June 21, 2003 -- I haven't stopped humming "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" since the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions began on Thursday, as I slosh through puddles, cope with the mud and empathize with riders in soaked breeches trying to stick to saddles that are as slick as butter. It's a miserable backdrop for one of my favorite equestrian events, where dressage and endurance riders mix with reiners and show jumpers in a beautiful setting, New Jersey's Somerset Hills.
This is a horse community, and even constant downpours don't discourage the band of hardy souls, armed with umbrellas and Barbour jackets, who can spend hours watching the best equestrians do their thing as beautifully as if the sun were shining.
The dressage is really the highlight of this year's festival, since it includes the selection trials for the Pan American Games, which will be held during August in the Dominican Republic. The trials are coupled with the Intermediare I Championship, and as competitor Jan Ebeling said, it's quite a test because the top 12 competitors from around the country qualified to be here.
"I think it's every rider's dream to come to Gladstone, and we're lucky that it's a Pan Am year," said Kristina Harrison-Nanes, who surprised us all by winning the Prix St. Georges, the first class in the three-phase competition.
I wanted to ask, "Who the heck are you?" but she beat me to it by saying, "Nobody knows who I am." She has made quite an impression here, though, with her beautiful black gelding Kantor, who is by Ferro, the Sydney Olympics veteran. A former hunter/jumper rider, she switched to dressage as a young adult and previously trained with Jan. They're both part of the big California contingent showing here, which gives the festival credence as a national fixture.
Kristina is coached by Carol Plough, who spotted Kantor when she was at a Dutch stable and told her student that he was " the horse of a lifetime." She's been very careful to bring him along slowly, and that is reflected in his consistency. He was second today in the Intermediaire I, where Carol Lavell had quite a victory on Much Ado, who scored 71.150 percent, while Kantor was marked at 69.5. Carol leads the overall championship standings, but barely, with Kristina right behind her and Jan a close third and fourth on Feleciano and Liberte, the latter being reserve champion in the I-1 last year. It will take four to make a Pan Am team, so unless Jan can clone himself, another person will earn a spot. Pierre St. Jacques is fifth on Lucky Tiger, followed by Tara Stegen with New Tango.
But Carol, who you'll remember from her fabulous Olympic and world championships performances on Gifted, has some qualms about taking her new horse to the Dominican Republic. She wants more information about transportation arrangements, fearing disaster if horses sit on hot tarmac while refueling at the Miami airport.
Jim Wolf, who supervises equine travel for the USET, said arrangements haven't been finalized yet, but noted, "the horses' welfare is the paramount concern any time the USET ships horses," and noted the team will be seeking the safest way to get the animals to their destination.
The other riders in contention are more sanguine about the prospect of sending their horses south.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to represent your country, so if I make it, I'm going," said Jan, a sentiment that Kristina echoed.
While the I-1 doesn't end until tomorrow, the USET Grand Prix Championship finished today with the musical freestyle. Leslie Morse, the favorite to win the division even before it started with Kingston, won the freestyle and the title. She had an overall percentage of 68.711 for three tests, beating Jan Brons with Fernando on 66.427. The two have different ambitions with their horses. Leslie, who spent time in England working with Finnish dressage star Kyra Kyrklund, has the Olympics as a goal. Jan, a native of Holland who became a U.S. citizen last year, doesn't see Fernando as an Olympic contender and is just enjoying the ride on the horse, who he received as a generous gift from a student.
The rain has really put a damper on the other disciplines at the Festival. They "pulled the plug" on the 75-mile endurance ride, as the USET's director of endurance activities, Mary Lutz, put it, by eliminating the final loop when it became impassable. So the ride wound up as a 64-miler and as I write this, they are still trying to figure out the order of placement.
Today's final jumping class was postponed until tomorrow, though I don't think the weather prospects are really much better for the morning. They nearly called off the reining freestyle, but decided the footing was good enough to hold it, but the entries had to pick their way through the puddles to get the job done.
The winner, as usual, was Pete Kyle. He's taken the competition four out of the last five years. His theme song aboard A Genuine Remedy was "Going to Mexico," and while he was incredibly good natured about being soaked, I'll bet he wouldn't have turned down a Margarita and some sunshine by the time he finished his ride.
And me? I'm going to dry off now.