Allentown, N.J., July 19, 2006 -- It was hardly the perfect day to have the final mandatory outing for our eventers hoping to make the World Equestrian Games (WEG) team. The temperatures were reported to be in the mid- to upper 90s yesterday, but I can tell you that in the middle of the cross-country field at the Horse Park of New Jersey, it felt more like 100 degrees-plus.
Yet the 11 horse-and-rider combinations participating showed their mettle by adjusting to the heat while dealing with the reality that this was their last shot for making the squad that will compete in Germany next month. The only short-listed rider who didn't take part was Amy Tryon, because she rode Poggio II at an event in England to demonstrate her readiness for the WEG.
Dressage began at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. as planned, though that gave only a brief respite from the broiler as the sun grew more intense.
Bonnie Mosser's groom came into the dressage ring and began washing down Jenga before judge Anne Gribbons gave her comments; when John Williams took off his coat after finishing his test, his shirt was so soaked it looked as if he had been riding through a monsoon.
Coach Mark Phillips needed one more competition for his team candidates before selectors and veterinarians convened to make the final pick of who will be getting on the plane next week. And coping with conditions is part of the game for anyone who is serious about riding internationally.
"As competitors, you deal with what you have to do. You can't change it," Mark said. "You've got to do your work, then get the core temperature down with ice, water and fans, and away you go again."
The outing was very telling, though how selectors will interpret what happened there we won't know until Friday, when the names of the riders who will be going to Germany are announced. It obviously reshuffled the deck to some extent. (July 21 update:U.S. Eventing Squad Named for 2006 WEG)
Karen O'Connor had the best dressage test of the day, scoring 43.3 penalties with Upstage. It was all downhill from there, however, as she dropped three rails and logged six time penalties in stadium jumping. The coup de grace, however, was four refusals at a pair of corners in the woods on cross-country. That obstacle demanded dead aim, and she just wasn't on the right line, she said, before going off to school the corners again after the outing with the help of her husband, Olympic individual gold medalist and U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor.
Was Upstage's balk a fluke? That's up to the selectors to decide.
One of the favorites to make the team, Stephen Bradley--third at Rolex Kentucky with Brandenburg's Joshua--had a fall at a narrow wooden fence when he miscalculated the line to it. He hauled himself up off the ground, went back and did it right, but is that error enough to put him out of the running? Unfortunately, his dressage test also was far from his best effort, with 55 penalties, and he dropped two rails in stadium jumping.
Nathalie Pollard, who only toppled one rail in show jumping, had two refusals with West Farthing on cross-country before she figured out how to get him over a narrow fence on top of a little hump of ground.
"I think we got a little different result from what we were expecting at the beginning of the day," said Mark. "There's a number of people who did very well, but there are a number who didn't do as well as we liked."
Though she certainly wasn't in the latter category, even Kim Severson wasn't her usual perfect self with three-time Rolex Kentucky winner Winsome Adante. Kim had skipped Rolex this year, figuring Dan had nothing more to prove there, but he was a bit rusty in dressage and wound up tied for fourth in that section with an uncharacteristic score of 47.8 penalties. Judge Anne gave her a little lesson after her test, as she did with other riders as part of an effort to hone everyone's skills.
Anne was generally pleased with the level of the dressage and how it has improved over time, noting that a few years back many eventers were clueless about this phase, just wanting to get through it so they could jump cross-country. "Now, they have a clue," she said.
Kim made up for her dressage with a clear round and just one time fault in stadium, and then handled cross-country with her usual confidence to finish first in the combined test (dressage and stadium) phase of the outing.
She admitted to having had some misgivings about the heat.
"I wondered about it," she said. "But I was pleasantly surprised by Dan--he felt good. I'm happy with him."
Becky Holder did well with the exciting gray ex-racehorse, Courageous Comet. As you probably remember, she was leading the standings at Rolex Kentucky this year before having a disastrous show jumping round and losing her shot at glory.
The outing was a different story. She's been working on show jumping and had just one rail down, scoring 46.1 in dressage to finish third there. She was fifth overall in the combined test (five show jumping time penalties did her in) but Mark seemed pleased with her.
"Becky has been going well in training," he said. "She was in a very good place before (Rolex) but didn't carry the plan out at Rolex. She carried the plan out a lot better today."
Others looking promising included Bonnie Mosser and Jenga, who had 47.8 penalties in dressage. She was the only rider to have no time penalties in stadium and just a single knockdown to finish second in the combined test, followed by Jan Byyny with Task Force, the winner of the Jersey Fresh 3-star in May at the Horse Park. Jan was second in dressage with 45 penalties and kept all the rails up in show jumping, though she had nine time penalties.
Nathalie was fourth in the combined test, since her cross-country problems didn't count in that total.
I should explain that this competition wasn't like a regular event. It had a far different feel for many reasons. Aside from wearing tailcoats for the dressage, riders dressed informally. While the only scores that counted for placings were the dressage and show jumping, selectors were eagle-eyed on the cross-country course. There, riders were allowed to attempt jumps as many times as they wanted if they had a refusal, and even to go through a second time if they didn't like the way their horse handled it the first time.
There was no announcer, so the few spectators who showed up to watch were rather clueless after dressage, since riders went in a different order for stadium and cross-country. The loose format made it easy for organizers to adjust things, as they did several times. The original day-long schedule was compressed into morning and early afternoon because of the heat. The schedule called for cross-country to begin at 12:30 p.m., but it started at noon, causing some of us to miss seeing the first horse or two.
The set-up was quite different from 2004, the last time a final outing was held at the Horse Park, when it involved preparation for the Olympics. That competition had a sponsor, awards ceremonies and an announcer.
Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's executive director of sport programs, explained, "having an announcer and all that equipment is not inexpensive. We wanted to keep it a low-key event...we haven't sold it to a sponsor. We're talking about in the future how much of a commercial thing we want to make of it. If we make it more commercial obviously we'll have to have more of the bells and whistles. It really comes down to, when we're managing the budget, is it something we can afford? This is mostly a high performance sport activity that the public is invited to watch, and we don't charge them."
David O'Connor did his bit for the budget; he emptied the garbage cans, explaining he was inspired by a piece he read about President Woodrow Wilson feeding the troops during World War I.
The 2006 WEG will be August 20-September 3 in Aachen, Germany. The eventing portion of the Games will take place August 24-27. Visit EquiSearch.com for Nancy Jaffer's daily coverage!