March 31, 2013 -- "I can't believe it's the last weekend," a woman in the box seats behind me sighed mournfully as the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival drew to a close. Some would say it was 12 long weeks; riders often complain that they need a break (so take one, don't show your horses during one week). Others, like the depressed lady in the stands, think it's too short a time to be able to watch many of the best riders and horses in the world.
I understand what she means. It's great to spend time in Wellington, Fla., where the equestrian section is a unique community that now is talked about worldwide. Drive around and you'll be in awe.
As I got ready to say goodbye to Wellington for 2013, I reflected, as I often do, on? its uniqueness. When I visited Canadian dressage star Ashley Holzer (more about her later) Saturday morning, the scene in her neighborhood five minutes from the showgrounds was pure bliss. The sun sparkled, the palms swayed slightly and people were riding everywhere in what looked like horse heaven.
This morning I was in Grand Prix Village, next to the showgrounds, and saw beautiful stable after beautiful stable (not to mention the mansions that go with them). The grounds seem always to be garlanded by colorful flowers making a Florida statement, and ringed by impressive hedges that offer privacy. And I'll admit to some sadness as I watched the big tractor-trailers loaded with fabulous horseflesh pulling out to head north.
The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, the focal point of equestrian existence for many here, is unique, with acres of arenas. There's always a festive air for "Saturday Night Lights," the big grands prix that draw thousands of spectators. More than an hour before last night's $500,000 FTI Consulting 5-Star Finale Grand Prix, the stands were packed. A live band entertained and the mood was anticipation as the climax of the jumper competition drew near.
To decorate the ring, giant date palms were added (my progress to the parking lot on Friday was held up as a truck laden with the huge trees attempted to maneuver the narrow path leading to the arena).
There was a stellar 40-horse field for the finale, but halfway through the class, there was only one clear round, Athina Onassis de Miranda of Greece on Camille Z.
Last year's winner, Colombia's Daniel Bluman, had? a foot in the water with Sancha LS. Margie Engle was going well down the last line aboard Royce as the crowd cheered her on, then dropped a rail at the final fence as a heartfelt groan echoed from thousands of fans around the arena.
Had course designer Alan Wade made the route too tough? Nope, he's a genius. Nine more clear trips joined Athina's in the second half of the class, setting the stage for one of the most thrilling jump-offs of the season.
Kent Farrington had the fastest time of the tiebreaker on Blue Angel, 43.52 seconds, but it was only good enough for fourth, as the rails clattered down from the last fence.
"My horse was trying her guts out the whole way around," said Kent, who had won a class earlier this month with the mare.
"You have a group of riders like this competing for $500,000 and everybody's going to put it all on the line," he explained.
"That's my style as well, and if I win, I'm going to go all out and if I don't win, it's not going to be from lack of trying.
"We pulled out all the stops. I took a big risk at the last fence doing nine strides, which is sort of a big stretch for that small a horse. I knew if I did one more, I'd be second or third anyway, so I'll take the risk and if I have one down, I'll be fourth, but if she happens to leave it up, then maybe it's our day."
Don't feel to sorry for Kent, though. After the class, he was presented with a blown-up version of the check for $50,000 that he will get for winning the FTI Rider Challenge, based on his results during the circuit.
Athina's husband, Alvaro (Doda) de Miranda, a Brazilian Olympian, went after Kent and knew what he had to do with AD Rahmannshof's Bogeno. His wife had gone clear in a leisurely 54.46 seconds, but she was smart not to push it--she wound up third.
Doda clinched the win in 43.96 seconds with a powerful round. But the bravest effort belonged to Great Britain's Ben Maher, who finished second on Cella. Ben was diagnosed with several fractures of his vertebrae following a fall last week in the warm-up area, and he took the difficult decision of riding in pain, all braced and wrapped up. His effort in 44.88 came before Kent and Doda went, so if he had gone later, maybe he could have found a slightly faster route.
Doda was a gracious winner, and did not neglect to give his wife kudos, noting she devotes nearly her entire life to her horses. I thought his mount was amazing, though I was having a lot of trouble typing his name, so we talked about this big bay.
It may not surprise you to hear that George Morris has been working with Doda and his wife. Oh no, George said he wasn't really working with them, he was "a sounding board."
Here's how the sounding board sounded, "Whoa, whoa; leg, leg, gallop!" all delivered in the inimitable Morris vocal style.
Both Doda and his wife are very grateful for his help, and they have some powerhouse support as well from Rodrigo Pessoa and his father, Nelson. The Brazilians have medaled at the Olympics before, and I would bet they'll be likely to do it again in Rio three years from now. Doda noted that the Brazilian Olympic Committee has earmarked show jumping as one of the country's few chances for a medal on its home turf.
In the afternoon's 1.5 meter Suncast Classic, Jessica Springsteen showed she has really gotten together with Vindicat W, the horse who clinched the team gold medal for the Brits at the London Olympics. She has gained rapport with the horse in the half-year or so that she has owned him, and in the Suncast took the measure of such stars as her trainer, Laura Kraut, and McLain Ward during the12-horse jump-off. The combination of Jessie and Vinnie is particularly impressive on the turns.
I had thought, however, that she might be in the $500,000 class instead of the Suncast, but she explained why she wasn't entered, and then talked a little about her winning trip.
The WEF ended today with the handy round of the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby. It was held on the grass a half-mile from PBIEC, at the Global Dressage Festival grounds. Not many people showed up to watch; it was, after all, Easter, but those who did were treated to a special experience, as horses jumped many natural obstacles, including a little bank.They ascended a hill to trot over birch rails at the top, and finished with a flourish over a jump that used giant champagne bottles to demarcate the more difficult option from the lower parts of the fence. Riders get bonus points for trying the higher options and for galloping and making "handy" tight turns to show off their mounts.
They did a classic round at PBIEC yesterday, with the top four all within two points. Jen Alfano, known as a derby specialist with Jersey Boy, winner of the 2012 hunter derby finals in Kentucky, was up on the calm redhead Miss Lucy.
"She's so NOT a chestnut mare," said Jen, and anyone who has had a temperamental female horse of that color knows what she means. Miss Lucy stood fourth on 186 points going into today's round, four points ahead of the amazing Inclusive, ridden by Tori Colvin, who was penalized for a light rub yesterday.
Tori's plan for today?
"I was just going to go as handy as I can and jump the big ones and if I have a rail, I have a rail, because I kind of had to move up, not down," the talented teen said.
Her plan worked. The three at the top after the first round, Brunello (Elizabeth Boyd), Skyfall (Louise Serio) and Taken (Kelly Farmer), all dropped today, to fifth, 12th and 11th respectively.
Jen, as she so often does, nailed it with Lucy to win on a total score for both rounds of 384.5, while Inclusive was reserve champion with 382. Former national equitation champion Kristy McCormack moved up from seventh to third on Temptation with a score of 380.
If you've never come early to a hunter derby, you might be amazed to see grooms, riders and trainers leading their horses around, not only looking at the jumps and sniffing them, but in the case of straw bales and greenery, sometimes trying to nibble them.
The idea is to give them an introduction to the course. While veteran Louise Serio said she thinks sometimes it's more for the riders' benefit than that of the horses, she noted that the horses had only competed at PBIEC this season and had never been over to the other showgrounds.
When you think of where the idea of hunters came from ( I know, I know, they bear no real relation to horses who follow the hounds), the "course walk" procedure seems to be a little weird. Jen Alfano and I discussed it.
It's not all fun and games at the WEF. There are some very real issues facing the show horse industry. Last week, the U.S. Equestrian Federation held the first of its Town Hall meetings at the showgrounds. The idea is to educate people in the sport on equine welfare and "Meeting the Needs of the Performance Horse in a Changing Environment," and get some feedback as well.
Hunters particularly have been singled out on drugs and medications issues, but the USEF says the situation should be addressed across all breeds and disciplines. Six other such meetings will be held across the country through the summer, so if there's one in your area, you might find it interesting to attend.
I asked USEF President Chrystine Tauber what she thought about the first meeting and the response from owners, trainers, riders and others in the industry.
By the way, if you've given something to your horse to make it go like a zombie, beware. Officials will be on the lookout for that and those animals could be candidates for a drug screening, as well as being marked down in their class, Chrystine told me.
Oh, real quick, back to Ashley Holzer. She had been without a grand prix horse when owner P.J. Rizvi started riding Ashley's Olympic mount, Breaking Dawn. But then GQ, a Small Tour horse, owned by P.J., came back into the picture.
He had suffered a bone infection two years ago, and it was so bad that when the vet said he would never be sound, Ashley warned P.J. she should be prepared to put him down. P.J. wouldn't hear of it.
"No expense was too much for him to become a lawn ornament," said Ashley.
The one day, an incredulous Ashley got a call from P.J. saying GQ was sound. P.J. showed him here last week and won, smiling all the way, but left the ring bawling with emotion at the enormity of the moment.
So P.J. is focusing on G.Q. and Ashley is back riding Breaking Dawn, though she noted P.J. at some point will take over on him again.
But until then, could she possibly ride him in next year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games?
"I'm not saying anymore," said Ashley, who is out of the prediction business and playing it day by day.
I thought that was a good story; the moral: Never give up on someone you love.
And next Sunday morning I'll have another postcard for you, this one on the always memorable Gene Mische American Invitational in Tampa.