February 28, 2016 -- Once best known as a show jumper, Marilyn Little undertook eventing with determination and immersion a little more than five years ago. Her greatest reward to date was double gold at the 2015 Pan American Games. She's definitely a hot candidate for this summer's Olympic team.
But if that means she's comfortably in your consciousness as an eventer, this weekend demonstrated it may be time for a rethink.
Returning to the grand prix arena seriously just last month, she proved this afternoon that her ability in show jumping is sharper than it ever was by winning the last class in the 2015-2016 inaugural Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League with incredible form.
It was her second victory on the swift 12-year-old Hanoverian mare Corona (by Cordalme Z) in two days at the Live Oak International show, held against a backdrop of Spanish moss and--what else--live oaks, on a plantation of nearly 5,000 acres.
This afternoon's $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Ocala qualifier was the highlight of three days of competition atop springy emerald turf, a bit of a delightful rarity in these days of all-weather footing.
Conditions were perfect for 32 starters to test their skill on a marvelous course designed by the ingenious Leopoldo Palacios. Giving a course walk to a group of VIPS before the class, Leopoldo was asked by one of them, ''Do riders ever say your courses are too hard?''
Chuckling, Leopoldo replied that has happened more than once. But not today. The route was spot-on, just tough enough to produce a 10-horse jump-off that guaranteed even more excitement for the crowd packing the area around the arena.
That area had been widened for this year's show, and Leopoldo used the extra ground to good effect for his lengthy first-round floorplan of 17 jumping efforts.
The seventh fence, a formidable wall off a turn, was eight strides from a triple bar, which in turn stood three strides from a delicate double. This test was guaranteed to result in knockdowns for a horse that wasn't perfectly in tune with his rider. The final line involved a vertical/oxer double against the rail, where the crowd was pressed forward, as they were at the final fence, a blue-and-white oxer flanked by evergreens.
If a horse got distracted by the fans, dropped rails were sure to follow. Several horses were quite spooky upon entering the white-fenced arena, where the fans generated an electric aura that seemed to make the jumps look bigger. Leopoldo also used the terrain cleverly; even a field that may look flat from the bleachers has little ups and downs that can make a difference in striding and take-off.
''There are no courses more challenging to jump than Leopoldo's courses,'' Marilyn stated.
''There were a number of tricks hiding in there. This was a progressive course that started off softly enough.''
By the end, it tested both scope and heart, but she noted, ''It was a real pleasure to jump.''
In the jump-off, Marilyn was fourth to go and the first rider to be fault-free. Her lickety-split time of 43.34 seconds posed the question, ''Do you think you can beat this?'' to the six riders who followed her.
Only two more would be clean over the route that required a long gallop to the final fence, the Longines oxer that had not been in the first round.
Chloe Reid, whose mother, Juliet, organizes the show with Chloe's uncle, Chester Weber, took the challenge with her pony-faced adorable 9-year-old stallion, Codarco, a son of the legendary Darco. She's only 19, but training with Germany's Marcus Beerbaum (husband of Meredith) has raised the University of Miami student's game to a high level. Her time of 45.19 seconds was impressive, and would be good enough for second. How amazing that someone just out of the junior ranks beat every professional in the class except Marilyn!
Chloe is busy planning what undoubtedly will be a bright future.
Last to go was Harvard student Katie Dinan with Dougie Douglas, a sensation in Great Britain before she imported him late last year. Her round was a bit more cautious in 48.61 seconds, but that was wise, as only the three women were able to go fault-free in the tiebreaker.
You can see the chemistry between Katie and Dougie, an Irishbred with a sweet look about him who is by Ard VDL Douglas (hence his name.)
I asked Katie about her relationship with her new horse.
Marilyn is now officially a double threat. She's in the game in two disciplines, and who knows where that will lead? Listen to what she had to say about that.
The placings finalized the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League East Coast standings, with seven qualified to go to the finals in Sweden next month. Kent Farrington is first, followed by Hardin Towell, and Quentin Judge (who was fifth today and had made the finals his goal since the beginning of the season).
Fourth is Callan Solem, who also had been aiming at earning the trip to Gothenburg, while McLain Ward is fifth, Laura Kraut, sixth; and Beezie Madden seventh.
However, Kent and McLain don't have the Longines FEI World Cup™ Finals in their sights. That opens the door for Katie, who is the first alternate, followed by Peter Lutz and Charlie Jacobs.
The Longines experience for the shows lucky enough to host qualifying classes this season meant more than just generous sponsorship. The company provides a service in the form of precision timekeeping and an information system that is appreciated by show officials. It's also shown on monitors around the showgrounds, so fans can follow the action and be up to date not only on the scoring, but also on what competitor is going next into the ring so they don't miss their favorites.
Live Oak, which also features driving, is an incredible show. I asked Chester, who earned his 13th National Four-in-Hand Championship, what it's like having such a competition on the family's property. Click on the right facing arrow below to hear what he had to say.
For more photos from the Live Oak show, be sure to go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
I'll have another postcard tomorrow about the driving and other classes at Live Oak.