North Salem, N.Y., September 19, 2009 -- It was so thrilling to watch today's rounds in the Regional Maclay Final. I always find it fascinating to watch top riders in important classes, but there was something truly special about being at the in-gate with Frank Madden sending his riders into the ring. I saw many of these riders when I was with Frank in Wellington, but today seemed different. The pressure was intense. Frank is usually upbeat and active, always on the move. Today he was positively hyper, but in a good way. Frank's enthusiasm and intensity were contagious.
This morning began with some early morning schooling. The riders got started at 7 a.m., and the Schooling Jumper class, a warm-up for the final, was set to start at 9 a.m. There was a great practice course set in the outdoor ring. Trainers brought down their vinyl jump decorations and liverpools to make the jumps spookier. Once the class began, the jumps were reset to the typical single jumps, all set in a row next to each other, so you had to get out there early if you wanted to jump what might be set in the indoor arena for the big class later in the day.
The Schooling Jumper course was set as a simple, seven effort track. This was a chance for riders get to into the ring and make sure they were comfortable. This class took about four hours to run, as there were over 100 entries. Frank's riders rode well and everyone began waiting for the Maclay course to be set.
The course began with a natural oxer jumping off the left lead. This was a bending line to the right in five or six strides to a skinny, airy vertical with no ground line. Jump 3 was a square oxer set on the diagonal, after which was a long ride to the end of the ring. Riders then went into the corner turning to the left and came off the track early to jump 4, an oxer followed by a slightly angled track out to the rail in five strides to an oxer-vertical one stride combination. Then came a tight left turn to jump 6, a vertical and then seven bending strides to the right to another vertical. From there, they rode up to the end of the ring to the left and jumped a vertical, jump 8, toward the in-gate (the in-gate is in the center of the long side), with a bending seven strides to a square oxer (this broken line ran parallel to the first line of the course. In fact, jumps 1 and 8 were right next to each other). The tenth jump was a long approach on the diagonal to a triple bar on the right lead.
The first line walked in a bold five strides. Some of the first few riders in the ring attempted the five, but found it came up in an easy six strides. There were only a couple of other challenging areas. Jumps 8 and 10 invited a lead swap on the last stride, since the horses knew they were turning afterward. Especially for jump 10, where riders were trying to show off a bold, forward ride, while making sure they got to the base of the triple bar, horses were likely to change leads there. The only other place that seemed to cause some issues was the broken seven strides through the middle of the ring, from 6 to 7. Some riders didn't ride the correct track and either got to 7 too early, or ended up with an added stride.
The word from most people was that it was a soft course this year. There wasn't a whole lot to "separate the mice from the men." I overheard one trainer calling the course "vanilla." I can understand wanting to make sure riders felt positive and encouraged when finished with their round, but this is a year-end final. I was perplexed.
Two of Frank's riders were seventh and eighth in the jump order. Both horses had similarly long strides, so he told them to do the five strides in the first line, even though no one had done five yet. His strategy was that if the course wasn't too technically difficult, it would be hard for riders to stand out. His first rider had a weak jump into the line and although she made it out in five strides, the horse dropped a rail at jump 2. It wasn't for lack of trying and the horse certainly had the scope to cover the distance, I think it had more to do with how the rider got to the first jump than anything else. His second rider to go was Grace Carucci, who nailed the five strides and had an excellent round.
Frank's next three riders were set to go 20th or so in the order. Based on their horses, as well as their experience and ability, Frank had them ride for the six strides in the first line and it paid off. They were consistent. Each of them stuck to the plan and they were happy with their rides. One had a rail down and but was still pleased with her horse.
Frank's final three riders were in the 50s of the order (out of 89 entries). Again, they had solid rides. We waited for the class to finish to hear the callback list for the flat phase. Five of his seven riders were called back. The two who were not called back each had a rail down due to an inconsistent distance on course. Frank was very pleased with his riders. For three of them, this was their first time at the Maclay Regionals.
Frank gets very intense and excited for his riders before they go in the ring. There are just a couple of reminders given as they go through the course one more time before entering the arena. Once in the ring, he rides every step with them, murmuring, "Nice ride there" or "Whoa" through each section of the course. He bends at the hips, or scrunches down through his knees, willing each rider to the perfect distance at each jump. I can't say I didn't do the same thing for his riders. It was infectious.
There were four flat sections. Only the basics were called: posting trot, sitting trot, canter, walk and reverse to canter, then sitting trot, walk and exit the ring. Then the top four were asked to return to the ring for further testing. They were (in reverse order) Tina DiLandri, Christina Lin, Christy DiStefano and Jacqueline Lubrano. I had seen both Christy's and Jackie's trips, and they were great.
The riders had to enter the ring and stand on the opposite side of the arena, to the left of the first jump. Then the test was announced. They had to canter fence 1, trot fence 2, hand-gallop fence 10, counter canter fence 8 and return to the line-up in the sitting trot. It was exciting. Tina DiLandri had a single-footed distance to the hand-gallop jump, which elicited a collective sucking in of breath throughout the crowd. That kept her in fourth place. Unfortunately for Jacqueline Lubrano, she had a tight distance to the first jump. Christina Lin and Christy DiStefano's tests went well. The riders were asked to exit the ring and the pinnings from 10th through first were announced. Christy DiStefano won, followed by Christina Lin in second. Jackie Lubrano dropped to third place and Tina DiLandri ended up fourth.
Grace Carucci placed 11th. One of Frank's other riders, Gabrielle Bausano, placed 31st. Both will go to Syracuse to contest the Maclay Finals. Two of his other riders are on the bubble in 38th and 42nd place. Word had it that the top 36 were assured of a place in the final, but they might take more depending on how all of the other regional finals finish.
The best part of this weekend was being able to see the transformation of each horse and rider as they were prepared for this final class. The schooling became more complicated and the riders were more finely tuned. Frank worked hard to make sure everyone felt good before going into the ring, keeping things light and drama-free.
I felt privileged to be able to be close to Frank during this intense weekend. Setting jumps and chatting about his riders' performances was a great opportunity to witness a program that produces top riders. Frank told me to stay in touch, that since the relationship was established, I was welcome to call on him whenever I need to. He was a pleasure to work with. I've learned a lot and have a lot to share with my students. There's a lot of work for them in the future!
Thank you to Practical Horseman and Bates Saddles for making this experience possible. It truly was a unique opportunity that I wouldn't have been able to get any other way. And of course, thank you to Frank Madden for his kindness and generosity.
Part 2: Day 1 | Part 2: Day 2
Terri Young is Frank Madden's grand-prize winner of the 2008 Week with the Maddens Contest, sponsored by Bates Saddles, Practical Horseman and the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament. Terri trains horses and teaches riders of all levels at her stable, Clairvaux LLC, in Leesburg, Va. She specializes in bridging the gap between the local Virginia show circuit and USEF-rated shows. Terri grew up competing in equitation and hunters in New Jersey before spending several years working for top dressage trainers, including Lendon Gray. After graduating with a degree in business management from Syracuse University, she moved to Germany where she trained and showed jumpers before returning stateside to open her own stable. She is a USEF "r" judge and a member of the USHJA Marketing and Communications Committee.