September 22, 2002 -- Adios, Fino. Believe it or not, I felt tears in my eyes as the happy blue-winged equine mascot of the Jerez World Equestrian Games waved goodbye to us all in the closing ceremonies this afternoon.
Despite the non-stop work and unfamiliar (I'm being kind here) food for the two weeks I've been covering the WEG, it's hard not to feel a little sadness when a sporting event this beautiful finally ends.
The closing ceremonies featured more of those magnificent purebred Spanish horses from the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, but cute little Fino was the one who touched my heart. I bought a mini stuffed Fino to take home for my bureau, where he will remind me about so many of the great times during this highly successful amalgamation of world championships.
There was our long-awaited gold medal in eventing and breakthrough to silver in dressage, that fabulous four-in-hand driving marathon, Debbie McDonald's wonderful (if unrewarded by the judges) dressage freestyle and the contagious enthusiasm of the crowds who packed the stadiums.
Some of the best moments came today, just hours before thousands of balloons drifted skyward as the Games wrapped up.
It was raining reining medals for the U.S., which took not only the team and individual golds, as expected, but the individual silver as well. And Peter Wylde came through to earn the individual bronze for show jumping, only the third American ever to get an individual medal in the sport at a world championship.
Chapin III, a short walk from the main stadium here, hosted a wow of a reining final before a packed house. There were supporters in each section with their national flags, waving them at the appropriate moments. You heard encouraging words shouted during the runs in several languages, as opposed to just the usual western twang.
To set the mood, they played country music ("Another Tequila Sunrise") while harrowing and watering the arena. And of course, there were lots of folks walking around in cowboy hats, folks who weren't riding but are part of the reining crowd, where 10-gallon headwear is the epitome of the dress code.
It's obvious reining is still in its infancy in most of the rest of the world. Though riders from 11 countries took part in the first round last week, with five national teams coming through to today, few looked as if they were playing the same game as the Americans and Canadians, who were awarded the team silver and individual bronze.
Italy took the team bronze, and that squad was not discouraged by North America's near-monopoly on reining medals.
"Being third, following the U.S. and Canada, is like winning the championships," said Italian reiner Adriano Meacci.
I felt a bit sorry for Tom McCutcheon, who was favored to win the individual gold with Conquistador Whiz. He tried to put a good face on it, but he looked blue this afternoon.
His horse popped a lead in his first run and lost three points doing it, so he wound up with a score of 219 while teammate Shawn Flarida got a 221.5 to win the whole thing. Tom's silver didn't come easy, either. He tied with Canada's Shawna Sapergia, a stunning woman who looked like a crimson flower in her team's long-sleeved red shirt with the maple leaf patch.
He and Shawna had what I've decided to call a "rein-off," where they ran the pattern again. This time, Tom's second 219 score was good enough for silver, while Shawna's 216.5 put her third.
Tom admitted to a little disappointment, but said the individual medals weren't the main goal.
"We came here to win the team gold and expose the sport to a whole new group of people and try and get it to the next level, so we have many opportunities to come and win another gold," he explained.
The show jumping "final four" competition for the individual medals was as exciting as ever. Three mares against one stallion, three men against one woman.
Helena Lundback, the bubbly Swedish rider who couldn't believe she made the cut, wound up where she probably figured she would. Although Helena was out of the medals, her mare was a key player in how the prizes were distributed.
Every rider -- including Helena -- had a knockdown with the 15.3-hand bay, a plucky thing whose spring off the ground belied her stature.
By the second round, Helena was sunk by three knockdowns on Liscalgot, the ride of Ireland's Dermott Lennon, while France's Eric Navet and Peter each had a rail. Everyone but Dermott added to their tab in the third round, so the destination of the gold was a foregone conclusion. Dermott was second to go in the final round, and with only the one knockdown on Mynta, he had secured the top prize event before Helena and Eric took their turns.
The 10-obstacle course was just testing enough to get the measure of the riders' abilities, without overtaxing obviously tired horses. Peter's knockdown in the final round with Liscalgot relegated him to the bronze after Eric Navet ended with no faults on Fein Cera, who was named Best Horse of the final. She had no jumping faults with any rider, actually, and just three time penalties with Helena.
"I'll take some of the credit that she's really well-trained, but she's a beautiful horse," Peter said proudly. This week, he expects to know whether the 22-year-old American amateur (identity being witheld) who is interested in buying her will close the deal. He's been told he can ride the mare through the World Cup finals in Las Vegas next spring, but he's also looking for a way to find someone to buy Fein Cera for him.
Dermott drew on his background (and a morning viewing of videos of the other horses) to earn his title.
"I rode a lot of young horses at home. It's only three years ago that I had one for bigger classes," said Dermott, who grew up in Northern Ireland.
"So I learned to ride on all sorts of horses. At the shows in Ireland, we used to take a lorry-load every week, and also, going and trying horses and trying to buy from different yards."
It's a story I've heard many times before from successful horsemen; you have to ride a lot of horses to learn everything it takes to do well on the international scene.
Irish team spokesman Colin McClelland noted the Irish (like the U.S. team) did not qualify for the 2004 Olympics on the basis of their performance here, but said, "We are absolutely delighted that Dermott has won the Gold Medal, and also that three Irish riders made it through to the Top 10 in the world." They're confident of obtaining qualification "but at the moment, Ireland is
extremely proud of Dermott, the first rider in our long history ever to have achieved World Championship gold."
The U.S. Equestrian Team had its own distinction here. It medaled in six of seven disciplines and got eight medals for its biggest international haul ever.
``Everyone gave 110 percent, not just the riders, drivers and horses, but also the owners, grooms and staff,'' said Jim Wolf, the team's chef de mission at the WEG.
``Everyone came here believing in themselves, that they could win medals, and they did it.''
And me? I didn't believe I could get by on just four hours of sleep every night, but I did it. And despite my occasional whining (hope I didn't bore you), I'll admit being here was worth it.
Those of us lucky enough to be involved in equestrian sport are part of a very special community. Even if you've never met someone before, once you find out they're interested in horses, you instantly have common ground. In the melange of disciplines, languages and flags that is the WEG, we are all citizens of the equestrian world, appreciating the beauty of horses and everything that goes with them.
This WEG, however, was even more special because of the strong participation by the native horses from the region. I'm talking about the purebred Spanish horses who were so much a part of the show, and, of course, Fino. Muchas gracias, Jerez.