March 4: McLain Ward tops third WEG show jumping selection trial.
March 6: Canadians win Nations' Cup; Todd Minikus wins fourth WEG show jumping selection trial.
Wellington, Fla., March 7, 2010 -- What an incredible five days it's been in Palm Beach County for anyone who loves watching horses compete at the highest level in show jumping and dressage.
That would include me, of course. I shuttled between the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center for the Nations' Cup and the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games show jumping trials, and the Palm Beach Dressage Derby down the road in Loxahatchee. What a privilege to be able to see everything, and tell all of you about it.
Sometimes, though, expectations of these big competitions can lead to a letdown if they're not up to snuff. But today's fifth and last show jumping trial, combined with a $150,000 grand prix, was a thrilling finish to an action-packed week.
Laura Kraut, who got a "bye" with Cedric for the trials after being fault-free in the first two of the five-part series, turned on the gray gelding's speed for a victory in the CN U.S. Open.
She was practically a blur as she gained a 0.15-second edge over the 48.19-second time set Danny Boy, ridden by Beezie Madden, who is likely to be her teammate on the show jumping squad at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall.
Cedric streaked through the jump-off, for which only six of the 56 first-round starters had qualified.
"I never let him go like that, and I almost lost control of him after the double. He was freaking out because he was like, 'What is she doing?'" Laura laughed, saying she had never ridden him faster. I was interested to learn it was only her second grand prix victory with the plucky little guy, since she usually is doing selection trials or competing in the Olympics or Nations' Cups with him.
This has been a difficult few weeks for Laura, who won the 2008 Olympic selection trials with Cedric before going on to take a team gold medal at the Games in Hong Kong.
Peter Wetherill, with whom she owned Cedric, died last month. On the morning of the first selection trial, Laura had to speak at his funeral. Peter was never far from her thoughts as she went through the trials process. She and I talked about how she wished he could have been there to see his horse excel once again.
Topping the trials roster was another jump-off qualifier, Nicole Shahinian-Simpson, who was far slower in 51.24 seconds on Tristan But that slow clean round put her third, since the three other qualifiers--Jaime Azcarraga of Mexico on Presley Boy and Canadians Beth Underhill (Top Gun) and Mac Cone (Ole) had multiple rails down. Jaime was jolted going over the second part of the double and lost both stirrups with three more fences to go. Undaunted, he kept on trucking and managed to finish the course in a situation that would have left a lesser rider sitting on the ground.
Nicki is getting a lot of support from her husband, Will, who earned a team gold medal at the Hong Kong Olympics. His Games horse was sold, so he's on the sidelines helping out his wife and thinking about the 2012 Olympics with horses he is bringing along. Talk about a family with riding talent; it will be interesting to see what their kids do.
Tristan and Nicki are perhaps the most exciting combination to come out of the trials. This is a really special horse.
"I'm thrilled with his progress," Nicki said. "He gained a lot of experience through the trials and I think as a combination horse/rider we've learned a lot about each other."
Everyone was wildly complimentary about the courses built by the gifted Guilherme Jorge of Brazil. I've never ridden one of his routes (he apparently doesn't design any using cross-rails) but I feel as if I understand what he's doing and get a great feeling seeing how he tests horses without stressing them.
For this course, he thought in retrospect he might have been too generous with the time allowed; he would have sliced off two seconds from the time allowed if he had to do it again. But how can you beat having six in the jump-off from such a big field? I told you about a line I liked from trial 4, so I'll mention two from this one. Coming off fence 4, an aqueduct topped by rails past the in-gate (Laura is jumping it in the lead photo) it was six strides to an triple combination that was one stride oxer to oxer, and two strides oxer to vertical on the long side of the arena.
On the other side, in front of the VIP tent, a triple bar led off, eight strides from a liverpool behind a vertical, followed by the last fence, an oxer four strides away.
Those who came a cropper on the first line included McLain Ward with Sapphire, who had the first oxer down. The super mare obviously was rusty after missing the trials when she got a "bye" and having had just one little class down here to wet her whistle after six months off.
"I think next week she'll be better and by the 500 ($500,000 grand prix later this month) she'll be starting to come into form," said McLain. "Part of giving her a bye and waiting is being able to peak at the right time. If she's still having two (rails) down in the 500, then we have a problem."
On the last line, Beezie and her new mount, Mademoiselle, dropped a rail at the liverpool. But Beezie deserves a break; as she noted, the two weeks of the trials doubled the time she had spent with Mademoiselle, previously ridden by Richard Spooner.
Richard led the trials until today, when Cristallo had two fences down. Having underestimated his horse's fitness, he felt he should have worked him harder on Saturday.
"He wanted to go and he wanted to jump and when he gets like that, I have to pull a little harder than I should," said Richard.
The full long list won't be formally announced until tomorrow, but as of now, we have the three horses with byes; Sapphire, Cedric and Lauren Hough's mount, Quick Study, who had two fences down in the first round.
After Nicki, who has 9 penalties, there's Richard with 14; Beezie with 16 on Danny Boy tied with Mario Deslauriers and Urico, followed by McLain with his second horse, Rothchild (17) and Hillary Dobbs (Quincy B/20.) Beezie with Mademoiselle is ahead of Candice King (Skara Glen's Davos) on a tiebreaker; though both have 21 penalties, Beezie had a 1 time fault round, while Candice did not. After that it's Rich Fellers (Flexible/24) Todd Minikus (Pavarotti/28) and Cara Raether (Ublesco) who had a tie-breaker score that gave her the edge over Robert Kraut (Graf Lando). Both had 29.
That's a total of 15 for a roster that will be whittled down to the team of five this spring and summer in the European Nations' Cups.
Okay, now it's time to deal with the dressage: Courtney King-Dye's terrible accident was a presence at the proceedings at the derby. To recap, in case you missed my last story, she was schooling a horse near the showgrounds when he fell and she hit her head. She wasn't wearing a helmet. She remains in a coma in a West Palm Beach hospital, though her mentor, Lendon Gray, told me tonight there is slight improvement.
It was good to see lots of riders wearing protective headgear, many for the first time, at the show. I'm going to editorialize here: No one should get on any horse without wearing an approved helmet. That includes dressage queens, cowboys and folks going for quiet hack.
Olympian Jacqueline Brooks of Canada shares my sentiments. She was wearing a helmet when she rode Gran Gesto in the Grand Prix Special. It looks fine with tails, even though people insist they can't be worn without a top hat to go with them. Hunter people do it all the time in their stakes and classics.
Following Jackie's ride, we chatted about her feelings on the subject.
Here's what I say to that: Amen.
Marco Bernal has done a great job bringing along Farewell IV, who earned over 70 percent to win the Prix St. Georges and then revved it up for the Intermediare I with 71.228 to top a huge class, 30 strong, and he took the freestyle as well.
The Colombian native, based in Florida, talked about this marvelous horse that I haven't seen since he was a youngster.
George Williams mount, Don Bailey, scored 70.576 percent finishing second in the I-1. Don Bailey is black, which reminded me of Rochet, George's longtime ride, who also was the color of midnight. Maybe that's good luck for George, I hope so.
Mikala Gundersen, who rides under the flag of Denmark, won both the Grand Prix for Freestyle and the Freestyle with Leonberg.
Tina Konyot, the Dressage at Devon winner, dominated the Grand Prix for the Special and the Grand Prix Special with the personable black stallion Calecto V. (Black was the color of the day, apparently.)
He's one powerful dude who earned 71.958 in the Special with his presence and pride as his assurance in the movements grows. There was a big difference from last fall. Now Tina is pointing him toward the WEG test event next month, a wise move for someone who looks as if she has a real shot at her first championship team.
After she gave Calecto numerous treats, we talked for a moment before the awards ceremony.
Well, that wraps it up from here. Check out my photo gallery, and I'll be sending you another postcard from the American Invitational on April 11.