hester after she worked with him last year. You'll be hearing a lot from this combo. I have to get back to work now, but I'll report again tomorrow with the wrap-up of this show.