Allentown, N.J., June 3, 2007 -- You can add another standout to the list of key U.S. eventing competitions. Jersey Fresh, held at the Horse Park of New Jersey, has achieved that status in the fifth year of its existence.
It drew more than 120 competitors, including most of the top names in the sport from the US and Canada, for a 2-star, a 3-star and an advanced horse trials that served as a Pan American Games final outing/selection trial combo.
With cross-country routes devised by top-level competitor John Williams, U.S. Equestrian Federation show jumping director Sally Ike doing the courses for the final phase, lots of land, good footing and, as one competitor pointed out, flush toilets, it's no wonder that Jersey Fresh is a draw.
The lead changed in all three divisions during the event's run, which made for an exciting finish, but when the trophies finally were awarded, the bulk of them went to Bonnie Mosser.
In the 3-star, which served as a qualifier for both the Pan Ams and next year's Olympics, Bonnie was on top with Merloch. This luscious gray New Zealand-bred previously belonged to a student of the Unionville, Pa., trainer who decided there was more to life than eventing at this point and went off to college.
Bonnie noted the fact that she herself is 44 and still going strong demonstrates that you can do other things and come back to the sport a decade or two later if necessary, something she thinks her student took into consideration when she departed.
In the advanced horse trials, Bonnie's victory came aboard Close the Deal, a fiery chestnut. She also did dressage and show jumping in that section with her longtime partner Jenga, whose cross-country effort at Rolex Kentucky in April excused him from that phase, along with five other horses who selectors felt had proven themselves cross-country at the 4-star.
The only trophy unclaimed by Bonnie was in the 2-star, where she didn't have an entry. Clark Montgomery grabbed it by a whisker after moving from third in dressage with the British import, Up Spirit, to first following cross-country.
The 2-star route, some said, was on the strong side, as just six of 47 starters, including Clark, were double-clear. But with Fair Hill's tough 3-star coming up as the next stop for many in the division, it probably was time for them to see what a real cross-country quiz is like.
The show jumping course was equally as stern in its fashion. No one got a break there; riders had to think every minute and focus on accuracy.
Clark, who is an assistant trainer working with David O'Connor, really was under pressure. After he went double-clear on Raconteur, Jennifer Libby (Jazz King), Jessica Kiener (My Boy Bobby) and Buck Davidson (Ballynoecastle RM) did the same on their Irish-bred horses.
But Up Spirit, the last to go, was having a down day as two rails fell. Clark got over the finish line with 8 penalties for a total of 55.6, to 56.2 for Buck and Jessica, who tied (the tie was broken in Buck's favor based on his cross-country time). It was a little too close for comfort.
The 2-star was, in effect, just the scene setter. The show jumping course for the 3-star, which was the same as for the horse trials, turned out to be even tougher, with a need for riders to nearly execute a roll-back from the double to a Swedish oxer. That kind of practice should help when they're negotiating those narrow corner jumps on cross-country!
In the 3-star, Bonnie started off in third place after dressage, where Mara Dean who rode as an individual in the 1996 Olympics) was the winner on Nicki Henley. But Mara has won dressage with the horse before, and he has faltered more than once on cross-country, so it was easy to figure that the game was wide open after the first phase. Will Coleman was second on another high-flying gray, Icarus, and Stephen Bradley on From was tied for fourth with Kristen Bond, Buck's girlfriend, on Three Wishes.
Cross-country was rather different than last year. More land was cleared to provide an extra loop in the beginning so John could get the distance he needed without forcing horses to run uphill at the end of the test, which had been difficult and discouraging for some.
John had planned well, but on Friday the prediction of hot, humid weather (which did materialize) led to both the speed and distance wisely being cut in the 2- and 3-star sections (the horse trial was short enough to begin with).
Will and Stephen were double-clear on cross-country, but my eye was on Mara to see how she would fare. She said she had spent time trying to lick Nicki Henley's problem, and a change of tack and tactics did the trick. She wound up with only 4 time penalties to stand third with 46.9 going into show jumping. Will, who had surged into the lead with 44.2 penalties, wasn't much ahead of Stephen who had 46.5. He also had something to prove. From injured a tendon at the Horse Park in 2004, before the Olympics, and Stephen was determined to qualify him for the Pan Ams and the Olympics here.
Bonnie, who accumulated 2.4 time penalties on cross-country, noted she has been working on Merloch's speed. She was fourth after Saturday's effort with 48.7 penalties.
Her beautiful show jumping double-clear (she took a lesson from Olympic show jumper Anne Kursinski recently) left her on that total, as those ahead of her in the standings ran into trouble. Mara and Stephen each had a rail down, but kept their placings, while Merloch in effect surged ahead. Icarus, however, must have been flying too close to the sun. It seems his wings melted a bit. He had a rail at the second part of the double and toppled another at an oxer. That sunk him to fourth and elevated Bonnie to the title.
It really was Bonnie's day--Merloch also won the fitness award, and she took the honors for the best turned-out rider. Bonnie noted she didn't have a groom; she just used the help of five volunteers.
In the horse trials, she had one rail but still bested Jonathan Holling on Lion King II, who had three unfortunate rails that dropped him to second after he had risen to first following cross-country.
"I have yet to have a horse that is great in all three phases," he sighed. "We'll go back to the drawing board and get it fixed."
Bonnie is a contender for the Pan Ams with all three horses. But the show jumping probably changed the selectors' plans for some other contenders.
Becky Holder, who had a problem with show jumping at Rolex Kentucky 2006 when she was leading after cross-country, suffered from the same jinx this time and was eliminated after a fall from Courageous Comet.
Darren Chiacchia, the leader after dressage with Better I Do It, was still in a good position following cross-country, when he was second. But it went up in smoke when he had a refusal at the third fence on Sally's course, finishing with 4 jumping penalties and 13 time faults.
There is still a question as to whether eventing will be held next month at the Pan Ams in Brazil, as the course construction is way behind schedule. But American builder Eric Bull is trying to get it done, so maybe it will happen after all.
The Pan Ams aren't as important for the U.S. as the Canadians, however. America is qualified for the Olympics off a fourth-place finish at last year's World Equestrian Games. Canada didn't have a team at the WEG and needs a good showing at the Pan Ams to qualify for the Olympics in Hong Kong next year.
I loved watching David O'Connor, who is coaching the Canadians, zoom up and down the Horse Park's roads on his little motorbike as he tried to catch as much of his riders' cross-country rounds as possible. He seemed encouraged when we discussed how he thought his charges did at Jersey Fresh.
The only downside of Jersey Fresh was the death of Eight St. James Place, the longtime partner of Laine Ashker. If you've been to a few events, you may have heard Laine and her mother, Valerie, singing the Star-Spangled Banner during ceremonies at the competition.
Laine's gallant 16-year-old finished cross-country well--I thought he looked good when I photographed him at the water near the end of the course. But moments after he crossed the finish line, he collapsed and died. A necropsy is being done to determine the actual cause of death.
Everyone was saying he passed away doing a job he loved, and I guess you can look at it like that. But it's still a jolt when a favorite horse dies, no matter what the circumstances.
Laine was brave. Despite her obvious heartbreak, she kept on kicking and finished 19th with her other horse, Frodo Baggins (a former star of the first "Lord of the Rings" movie).
I'm taking next weekend off, but I'll be in postcard-writing mode after that as I send you the details of the USEF National Dressage Championships June 16 and 18.
Until then, give all your horses a carrot for me.
Visit Nancy's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.