July 28, 2002--San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
There have been more twists and turns in this thing over the last two weekends than designer Leopoldo Palacios incorporated on his challenging courses. But when we came to the end of it at the Oaks/Blenheim show here, Molly Ashe--who originally wasn't even planning to try for the team--finished number one with that fantastic mare, Kroon Gravin. And European-based Peter Wylde, who you would have had to consider a bit of a longshot, was second with Fein Cera (another mare). Leslie Howard, a two-time Olympian and WEG veteran I figured would be a huge asset to the team with her experience, wound up third with Priobert de Kalverie, who cut quite a swath through Europe during the winter. And Nicki Shahinian-Simpson, who missed out on the 2000 Olympics when El Campeon's Cirka Z developed an abcess during those trials, hung in on the stallion to finish fourth.
I hate to start off my postcard with a cliche, but in the case of the U.S. Equestrian Team's World Equestrian Games show jumping selection trials, it's apt, so here it goes: "It ain't over 'til it's over."
So, this should be the team that goes to Jerez, Spain, in September, but the squad won't officially be named until Tuesday. The selectors have the option of replacing one person, either number three or number four, with someone they think is better suited for the slot. My guess is, if all the above horses are sound, they won't do it.
But McLain Ward wants to go to Spain. McLain, number one on the USET computer rankings list, dropped out Saturday after a tortuous series of jogs involving his horse, Viktor. The veterinarians for the USET let him compete Friday, though the ground jury from the CSI, the show here at the Oaks/Blenheim, failed Viktor and would not allow him to jump for prize money.
But even the USET vets had had enough by Saturday and didn't want to see the horse stressed further by jumping. They said Viktor could jog again this morning in an attempt to compete in the final two trials this morning and afternoon, but it was obvious Viktor wasn't getting any better. Since it was unlikely he would get clearance to compete as the vets were concerned about Viktor's welfare, McLain bowed out. At the time, he was tied for sixth place with 16 penalties.
He's hoping to be considered under new subjective criteria, contending his horse's record speaks for itself.
Nicki did not look happy when I asked her how she'd feel if the selectors decided to replace her with McLain.
"It's a hard situation to comment on," said Nicki, noting McLain had "unfortunate luck" with his horse. "That's why there are selectors, but it's a tough position to be in."
And, Nicki noted, she wants to go to Spain. Naturally, right?
"I have a lot of confidence in my horse," said the former national horsemanship champion. "I know he can jump whatever they build."
Leopoldo put up two humdinger courses here for the $175,000 Cargill Grand Prix of the U.S., which also served as the two final trial rounds. Two who looked like they'd make the team as of Friday sank here. Beezie Madden, fifth over all on Judgement, had rounds of 12 and 4 faults. Ray Texel, who had been standing in a tie for first and fifth, came in sixth with Lexicon on rounds of 4 and 12, and tied for 10th with Fleur, who dropped three rails in each round today.
The errors were understandable over routes worthy of the WEG.
"I thought they were technical enough," said Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, the reigning World Champion.
"They were light fences and didn't take too much (in the way of) rubs. There was a little bit of everything," he pointed out.
Rodrigo didn't have a rail down with Gandini Lianos in either round, but during his morning trip, he accumulated one time fault. It was expensive. Chris Kappler turned in two perfect rounds with Royal Kaliber to win the $52,500 first prize, which meant Rodrigo--who blamed himself for the time penalty -- had to settle for second place and the $35,000 that went with it.
It was a bittersweet victory for Kappler. Though the triumph was the biggest of Roy's career, you had to wonder "what if?" Roy had a shoe shift on him between the second and third trials. The nails cut into the quick of his hoof, and Chris had to bow out of the trials. But a week's rest did wonders for his horse and he showed his capabilities admirably today.
"The fact that he walked in cold turkey and jumped around the biggest grand prix course says a lot about this horse," said Chris. "He's a real trier and a real friend."
"For a horse to go double-clear today and then leave him at home (from the WEG) is too bad, but that's the way it goes," said George Morris, Chris's business partner and the USET's vice president of show jumping.
This was a first-class event, from the VIP tent where they were floating raspberries in the champagne glasses to the grandstands where extras like the Budweiser Clydesdales and the flag-carrying cowgirls got the spectators clapping. The jumps were beautiful as well as testing. There was an adobe wall, very California; a delicate white gate that looked as if it would fall over if you blew on it and an imposing narrow white wall at the maximum height of 5 feet, 3 inches that was decked with flowers.
It was the perfect place to select the team, which already seemed to be bonding moments after the competition ended. Leslie is kind of the mother hen of the group. She taught Nicki for years, and she was Molly's mentor during the years that the younger woman rode with her at the Fairfield Hunt Club.
Modestly, Leslie said the two were as much her teachers as she was theirs.
"There's nothing better when teaching than to teach wonderfully talented people," she said. "Watching people like that, it helps you articulate it."
And while she was passing out compliments, she gave one to Priobert.
"I got him in trouble two times and he said, `Shut up, Mom, I'll do it my way.' I have a super horse. You appreciate horses like him more as you get older and know what it takes to jump a championship course."
Leopoldo said he built the second course even bigger than usual, noting the final fence was "a condominium."
Kroon Gravin showed there how special she was--a lot of people call her a "freak" in a complimentary way--when she nearly put her landing gear down in the middle of that last humongous oxer. But she lifted her hooves again and sailed over to clinch first place in the team race.
Leopoldo actually could be considered the trainer for the team. As show manager Robert Ridland noted, Leopoldo's courses brought the horses and riders along "so when the team goes to the world championships, they will not be overwhelmed."
The designer has been impressed by what he's seen here and at the first set of trials just down the freeway in Del Mar.
"I test everything," he said of how he built his routes. "I feel very confident. I hope the U.S. wins or has a medal in the world championships."
Me too. I'll be in Spain for the WEG, busily writing postcards every day to tell you how our teams--and everyone else's--are doing in all seven disciplines.