Allentown, N.J., May 11, 2008 -- Many of this year's eventing competitions have been providing a roller coaster of emotions, and the Jersey Fresh 2- and 3-star this weekend was, unfortunately, no exception.
We had the victories of a pair of worthy Washington competitors, a pretty amazing coincidence, considering they were the only two at the Horse Park of New Jersey hailing from that West Coast state--which is not exactly a hotbed of the sport.
Amy Tryon topped the 3-star with Leyland, making his debut at the advanced level this year, and Maya Black, competing in her first 2-star on Kejsarinna, dominated it. Both took the lead in their divisions after cross-country and didn't let it go. Each has brought along her horse with careful and patient training, and it paid off. Their smiles during their victory gallops were infectious; it made spectators happy just to look at them.
But on the flip side, the sport suffered another tragedy. Tigger Too died six fences from the end of cross-country. The 17-year-old chestnut off-the-track Thoroughbred had an acute abdominal aortic rupture and went out playing the game he loved.
Why these ruptures happen is the subject of research, but as Tigger's owner, David O'Connor, noted, the horse was fit and fresh yesterday until a few strides before the lighthouse jump. Tigger, who was third at Fair Hill and a top-15 finisher with David at Burghley, was ridden by 20-year-old Lauren Kieffer, who works for David and Karen. Last year, Tigger earned her the Markham Trophy for Young Riders at Jersey Fresh. This year, in what was to be the final event of his career, they didn't make it to the finish line.
Tigger broke into a trot moments before reaching the fence, then "charged" at it, Lauren said, tumbling over the narrow rolltop. He died moments later. Luckily, Lauren was uninjured even though the horse was lying on her leg. But he did not kick her. To David, it seemed that Tigger, in his final seconds was trying his best to stay out of her way and not hurt her.
As always, I'm impressed by David and how well he handles everything, from sad incidents such as this one, to winning the individual gold medal at the 2000 Olympics and his duties as president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. When we talked about Tigger, whom he owned for 11 years, David mentioned the horse had undergone three colic surgeries. One of the fears with which David lived was that he would go into the barn some morning and find Tigger colicking again.
Lauren, though obviously distraught, also was being brave. The tears kept coming, of course, but she accepted the opportunity for the chance to talk about Tigger when I asked her what he had meant to her.
David has been wrestling with the whole eventing safety issue as it came to a head this season; how distressing and ironic that it would be his own horse who died at a competition.
Let's not, however, confuse this with other deaths and accidents caused by rider error or poor judgment. What occurred really came down to the hand of fate, and until the research is complete, there isn't much more you can say about these mishaps. It's a bitter coincidence that the same sort of thing happened last year at Jersey Fresh to Laine Ashker's Eight St. James Place just after he completed cross-country.
Veterinary matters such as these will be among the four main topics at the Safety Summit being presented by the USEF and U.S. Eventing Association, June 7-8 in Lexington, Ky. The summit is a pro-active step the federation has taken in an effort to decrease the unnecessary risk factors in the sport. If you have any thoughts, pass them along to the organizations; they will be welcome. Read my column On the Rail: Stemming the Tide of Eventing Tragedies for more information.
All that being said, I must emphasize that conditions were perfect at Jersey Fresh after rain during the dressage phase. The ground was just soft enough, the weather was cool and John Williams did a super job on the cross-country courses. They were interesting without being too strenuous; a proper test geared to horses and riders at each level. Aside from Tigger's death, this is the way eventing is supposed to be.
In the 2-star, while four horses went double-clear cross-country, only two could make it around Sally Ike's challenging show jumping course in the division today without jumping or time penalties.
Kejsarinna wasn't one of them, but her single knockdown matched that of Take Time, ridden by Carol Kozlowski. The leader after dressage, Carol dropped to second on time penalties in the event's second phase as Kejsarinna rose from third in dressage to first on her faultless cross-country trip. The final score: Kejsarinna, 51.7 penalties; Take Time, 52.9; Phillip Dutton on Risk Taker, 54 for third place.
Kejsarrinna is half-Swedish, an American-bred whose name means princess, according to Maya (the root of the word is similar to czarina). But for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to pronounce the horse's name. I asked Maya to help me, and to tell me something about the mare.
Since Kejsarrina has a bit of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and because Maya isn't one to rush her, she isn't planning on doing the Fair Hill 3-star this fall. The 20-year-old horsewoman, who is working with Jan Byyny in Virginia, might go to Young Riders.
When I found out Maya was from Whidbey Island, Wash., I asked if she knew Adrienne Lyle. Adrienne is the assistant of dressage Olympian Debbie McDonald, becoming a top rider on the dressage small tour and the only other person I ever met from Whidbey. Sure enough, Maya is her cousin, wears her hand-me-down coat for dressage and has taken some lessons from her. The equestrian world, as we all know, is definitely a small one.
In the 3-star, no one made the optimum time on cross-country, but Amy's mark was only 4 seconds over, boosting her into the lead after tying for ninth place in dressage. Buck Davidson, who tied for 12th in dressage, moved up to fourth after cross-country on Ballynoecastle RM, better known as Reggie.
He had a clean show-jumping round, which put pressure on Amy, since she had only 6.5 penalties in hand, good enough for one knockdown and some time faults. Luckily, she went around without an error to wind up with just 54 penalties to Buck's 60.5.
But Leyland, who missed last year with a broken coffin bone (ouch!) after kicking the arena wall while longeing, is a work in progress. He still has a "green" feel to him sometimes, Amy said. He's come a long way since this winter, however.
While Olympic selectors were looking at Leyland among other possibles, Amy's best bet to go to the Games in Hong Kong is her old pal Poggio, 15, the former mountain pack horse who will be doing the final outing for short-listed horses in England this summer. If the veteran doesn't make the Games, he'll compete at Burghley in September as his career winds down.
But I digress. Back to the 3-star. Others in the division who stood between Amy and Buck after cross-country had trouble in the show jumping arena. Sara Dierks, who had been second with Somerset II, dropped to fourth (62.8) with two knockdowns and Canada's Mike Winter, who had been standing third, toppled a rail with Wonderful Will to finish fifth (64.1). Canada's Jessica Phoenix, meanwhile, rose from the ashes of placing 23d in dressage to wind up third on Exploring with a double-clear in show jumping.
Jersey Fresh was a selection trial for both the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams. In addition to his many other responsibilities, David is coach of the Canadian squad. These riders have come a long way, though Hong Kong probably is a bit too soon for them to shine medal-wise. But just wait. Here's David's assessment:
Buck's horse is a longshot candidate for the U.S. Olympic team, but he has one credit that none of the other Games candidates have--he's already competed in Hong Kong. Reggie was Buck's mount in the Olympic test event last summer. Though it was at 2-star level, if horses were able to talk, Reggie could say, "Been there, done that."
Buck said his cross-country at Jersey Fresh was "the best ride of my life." He started off quietly and picked up speed, but decided not to push to make the optimum and noted his horse "finished fresh."
Buck is the coach of Laine Ashker (see above), who was critically injured in a fall at Rolex Kentucky that resulted in the death of her mount, Frodo Baggins.
Laine wasn't told for a long time about Frodo's death. Naturally, now that she knows, she is distressed about it, but is recovering and should be leaving the hospital this week. Buck says she'll compete again, noting you don't quit "once you get this in your blood."
All in all, Jersey Fresh was a wonderful event. The folks who put it on are a private group who need sponsorship to continue this important fixture and expand it to become a real spectator draw. It has potential in that direction, and can bring the sport to the attention of a new audience. As Phillip Dutton pointed out, the Horse Park is close to a lot of population centers, while "a lot of events are in more sparsely populated areas."
Organizers need some help to make Jersey Fresh a destination event for more than just the riders and their families. Maybe you'd like to lend a hand?
Next up for me is the Devon Horse Show, one of my favorites. I'll be sending you my postcard May 30.