October 9th, 2011 -- Imagine getting ready to walk the course for the show jumping phase of the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Finals East and finding out it was copied from the route for Great Britain's Hickstead Nations' Cup course? Surprise!
Actually, while the fences were the same, they were a few holes lower than they were at Hickstead, since the 84 competitors at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters were all 21 or under; mostly under.
And this is considered one of the fall equitation finals, although it has a jumper flavor. After all, the purpose of the Talent Search is to find riders who could represent the U.S. internationally. That's worked out pretty well. McLain Ward (1990)and Lauren Hough (1994), of whom you may have heard, are among past winners.
That roster of names engraved on the trophy also includes Andre Dignelli (1985), who called today, "the best day of my training career in 24 years." He coached three of the four finalists; the winner, Samantha Schaefer; reserve champion Michael Murphy and Schaefer Raposa, who was third. In addition, his students (he brought 14 of the 84 starters) took five of the 10 ribbons offered in the class.
"I knew coming here that I had probably the best group of horses and riders that I ever had. I came here ready and confident," Andre declared.
He understood what to expect with U.S. Show Jumping Coach George Morris and famed hunter trainer Jimmy Lee judging, figuring the water jump would be a factor.
Andre didn't get where he is by guessing wrong. The water jump did indeed play a key role, starting with yesterday's gymnastic test, which followed the morning's flat phase.
The gymnastics didn't look like other gymnastics I've seen at the finals over the years, with a series of options, often a counter-canter test, bounces and X fences. This was a more jumper class-type route that appeared rather innocent, but was clever enough to do the job, with the degree of difficulty heightened by the water jump at the end.
George and I talked about his course; I could see he was very proud of it.
It quite scrambled the standings. Going into the gymnastics, Michael Hughes was in the lead with a 93. But he miscalculated his ride to the final fence, the water, and his mount, Catwoman, chipped in. That dropped him to 17th with a score of 70 (though he recouped in the show jumping to finish 10th.) Many others had problems with the water, from refusing out to getting a dunking.
Lillie Keenan, winner of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Finals in August, took over first place on Kosta with a 94 for her gymnastics effort. Last year's Medal and Maclay finals winner, Hayley Barnhill of Tennessee, stayed in second place post-gymnastics after scoring a 91 to go with her 92 that the 18-year-old earned in the flat phase. The Schaefers, Samantha S. of Maryland and S. Raposa of New York, were third and fourth respectively. Michael Murphy, a Floridian who has never won a ribbon in an equitation finals, was farther back in ninth place.
And then came the Hickstead course. The water was the fifth fence in this one, while it ended with the white Hickstead planks, very delicate and easy to knock down.
Michael did a great job, earning a 90. Hayley was even better, with a 93, while Samantha S., winner of the 2009 Washington equitation championship, got an 89 and S. Raposa an 88.
Lillie, however, made a big splash; not as in a great impression, but rather as hooves in the water. She wound up fifth, failing to make the cut for the Final Four.
I talked with Jimmy Lee, a tall, courtly Southern gentleman from Virginia (though I must add on the basis of state pride that he grew up in New Jersey) about the caliber of the rides he'd seen, and the morning course.
The Final Four, modeled after a similar test that determines the World Show Jumping Champion, involves the top riders going over a short course (in this case, an abbreviated version of the morning's offering), then switching horses with their counterparts and jumping the same layout three more times.
Interestingly, both Michael and S. Raposa had penalties for exceeding the 57-second time allowed on their own horses, as they went first and second in the first round, and Hayley did the same. But no one made that mistake again after they figured out they needed to gallop to the black-and-white triple bar that was fence number five.
Everyone started from scratch in this phase, with previous scores not to count, although the riders went in order from lowest to highest based on the total from the three previous phases.
Thus Hayley had the privilege of being last to go. She earned a 95 on Michael's horse, with an 82 and an 85 on the others, but scored a 53? aboard her own horse, Asparagus, after putting in two strides in the in-and-out. That placed her fourth.
"I didn't ride my horse well. I was fine on the others," said Hayley, who attributed it to nerves. "I wanted it really bad."
Samantha S., meanwhile, earned the highest score of the Final Four, a 96, on Asparagus. The 18-year-old, who will attend Baylor University next semester, was a runaway winner, with 370 points to 346 for Michael, 333 for S. Raposa and 315 for Hayley.
I asked Samantha S. about her resounding victory.
"I think Sam won today because last year she gave it away," Andre said, referring to her 2010 performance.
"She didn't understand the importance of the time allowed. She's always been a great rider," said Andre, who explained his contribution to her talents was helping her with style.
Hayley's coach, Missy Clark, was sympathetic to her student.
"I don't think you can come to this event and try to really win it without having been here before," said Missy, noting that last year, Hayley had to stay at the Capital Challenge show in Maryland, which also is running this weekend, to ride hunters and couldn't compete in the Talent Search.
"Now she's armed with more information for next year," said Missy, noting Hayley has four years left to compete in the class.
"I think they all leave this event riding better, no matter what level they come in at."
Michael, 18, who is planning to be a professional, understands.
"I showed up last year expecting to do well and I found out very quickly that you can't just walk in and expect to be at the top."
He almost didn't make this year's competition. The son of a professional, he got his mount, Uriame, a former junior jumper in Mexico, late in the season and had to push to qualify. Andre laughed about pulling all the horses out of the barn at his farm, Heritage, so they could compete in a show there in which Michael was participating so he could get double points.
Uriame won the Grappa trophy as the best horse of the finals. No one who rode him got less than an 83.
A member of last year's Young Rider team that went to Europe, Michael's credentials include gold and silver team medals there, as well as third place in a grand prix in Reims, France.
His primary trainer is Ivan Rakowsky, a native of Mexico who both rode on teams there and served as chef d'equipe. He has worked with a number of people here, including grand prix star Margie Engle.
S. Raposa, the daughter of grand prix rider David Raposa, said she simply was "thrilled" to make the Final Four. Her credits include victory in the Wolffer Equitation Classic at the Hampton Classic in 2009.
Missy praised the judging, saying of George and Jimmy, "How wonderful it was to experience their knowledge and expertise. They are two icons of the business."
Asked how the class was pinned, George said, "The sport has gotten very, very sophisticated."? He noted it is all about "specific details."
"It is not the sport of years ago, blood and guts." He observed a lead change that wasn't prompt (it happened to Michael) was "a big deal."
They announce the placings of the top four like the Miss America pageant, and when only two were left, Michael and Samantha S. were side-by-side. I asked him if he knew at that point who would claim the championship tri-color.
"I thought she was going to win it," said Michael.
"She was a little more sophisticated on all four of the horses." Details, details.
Riders in the Final Four had two minutes to warm up, and I watched Andre dealing with them during that time, omnipresent in the ring as he in effect competed with himself for the trainer's award.
Next weekend, I'm off to Maryland for the Dansko Fair Hill International three-day event. It's got a 2-star and a 3-star, the last biggie for the discipline on the East Coast for this season. Be sure to check on Sunday night for my postcard.