November 2, 2014--Dreams delivered and dreams destroyed: It was a typical ASPCA Maclay hunt seat horsemanship finals at the National Horse Show today, with all the excitement and heartbreak that implies.
Everyone's dream seemed still within reach at 7 a.m., when the class got under way in the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. There were 153 teens from across the country waiting to be tested by judges McLain Ward, the Olympic gold medal show jumper who was second in the Maclay 21 years ago, and Chrystine Jones Tauber, the U.S. Equestrian Federation president and winner of the 1965 Maclay.
The first course was a stunner that commanded riders to take charge immediately, with a five-stride vertical/oxer line that had to be ridden in forward fashion. Challenges included a wingless triple bar six strides from a vertical pillared gate, a double of verticals off a U-turn and an oxer/oxer pairing.
The most talked-about option was turning from a double of verticals inside a white Swedish oxer to an oxer of natural rails three strides from a vertical of the same poles. Most of the riders chose to go around the Swedish. As Stacia Madden, whose students have won multiple finals, explained to me, it was quite a risk to make that rollback turn to an oxer; it would have been much easier to a vertical.
But Andre Dignelli, whose students had won four Maclays, felt it was worth the risk.
"We didn't come here to be second," he said, and that proved to be prophetic.
I counted only four riders who tried the short route. One of them was Tori Colvin, the teen superstar who has excelled in the hunters (she rode Ovation, the Grand Champion Junior Hunter at the National) and the jumpers, but has come up short in the equitation finals this year.
When the list of 30 for the flat phase was called, Tori stood behind leader Hunter Holloway, second last week to Michael Hughes in the Washington International's equitation finals. I have covered the Maclay finals since the 1970s, and never have I seen a flat test like the one these riders faced.
Just a few examples (I really can't take the space to list everything they had to do.) Okay: Lengthen stride in the working trot, half-passes to the left and right, lengthened canter to collected canter, a 20-foot circle at the canter, two flying changes, working without stirrups.
Whew, I'm tired just writing it.
I asked trainer Tim Kees, another who has coached finals winners, what he thought and he felt the test was great. He noted that the flatwork is supposed to be 50 percent of the score, but more often than not in the Maclay, it's been cursory, in my view.
Hunter and Tori stayed 1-2 when the top 15 were named for a second test over a different course. Lengthening and shortening were key in this one, too. It started off with the wingless triple bar, from which riders went on a bending line to a trot fence. Extend and shorten. Riders were asked to halt after taking a one-stride double on a diagonal line to a two-stride double four strides away. Then they had to pick up the counter-canter and go around the end of the ring to a vertical before hand-galloping to an oxer.
But what turned out to be key in naming a new champion was the line from the next-to-last fence, an oxer, to the final obstacle, the ASPCA wall. It was six strides. A definite six strides, I was told by all the trainers with whom I discussed it.
Following the second round, Chrystine and McLain wanted one more test over the same course. Tori and Hunter switched horses, with Hunter hopping aboard Patrick and Tori riding Hunter's Any Given Sunday (love that name!) Tori said Any Given Sunday rode like a hunter, which suited her fine, since that's her strongest suit.
Hunter, who is coached by Don Stewart, looked fine on Patrick, but she did seven strides instead of the six to the ASPCA wall, and there went her lead. You may think it's nitpicking, but when I discussed it with1982 Maclay winner Peter Wylde, he explained it's a nuance--and an important one. There just wasn't any reason to add there, and the extra stride made the final fence look a little dull. Hunter said she simply "miscounted down the last line."
I talked to McLain, runner-up to Beezie Madden in the $250,000 Canadian Pacific Grand Prix last night, about how the Maclay went.
He drew an interesting parallel between his grand prix experience yesterday and the Maclay result.
Now that Tori's "out of the way," Hunter and the others who didn't age out have a shot at winning the 2015 Maclay. But you can be sure that Andre will have a strong group coming back to try to claim his sixth title at the National.
I enjoyed speaking with him about his experience; coaching a winner ends well, but it brings a lot of angst beforehand. When everyone else has left the building after the Saturday night show, the Maclay riders and their trainers are just getting started on the ring time they need to exercise their horses and practice for the big day.
I'm always interested in the people behind the winners, which includes their parents. Brigid Colvin, Tori's mother, has been omnipresent since her precocious daughter started her climb to fame on the ponies. We talked about this goal, and what's next.
Michael Hughes finished third in the final equitation championship of his career, and said yesterday he wasn't particularly concerned about winning the Maclay--he is eager to focus on the jumpers and his career as a professional. Fourth went to rising star Ali Tritschler, followed by Pessoa/USEF Medal winner Spencer Smith--who also won an award that goes to the rider with the most points in all the equitation finals--while Madison Goetzmann was sixth.
Watching the Maclay is always instructional, but in addition to teaching spectators about the mechanics of equitation, it offers a lesson in what can be achieved with hard work and dedication.
In the old days, the show year basically ended with the National. Now, of course, there is no real break, though there is little in the way of major fixtures (especially in the East) until the winter circuits begin.
But I'm through with competition coverage for 2014. (Be sure to check for National Horse Show photos at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.) I'm still recovering from the World Equestrian Games! I will have another postcard, however, on Dec. 12 from Las Vegas, whereI'll be attending the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting.