Wellington, Fla., December 4, 2006 -- It was a win-win-win situation yesterday for McLain Ward, Margie Engle and the National Horse Show fans packed in around the Internationale Arena at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club for the second and final leg of the Rolex/U.S. Equestrian Federation National Show Jumping Championship.
McLain got the overall title and the Rolex watch that went with it (plus a lot of prize money) after finishing second in both segments of the competition on Sapphire. Margie won the second phase with her effective beat-the-clock style aboard Hidden Creek's Wapino, and the crowd was treated to an afternoon of show jumping at its best over a course brilliantly designed by Pepe Gamarra.
The only loser was Eric Flameng, who had won Friday night's initial leg of the competition convincingly aboard Roxanne. Since he also had topped the show's Welcome Stake (which was not part of the Rolex equation) it looked as if he were on a roll at the National. That ended abruptly at the eighth fence on course, the Rolex oxer, where Roxanne took a sudden dislike to the obstacle and stopped. Although she cleared it successfully after the refusal, she had rails down at the next two jumps, and Eric wisely decided to call it quits.
While the Belgian citizen could not have won the U.S. title (which carried an additional $15,000 in prize money as part of a $25,000 bonus pool) it would have been a proud addition to the European Championships veteran resume to have beaten a good number of America's best twice in their own national title meet.
A favorite saying around the show world is that "the cream rises to the top," and it was never more true than in the final leg of the Rolex championship.
Not only was Margie first and McLain second, but Laura Kraut, their teammate in last summer's World Equestrian Games (WEG) effort, finished third on her reliable mare Miss Independent.
All that was missing was Beezie Madden, the fourth member of the WEG squad and the individual silver medalist in Aachen, but as I explained to you in my last postcard, she was at home in New York teaching while her horses got a well-deserved rest.
The only other one of the 31 riders participating in the final to make the jump-off was Ken Berkley on the handsome gray, Carlos Boy, whose full potential has yet to be reached, I believe.
Ken barreled down to the Rolex jump, the last fence in the shortened course configuration for the tie-breaker, and dropped the front rail. He wound up fourth, which was not bad considering the company he was in.
Interestingly, Margie doesn't consider Wapino a speedball, since she's just started going fast with him. But the long-legged 17.2-hand chestnut produced for her, finishing in a time of 29.85 seconds.
"I took a shot with him," Margie said. "He covers a lot of ground; he's got a big step. He's very tall, but he turns fantastically."
When Todd Minikus, his closest rival for the Rolex title failed to make the jump-off after having the fifth of 13 fences down with Olinda, McLain knew as he cantered onto the grass field for the tiebreaker that he had clinched the championship. And that was what he came for.
So the pressure was off a little bit, and he gave a good effort on Sapphire, who he noted is not known for her speed. He left all the rails in place after crossing the finish line in 29.98 seconds, well ahead of Laura's 32.21-second mark. And here I should say that Laura deserves extra credit for even riding. All weekend, she had been feeling queasy, and yesterday morning she was really rocky as she was schooling a horse and I told her she probably shouldn't be riding. So much for Dr. Nancy...
Though I was curious how the highly competitive McLain would feel about taking the title but not winning either of the classes involved, it turned out he was relaxed and happy. (And don't forget, he collected a total of $37,000 for his work this weekend. Who among us would not wish we could have done the same?)
You know it takes a long time to make a Grand Prix horse and very often we don't see them until they're at the stage where they're on their way to being veterans.
But the international Young Horse Championships at the National show off these mounts in the developing stages, and it was pretty impressive.
Laura Kraut took the five-year-old title with Uno, a sale mount on which it is likely she won't keep the ride.
"He's such a sweet horse. He hasn't been to a show since July," said Laura of the Dutchbred owned by Mary Moricoli. "I hadn't ridden him since March. Mary spent the whole spring and summer getting him broke. He rides around like a 12-year-old now. I think he has such a great future. Who's to say, but whatever he does, he's going to be really good at."
The six-year-old honors went to Sandhya from the Mill Creek stables of Canada, ridden by Sergio Campos, a Florida-based native of Brazil.
"Sandhya is very fast, she can do those tight turns like no other horse," Sergio observed about the chestnut mare.
In the seven- and eight-year-old category, the honors went to the aptly named Accordion, who looked very adjustable as he extended over the fences and collected between them when asked.
The bay gelding was ridden by Bob Kraut, who turned professional last spring. (He is Laura Kraut's husband, but the couple is divorcing.) The horse, owned by Happy Hill Farm and Peter Wetherill, is turning eight next year, and Bob sees the Dutchbred gelding as his potential grand prix mount.
"He's been in this jumper program since he was a five-year-old," Bob said. "I want to keep his sights set high; I love him. He's super scopey, very fast and very brave."
I'd like to give you a positive update on the squabble over the future of Stadium Jumping competitions at the showgrounds here after the organization's lease ends in 2008, but there isn't one yet.
Scenarios I'm hearing run the gamut from the folks who believe that the differences between Stadium Jumping Inc. and Wellington Equestrian Partners (who are buying the facility) will be settled and life as we know it here will go on, to the very real possibility that a new, larger showgrounds will be developed nearby by Stadium Jumping and the current grounds will be used for other shows or perhaps special, smaller competitions than the sprawling Winter Equestrian Festival. However it shakes out, I'm sure there still will be plenty of shows in Palm Beach County.
This is my last postcard for the year, so I'm ending with a wish to all of you and your horses for much happiness in the festive season and a wonderful 2007 that fulfills all your dreams, equestrian and otherwise.