March 23, 2012 -- The horses who complete clean rounds in the four Olympic show jumping trials at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center are rewarded with beautiful red, white and blue ribbons, far fancier than the usual rosettes pinned on their bridles in ordinary classes.
But these thorough tests are no ordinary classes, and Lizzy Chesson, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of high performance show jumping, had to make a wild blue yonder guess about how many of the ribbons (designed by her assistant, Amy Serridge) to order. She bet on the safe side and decided 30 would be a good number, but with one more trial to go tonight, it looks as if she'll have leftovers.
After three trials, there have been only 14 perfect performances, although three trips have been free of jumping faults while incurring one time fault. But time faults are expensive; I cite the case of Captain Canada, Ian Millar, in the Nations' Cup here earlier this month, when a single time fault made the difference between his squad tying for second or being third (the runner-up Irish had 8 penalties; the Canadians, 9).
Yesterday's second trial was run in draining heat. Only a few hours later, horses had to come back under the lights for another round over a different demanding route designed by Ireland's Alan Wade, with input from Leopoldo Palacios and technical delegate Anthony D'Ambrosio. There is constant concern about the toll the trials may be taking on the horses. Foreign riders (from less litigious countries) shake their heads in wonder; some say they think Americans are crazy for running the legs off their horses in trials. Most teams around the world are picked subjectively, and we mix the subjective with the objective (ie by the numbers.)
But I wondered, how long does it really take a horse to recover from something like the trials, which seem to be the Rolex Kentucky of the jumping calendar? I asked that question of Margie Engle, who is tied on 8 penalties aboard Indigo with Rich Fellers (Flexible) and Reed Kessler (Cylana) at the top of the standings.
Margie's situation has been complicated by the fact that Indigo needed a break because of a hoof abscess, but that situation didn't hinder his fitness.
Theoretically, you might believe the trials are being run to determine one team spot, since Laura Kraut (Cedric), Beezie Madden (Coral Reef Via Volo) and McLain Ward (Antares F, Sapphire) were put on the "long list" without having to participate in the trials, saving their mounts wear and tear. (In the case of McLain, he couldn't compete after breaking his knee in January.)
That supposition is not really true, however. There will be a ranking after tomorrow's trial; then candidates will compete in two observation classes at shows across the country and Canada in May and June before compilation of the "short list" from which the final squad will be chosen. So those given a bye have no guarantees of being on the short list, though they probably have a good shot.
I discussed the trials process with Sally Ike, the USEF's managing director of show jumping.
One advantage of the trials is seeing someone new rise to the top. In this case, as I've mentioned previously, it's Reed Kessler. She's only 17. You have to be 18 to compete in Olympic show jumping, but international rules are based on the year you turn 18, and she will celebrate her birthday in July. She's never been on a Nations' Cup squad, and despite experience on Young Riders' teams, you have to consider her a newbie in that department
I can only imagine how nervous Reed was before last night's class, when she went last and put her fault-free record with Cylana on the line after just two people, Mario Deslauriers (who stands fourth with Urico) and Brianne Goutal (Nice de Prissey) were able to leave all the jumps standing, although each had a single time penalty.
When I spoke with Reed's father, Murray Kessler, after her first fault-free trip on Wednesday, he said he felt as if he had been in a car accident following the round. I'm betting part of it was that he didn't breathe while she was riding. That's the level of tension rooters face under these circumstances.
And I have to admit, seeing Reed enter the ring for trial number three, I felt a little queasy on her behalf. When she had two rails down, at the first of a double of liverpools and the final element of the triple combination, it was disappointing (though not unexpected) to see the top of the rankings lacking a perfect score.
So what happened, Reed?
"I got a little excited," she said, and also explained she left Cylana "pretty fresh." She was a little charged, I think that's why the first rail, and then I don't think I called on her quite enough for C at the triple."
She added, "With this much jumping you expect them to be really tired," but Cylana wasn't.
"She's just so fit. She's still a green horse and she's only done one other night class," Reed explained.
Side note: There will be no night classes at the Olympics, so going under lights doesn't have to figure in the equation.
One factor in the riders' favor here is the fact that this is week 11 of the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival, so they and their horses are very familiar with the territory; everything from the ring to how to get to the ring, the stabling and the food stands. You may chuckle, but it all adds up when you're trying to put together a perfect performance. Familiarity breeds content, in this case.
The observation classes may shed some light on how well horses adjust to a different setting, but all are being held at shows with which most of those participating are familiar. The London Games venue at Greenwich Park, however, will throw a whole new element into the picture, and those who can adjust most easily will have an edge. Can you imagine what it will be like riding in front of a huge crowd with the skyline of London as a backdrop? I doubt the skyline itself will matter to the horses one way or the other, of course, but gosh, I can see where it might be slightly intimidating to riders, emphasizing as it does the enormity of the occasion.
So back to the present and filling in a few blanks from last night; in fifth place behind Mario is Pan Am Games double-gold medalist Christine McCrea on Romantovich Take One after a refusal and time penalties, for a total of 11. Reed is next on 13 penalties with her other horse, Mika, followed by another member of the younger set, Saer Coulter (Springtime, 14).
A lot of the horses looked tired last night. I had expected Kent Farrington to remain on top after a clear round Wednesday with American Invitational winner Uceko, but when he dropped a rail the first fence last night, it was "uh-oh" time. He has 18 penalties.
An example of how hard the trials have been is the way Beezie has fared with her other horses, Cortes C and Simon. They were acquisitions last year. With 20 and 34 penalties respectively, this week revealed the newness of her association with them. It reminded me of how it went as Beezie tried out for the 2010 WEG with Via Volo, when that mare was new to her. She fell off in one of the selection trials; then went on to develop a reliable partnership, the evidence of which was that she got a bye from these trials with that horse.
Foreign riders have been dominating many of the bigger classes at the WEF. I hope that is not reflective of how we will do in the Olympics (though some people I've talked to think it may be). We'll find out in London whether the trials were a draining experience or a foundation on which we were able to build a medal-winning team.
But first, we have to get through tonight's trial.
I'll be back with you tomorrow to fill you in. Until then,