October 6, 2002 -- It was like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. Wasn't I just watching the Final Four at the World Equestrian Games?
But the horse-switching routine got another workout today at the BET/U.S. Equestrian Team Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East. The top four in this super-equitation class rode each others' mounts over the same course to determine a winner, the way the big guns did at the WEG.
This time, the competition seemed more equal than it was in Spain, and the horses all were workmanlike (or workmarelike, as the case may be), with not a big bogey in the bunch.
The class went to Kristy McCormack of New Jersey, who was one of the favorites going in. She won the Maclay regional qualifier for her area, as well as being part of the gold medal team at the North American Young Riders Championship and taking the Calvin Klein Derby at the Hampton Classic.
Another big clue to her capability among the 53 competitors at the USET Training Center here was that after the first three phases, she was on top with 388 points, to 386.25 for her friend, Krista Freundlich, another Jerseyan. Both are trained by the husband/wife team of Frank and Stacia Madden.
But there was some suspense because everyone in the final four had a few glitches. It's not easy to get on a strange horse with only two minutes to school -- in front of everyone, I might add -- and then go over a course designed by Conrad Homfeld. Even though you're riding it four times, it doesn't get any easier because of the unknown horse factor.
I figured as I watched the class, run in splendid autumn sunshine, that Kristy was the winner. But I wasn't sure. You see, she had two knockdowns in one round, while Amy Lowrey did 5 and 1/2 strides on a six-stride bending line to the 5A-B combination, right in front of the judges. Ouch! I wasn't sure how the judges would see it, though.
The ribbon winners are announced in Miss America fashion, from the lowest placing to the highest. Suspense! We knew five through 10 already, because they finished that way after this morning's third segment, over a course that included a water jump (more about that later.) But how would the final four be ranked?
Krista (not to be confused with Kristy) was fourth, while Courtney McKay from Florida was third. Amy, as it turned out, got the nod for second. The judges decided in favor of Kristy.
"We know that there's going to be controversy," said trainer Susie Schoellkopf, who judged the class with 2000 Olympian Lauren Hough, when I asked her about the placing afterward.
"We're very aware that Kristy had two rails on one horse," but she explained Amy's mistake at the combination was "major."
"It was very close until she made that mistake," she added.
"The final four were really top riders," said Lauren. "You just saw really consistent riding. All four horses were different types of horses and they handled each horse beautifully."
Consistency really was a deciding factor here (Susie said one of the downed rails was not Kristy's fault), and the judges were allowed to take into account the previous phases, where after segment number three, Kristy was more than 28 points ahead of Amy.
Tracking controversy is my job, so I went right to Amy's trainer, Peter Lutz, for his assessment.
Here's what he had to say: "I think it was well-judged. The ride-off was very competitive and close, as it turned out, and also very fair."
Okay, no controversy there, but if you want some, there was a bit elsewhere. The first phase, held yesterday, involved riding on the flat, as it always does.
This time, however, the judges wanted the flat work as a warm-up for the gymnastics phase. So a memo went out to all competitors on Sept. 16 saying riders would have to incorporate a variety of gaits and movements in their flat work. We're not talking piaffe and passage here; it was basics including working walk, working trot with a lengthening of stride and lead changes (simple or flying). And they had a couple of weeks to practice.
Apparently it still was hard for some riders to get their heads around the concept. Not Krista F., though. She was creative and led the way in that test with a 90, the next-highest mark being an 86 from Whitney Roper.
"Our biggest disappointment was the flat," said Judge Susie, noting a lot of competitors were "very disorganized."
And the working walk? Fuggedaboutit. Literally. According to Susie, "Twenty-five kids did not do a working walk." As I just said, they must have forgotten. How hard is it to do a working walk?
Trainer Andre Dignelli was among those who did not like the flat format.
"It made for a boring class to watch," he said, adding it "wasn't clear what everyone was trying to accomplish, they were all over the ring."
Another little controversy was the water jump in round three. As had been pointed out during a lunch break question-and-answer session with the judges (what a GREAT idea)these kids rarely have the chance to jump water. Mostly at the Hampton Classic, apparently. Someone said generally the water jumps for the USET class used to have a rail over them.
But I don't think you can learn to jump water too soon. Several of our key competitors in the WEG selection trials had major water problems, and this class is a talent search to find new riders for the USET.
"The hardest way to get to a water is out of a turn," said Lauren, so guess how the kids had to get to it here? But she suggested that instead of just running, the best way to clear a water is to try and see a distance. Ah-hah!
During the meeting with the judges, USET President Armand Leone, a former international show jumper himself, said how nice it was to have everyone in the trophy room, where he had watched longtime USET coach Bert de Nemethy draw courses for his riders on a blackboard.
He called the Talent Search "a unique opportunity," and those involved agreed.
"It's really special riding here, just being here where everyone else has been," said Kristy while she was surrounded by photos of such legends as Billy Steinkraus, Hugh Wiley, Kathy Kusner and so many others.
The USET class has a special aura.
"It was a fabulous competition. One of the best I've seen," said Susie.
Before I sign off, a note about the horses here. These days, riding in the USET finals takes some savvy, because it requires a horse with some extra jumping ability as well as equitation smoothness. And the whole thing is complicated by the fact that there are so many finals packed into a few weeks.
The only one of the final four on her own horse was Kristy. Although she rode Riverdance here, she'll be aboard another horse, Zweep, for other stops along the finals trail this fall.
Krista F. tried Kon Tiki, her mount from the barn of trainer Ken Berkley, in two warm-up classes at the Capital Challenge to get his measure before riding him here. She was the only one with a slight advantage in the final four because she had ridden Riverdance in a horse switch at the Maclay regionals.
Bobby Braswell, Courtney's trainer, knew her horse couldn't do the Capital Challenge (where she was second), the USET, the Medal, the Maclay and the Washington International equitation class and still have any gas in the tank. So he went to Frank Madden, with whom he has often cooperates, and asked if he could find a horse for Courtney to ride in the USET.
Frank in turn went to jumper rider Schuyler Riley to come up with Rhumbline, and passed him along. Courtney did quite a job on Rhumbline, riding with a broken left hand (it got crushed between two horses as she was going out to pasture several weeks ago.
Amy is Peter Lutz's working student, who attends college at the University of Massachusetts. At 20, the Armonk, N.Y., resident was the oldest in the final four (the USET rules allow people to compete in the class until they're 21). But she doesn't own her own horse, so for this outing she was aboard the affable Donatello. The bay gelding is owned by Annie Starke, the daughter of actress Glenn Close. Annie is in London this fall with her mom, who's playing Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire." That's according to Judy Richter, who owns the farm in Westchester County, N.Y., where Peter rents stalls.
Amy's apparently quite a gal, according to both Judy and Peter. She works for everything she gets, and has been practically a complete unknown on the circuit. She wasn't familiar to Lauren or Susie, though both were impressed with her.
Although she had never even been to a finals until two years ago, Amy grew up in the Bedford, N.Y., barn owned by her aunt, Kim Jones.
"She's been riding her whole life," said Peter.
The USET reserve championship was the biggest thing Amy ever won. She didn't say much, but you could tell this meant a lot. There will be no Medal or Maclay finals for her because of her age, but I know she got a lot of enjoyment out of coming to this competition and doing so well.
She's also a "third-generation" USET ribbon winner. Andre Dignelli won in 1985. Then his working student, Peter Lutz, won in 1991, when Peter's current partner, Mary Manfreddi (then another working student), was second.
This time, it was Amy's turn.