Postcard: 2008 Winter Equestrian Festival

After a 14-horse jump-off, Rodrigo Pessoa beat Chris Kappler by a narrow margin to win the $60,000 Spy Coast Grand Prix at the 2008 Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla.
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After a 14-horse jump-off, Rodrigo Pessoa beat Chris Kappler by a narrow margin to win the $60,000 Spy Coast Grand Prix at the 2008 Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla.

Wellington, Fla., February 10, 2008 -- Want to run yourself ragged and have fun doing it? Come to the CN Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC).

It's non-stop competition and parties. Sometimes I'm not sure which takes precedence, and that was especially true this weekend.

The $60,000 Spy Coast Grand Prix was, of course, the sporting focal point, though there were some interesting developments over at the dressage show that ran concurrently with the usual hunter/jumper fixture.

Spy Coast Farm grand prix winner Rodrigo Pessoa and Rufus | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Spy Coast Farm grand prix winner Rodrigo Pessoa and Rufus | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Everyone's thinking Olympics, with the U.S. trials starting in just a few weeks. Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, whose credits include the individual Olympic gold, the world championship and victories in three World Cup finals, took the class this afternoon despite going third in the 14-horse jump-off with Rufus and not having the advantage of being able to shoot at most of his rivals' times.

This was quite a narrow victory. He was clean in 35.60 seconds; the USA's Chris Kappler missed Rodrigo's mark by just 0.01 seconds on VDL Oranta, who was out for a season with a back injury.

It had to be tough for Rodrigo, knowing that Chris was going further down in the order, as was Beezie Madden on Judgement and the fabulous Ian Millar of Canada on In Style. Actually, both Ian and Beezie beat Rodrigo's time, but each dropped a rail.

I asked Rodrigo how he felt about going early in the order, and here is what he told me.

Runner-up Chris Kappler and VDL Oranta | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Runner-up Chris Kappler and VDL Oranta | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

I was very surprised that Steve Stephens' course yielded so many clears from a first-round entry of 48. Chris explained why he thought that happened.

Missing from the lineup were McLain Ward and Kent Farrington. Everyone has a different plan this season, with the Olympics and World Cup looming, not to mention 12 weeks of WEF instead of eight.

Everyone can't go to the Games in Hong Kong this August, but riders and fans alike got a taste of the ambience at a U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation party Friday evening.

The theme was "Hong Kong by Night," transforming a tent at the International Polo Club (not too far from the PBIEC) into that magical Chinese city. Guests entered through a corridor of bamboo trees, picking up lychee martinis or sparkling water on the way. The room was decked with giant fans on the walls and Chinese lanterns. The food for cocktail hour included spring rolls, chicken dumplings and barbequed pork buns. To create the right mood, partygoers were asked to wear Asian dress. No one did it better than USETF Vice President Brownlee Currey, in a Genghis Khan helmet, and foundation secretary Eric Straus in a red silk jacket he ordered on-line.

USET Foundation vice president Brownlee Currey and secretary Eric Straus got into the spirit of Hong Kong by Night. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

USET Foundation vice president Brownlee Currey and secretary Eric Straus got into the spirit of Hong Kong by Night. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

When people went into the dining room, they found that one wall was hung with material painted with the city skyline. Tables had marvelous flower arrangements in blue and white Chinese bowls and featuring Oriental figurines.

Awards were presented. Hillary Dobbs, who is a talented show jumper and an incredible student (she goes to Harvard) won the Hermes trophy (and a saddle) for her exemplary horsemanship and sportsmanship. Pony pairs world championships gold medalist Miranda Cadwell got the Whitney Stone Cup for being an admirable ambassador for equestrian sport.

It was a fun evening. When the lights in the kitchen went out and caterers had to cook by their car headlights, the entrees were late arriving, but everyone was having such a good time I don't think they cared.

Those in attendance included U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor and his wife, Karen; Melanie Smith-Taylor, show jumping developing riders' coach and dressage star Debbie McDonald and her husband, Bob, all the way from the west coast.

Bob had never been to Wellington, so I was eager to get his thoughts on the phenomenon that is the equestrian center. He was awed. Here is what he had to say.

He even suggested he and Debbie may base themselves in Florida next year, rather than California.

It was great to catch up with Debbie. She and I wrote her biography/training manual Riding Through so we spent a lot of time together at her home in Idaho. Naturally, I had to ask about everyone I met there, especially the horses.

I was wondering about her stalwart Brentina, who injured herself on the plane going to Europe last fall and was out for quite awhile. Here is what Debbie had to say.

Listen: Debbie McDonald talks about Brentina's Olympic prospects.

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I also needed an update on Felix, her spectacular 11-year-old who won a Grand Prix in California recently.

"I am extremely happy with him," she said. "I call him my ADD (attention deficit disorder) child. I've had him since he was three, and it's always been on his time frame. He's starting to act like he really wants to grow up now. I'm excited about the fact he got some experience in Europe and I'm hoping that is going to pay off in these next shows coming up to the trials."

Everyone is jockeying for a slot in the trials, which will be held in California at the end of June.

We saw two interesting candidates at the dressage show here. Although it wasn't a qualifier for the trials, it still was revealing.

George Williams won both the Grand Prix and the Special with Rocher, who was looking awfully good. She's 17, but her long break for a suspensory injury doesn't appear to have diminished her fire.

George Williams and Rocher | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

George Williams and Rocher | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

"She's much, much stronger than when I started her in Saugerties in September," George told me. That outing was geared to taking her temperature, in effect, and seeing where she stood. This was her debut on the Florida circuit this year, so she had a lot of fans on hand.

"It's a terrific feeling to be back," said George, who earned 69.063 in the Grand Prix and 68.100 in the Special. When I asked if he was pointing toward the Olympics, he smiled, said "yes" and added, "I'm a dreamer."

Although he was a little conservative in the Grand Prix, he noted, "she's very excited to get back in and was a little excited down the first center line."

Second in both classes was Lisa Wilcox's ride, Naomi (68.333 in the Grand Prix, 67.300 in the Special), a fiery bay mare who looks like a lot to handle, though she never ruffled Lisa's considerable composure.

Lisa is going for the Olympics, too, despite the fact that she only has had the horse since May.

I wondered if there was any connection with her extensive experience with stallions when it comes to handling a mare.

She told me, "In Germany they have a saying, 'You tell a gelding, you ask a stallion and you send a written request to a mare.'"

The dressage show was being held at the old Littlewood, now the South Grounds of the center. It's not a pretty spot but worse, after rain Friday and Saturday night, the footing wasn't good and there were a lot of scratches.

Mark Bellissimo, who is the point man for Wellington Equestrian Partners, which owns the Center, said the South Grounds had been "a short-term solution" for dressage.

"That is not the venue to house the dressage," said Mark, who wants to integrate it into the main showgrounds and have some night classes.

Dressage isn't the only area where there are problems. The showgrounds' computer situation, which has been a headache due to insufficient servers and over-usage (they were getting 250,000 hits an evening as people tried to enter classes via the Internet) caused major snags and problems for the office. The system was not capable of handling the volume. A new server has been purchased and network connections have been improved, said Mark, who expected things to go better starting this coming week.

"I think this will be the finest solution in the industry," Mark predicted, saying eventually riders will be able to get text messages on their classes so they can find out about delays, scratches and orders of go.

"You sometimes pay the price for doing too much too fast," conceded Mark. "Everything that should have taken three months, we did in three weeks."

By the way, I was a little nervous meeting with Mark, since someone told me a recent article had said he was descended from Italian nobility.

Should I curtsey when I meet him? I wondered. Would he look at my polo shirt and slacks with contempt?

He laughed and said the writer of the piece had gone online and researched his family background.

"I didn't bring that up," he said. "I'd never seen it, and it wasn't confirmed with me. The thing I didn't like about it was that it sounded as if I had said it. That is not my style."

I had an amazing experience last night when I went to the Equestrian Idol party, a benefit for the Equus Foundation.

A group of equestrians demonstrated their considerable singing ability in a format similar to American Idol, with irreverent assessments from the judges' panel that included Debbie, Mason "Simon Cowell" Phelps, Susie "Paula Abdul" Schoellkopf, George Morris and Mark Leone.

Equestrian Idol winner Ki-Juan Minors | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Equestrian Idol winner Ki-Juan Minors | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

The hands-down winner was Ki-Juan Minors, a rider from Bermuda, who sang a capella (without accompaniment). As master of ceremonies Robert Dover suggested it's time for Ki-Juan to embark on a recording career. I asked Steve Stephens if he had ever seen Ki-Juan ride. He said no, but pointed out that if he rode as well as he sang, he'd be in the winner's circle every week.

Ki-Juan serenaded us during the grand prix today with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." He deserved the standing ovation he got last night.

Be sure to check out my photo gallery of this weekend's doings. Then look for my next postcard on the weekend of March 7, when I'll be covering the CN Nations' Cup and the Olympic show jumping trials.

Until then,

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