March 25, 2012 -- It was the perfect set-up to a dramatic ending for the Olympic show jumping team selection trials/national championship.
Margie Engle, the oldest rider in the trials (she'll be 54 on Saturday) and Reed Kessler, at 17 the youngest rider, finished trial number four last night tied on 12 penalties each.
The trials have not included jump-offs, they weren't organized that way, but the national championship provided for a tie-breaker if anyone had the same score at the end of the series.
Margie, on Indigo, and Reed, aboard Cylana, had come into the final trial tied on 8 penalties with Rich Fellers, who was riding his longtime partner, Flexible. Each wound up with a rail down at the end of their trips, but Rich also accumulated a time fault for exceeding the 82-second time allowed, as did six other riders in the final group of 20 who made it to the end of the trials.
That left Margie and Reed eligible for a face-off, and the crowd of 7,000 who surrounded the International Arena was eager to see the dream match. So was I; what a great story!
Then came the announcement: The riders had decided to save their horses and split the first- and second-place prize money of $60,000 and $44,000 respectively. It was anti-climax time.
If this had happened in another sport, perhaps hockey or football, you could expect to hear a chorus of booing from the crowd. But those on hand understood and applauded in a salute to the riders' choice of consideration for their animals. Still, it was a shame not to see them go for the title against the clock. That would have put a neat finish on the evening.
"I thought beforehand it was a lot of jumping the horses have done and it's been really hot all week and four rounds in basically three days was a lot," said Margie, explaining why she opted out.
"It's almost like they did an Olympics here. For the welfare of the horses it was the best idea to kind of save them a little bit and not do any more pounding. They jumped their hearts out."
Katie Monahan Prudent, Reed's trainer, agreed with Margie, an Olympian who has represented her country many times. So the veteran and the rookie shared the money, the honors and a victory gallop.
Then today, the post-trials ranking list was announced. You couldn't have predicted it a week ago: Reed stands first with Cylana and fifth with her other horse, Mika; Margie is second with Indigo.
Meanwhile, those who got byes from the trials were slotted into the ranking list. They are Laura Kraut with her 2008 Olympic team gold medal mount, Cedric, third; Beezie Madden with Coral Reef Via Volo, who stands fourth and McLain Ward with Antares F (eighth) and his 2004 and 2008 gold medal mare, Sapphire, (10th) who hasn't jumped in a year.
Mika, Urico (Mario Deslauriers) and Flexible are fifth, sixth and seventh, while Uceko (Kent Farrington) is ninth.
The week, "the best of my life," as Reed put it, seemed like a fantasy for a high school senior who has been on junior and Young Rider teams here and abroad, but has never ridden on a senior Nations' Cup team. She is still getting used to the idea that pie in the sky suddenly was on the verge of becoming reality. I have an feeling that there a lot of weeks ahead that will replace this one as her best.
Apparently, Reed's success had some outside help. She and her family are very superstitious, so they made sure to strictly follow tradition. For every trial round, Reed wore the same red, white and blue American flag socks (unwashed) that she wore on the young riders' tour of Europe last summer. Her father, Murray, wore the same clothes for each trial, and true to form, some member of her family held their pet mini-Schnauzer, Mouse, in a tight grip during her round.
Although last night was the final selection trial, it is far from the end of the selection story for those who seek to ride on the U.S. squad in London this summer. Still to come is participation in two observation events, with riders able to choose from shows in California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Canada.
By that time, McLain should be ready to ride. You'll recall he shattered his left kneecap in a January grand prix here, so it was good to see him walking around without crutches and only a slight limp. We had time for a short chat about his determined progress.
Beezie and Laura didn't sit with McLain on the sidelines, they rode other horses in the trials. Beezie's two new horses, Simon and Cortes C, delivered uneven performances. Simon, who had 25 penalties in trial number two, was clear last night over the fences, accumulating only 1 penalty to be ranked 21st. Cortes came up with a fault-free effort, putting him 12th, just behind Laura on Teirra.
One of the most interesting things about the trials was the way they showcased up-and coming riders. In addition to Reed, the promising younger set included Saer Coulter, 14th with Springtime, followed by fellow Californian Lucy Davis, 15th on Nemo 119, who always gives fans a laugh at the way he bucks while heading toward the first jump. In 17th place is Katie Dinan (Nougat de Valet). Their performances were encouraging.
"We have a future out there, and we're seeing it here," said Robert Ridland, who will take over Jan. 1 as chef d'equipe from George Morris, who is retiring. Robert and I discussed the difficulty of the trials, which has been a hot topic here, though I'm always reminded that the trials involve preparation of horses and riders for the Games, as well as being a vehicle to help decide who should compete on the squad there.
While the selection trials have been the focal point of this week, the rest of the show went on around it. The FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival is practically a force of nature during its 12-week run, crammed with all sorts of special classes.
The foreign riders were out of the spotlight this week because the trials were only open to U.S. riders, but the folks from Europe and Latin America were back this afternoon. We went from no jump-off to a big jump-off, with 13 participants. The twist here was that no one went clean over Richard Jeffery's difficult course -- everyone in the tie-breaker was a 4-faulter!
The British consistently have been at the top of the scoreboard during WEF, and this time it was Scott Brash going in for the win with his consistent partner, Intertoy Z, in the $25,000 Suncast 1.5 meter classic during an afternoon featuring heat, sun and rain at various intervals.
"There was a lot in it, it was quite a long course, the last line was a bit tricky. I think a lot of the 4-faulters were unlucky," said Scott, who we may well see in the London Olympics.
"You get the odd class like that. But I think it still turned out to be an entertaining class for the public," he added in his great Scottish accent.
As more and more of his countrymen are doing, he preferred the Florida circuit to staying in cold, dreary Europe for the winter.
"It's been fantastic for all my horses to get up and running and going; you couldn't really get that experience with them anywhere else than here. I think I'm going home with a strong team ready for the year," he commented.
The George Morris Excellence in Equitation competition Friday evening drew many of the division's brightest stars. This is a relatively new event, and the twist here is that kids had to do the whole thing on their own, without any help from trainers (cell phones were prohibited; don't know how the poor children lived without them for three hours). Points also were given for the way the kids handled their warm-up.
The original field of 37, judged by George and the Pan American Games gold medal show jumping team, was whittled to 13 for a second round that included several tests; a trot fence, a hand-gallop fence, a flying change and a simple change. The leader after the first round, Charlotte Jacobs, was done in by the simple change.
Four came back to ride again after switching horses. Michael Hughes finished fourth; Catherine Tyree, third; USEF Medal Finals winner Schaeffer Raposa second and victory went to Tori Colvin, another teen phenom who is adding equitation to her list of conquests, which include a grand prix victory and hunter derby triumphs. She is coached in equitation not only by her usual pillars, Ken Berkley and Scott Stewart, but also Missy Clark, whose students make a habit of winning finals.
The victory made a perfect gift for her mother's birthday. But a smiling Brigid Colvin, her arms overflowing with Tori's prizes, said all she wanted was for her daughter to be well-behaved and vacuum the house.
Wellington has become a magnet for celebrities as well as foreign riders. I was told that Microsoft's Bill Gates and comedian Jerry Seinfeld were on hand Saturday night in the jam-packed International tent, but I have to admit that I didn't see them.
As always, Welly World has its share of intrigue. The municipal elections earlier this month centered around a bitter fight involving whether a hotel and stores should be built on the grounds of the new Global Dressage Festival, a half-mile from PBIEC. The initial tally delivered a majority of those in favor of the hotel to the council. But the results were reversed shortly thereafter with the announcement of a computer glitch that somehow had scrambled the numbers. A reminder: This is Palm Beach County -- remember the "hanging chad" scandal during the 2000 presidential election?
Turns out there was a software problem, that according to the supplier of the county's voting equipment, meant votes were assigned to the wrong candidates. Paper ballots, anyone?
It remains to be determined how this will be resolved. But Mark Bellissimo, the irrepressible managing partner Equestrian Sport Productions, which runs the PBIEC and GDF, has worked out the possible scenarios for what will happen and is comfortable with all of them. Put an obstacle in front of Mark and he's better than any grand prix horse in clearing it and moving on.
He hinted there soon will be an announcement of a six-figure, three-year sponsorship deal for the GDF. Mark has a five-year plan for that facility, just as he did for PBIEC. I remember he told me about that five-year concept in the days when PBIEC, then Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, had just come under his control and was a mess, from the footing to the seating. Everything he said at that time, and then some, has come true. PBIEC will be a model for development of the GDF. And he promised he will fix the things at PBIEC that have bothered so many. The list includes improving the FEI stabling, adding more room to ride and expanding parking (I'm not sure I would ever have made it to the arena if my friends Sharon and Ted Wiese hadn't been kind enough to leave their spot in the lot in a timely fashion...).
I'll be seeing the jumpers again in two weeks at the Gene Mische American Invitational in Tampa,which is always a big occasion. Check back April 8 for my postcard from there.