Wellington, Fla., March 7, 2008 -- Anyone who's spent a bit of time watching the U.S. show jumping team selection trial process is familiar with this phrase: "The cream rises to the top."
So when show jumping coach George Morris and I chatted today about the fourth of five trials for the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, I wasn't surprised at all when he mentioned an ascending dairy product.
But if I predicted a few weeks ago that the cream at this point would be Laura Kraut on Cedric in the lead with just 6 faults, and Will Simpson with Carlsson vom Dach and Nicki Shahinian Simpson with FRH Dragonfly, tied for second with 12 penalties each, you might have been excused for saying, "Huh?"
Cedric I've seen in some of the smaller classes, and I'll be frank with you: I follow show jumping rather closely, but I'd never heard of Carlsson or Dragonfly.
So I mentioned to George that it looks like we might have some unexpected depth in the show jumping ranks after all, and he told me that was part of the plan.
"I'm very pleased with how this is going," he said, noting that raising the bar (literally and figuratively) at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center has yielded impressive results.
"That's why these trials are absolutely critical, because we aren't able to dummy down," said George, who finds that to be an unhappy continuing trend inside the show ring and out.
Some are concerned that the trials involve an awful lot of jumping, but he pointed out, "It has to be five rounds, because championships are five rounds. That's the only way you get a true reading of horse and rider. When you have a number of rounds, the cream rises to the top. You have to pick it off consistency. A horse and rider can be brilliant because they're lucky in one round, but it's impossible to be lucky over five (rounds)."
The riders who go into the last trial on Sunday are vying for seven spots on the short list. Three combinations already got byes: Beezie Madden with Authentic and McLain Ward with Sapphire before the first trial. (They were half of our gold medal team in Athens four years ago and half of the World Equestrian Games silver medal team two years ago.) Jeffery Welles and Armani got a pass after the second trial after two clear rounds.
"You don't have a crystal ball, but we picked three horse-rider combinations who have a history of great success at the very biggest places. We put them aside so we didn't have to spend their horses and jump their horses in an unnecessary situation," George said.
When the trials end, the selection process continues. There will be an "A" group of five riders and a "B" group of five. George noted there may well be very little difference between them. They will contest Super League competitions in Europe, and the team of four and one alternate will be picked off those performances.
So at this point Laura is standing tall with little Cedric, a gray ball of dynamite. He had one rail down today, but she blamed herself for the mistake. "I didn't make as big an effort as I needed to," she explained.
Will went clean today for the third time in a row after a slow start in the first trial, while Nicki had a knockdown, but adding up their past performances here was what tied them.
Today's trial originally was scheduled to be held under the lights last night to replicate the conditions riders will encounter at the Olympics in Hong Kong six months from now. But a torrential rain washed away that plan, and instead the class went in daylight this morning.
The trials were combined with a regular $30,000 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) Challenge Cup class, and the dual-purpose situation made things a little tough for course designer Pepe Gamarra. He got suggestions from those involved with the trials, making the competition harder than the usual WEF Challenge Cup.
"The jumps grew from all that rain," joked U.S. developing rider coach Melanie Smith Taylor after she walked the course this morning.
The trials group wanted the fences a little bigger, so a vertical topped with a light blue plank, fence 9-B on the 13-obstacle course, caused lots of problems when it was raised to 1.6 meters (about 5-feet, 3-inches).
I asked Pepe about the challenge of putting together this particular Challenge Cup.
The plank came down at least 14 times. It was a tight one-stride, 25.6 feet from the triple bar that was the first part of the double. But the difficulty was typical of the entire route.
"The course was more than tall, it was very technical and delicate," said Pepe.
There was no jump-off. Chris Kappler moved up to ninth place in the trial standings on VDL Oranta with a clean round, and you already know how Will did. The only other fault-free trip belonged to Eric Lamaze of Canada on Sadin. The two trial contestants declined to jump off, saving their horses for Sunday, so Eric had an easy win.
Afterwards, Laura confided that being in the lead, "is nerve-wracking. Usually, I'm coming from behind. I'm relieved, and I can't wait for Sunday to be over."
Seeing Will and Nicki tied for second has a bit of an awkward feel to it, since the couple is more together in the standings than they are in life. The two are separated. She's based here this season; her husband is based in California.
Nicki just began riding Dragonfly on this circuit. She's lucky to have the bright chestnut, since Vicomte D, with whom she was doing well early in the trials, stopped and threw her in the last trial, prompting the horse's withdrawal. Also withdrawn was Laura's other horse, the aged veteran Anthem. He had been tied for fourth and when Laura didn't get the bye for him that she wanted, she decided to leave Anthem out of the trials and concentrate on the Global Tour shows in Europe with him.
Among others who have dropped out of the fray is Margie Engle, who got part-way round today on Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold and withdrew when she started dropping rails. Her top Olympic prospect, Hidden Creek's Wapino, died a few months ago after colic surgery, which badly hurt her chances of making the team.
Anne Kursinski is in with a chance of making her fifth Olympics with Roxanna, who is tied for fourth on 17 penalties with Kate Levy's ride, Vent du Nord. Brianne Goutal, riding in her first Olympic trials, blamed herself for a 12-fault round that put her on 24 penalties in a tie for 10th with Onira.
Check back Sunday night for my next postcard, and I'll give you the details of the final trials, as well as the USA's only Nations' Cup, which is being contested here this weekend.
Where Are They Now?
Talking to George today reminded me about one of my earlier visits to the showgrounds this year, for his Horsemastership Training Session. Two of the people I met there, Joanne Hagen of Australia and Katie Faraone from Massachusetts, have really moved on since January.
Joanne got friendly with Melanie, who introduced her to show jumper Eliza Shuford. Eliza has been training with Melanie here, and decided she could use a working student. So Joanne is coming over for a few months to fill that post.
"I think I am the luckiest person in the world, being involved with such nice people and meeting up again with all the people I met," Joanne told me via email from Down Under. "I'm looking forward to attending the horse shows, being a part of the action through my involvement as a groom for Eliza. It will great to learn how the show routine works as well as watching all the talented riders competing. Most importantly, I'm looking forward to the behind-the-scenes of show-jumping life, the care, management and training of the horses and riders. Also the stable routine and chores that have to be done to perfection, that produces a well-presented horse and rider, both in peak condition, ready to perform at their best in the show ring."
Katie, victorious in the 2007 Week with the Maddens Contest, sponsored by Bates Saddles, Practical Horseman and the Syracuse Invitational Tournament, got a job as the assistant to Sara Ike, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) managing director of eventing. She met Sara's mother, Sally Ike, the major domo of show jumping for USEF, when she was working with John and Beezie Madden during the Horsemastership Training Session week. Sally recommended her to Sara.
Katie just moved from Massachusetts to high-performance headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., and loves having a job that has to do with horses.
"It's awesome to look around and be surrounded by horse stuff all day and be in the presence of greatness with the trophy room upstairs and everything like that," she said about working in the legendary training center.
I asked her if this job was her dream come true, and she gave an honest answer.
"A dream come true would be waking up and realizing I was rich enough to own my own string of jumpers--but this is a close second," said Katie, who evented at a low level when she was younger. Read Katie's daily updates from her week with John and Beezie Madden in January.
Okay, that's enough from me for now. Be sure to check back Sunday night for my next postcard.