Wellington, Fla., March 11, 2006 -- I'm not usually a fan of the Nations' Cup. Two rounds over the same course can really drag out, especially when there are lots of teams competing and it's not a close race.
But last night's edition of the class left me totally exhilarated, with Canada and the U.S. going neck-and-neck for two rounds, taking the competition to a truly thrilling jump-off. More than 12,000 spectators fanned the flames of patriotism, packing in to the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club grounds, where 10 countries took the field for America's only Nations' Cup.
Steve Stephens set a formidable course with such a tight time allowed of 70 seconds that it raked in a slew of time faults. In three instances, riders left all the jumps up but just couldn't get it done within the confines of that TA. And the time was only part of the challenge. Riding under the lights always complicates the occasion and heightens the sense of drama.
Once strictly an intramural affair among countries in the Western Hemisphere, the Wellington Nations' Cup has really come of age. It's the jewel of a show that is rated 5 stars, the highest ranking of the FEI (international equestrian federation.)
"This is turning into such a premiere...Nations' Cup competition," said Ian Millar, the nine-time Olympian known as Captain Canada.
"The Nations' Cup works for some competitions and for other competitions, it doesn't work so well. But this Friday night is a spectacular success. Each year, the crowd grows and grows; their knowledge is right-on and very sophisticated. It's a great event to participate in."
At the end of the first round, it seemed obvious it was strictly a two-team race. Canada and the U.S. were tied on 4 faults each, and the score remained that way through the second round. Captain Canada had a double-clear aboard In Style, demonstrating that even at age 59, he hasn't lost his touch. An amazing double-clear was put in by his teammate, Chris Pratt on Mustique, quite a performance for a rookie making his Cup debut.
On the U.S. side, the double clears belonged to Margie Engle on Hidden Creek's Perin, her 2000 Olympic horse, who also proved he still has it, and McLain Ward aboard Sapphire. Rookie Kent Farrington, who I'm sure is heading for big things, had 8 faults in the first round on Madison, and only one knockdown in the second.
Ian's perfect trip in the second round, on the heels of one produced by the USA's Beezie Madden with Authentic (a 4-faulter in the first round) meant the class would end in a jump-off. That really got the crowd going, as little kids carrying flags ran across the field to rev up the spectators.
Each chef d'equipe picked his fastest horse for the one-on-one tie-breaker. For the U.S., George Morris named Authentic, whose rider earlier in the evening had been presented with the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Whitney Stone Trophy for her contributions as an ambassador of the sport.
This Olympic team gold medalist has won some of the biggest classes in the world, including Thursday's speed event in the Internationale Arena, so I was dumbfounded to see Authentic wind up in the middle of the wide oxer that was the second fence. Beezie made a really tight turn to the obstacle and her horse seemed to lose his footing on the chewed-up grass surface, causing him to crash through the first set of poles and wind up in the shrubbery that filled in the gaping spread fence.
The always calm Beezie regrouped, but a rattled Authentic, who she said had never had a stop before, took a rail down at the next fence as well.
"I think he did lose his footing somewhere on the turn," said Beezie.
"As I was coming around the turn, I saw I had to hold out a little bit for the distance and then all of a sudden it was very long. Something happened as I went to commit to the fence. He lost a little heart at the jump."
Canadian chef Torchy Miller tabbed Eric Lamaze as his champion to carry the maple leaf in the tie-breaker, because his horse, Hickstead, is so careful and quick. But Eric relied on the careful part and didn't need the speed. With two rails in hand, he cruised to a clear round in a leisurely 39.65 seconds, compared with Beezie's 41.11 mark that included her re-try of fence number two.
"Beezie had some bad luck at that fence. I was just trying to leave the rails up and be as cautious as I could be...and hope nothing goes wrong," said Eric.
George was upbeat about the way things turned out.
"We had a top team...I think they were nip and tuck. It just boiled down to a little bad luck. Most of the turf is off now and the grass is down to the dirt. It looked like Beezie's horse lost his legs a little bit."
France was far behind the leaders with 31 penalties total. It might have been a different story if Katie Monahan Prudent weren't mounted on her son, Adam's, junior jumper, but her grand prix mare had come up with a big ankle that morning and couldn't make the Cup.
Chef d'equipe Jean Maurice Bonneau said he was proud his squad was the top European team. They were two penalties ahead of Ireland, last year's winner. The class marked the return to the ring after more than a year of Carling King, Kevin Babington's star, but he was rusty in the first round, accumulating 13 penalties, before returning in the second round to have only a single knockdown.
Before the Cup got under way, longtime U.S. team stalwart Michael Matz was honored for his selection to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. The ceremonies for everyone else are being held during halftime at the Budweiser American Invitational in Tampa April 1, but Michael, now a racehorse trainer, will be busy elsewhere that day, fielding a runner, Barbaro, in the Florida Derby.
He's given away all his riding clothes, with the exception of one pair of boots, but he still enjoys coming to the shows occasionally and seeing old friends. He had an ear-to-ear grin as he accepted the glass trophy signifying his deserved entrance into the hall.
We enjoyed a quick talk before he went in the ring, when he told me, "I loved showing internationally," and cited the great Jet Run, not unexpectedly, as his best horse. But the most memorable moment in his career, which included the World Cup title and an Olympic team silver medal among zillions of other honors, was the evening he carried the American flag to lead the U.S. team into the closing ceremonies at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The Nations' Cup was the start of a fabulous weekend as the Winter Equestrian Festival's Wellington Finale wraps up its action in this venue, with many of the horses moving on next to Tampa on Florida's West Coast for two shows there.
Tonight, we have the Challenge of the Americas, a dressage quadrille competition, and tomorrow is the $150,000 U.S. Open Jumper Championship. I'll tell you about both on Monday morning, so be sure to come back to EquiSearch for my next postcard.
Until then, I'll be busy!