Gladstone, N.J., June 22, 2003 -- Today we saw how wonderful the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions can be, with exciting championships contested in every division as barely a drop of rain fell, giving us respite from a very soggy long weekend at the team's training center.
The big deal, of course, was the musical freestyle that capped off the Intermediare I dressage division, which was also the Pan American Games trials. The horses looked so much better when they weren't dancing in a downpour, as they were during the Grand Prix freestyle yesterday.
Though she split one and one with Carol Lavell in the division's first two competition, Kristina Harrison-Naness pulled away yesterday by winning the freestyle on her elegant Kantor. Her music was "Zorro," perfect for her black mount, and a score of 72.450 percent seemed well-deserved. It gave her the championship with an overall percentage of 69.843, and put her on the Pan Am squad with her "horse of a lifetime."
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, Kristina said, "I'm so excited," and it was refreshing to see she really meant it, after having realized a grand ambition.
"From the time I was seven, I knew what I wanted to do. It's a dream come true to represent my country in international competition," she said, and now she's on the way to achieving her goal -- and I'll bet the Olympics might figure in her plans someday, too.
Carol finished second overall for the championship that she had so much longed to win with Much Ado, just a whisper behind Kristina with a total of 69.728. Her downfall was her freestyle, which started out with "Let's Spend the Night Together." But before she got going, she was in trouble. Her nervous mount was spooked by a four-in-hand rattling along. Then a loud boom (goodness knows what THAT was) put him more on edge. And before she could begin her performance, her music came on well into the piece, instead of at the beginning. Then there was a wait as the announcer restarted her CD.
She was thinking maybe all the problems were a sign she should call it a day, but she decided to stay in the fight and wound up third in the freestyle with 70.65 percent, behind Jan Ebeling on Feleciano, with 71.9 percent. Not wanting to rattle Much Ado further, however, she left him in the stable for the victory gallop and appeared for the award ceremonies on foot, draping the big reserve championship ribbon over her shoulders instead of his neck. Jan, meanwhile, finds himself in an unusual position. After finishing third and fourth in the I-1 championship with Feleciano and Liberte respectively, he will have to choose which one he wants to ride in Santo Domingo this August.
"It's a very difficult call," said the native of Germany, who is trained by Harry Boldt, the coach who brought the German dressage team so much success. "They're both very strong. Liberte is maybe a little bit more experienced, yet this weekend the other horse had higher scores." Jan, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is going to take his time making that decision. Liberte, by the way, is owned by Ann Romney, wife of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ran the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games organizing committee. Both were on hand last night for a gala at the golf club mansion (it's SO much more than a clubhouse) at Hamilton Farm, where the team stables are.
Finishing fifth overall to make the team was quite a surprise for Pierre St. Jacques, a naturalized native of Canada who wasn't high enough in the rankings from the qualifiers to make the trials until some other riders dropped out. When he got the call from the USET on Wednesday, his wife, Pam Goodrich, had already left their New Hampshire home for the show with their horse trailer. Luckily, a groom had left a truck and trailer behind, so Pierre appropriated them and drove Lucky Tiger to New Jersey. He wasn't on time for the soundness jog, but officials decided to let him jog the next day.
Interestingly, Jan was Kristina's first dressage trainer, and Carol was Pierre's. Carol also introduced Pierre to his wife, sending him over as a working student to Pam's place, even though Pam had said firmly that she hadn't wanted any male working students in her barn because they could cause trouble. That's Carol's version, anyway.
Well, this looks like a good team with a strong alternate in Susie Dutta, who was sixth with West Side Lady DC, I-1 champion here last year. (By the way, I loved her very appropriate freestyle music -- West Side Story.) The Pan Ams aren't the toughest competition in the world, since the Europeans aren't there, but having a squad this good bodes well for the future as they head toward Grand Prix after the Games.
The jumpers had a field of 27 for their $50,000 Rolex/USET Championship Grand Prix and I fully expected a big jump-off when I headed down from the dressage arena to see how that one played out. But only two riders qualified, close friends Mark Leone with his big-boned (that's a nice euphemism for large) chestnut, Pinkata de Longpre, and Jimmy Torano with his reliable Aguila. The two of them sat side-by-side after their clean rounds, watching the rest of the field go, and deciding not to move because the chairs seemed to be good luck. When everyone else dropped rails, Jimmy pointed out that they were going to have to finally get up and jump off.
Mark went first in the tiebreaker over Richard Jeffery's course, and posted a fairly slow clear round. Knowing Mark could be beaten, Jimmy blasted off but found he had too much horse going into the narrow second jump, which toppled. He didn't finish the course because he was assured of second place.
Mark's trophy was presented by his brother Armand, the USET president, prompting someone in the ring (could it have been Jimmy?) to say (good-naturedly) "Something's fishy here." But the win was honest, and it meant a lot to Mark, who has yet to realize Pinkata de Longpre's potential. Most recently, the horse has been out for eight months with a pedal bone problem in his hoof, and Mark admitted to being shaky when he returned to the grand prix ring with his mount at Devon. At one time, Mark told me he thought this was THE horse for him, but Pinkata too often seems to just miss.
"I have a lot of high hopes and had some very good Floridas with him and then went into a little bit of a lull," Mark said. "Last year was a real eye-opener. I went to the (World Equestrian Games) trials, and found out what I couldn't do. I think the horse has the raw ability, I think I have experience, but clearly there were some holes in my relationship with that horse. The question is, with his size and scope, can he get more athletic and nimble? I'd like to think he's a good enough horse." Noting he has no European tour planned for this year, Mark is unsure how he can season the horse for the Olympic trials in 2004.
The Festival's jumpers are more numerous than they have been in several years, but some key players in the game were missing. Although neither McLain Ward, ranked number one in the U.S., or Margie Engle (number two) could manage a clean round, but their presence "helped to give crediblity," said Leone. "So when my friend Chris Kappler comes home from Aachen (Germany), we can at least tell him there were some nice people in the event." Kappler, who had a double-clear in the Nations' Cup at Aachen Friday with Royal Kaliber, finished fourth in the grand prix there today.
I had to dash from the jumper ring over to reining to catch the tail-end of the $75,000 USET Championship. The joy of the Festival is having several disciplines; the problem comes when you want to see all of them. So I missed Tom McCutcheon's winning performance with Smartest Chic Olena, but I knew going into this that Tom would be the cream of the crop in the field of 10. The numbers were small, as everyone is still recovering from the big effort they put into last year's World Equestrian Games where Tom rode on the gold medal team, but the competition was fierce. Tom was only 0.5 points ahead of Dell Hendricks with Starlights Wrangler.
"We've got four or five of the top riders of all time here," said Tom, when I pointed out the paucity of entries.
"Everyone knows how hard it is here, and how hard it is to find good enough horses to come out and compete here."
This is the only big reining competition held outdoors, which makes it susceptible to the elements, of which we had a lot this weekend, don't forget.
"It takes a horse with a monster stop," to do well here, Dell advised. Why a monster stop? Because the ground is abrasive, which can discourage horses who are used to dealing with footing the consistency of flour.
But Tom said, "It's the best ground we could have for an outdoor pen." Still, if you're looking to send a horse to the championship next year, make sure he's an animal "with a big heart and a lot of grit," as Dell puts it.