The 2001 eventing season started off well with record entries at all the major advanced horse trials in this country, and Team O'Connor certainly showed its strength winning both the four-star at Rolex and the three-star at Foxhall. Following the spring international events, the World Equestrian Games selectors prepared a team for Burghley that I thought at the time was a nice mixture of youth and experience. However, the results did not measure up to my expectations, and when the dust settled the selectors were scratching their heads, wondering what to do next.
The rest of the season was not all bad news. Kim Vinoski won Blenheim with her rising young star Windsome Adante. This showed that her spring results in coming a close second to Karen O'Connor and Prince Panache at Foxhall were not a flash in the pan and must give her confidence and an enormous boost as she goes into the winter training session.
The final bright spot in the season was David O'Connor winning the fall championships at Fair Hill. This was the closest competition I have watched for a long time and it literally came down to the last pole on the last fence before the winner was decided. I thought Phillip Dutton with Annie Jones' young but constantly improving Cayman Went was desperately unlucky, but he has to be thrilled with the way his horse responded to his biggest challenge to date. Phillip's horse barely touched the back rail of the last oxer and it almost stayed up but then fell, thus leaving the championship to David O'Connor who had just jumped a clean round.
A realistic observer would have to conclude that the U.S. prospects for a medal at the 2002 World Games are mixed. Beale Morris finished in the top 10 at Burghley for the second year running but she was the only U.S. rider in that elite group. Kim Vinoski confirmed that she is well on form with her eyes firmly fixed on the 2002 season. Yet when you look at the results at Fair Hill, six out of the top 10 places were held by the two O'Connors from the U.S., Phillip Dutton from Australia, and Peter Gray from Canada, all Olympic veterans.
This points out to me a disturbing trend: The experienced riders are getting better and better and it is getting harder and harder for younger, less experienced riders who may lack the sponsorship and support of the more successful competitors for them to get into the top rankings at major three-day events.
So this is a fairly gloomy picture on the one hand, but if I were a young, ambitious rider with one good horse I would be coming into the 2002 season with the clear realization that a good rider and a good horse have a real shot at making the world championship team. The O'Connors are well mounted and they have depth in their string, but they are going to have to jump the same jumps as everyone else: They know better than anyone how capricious horse sports can be.
The selection picture is as open as I have seen it for awhile and it is going to be exciting watching the season unfold next spring. Football coaches are always talking about how "someone is going to have to make a play." What they mean by that is the opportunity to change the direction of the team has to be seized not by the proven veterans but by the young, rising stars who through sheer grit and determination take the U.S. team to the next level.
At this point my editor always forces me to stick my neck out, so here goes: The English will win the gold medal at the world games followed--by the closest of margins--by the U.S. with New Zealand and Australia in hot pursuit, in that order.
Unfortunately the English are getting their act back together again. They have gone through a period of real turmoil and they have come out of it with a management trio of Jayne Holderness-Roddam as their chairman, Mandy Stibbe as chairwoman of the selectors, and Yogi Briesner as the coach. This trio would not give up much to the golden days in the U.S. when Jack LeGoff, Neil Ayer and Eileen Thomas had our sport running like a well-oiled machine.
I pick the British team to beat us by a small margin based on the fact that they will run a more experienced team of horses and riders than we will be able to produce, and they are on a roll, having gone so well at Pau in the European Championships this past September. I'm picking the Kiwis third because the Aussies have to run out of luck sometime, and Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson, two of the best riders in the world, may have finally found a supporting cast that can carry them to a team bronze at Jerez, Spain.
To stick my neck out even further, my early favorite to place well at Rolex 2002 and go on to become the U.S.'s first world champion in 34 years is Kim Vinoski on Linda Wachtmeister's Windsome Adante.