Allentown, N.J., May 9, 2010 -- The weather gods have been with me at the last two events I covered, and for that I'm very thankful. We missed rain and tornadoes at Rolex Kentucky in April and this weekend, only cold and wind developed at the Jersey Fresh event, which avoided the predicted thunderstorms.
The chill paid off for the folks from Abenaki Acres, the alpaca farm that was exhibiting in the trade fair; they sold lots of warm scarves, gloves and hats.
But we're not talking icicles here, so conditions were really optimum. Still, I don't think that's the reason that winners in the featured CCI 3-star and CIC 3-star went wire-to-wire, winning dressage, acing cross-country and taking show jumping in stride, while the 2-star CCI winner moved up from second in dressage to take the lead cross-country and never give it up.
What we had at the Horse Park of New Jersey were some quality horses and riders who showed us how it should be done. Jennie Brannigan mastered the 2-star with Cambalda, and as expected (at least by me!) Tiana Coudray won her first 3-star CCI with the majestic Ringwood Magister, while Phillip Dutton dominated the CIC 3-star (which has a shorter cross-country than the CCI) with one of his Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games prospects, Tru Luck.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation's managing director of show jumping, Sally Ike, set her usual clever courses for the final phase, with Jennie the only winner to go clear over them.
"Sally always makes interesting courses that tend to be a little bit deceiving. Often, she has something in her back pocket you don't see on the surface," said Doug Payne, second in the 2-star on Happy Valley, who finished on his dressage score of 50 penalties, to Jennie's 44.3.
"The flow was quite good but there were some lines and distances that you had to be intelligent about how you approached (them). With her courses, you're required to be on top of your game," he concluded.
Sally and I talked about the courses after the competition. (For more information on Sally's thoughts about course design, see the May 2010 issue of Practical Horseman.)
Jennie understandably was overcome with emotion after she clinched her win, putting her hand to her face after she galloped through the finish line. She suffered a great loss in December when her very special horse, Cooper, had to be put down. He had injured a tendon in the stadium jumping at the Fair Hill 3-star last fall. An operation on that led to a colic operation, and then laminitis. He just couldn't be saved. Jennie naturally was heartbroken to lose such a special partner. She and Cooper had won double gold at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in 2008, then last year went on to more glory, with an eye toward qualifying for the 2010 Rolex Kentucky 4-star and perhaps the WEG, before tragedy struck.
She has another special mount in Cambalda, nicknamed Ping, who--like Cooper--was purchased from Kelly McMullen-Temple and is now owned by Nina Gardner. Jennie, who works for Phillip, has been named to the eventing Developing Rider list and perhaps will realize the dreams she had with Cooper on this mount. We talked a little about that after the awards ceremony.
Phillip, you'll remember was the top American at Rolex Kentucky, placing second on another of his WEG prospects, Woodburn. Tru Luck is not doing a three-day event this season as he preps for WEG with dressage trainer Oded Shimoni (who will be riding for his native Israel in the WEG) and U.S. coach Mark Phillips. A native of Australia who changed his citizenship after being based here for years, Phillip said he is grateful for the help he is getting from the U.S. team, something that was missing when he trained half a world away from the country he used to represent.
Tru Luck logged time penalties on both cross-country (as did every horse in the CIC) and show jumping, where Phillip had a messy rail at a double of verticals. Still he enjoyed a huge lead over his student, amateur Peter Barry on Kilrodan Abbott, 65.4 penalties to 73.4.
I asked Phillip for his thoughts on Tru Luck's peformance.
By the way, Tru Luck is a thoroughbred and got an award as the top performing thoroughbred in his division. Jersey Fresh's beneficiary is ReRun, the organization that finds new homes for ex-racehorses, so this award had special significance.
I found Peter very interesting. I knew from my first meeting with him that he was a gentleman; he immediately offered me his chair, since I was standing. I declined, but he did the same thing today. I can't remember the last time that any man (except my husband) contemplated giving up his chair for me.
A native of Germany who is a Canadian citizen and runs a lingerie business, Peter took up riding at the advanced age of 40. Now 54, he does not show his late start or his age a bit as he competes, but I wondered if he worries about falling. His daughter, Alex, 15, had a bad fall last year and spent a month in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital. She's back riding now, but she and her family had quite a scare.
When I asked Peter how he handles the risk, he responded, "My daughter says, at the end of the day, you have to do what you're passionate about. If you start worrying, you start riding backwards and you make mistakes. If it's your thing, go for it, have a good time. That's how I think of it."
The CCI, which carried $10,000 in prize money--the most ever offered at Jersey Fresh--was a long-awaited triumph for 21-year-old Tiana, who came all the way from California with her Irish bred mount. He's from the same farm as the legendary Ringwood Cockatoo, campaigned with great success by Bettina Hoy.
She tried the 3-star CCI at Bromont, Quebec, last year, but had to pull out after dressage when her horse had some filling in one leg. It amounted to nothing, but thank goodness she exercises caution with her mount. Then at Fair Hill, where it was pouring rain, she pulled out during cross-country.
She prepped this spring at Galway Downs in California, where she won the CIC 3-star.
So this was her big shot, a building block for much more to come. Right after the event, the U.S. team vet evaluated Ringwood Magister to have a baseline for the future, which could include the 2011 Pan American Games or even the 2012 Olympics.
Tiana was very excited about her win.
Tiana's fence down in stadium jumping, along with 4.8 time penalties cross-country added to her winning dressage score of 36.8 penalties, the best in any division, for a total of 45.6. Phillip, riding Inmidair for Jan Byyny--still out of commission after a bad fall earlier this year--moved up from a tie for ninth in dressage with a double-clear in both cross-country and stadium to finish second on 58 penalties. Inmidair, still relatively green, has an incredible jump and could be another future star.
Unfortunately, the entries for Jersey Fresh were down 40 percent this year, with only 51 starters. No one could pinpoint the reason, but there were several theories; some said there's a paucity of upper-level horses. Riders may be going instead to Bromont, the Canadian 3-star later this spring. It has a refurbished location and the cachet of course designer Derek DiGrazia, who will be taking over at Rolex Kentucky from Mike Etherington-Smith next year.
Another thought was that some didn't like the course here. Ironically, designer John Williams has almost completely re-done it to make it less winding, and it received acclaim from those who rode it (though some said the ground should have been worked a bit more to be softer.)
"Changes were due, and we bit it off this year and made some significant changes to the layout of the track," John said.
"We tried to come up with a way to make the galloping lanes not feel congested at all, to have it be a much more open feeling . There are three different courses out there, the longest one over 3 1/2 miles, the shortest one 2 1/2 miles and the other one somewhere in the middle. Getting all that done on roughly 75 acres has been a challenge," he continued.
"I think with the efforts of the Horse Park making a few changes to the property...and with my efforts to re-route things that we're all quite happy with the results."
It was safety first this year, with no serious accidents and only two falls, a plus for an event where a horse had died every year for the last three years--two of natural causes and one in a fall.
Riders were taking their responsibility seriously, most exiting after two refusals rather than waiting to be eliminated with a third, and there were lots of time penalties that could in many cases be chalked up to careful riding.
PRO, the Professional Riders Organization, made Jersey Fresh part of its first tour, and tried to help organizers boost the event's profile. Unfortunately, the weather threat and Mother's Day didn't help; very few spectators were on hand for the state's biggest event. It's very well run, and hopefully word about the new cross-country layout will spread and bring in more riders next year. But the event needs something else going, perhaps a giant plant sale or flower show, to attract people who will then discover the joys of eventing and make it easier to get sponsorship. This is the national spring 3-star championship, and it deserves attention from everyone.
One of the fun things was an exhibition of polocrosse, that increasingly popular combination of polo and lacrosse. Doug and Jennie were celebrity players and both did really well in their introduction to the sport. Check out the action in my photo gallery here.