Postcard: Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Thermal

Nayel Nassar and Lordan return from lay-up to win the final North American League qualifier on the West Coast
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Nayel Nassar and Lordan return from lay-up to win the final North American League qualifier on the West Coast

February 14, 2016 -- Southern California based Egyptian rider Nayel Nassar overcame a mild flu and his horse Lordan a year’s lay-up to return to the international jumping circuit with a win of the Longines FEI World Cup ™ Jumping in Thermal, Saturday, Feb. 13 in the California desert. They warmed up at the North American League West Coast’s previous qualifier in Valle de Bravo, Mexico three weeks prior and returned to a favorite venue in fine form.

This last round of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League was held during week IV of the HITS Desert Circuit horse show.

Nayal Nassar (EGY) and Lordan, earned first place in Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping in Thermal | Photo copyright 2016 by Amy Dragoo

Nayal Nassar (EGY) and Lordan, earned first place in Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping in Thermal | Photo copyright 2016 by Amy Dragoo

The 12 year old Hannoverian gelding had spunk to spare in course designer Martin Otto’s first round. He kicked out from the first jump approach on through much of the curving course. Even in the outdoor Grand Prix arena’s spacious field, the German builder designed the track to prepare contestants for what they’d face if they made it through to the Finals’ indoor venue, March 23-28 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Jumps came up particularly fast toward the end of the course, which ended with a triple combination in front of packed stands and a bending line to a vertical angling away from the in-gate.

As is apparently his habit, Lordan exuberantly jumped the triple bar that opened a diagonal line that had been giving the rider “a headache” in the warm-up ring before the first round. The excessive jump left him just on stride to sit quiet to the oxer and the mid-course in-and-out that completed the line.

Going last of three in the jump-off, Lordan was all business. Nayel credited Lordan’s relatively small size and stride for allowing more flowing distances in tests where bigger horses had to add. His agility allowed the rider to stick to his original plans for tight tracks.

To hear Nayel discuss his jump-off ride, watch the video below.

There were a lot of World Cup points at stake as the standings for the North American West League got nearly nailed down this afternoon, but none of the league’s leaders were found in the three to go clear in the first round.

Instead of familiar names like Will Simpson and The Dude, Karl Cook and Tembla and Rich Fellers & Flexible, (ranked 2, 3 and 4 going into the class), it was a mix of experience and less familiar names. Frenchman Eric Navet and the scopey but young 9-year-old Hannoverian Catypso were the first to go clear, riding 11th in the initial field of 20. (“Yes, I was a little bit worried,” admitted course designer Martin Otto during the press conference afterward.)

The second clear came from up and coming American Jamie Barge, riding in her third World Cup class and her first with her 11 year old Oldenburg, Luebbo. The gray gelding wore a red ribbon in his tail and sailed through the track, adjusting easily to Jamie’s every cue. Jamie has been a force on the Southern California circuit for a few years, but this finish definitely marks a new milestone.

Jamie Barge (USA) & Luebbo earned 2nd place | Photo copyright 2016 by Amy Dragoo

Jamie Barge (USA) & Luebbo earned 2nd place | Photo copyright 2016 by Amy Dragoo

An 86-degree day began to cool off in soft afternoon light as the jump-off began. Eric Navet had some control issues with Catypso to drop a rail at the third fence, the Longines oxer going into the out-gate. Jamie Barge used Luebbo’s elastic striding to go clean and fast, angling a new addition, a skinny red vertical, then hitting the gas to the final oxer going away. Her time of 49.64 looked good until Nayel and his veteran star whittled it to 48.19 as the last entrants.

Nayel calls Lordan his “horse of a lifetime” who tries his heart out for his owner of three years. Having only ridden in two qualifiers, the rider, a recent Stanford graduate, admitted that he “had no idea” whether this win might earn him a shot to the finals. He said he’d think about a return to the Finals if that panned out. Lordan competed in the World Cup Grand Prix class in the past, “and he loves that show!” Nayel said, through a few sniffles lingering from a recent flu. Mainly, “I’m just so happy to have him back!”

Eric Navet was thrilled with Catypso’s performance. He found the horse for Signe Ostby (Karl Cook’s mom) three years ago. “Doing the big classes” for just one year, the horse has “unbelievable scope” and made easy work of the course. Just a few more technique issues to work out, Eric said.

Eric Navet (FRA) & Catypso - 3rd place | Photo copyright 2016 by Amy Dragoo

Eric Navet (FRA) & Catypso - 3rd place | Photo copyright 2016 by Amy Dragoo

Eric was happy, too, for Karl Cook, with whom the Frenchman has been working for a few years at the family’s Southern California base. Karl’s focused pursuit of a World Cup Finals return found him back atop the North American League West, thanks to he and Tembla’s one-rail performance and fifth place finish. They were just a tad slower than fellow four faulters Rich Fellers and Flexible.

So in the West, it’s now Karl, Rich, Richard Spooner and Will Simpson in the top four spots. And Richard Spooner is the wild card. After a third place finish at the Wellington, FL qualifier last weekend, he scored big points toward the Final with his new mount Big Red. He is reportedly quite set on the Finals as a showcase for his Olympic potential with the new horse. And, there’s one more qualifier in the North American League East the last weekend of February in Ocala.

Course designer Martin Otto said he was counting on Will Simpson and The Dude to notch that first clear round. Normally quite feisty on course, The Dude seemed zeroed in on the task. But their first rail came at a mid-course apple-themed oxer coming out of a seemingly manageable turn-a fence that took several rails. In the more densely-packed second half of the course, the Dude stopped abruptly at the second-to-last fence. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist took a courtesy fence and called it quits.

Hear Will talk about the Heidegger family’s charismatic steed in the following video.

Texas-based German rider Christian Heineking won the Thursday and Friday FEI classes and, riding his top World Cup mount, NKH Quanto, seemed a good bet for the podium Saturday afternoon. They had the crowd’s hopes high ‘til the very last with two rails in the final triple. But their seventh place finish should keep them in the hunt for the Finals.

Watch the video below to hear Christian talk about Quantos and his impressive track record these last few seasons.

The Thermal venue is getting snazzier every year and the addition of Longines banners and an in-gate frame for the Grand Prix arena took it up another notch this year. The show evolved from what used to be “the Date Festival” in Indio, about 10 miles away. It was a staple of the multi-breed/discipline show era that those of a certain vintage still associate with camel races, Arabian costume classes and a mandatory trip to Hadley’s for to-die-for date shakes--those are still there, thank goodness!

Tom Struzierri’s HITS took over the Date Festival, ran it at the Indio venue for several years and about 10 years ago bought raw land in nearby Thermal and built their own place. It was a little bleak at first, but they’ve done a terrific job with landscaping and shade structures.

I always enjoy sitting in the bleachers for their big classes. Fans turn out in increasing numbers and interacting with them reveals a nice mix of people who are new to the sport and those reconnecting with an interest in horses from years past. I loved that HITS had a person in the far parking lots welcoming fans and handing out orders-of-go before Saturday’s World Cup class.

As with everywhere else in the galaxy, Thermal fans adore Rich Fellers and Flexible. And Will Simpson, and they seem to have a soft spot for Canadians, who were even more plentiful than usual in this final West league qualifier.

The venue is a bit of a haul, about two hours-plus from Los Angeles, but worth the drive. In addition to many, many rings of competition at every level, there’s the beauty of the Coachella Valley desert, surrounded by the mountains you’ll notice in the distance of many of Amy’s great photos. The National Anthem lyric about “purple mountain’s majesty” comes to mind on many late afternoons as competition winds down. The weather can be wild. At least once, a big class had to be cancelled because the jumps couldn’t withstand a raging wind. But nothing like that for week VI, the mid-point of the eight-week season.

Another neat feature this year was a Safe Ride Home program organized by Meadow Grove Farm assistant trainer Zazou Hoffman, with the backing of owners Francie Steinwedell and Dick Carvin. With different trainers funding the cost on different weeks of the circuit, rides were made available to anyone who needed nighttime transport home. “Nice for us all to come together and take care of each other,” explained Dick Carvin.

We look forward to returning in late March for the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby and the AIG $1Million Grand Prix.