DEVON, PA, September 14, 2003 -- I've been reading a book of Yogi Berra's best quotations, and you'll understand why this one just popped into my head as I watched Chris Kappler win the $75,000 Lincoln American Gold Cup today on Royal Kaliber. It was, as Yogi would say, "deja vu all over again."
I was sitting in the exact same spot in the press box at the Devon showgrounds in May when I saw Chris and Royal win the Grand Prix of Devon. I also had a front row seat for the Budweiser American Invitational the month before that, and guess who won?
This lanky rider and his burnished mahogany stallion have certainly proven, time and again, that they are a combination for the ages. Think Rodney Jenkins and Idle Dice, Michael Matz and Jet Run or Melanie Smith and Calypso. It's no coincidence that Chris, like Rodney, Mike and Melanie before him, is now a multiple Cup winner, twice in a row with Royal, and once with Seven Wonder in 1996.
Chris had the fastest of three double-clear rounds in the Cup, which drew 35 starters who qualified in a Friday night class. But it was the ease with which he and Royal handled the main event that made it worth having my wonderful view of the action. I don't think I can comment on Chris's ability any better than Jimmy Torano, who finished third on Gibson.
"He was amazing before, but now he just looks like he's doing schooling jumpers," said Jimmy.
"Chris and Royal are the best horse/rider combination we have," he continued, adding he thinks the duo should be put on the 2004 Olympic team without going through the selection trial process. And that's saying something, since two hours earlier, Jimmy and I had an extremely lively conversation about whether subjective selection should be used for the 2004 Games. He was against it, except for Chris and Royal.
"That's the only combination you could do it with," said Jimmy, paying Chris the highest of compliments.
For his part, Chris understandably couldn't stop smiling this afternoon. Not only did he have a heck of a class, he had a heck of a season. The high point was clinching the team gold medal at the Pan American Games, the USA's ticket to the Athens Olympics, and winning an individual silver for himself with Roy. Actually, Royal's championship season was supposed to end last weekend, after the Spruce Meadows show in Canada.
"He had to jump the Nations' Cup Saturday, two very big rounds, and jump two big grand prix rounds on Sunday," said Chris. "I fully intended to finish with him after Calgary. But he felt so good when I got him home I decided to give him one more show."
It was the right choice. Steve Stephens' course in the Dixon Oval here was challenging, yielding an eight-horse tiebreaker. Chris was the only rider with two in the jump-off. The effort he had to beat belonged to Ken Berkley, like Chris a New Jersey resident, who was putting his 7-year-old Maestro (the youngest horse in the class) to his biggest test ever on the chrysanthemum-dotted route.
Ken came up with a clear round in 37.84 seconds. "I was just thinking about a double clear, and not really trying to win it," he said.
Attempting to beat Ken's mark, 2001 winner Kimberly Frey had a fall when her mount, Marlou, slipped on the turn after a double-combination that comprised the fourth and fifth fences on the eight-fence shortened course. The next to go, Molly Ashe on Resolute, almost slipped in the same place on footing that normally holds up well, but had been made slicker than usual by intermittent rain over the weekend. She faulted at the next-to-last fence, and wound up with a 4-fault round in 38.98.
After that came the biggest threat. Viktor, who may be the fastest show jumper in the world (really! He won the first leg of the World Cup finals this year) was revved by the expert, Todd Minikus, who has gained great assurance with his horse in the three weeks since he took over the ride from Mclain Ward. But the second fence of the vertical-oxer double toppled, and his 36.40-second clocking -- which would be the fastest in the class -- turned out to be only good enough for fourth.
Chris, next on Royal, had a bit of breathing space because his biggest threat was just eliminated. On Friday night, in the qualifier, things went Todd's way and Viktor's speed edged the slower Royal over a smaller course. This time, Royal turned on a lick just fast enough to beat Ken's clocking with a mark of 37.25.
Jimmy, still getting to know his 8-year-old Gibson, couldn't go faster than 38.61 to wind up with the slowest of the double clears. The last to ride was Chris again on Profox. The only person he had to beat was himself, and he confessed that he figured Profox would trump his stablemate.
"He's a faster horse than Royal, and I actually thought he was going to do it," said Chris. But that tricky double, which stomped several other dreams in the jump-off, did it to him, too.
"I got stuck to that combination," said Chris. "I sort of had to nip one into the vertical and slammed the out," he added, explaining why the oxer came down and he wound up with four faults and fifth place.
But it wasn't a bad haul for the weekend. Chris was the leading jumper rider, and Royal the open jumper champion. Now he's going to rest until the Florida circuit and handle some breeding duties; not a bad reward for a super year.
Maestro and Gibson, by the way, are horses to watch. Though Ken Berkley is 40, he's just starting to make his mark in grands prix, and he won the style award here. Maestro has been a project since he got him in November. He thinks the horse may have been beaten as a youngster, because "if you move quickly, he jumps. My problem in the jump-off would be that if I went to run him, he would take off."
But all that has changed.
"He's the easiest horse in the world. He cares about nothing," said Ken, noting the crowds and lights didn't bother him Friday night when he made his Gold Cup weekend debut.
Jimmy's horse is only about 15.3, and the rider looks a little big on him, but Gibson easily carries off what he has to do. "He's little, but he has all the scope," Jimmy said.
Interestingly, all three horses had harrowing accidents this year that could have ended their careers. The Dutchbred Royal got loose after the jog at the Pan Ams and ran off, leaping over a cement culvert and a drainage ditch. He came away with only a few scratches and the unflappable Chris amazingly didn't turn a hair.
"I hoped everything would be okay," said Mr. Ice for Blood.
At the Sussex County Grand Prix in New Jersey last month, Gibson ran off going back to the barn and he fell down. He had a lot of bad scrapes and under his right arm he had a bad gash that went through the muscles to the bone. It was touch-and-go for several days, and Jimmy feared his horse's career was over, but miraculously, he noted the Holsteiner "came back really fast."
Maestro got loose in Wellington, FL, during the Winter Equestrian Festival, and fell on the pavement, skidding and tearing his skin.
"He looked like cheese pizza on his whole front," said Ken, who laid him off for the rest of the Florida circuit. The big bay happily wasn't suffering any aftereffects of the incident -- Maestro has won ribbons in eight of the nine grands prix he entered in 2003.
So that's it from here at Devon. Great class. I love the Gold Cup, because even though it isn't officially fall yet (we have to wait until Sept. 22) this has the feel of autumn. It's the last big outdoor jumper class in this neck of the woods, so I look on it as the end of one season leading into the excitement of the fall circuit. See you there!