March 21, 2012 -- The tension level for the first of four Olympic show jumping team selection trials wasn't of the electric, hold-your-breath variety that I recall from decades past. A bit of the mystery departed with the pre-trials naming of Beezie Madden (Coral Reef Via Volo), Laura Kraut (Cedric) and McLain Ward (Antares F, Sapphire) to the long list that will be used as a reference point going into observation competitions at four shows in California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Canada during the weeks leading up to the naming of the short list for London June 17.
But there were still 37 starters trying their luck this afternoon at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, including Beezie with her other horses, Simon, who was among 11 4-faulters and Cortes C, among eight 4-faulters, and Laura with Teirra. She was one of eight who went clear over the substantial route built by Irish course designer Alan Wade, whose clever handiwork I last saw in November at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair. McLain, of course, is still sidelined by the knee he fractured here in January, but he's expected to be ready for the observation classes.
Laura obviously appears to have the strongest suit at this point, with two horses performing well, but there's a long way to go. And this year there's much more subjectivity available to those weighing in on the selection (selectors Mark Leone, Susie Hutchison and Chris Kappler in conjunction with coach George Morris) than there has been since the 1980s, I daresay.
I talked to Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of sport programs about the leeway that's available in assembling the squad,knowing the selection process has been developing over the course of decades.
George, meanwhile, warned me not think that three-quarters of the four-member team already have been chosen; there's a long way to go as the selectors keep a close watch on the many moving parts that could make up what everyone hopes will produce the hat trick -- the USA's third Olympic team gold medal in a row. There is no assurance at this point that the horses and riders allowed to skip the trials will wind up on the top of the ranking list when the entries go in, nearly three months from now. Think of everything that can happen in that time span--you know how it is with horses.
"Normally, it ends up it's really the last five still standing," said Laura. "If we end up with 10 superstars that he's having to choose from, we should be really thankful."
Certainly, though, a good start is a bonus for Laura and the other seven double-clears: Pan Am Games double gold medalist Christine McCrea on Romantovich Take One (she's number one on the list because her time was the best, but time didn't count, we were told. Go figure); Teirra had the second best time, followed by Charlie Jayne on Athena, Mario Deslauriers (Urico); Kent Farrington (Uceko); Margie Engle with? Indigo; precocious 17-year-old Reed Kessler (Cylana) and Kirsten Coe (Baronez). Lucy Davis is right behind with one time fault on Nemo 119.
I asked George how he felt about the class and he told me, "It was very impressive, not just old established horses and riders, but some of the young people."
He called Alan Wade "top class," noting that with some assistance from Leopoldo Palacios and Anthony D'Ambrosio, he will make sure "each course has to ask different questions; each has to be hard in a different way, whether it's scope or careful rideability."
He was surprised that so many were fault-free, but did mention he didn't think scope was the emphasis on this one, which include a water jump, two liverpools, a double combination and a triple combination. He thought the 90-second time allowed was spot-on. Six riders besides Lucy had time penalties.
The youngest of the "young people," Reed, had been itching to get into competition at this level, but until she turned 17, she wasn't allowed to do so under international rules. Cylana made light work of the course, and Reed got even more experience with her other horse, Mika, who had only a single rail.
While it would seem the trials are just an outing for mileage for some of the riders in the lower age brackets, Reed's initial performance could signal that she's a real contender. We talked about that.
I saw the biggest story of this trial as Margie's round with Indigo, who was flying over the fences in style. I'd been wondering how he would do. Fresh in my mind was the first round of the Nations' Cup a few weeks ago, when he stopped at the liverpool and sent Margie groundward. Turns out he wasn't himself that night. He had a bruised heel that became an abscess in his right front foot, and it took a lot of soaking and packing to get it right for the trials. Unfortunately, Margie revealed, Indigo walked out of his shoe after the class and she was worrying whether the farrier would have enough hoof left to nail it on again. There are two trials tomorrow, afternoon and evening; will Indigo be able to handle that kind of stress? And what about Saturday night's final trial?
While Margie would seem like a possible candidate for making the long list without finishing the trials,? she said it doesn't usually work that way for her; she feels her best shot is with a more objective system.
She did note, however, that subjectivity has its place "if used correctly. When people get hurt and horses get hurt, it's good to have that as a standby."
At least there was? moment of triumph to enjoy today, and Shay Griese made the most of it. Shay and her husband, former Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese, are co-owners of Indigo (who wears a Dolphins symbol on his saddlepad). From a front-row seat in the International Club, Shay had a good view of horse horse's ability and her rider's determination. I caught up with her afterward and we discussed the class and her excitement level.
I'll be back with you tomorrow evening with an update. There's lots more action to go here, be sure to come back as the picture comes into sharper focus.