Wellington, Fla., December 7, 2008 -- When I pondered picking a lead photo for my postcard on Holiday & Horses, the new show at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, I wanted a shot that said it all.
I chose this one of Margie Engle for two elements--the Christmas tree and the Rolex logo, since she won the Rolex/U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) National Show Jumping Championship today.
Actually, however, this photo doesn't say the half of it in terms of the title competition. Oh boy, where do I begin? Let me give you the bare bones: Yes, Margie earned the right to have her name engraved on the humongous trophy, by virtue of the best cumulative score from Friday night's $40,000 speed class and this afternoon's $60,000 grand prix, a World Cup finals qualifier.
But even Margie was startled to receive her umpteenth Rolex watch (the prize she can keep), because the focus today was on the jump-off--and she wasn't in it!
The leader after Friday's leg, Todd Minikus on Pavarotti, became a non-factor after accumulating an uncharacteristic 16 faults over a stringent course designed by Anthony D'Ambrosio Jr., who will lay out the route for the World Cup finals this April in Las Vegas. Tony's the perfect choice to do the honors for a World Cup qualifier, right? But only two of 35 starters made it to the jump-off.
One was not unexpected: defending national champ Kent Farrington on the plucky Up Chiqui, who made a brilliant comeback after a less-than stellar performance in the speed leg.
The other finalist was off the map, of my expectations, anyway. It was Ljubov Kochetov of Russia, who scored with the 8-year-old Danish-bred Aslan.
"I never dreamed your wife would be in the jump-off here," I burbled to Ljubov's husband, Edward.
"We dreamed it," he said simply.
So who is Ljubov? Let Edward explain.
Both Ljubov, who has competed at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) previously, and her mount lack the experience of Kent and Up Chiqui. Each contender was fault-free in the tiebreaker, but Kent smoked Ljubov's time of 49.35 seconds with his 45.85-second trip. Her gamble of a slow clear nearly paid off, though. Up Chiqui rubbed the first fence in the Christmas double (red and green rails flanked by Christmas trees) but as Kent put it "I got a little lucky" and the pole stayed up.
Though Up Chiqui was his usual intrepid self today, I was surprised by his lackluster performance Friday night, when he had two rails down to finish 19th in the faults-converted-into-seconds format. I asked Kent why that had happened.
Up Chiqui obviously wasn't the only horse who was rusty. Holiday & Horses is the first show of the USEF year, which starts December 1, so some riders laid off their mounts after Syracuse a month ago and were just bringing them back. For others, though, it was the end of a long season.
Hillary Dobbs is one of the latter, but it's been a great year for her. It looked as if it would finish on a high note. She stood second Friday night with an exciting trip on Marengo that nearly caught Todd, and the national championship was in her sights.
Today, however, Marengo had three knockdowns and a time penalty. Her other horse, Marlo, was eliminated at the unique-looking wall covered with pictures of fish, after stopping there twice.
I caught her after the class for a question.
And may I add, for what it's worth, this show was the debut of a whole group of new fences from a different supplier than Steve Stephens, whose obstacles have been part of the furniture here for ages. So maybe that was part of the difficulty factor, too.
Margie, who stood third in the championship with 22 points Friday night after a nice round on Hidden Creek's Pamina L, had a 4-fault round on Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold today. (Yes, riders were allowed to use two different horses in each leg, and they could have multiple horses in each class, but one had to be designated as their championship horse.)
Anyway, Margie's 8-fault trip gave her just enough points for a two-day total that edged Kirsten Coe and the lovely Starlight, who came on my radar screen with a third-place finish at the Hampton Classic, but wasn't on it all this time.
And that's the problem. The workings of the national championship are way too confusing for most people to follow. There weren't many spectators today, but I'm sure those who were on hand had trouble figuring out what was going on with the how-and-why of all these trophy presentations.
Margie was just cooling out her horse when she was told to ride back into the arena for the awards ceremony.
"There were so many different things that happened after the beginning...I knew it was going to come out a little bit different, but I didn't know how. It was kind of a nice surprise," said Margie, who has won the national title once before, but added to her Rolex collection over the years with prizes from a grand prix series the watch company used to sponsor.
And here's the thing, if you want to be confused a little more. While Margie was third in the championship standings Friday, she actually was fourth in the class itself, finishing behind Pablo Barrios on Lagran. The reason? Pablo is Venezuelan and as such, ineligible for the national championship.
So enough of this already. USEF is doing a re-think on how the national championship should be run. I'm told that a number of American riders don't want foreign competitors in their championship. It would make it less confusing (there's that word again) but there would be less entries, perhaps a concern for the show itself.
I spoke with Jennifer Haydon, who handles the national show jumping programs for the USEF, and she confirmed that change is in the wind.
"We want to work with the athletes and come up with a great procedure for this championship," she told me.
What seems likely is that the championship will be held at a different time of year, which means it would probably be in a different location. Stay tuned. I'd love to see the show jumping championship have the same status as, say, the dressage national championship that we had in June.
Holiday & Horses took the time slot previously held by the National Horse Show during its sojourn in the sun. Massive work, $5 million worth, to be exact, was continuing at the equestrian center on the night before the show began. While a lot of landscaping remains to be done (sod is still in squares and looking rather brownish) and finishing touches are missing here and there, the overall picture is great. The main stadium reminds me of a smaller version of the Olympic stadium in Hong Kong, with palm trees instead of skyscrapers for a backdrop.
I asked Florida-based Irish rider Shane Sweetnam what he thought of the facility's new look, and here's what he told me.
Improvements will continue at the center, with an indoor ring on the drawing board. They're also talking about building a derby field about a half-mile away, on the old polo grounds of the Palm Beach Polo Club, where Equestrian Sport Productions [which manages the shows for Wellington Equestrian Partners (WEP)] ran a highly successful steeplechase at the end of November. Mark Bellissimo, WEP's managing partner, hoped some of the 5,800 people who came to the steeplechase would be intrigued enough to attend the shows, but it didn't work with Holiday & Horses. However, this was the low-key version of H&H. Next year, they're planning an extravaganza (postponed this year because of the steeplechase) with entertainment and riders brought over from Europe. Meanwhile, the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival starts next month, and there will be time to build up interest during its run so people can fill up all those nice blue contoured seats that now ring the arena.
Oh gosh, I forgot to mention that H&H was also a 3-star dressage show. That end-of-this-season/start-of-next-season dilemma has meant a light turnout for dressage here at this time of year. But at the Grand Prix level, we had a decent, if small (eight horses) group of competitors. When I saw that Lars Petersen and Succes were among them, I knew before I came that he likely would win both the Grand Prix and the freestyle, and he did. Thought Succes wasn't at the peak he enjoyed earlier this fall when he won his second straight freestyle at Dressage at Devon, he still showed off his great piaffe and passage to advantage after his "vacation." The show also gave Lars a chance to ride in the main arena and get his mount used to it, because there will be more dressage there during WEF.
"It's really a fabulous arena. It's maybe a little bit a shame that people were not aware of this show, with its festive decorations and carols as background music. I hope next year it will be a little bigger, because it's a great feeling to ride in there," said Lars.
He earned a score of 73.9 percent, 3.9 percent ahead of Tuny Page and Wild One, a former national freestyle champ who is making a comeback.
Lars didn't have it easy. Succes, never a simple horse to ride, was a bit on edge.
Here's how he saw it.
But as always, the overall picture was good. I was glad to hear, however, that Lars is preparing new music. I'm a little tired of the whistling cartoon-and-TV-themed piece he's been using for years. People love it though, and there's good news for them. The new one is more cartoon music. Lars hopes to be riding to it in the World Cup finals that run in conjunction with the show jumping in Vegas next spring.
Tuny isn't making plans that far ahead. She is just happy that she and Wild One "are a better team together." She is "paying much more attention to the basic mechanics of how his body operates. He feels in himself much more proficient in all the movements and naturally, the competence follows."
I'm not on the USEF calendar, so this wraps up my EquiSearch.com season. I'll be back writing postcards next month, starting with the USEF annual meeting.
Until then, happy holidays to all of you, and may the new year be bright for you and your horses.