Wellington, Fla., February 11, 2007 -- Wall-to-wall competitions, wall-to-wall parties, wall-to-wall lawsuits: That sums up this weekend at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
There's never a dull moment at the world's largest and longest horse show. On Friday, I was trying to keep things straight while running to four different dressage competitions--the regular Intermediare I and Grand Prix, and then the high-performance version of both. The latter were qualifiers for the national championships and in the case of the I-1, the Pan American Games selection trials, both to be held at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., this June.
The other classes were "open," meaning foreign nationals could compete, along with other riders who didn't want to make their seasonal debut in a high-stakes competition.
But the Grands Prix carried something extra, in that for the first time, anyone who wins all three GPs during the circuit here will get a $50,000 bonus, courtesy of Cunningham Insurance. At the moment, the only person eligible is Canada's Ashley Holzer, who had the highest score (72.813 percent of anyone in either GP as she competed in the open class with Pop Art. Her test had excitement and, well, "pop," as her chestnut with white speckles showed both power and accuracy. I asked her if she called her horse Pop Tart and she just looked at me; "Poppie" is his nickname. It was only his second grand prix competition. His first was also a victory, last year at the Washington International's invitational.
Before the class, my money would have been on Danish Olympian Lars Petersen with Succes (yes, that's the right spelling, Lars' partner, Melissa Taylor, told me). This gray gelding is by Silver Moon, the same sire as the World Equestrian Games sensation Blue Hors Matine.
But Lars admitted to being rusty in the Grand Prix, since he hasn't ridden it for about 18 months, concentrating instead on the I-1 with Dacardo. Though Melissa has been riding Succes, they both decided the more experienced Lars should take him over for a shot at the $50,000. There were, however, some small mistakes, such as a big wiggle before the second pirouette, that left him in second place with a score of 69.063.
Although he is no longer eligible for the bonus, since he didn't win the first in the series, Lars sees significance in the Cunningham award and is happy it is being offered.
For the most part, dressage prize money in the U.S. "is terrible," he explained. "Good riders go to where the money is."
That's why the jumper arena on the other side of the showgrounds attracts so many foreign competitors, including Olympic gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil and former World Cup champion Nick Skelton of Great Britain. Their dressage equivalents are absent from the festival.
The I-1 High Performance Division was dominated by Chris Hickey, the new director of training at Hilltop Farm in Maryland, who took all three classes with Regent.
Courtney King made a sweep, too, finishing first or second so many times I had trouble keeping track. She took the high performance GP (and the freestyle) on Idocus as well as winning a host of other ribbons.
Idocus, who scored 70.76 percent in the Grand Prix, isn't letting his age stand in the way of achievement.
"I feel Idocus is getting younger every day," Courtney smiled as she told me about her 17-year-old campaigner.
"He feels really happy and fit. When I ask for more, he gives more."
The biggest dressage excitement of the weekend, however, came in the usually unexciting "test of choice" class, in which riders can select which test they want to perform and the best score wins. It's a low-key competition, which is why it was chosen for the show debut of Lingh with his new owner, Karin Reid Offield. The bay stallion, second in the 2005 World Cup finals with Edward Gal, was a very high publicity purchase, which puts a lot of pressure on Karin.
I was impressed watching their warm-up, as trainer Robert Dover issued instructions via radio to Karin, who was wearing an earpiece. (Naturally, she took it off before the class.) The only thing lacking in the warm-up was the piaffe, as Robert instructed Karin to ask for more in the passage and that would translate into the piaffe.
The test itself wasn't as good, with Lingh half rearing as he entered the arena, then misbehaving down center line before his rider saluted. There were certainly other glitches, but there were good moments too, and Karin kept smiling. Though she loves this horse, getting in sync with a world-class animal takes time, and everyone has to understand that. Judging by what I saw in the warm-up, I guarantee her score of 60.417 percent will be better soon.
U.S. Dressage Coach Klaus Balkenhol was everywhere, watching intently while scouting likely prospects for the Pan Am Games and next year's Olympics.
One of those who caught his eye was Lisa Wilcox, who relocated to the U.S. last year from Europe. The Olympic and World Equestrian Games team medalist doesn't have a Grand Prix horse showing (yet) but she was a star at Third and Fourth levels with Passionelle, taking the Third Level high score award and finishing reserve at Fourth Level behind Jennifer Baumert and Windsor Lad.
Today the focus was on the show jumpers and the $60,000 Palm Beach Equine Clinic/Adequan Wellington Cup, presented by Bluhammock Music.
The winning ride was vintage Margie Engle, as she disregarded any thought of playing it safe and made a huge leap to the last fence in the jump-off with Hidden Creek's Wapino, who she used to regard as a "slow" horse.
"I think he was questioning what I was asking him to do, so I just had to commit myself. It was kind of like steeplechasing down to it," she said of her leap to the final oxer.
With the crowd cheering for the hometown favorite, it was a case of "let the rails fall where they may" as Margie's shot paid off.
Another speedball, Laura Chapot, took aim at Margie with Little Big Man, winner of last weekend's grand Prix, but fell just short in 44.35 seconds to Margie's electric 43.59.
Beezie Madden, who led off on Integrity, was third with a mark of 45.05 seconds, which pleased her husband and trainer John Madden, who didn't want to push the horse this early in the season.
It had looked like a shorter afternoon than usual with only 38 starters, but with 15 going clean, the jump-off took awhile. The excitement quotient was high, however, so time flew by.
Now, on to the lawsuits. Four legal actions were filed Friday in the continuing saga of the showgrounds' future. The big issue is that Stadium Jumping folks say there's not enough space on the current property for everything that's needed and indeed, there's stabling in the spectator parking lot.
But here's my idea--why don't they buy the adjacent Littlewood showgrounds that belong to Mark Bellissimo, with whom Stadium Jumping is, to say the least, at odds.
I'm not going into details about the court papers, but here's the simplest way to put it: Everyone is suing everyone else, including Palm Beach Polo owner Glenn Straub. Mediation will probably be held in March, and we can only hope that brings some kind of resolution.
And now about the parties. Friday night was a hoedown, which meant western style dress. No one did it better than Steve (the Olympic course designer) and Debbie (show jumper) Stephens, who were in matching black and white (with spots like those on a cow) outfits with cowboy hats.
It was a benefit for HEART equine ambulance, and the feature was a mechanical bull contest. Six riders were auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the charity. The top price of $3,300 was paid for Todd Minikus, and he didn't disappoint. Todd, you see, has ridden the real bulls, so he was a standout when the mechanical one was revved up to warp speed, doing everything it was capable of. Todd tamed it.
Still, the mechanical version wasn't as difficult as the live animal, he said.
"It was good practice, but it's entirely different when you ride a real bull, because everything moves with them, including the skin."
The social tour-de-force of the weekend was the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Kick-off Gala for its Campaign to Achieve Competitive Excellence.
It was held in Tuny and Dave Page's indoor ring, though believe me, I didn't recognize it as an indoor ring and I've been there when horses were training.
It reminded me of the fabulous hospitality area at last summer's World Equestrian Games. The theme was red, white and blue, with red roses in silver trophies atop blue tableclothes: Simple, elegant and effective. Patrick Lynch, who has worked for the USET for so many years, drove all the trophies down from Gladstone, so we had tradition on hand.
The dinner was a thank-you for contributors, mostly in the $25,000 and up range, and some special people and athletes. But it marked the public unveiling of the $20 million endowment campaign, toward which an amazing $10 million has been given.
At dinner, I sat next to Elma Garcia, a director of commercials and a very talented photographer who has taken glamour shots of many team members, including Debbie McDonald (it's the portrait on the back cover of the book I wrote with Debbie, Riding Through); Kim Severson, Steffen Peters, Guenter Seidel and Will Faudree. You've never seen the riders like this! The portraits hung from the ceiling during the dinner and were a final beautiful touch. You'll also be able to see them in the rotunda at the Thomas & Mack Center during the World Cup Finals in April.
So this was, as you can see, an action-packed weekend, and I haven't told you half of it, even though this may be the longest postcard I've ever written!
I'll be back here at EquiSearch.com next month for the Nations' Cup weekend, always a big deal, and I'll be sending you a postcard all about it.