Wellington, Florida. February 22, 2004 -- The Winter Equestrian Festival is on the brink of being overwhelming. More horses than ever. Arenas as far as the eye can see. Tons of shops. And oh yes, heart-stopping competition that's the reason we're all here.
During the last 24 hours in Wellie World, as denizens call it, two major events offered as many thrills as anyone is entitled to at one horse show. Let's start with this afternoon, because I'm still buzzing from the $60,000 Idle Dice Classic. You might have figured it would be the second win in as many grand prix starts this year for America's number one jumper partnership, Chris Kappler and Royal Kaliber. They're in sync, they're on the way to the Olympics if the river don't rise, and they're capable of handling any kind of course. (Article continues below)
Today's was built by Mehves Trak. She's one of only two recognized course designers in her native Turkey, and worked with Aachen's former main man, Arno Gego, to learn her trade. A team rider in the Balkan Games (which is that region's equivalent of the Pan Ams), Mehves previously has designed at the WEF in the smaller rings. This was her first chance to lay out the fences on the huge grass swath of the Internationale Arena, and she came up with a humdinger, bigger than anything the riders here have seen this year.
In addition, the time allowed of 80 seconds permitted not an instant of dawdling, and it caught 10 of the 29 riders who finished. There were another six who didn't get all the way around, including such luminaries as Leslie Howard and McLain Ward, who withdrew.
If you looked down the list of competitors, you could take an educated guess as to who might finish in the top three. Chris I've already mentioned. Then there's Markus Beerbaum of Germany, brother of the legendary Ludger and no slouch himself. The fact that he was aboard the class's 2002 winner, Royal Discovery, added to his luster. And you had to consider an interesting new face, Leopold van Asten, the Dutch national champion. His Selle Francais mare VDL Groep Fleche Rouge, was making her first grand prix start at the WEF, but anyone who can be national champ in a country as horse-oriented as Holland has to be a whiz. Especially someone who formerly worked for Henk Nooren, whose stable coincidentally is where Chris picked up Royal Kaliber.
They were all in the jump-off, along with Molly Ashe on Resolute. Anne Kursinski, who has three Olympic prospects this year, just missed the tie-breaker with one of them, Great Point, who took one stride too many during his perfect trip and notched a time penalty to wind up fifth, as Anne yelled encouragement to him down the difficult double and triple lines.
Molly went first in the tiebreaker, but a rail down and a circle before a liverpool appropriately flanked by a lighthouse did her in. Molly told me liverpools are not Resolute's favorite jump, and he slipped on the way there, so that was it for him as he finished fourth.
Leopold put in a conservative round, clean in 40.29 seconds. Chris was next, but even this superstar has off days. As he tried to angle the first fence, the right distance never came up and he was slow to the first three obstacles. With Markus right behind him, gunning for his time of 38.44, Chris figured he was cooked. To a turn, as it happened, since Markus blasted his way around in 35.78 seconds after having grand prix rider Alison Firestone, daughter of his horse's owners, advise him on what Chris had done.
But you have to put everything in perspective. Markus isn't going for an Olympic team spot, because his best horses are too young and Royal Discovery is not up to it after being overfaced when he went to the Games in 2000 with his former rider, Samantha McIntosh of Bulgaria.
Chris, however, is totally focused on the Olympics, and that being the case, it really doesn't matter that he didn't win here. What counts is the evidence that Royal Kaliber is in great form as the Games get closer. We can only hope that Chris gets a "bye" from the selectors so he doesn't have to go to California for the trials.
A hunter classic, even the country's best and biggest, can't quite match a competition like the Idle Dice for suspense. But it came pretty close in the pulse-pounding department as the great Strapless won the $48,500 American Hunter Jumper Foundation Spectacular of Palm Beach last night.
My only criticism is that it lasted too long; 33 starters is just too many. But the second round was better, when only eight were in contention. Strapless, who had won the last three Spectaculars with professional rider Emily Williams aboard, was being shown by her owner, Clara Lindner, in her first year as an amateur-owner. Would a fourth win be possible?
Strapless made it just interesting enough, standing second on 90.5 points after the first round to Tommy Bahama, 0.5 points ahead with Tammy Provost up. But in the second round, when I saw Clara make a beautiful final turn and head toward the last jump, a big white oxer, I knew this was the right wind-up for a pitch that would be a home run. Sorry for the weird baseball metaphor, but for some reason it popped into my mind as I watched Strapless head down to that fence and then soar skyward in a leap that won the class.
Tommy Bahama, last to go, didn't stand a chance and finished on a total of 179.625 points, good enough for third behind Addison Phillips aboard Who's on First (maybe THAT's what made me think of baseball) with 181.312 points, to Strapless' 181.5 total.
Although a dressage show was being held on the grounds, it wasn't very large as those things go. The grand prix stars were waiting for a couple of weeks for a qualifier for the Olympic selection trials. I ran into George Williams and politely asked how he was, and then how Rocher, his famous lop-eared mare, was doing. Since this was just small talk, I got an answer I didn't expect when George told me she was suffering from tendinitis behind and he couldn't in good conscience put her through the Olympic selection process. Luckily, however, we have plenty more riders to make up a team, but Rocher will be missed for her spark and personality.
I focused on Michael Shondel, who finished up his junior career with a team gold at the North American Young Riders Championship last year and is now concentrating on Intermediare I with his astonishingly large horse, Wallaby, an 18.2-hand tower of strength.
Michael is in both college and a special Marines training program, which limits his show season somewhat, but that didn't stop him from getting more than 70 percent in the Prix St. Georges and Intermediare I. It's the division he hopes to excel in this year under the direction of trainer Cesar Parra, a Colombian who just qualified for the Olympics. Michael sits a horse beautifully, quiet, steady and serious. This is one to watch for the future as he brings a new horse, Silver Label, along toward Grand Prix level.
The WEF sometimes seems to be about parties as much as it is about showing, and never more so than last weekend, when the Denim & Diamonds extravaganza was held for the first time in four years. And don't expect another for four more years; everyone needs a while to rest up from this one.
Mason Phelps and Beverly Lake Wilkes co-chaired this fantasy, which featured a rider auction that earned $99,000 for the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation. It recalled past Olympics with living tableaus from such exotic cities as Moscow (complete with skaters)and Tokyo (sumo wrestlers) while pointing the way toward Greece in a big ballroom invaded by a chariot pulled by two white horses. The parties for the rest of the WEF may be grand, but they won't come close to that one. I'm thinking even the Olympics may not come close to D&D.