What will you remember most about the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions over the last two weekends? The brilliant performances or the footing problems? Let's face it, the spectators probably didn't notice the footing. But as we found out when the show jumpers slid at the Olympics last year, the condition of the ground is one topic that competitors are never reticent in addressing. It was a particularly sensitive issue at the Festival because it's held at the USET Training Center, where everyone expects conditions to be perfect.
"Footing is the issue of the year," says USET President and CEO Armand Leone Jr., and that is no understatement.
A sinkhole developed in the dressage arena, where moving the ring over and constant work improved the situation, but the basic surface also drew criticism. "I'm aware of it when I'm riding a test, and I think it makes you a little conservative," says Debbie McDonald, who won the USET Grand Prix Dressage Championship on Brentina.
"It's a little deep, and there's one spot at 'B' that sinks. You're kind of thinking, 'If you push real hard, are you going to risk pulling something?' They are aware of it and it's something they're planning on doing (fixing) so in the future it doesn't happen."
Drivers were unhappy at the prospect of being in the new north field facility, as was originally scheduled. That field is new and the ground is still settling, so it was decided to move the horses to the well-established Pine Meadow section of the property. The change was made too late for those who planned on skipping the competition to put it back in their schedule, so the turnout for that division was light.
Drivers were pleased with the conditions when they used the jumper ring at Pine Meadow, which held up very well in the rain that came down for the cones segment, but the jumper riders had their complaints about the surface.
Though the ground kept some competitors away from the Festival, feelings were mixed about it, which is one reason it's so hard to fix footing to everyone's satisfaction. Show jumping active riders' committee chairman Robert Ridland, for instance, thought the Pine Meadow footing was fine when he competed there last year and wouldn't sign a memo from the committee stating that the surface was abrasive.
McLain Ward salutes the enormous effort the USET put in to improve it for the Festival, but the runner-up in the $100,000 Rolex/USET Show Jumping Championship suggests the best permanent solution would be to get rid of everything that's in the ring and start all over.
On the other hand, Jimmy Torano, who was third in the championship, said after his ride, "Today was really, really good after the rain. I think it was fine all week, but today it was excellent." Asked whether he thought it was abrasive, Jimmy said, "It can be here, but not this week."
So you figure it out. USET Executive Director Bob Standish is throwing the ball back in the competitors' court by asking for the establishment of footing subcommittees to offer input on what should be done with the surfaces.
The one ring that no one had any gripes about was the reining arena, but guess what? A downpour turned it into a lake. After the last horse in the freestyle fell in the mud, the final round of the reining Nations' Cup was postponed until the next day.
Clear skies and an effort from the ring crew produced a good surface for the $100,000 Cosequin/USET Championship 24 hours later, though winner Bryant Pace admitted he took it a little easier than usual with Gunner, fearing a slip. But as National Reining Horse Association Director of Judges Allen Mitchells said, "For what this footing endured in the last 36 hours, it's amazing. Most places wouldn't be having a horse show after 5 inches of rain."
ONE MORE THING -- The verdict about having the Festival over two weekends was that it should go back to a four-days-in-a-row format. If all the disciplines aren't staged at once, it's really not the Festival.
Bob Standish is hoping the golf club that shares the property can widen the main entrance road from one to two lanes before next June. That would give the green light to a one-weekend Festival. It was changed to two weekends this year to eliminate the awful traffic jams for buses and vans that plagued the 2000 Festival.
DRIVE TIME -- As we predicted last week, Larry Poulin, winner of the final selection trial, was named to the U.S. squad for the World Pairs Driving Championship, along with Lisa Singer, the runner-up at the Festival, and David Saunders. The non-traveling alternate is Jamie O'Rourke.
The team will spend time training in Holland before the championships with Tucker Johnson, who is taking on a new role. He replaced another four-in-hand driver, Sem Groenewoud, who was hospitalized with a heart condition.
Tucker is known as "the king of cones" for his expertise in that crucial segment of combined driving competition, and that should come in particularly handy with his new duties.
Evaluating the team that will compete in Riesenbeck, Germany, U.S. Equestrian Team Director of Driving Wendy Wares-Cook notes, "The weakest spot we could identify was cones." I'll bet it won't be the weakest spot once Tucker gets through with the team.
A NEW FACE -- Steve Macken, the 24-year-old son of Irish show jumping legend Eddie Macken, is a new (and handsome) face on the U.S. scene. He's in negotiations to ride for Tim Grubb's stable, since Tim is now concentrating on running his operation after a storied career that included two Olympics.
Steve's father has fallen in love with a Canadian and moved to Vancouver, so Steve came over to this side of the pond and made his first visit east for the Festival, having limited his previous time in the U.S. to the west coast. Steve has a lot of jumper mileage, with several grand prix victories and a third in the Hamburg Jumping Derby aboard Sky View, but "I've never in my life sat on a hunter," he admits.
He's got an impressive background, though. In addition to his father, he has trained with well-known dealer Francois Mathy and Paul Schockemohle.