Allentown, N.J., June 5, 2006 -- "Champagne?" the press officer at the Jersey Fresh Three-Day Event offered, her bottle of Korbel poised to pour.
"Absolutely!" grinned Jan Byyny, who really had something to celebrate. In fact, she enjoyed two glasses of bubbly: the first to toast her victory in the 3-star-rated event with Task Force; another for her second-place finish on Waterfront.
That one-two punch showed Jan at her best, with solid dressage, impressive cross-country trips and only one rail down between the two horses in show jumping.
You may know this rider better as Jan Thompson, formerly married to fellow eventer Craig Thompson. The 2003 individual Pan American Championships bronze medalist and team gold medalist, Jan trains with Australian Olympic team gold medalist Phillip Dutton, who certainly has taught her well.
Waterfront had the fastest 3-star time of the day on cross-country, coming in with 12.8 time penalties over soggy footing at the Horse Park of New Jersey, where making the 10-minute, 6-second optimum time was an impossibility.
Rain the night before left the ground drenched, but as Olympic individual gold medalist Leslie Law put it, a noontime downpour was "the icing on the cake" that compounded the difficulty of getting around the hilly track.
"The jump crew dealt with it very well," said course designer John Williams, whose clever route drew bravos. He knew that under the best conditions, the time would be difficult to make, so the rain complicated that scenario.
Seven horses retired on cross-country and three were eliminated. At the end of the event, there were 25 finishers from a field of 41.
You got a real sense of what was happening on course at the lake complex, where several horses refused at a duck blind going up the hill toward the water. From there, they galloped into the drink, leaped a table and headed up another hill. Coming back near the end of the course, they jumped a narrow lighthouse obstacle at the top of a hill, then descended into the water ("The Plunge") over a solid timber jump. From there, they had to handle the narrow "Corner Dock" and then hopped out of the water to clear a wooden "Wiley Coyote" before heading toward the end of the course, where obstacles included a bank (the Hobbit Habitat); the New Jersey Turnpike (not the real one) and a produce stand.
Jan was in contention from the start, finishing third in dressage with Task Force, while Waterfront was 14th. Dressage was a bit of a replay of Rolex Kentucky, with Darren Chiacchia coming in first on Windfall II, as he did at the 4-star, and Mara Dean second on Nicki Henley (she had been third in dressage at Rolex.)
Darren and Mara were trying to make up for not finishing Rolex, as the World Equestrian Games (WEG) selectors narrowed the field for the U.S. team, while Jan also had something to prove. Task Force's wrenched shoulder pre-Rolex meant he couldn't compete in the prime WEG selection trial.
Mara wound up with a refusal here to come in 13th overall. Darren had bigger trouble. He had withdrawn Windfall after three refusals at Rolex. At Jersey Fresh, he was close to making it to the end of the course without mishap. But on his return trip through the water, Windfall ran past the Corner Dock. Darren re-presented, and the same thing happened again. Obviously shaken, Darren was able to get the stallion to jump an alternate fence, but he fell off at the next. Though he remounted to finish the course, the game was lost and his quest for a WEG slot ended at the Horse Park's lake.
"I wasn't on the best line into the corner, and (if) my good old reliable partner would have done his part...whether he just felt a little overchallenged, I don't know. It was a big surprise," said Darren recounting the mishap.
While some have suggested the 14-year-old Trakehner should stop eventing and specialize in dressage, Darren isn't seeing it that way.
"At some point, that will be his thing. But he's never moved better or gone better. I think we just need to reassess our plan. It's far from over," he said. "We can do something fun this year and get qualified for the Pan American Games next year. Maybe he can step up and do a double gold at the Pan Ams."
Darren said that in retrospect, trying to campaign less than usual this spring in the run-up to the WEG was a big mistake.
"I continue to believe in this horse. He'll be back. We've learned a valuable lesson. Unfortunately, we learned it in a year that was personally important to me," he said. "This sport is about perseverance. There's not another rider the world over that doesn't have stories like this in their repertoire."
Jan, meanwhile, is looking forward to coming back to the Horse Park July 18 for the final outing of WEG hopefuls. A group of 10 to go to Europe will be named several days later after veterinary evaluation. Those who do not actually make the team for the WEG at Aachen in August will go on to do other competitions in Europe.
Jan is very hopeful that she is a good WEG candidate. In the past, she noted, "My horse has (had) very good 4-star form. I think the selectors look for improving form. I think I'm more experienced; my horse is more experienced. I think I'm a pretty tough competitor and that always helps out."
An Australian import, Task Force "has 10 different voices going on in his head all the time," Jan said about her lively Thoroughbred. "He is the biggest tryer in the world. No one ever told him what he can't do." His mantra is, "Mom, you believe in me, I'll give you 150 percent all the time." Despite the fact that he's had some injuries, Jan noted, "He's a real competitor, he just comes back again again and again."
Waterfront, a cute chestnut, is "very confident, very cheeky, and everything is very easy for him. He's super-talented," said Jan, but she doesn't see him as a WEG prospect.
"Unfortunately, he has been plagued by a lot of unlucky soundness issues...his whole career," she commented.
Third went to Bonnie Mosser on Close the Deal, who had 75.5 penalties to Task Force's 66.6 (which included one knockdown and two time penalties in show jumping) and Waterfront's 66.9 after a double-clear in show jumping.
Close the Deal easily handled his first 3-star with his experienced rider, pinned sixth in dressage and moved up to third after cross-country. One rail down kept him in that spot; even a clean round would not have enabled him to pass Waterfront, however.
Jan and Bonnie were the big stories in the three-star, but there were some other tales that were interesting.
Chief among them is that of Theodore O'Connor, the feisty chestnut pony (he's only 14.2) ridden by Karen O'Connor to ninth place. His name is only serendipity (the pony's sire was named Theodore and breeder Wynn Norman felt the foal had the same attitude as Jimmy Connors, who had just won tennis' U.S. Open after the pony was foaled. She didn't like the sound of Theodore Connor and added an "O" to make it smoother, little dreaming then that he would wind up being ridden by an Olympian of the same name.)
It's so funny to see Teddy between two regular-sized horses, but the way he jumps, you don't notice his stature when he's flying through the air. He's 3/4 Thoroughbred, 1/8 Shetland and 1/8 Arabian, an unusual (but effective) combination if there ever was one.
"That horse has 4-star written all over him," Karen's husband, David, declared.
The other horse that's so interesting is Frodo Baggins. I figured the dark brown Thoroughbred (who was 15th and received the award for the best finish by an ex-racehorse in the event) got his name because owner Laine Ashker was a Lord of the Rings fan.
No, it was because the New Zealand-bred horse actually was IN the Lord of the Rings movies. He was one of the Ringwraiths' horses in the first movie, before the evil servants switched to riding flying dinosaur-like creatures. The horse Frodo actually walked down the red carpet at the movie premiere with star Elijah Wood and then toured for eight months. Not surprisingly, "Crowds don't bother him," Laine said.
In the 2-star at Jersey Fresh, Kate Ditchey was just thrilled to finish the event, let alone win with 49.6 penalties on Belmont. He hadn't been able to run cross-country in her last two events, but now "I felt like he was really solid," said Kate. Turning in a double-clear show jumping round and not blowing her lead assured her "that I have the ability to go in the ring and not choke."
Second in the 2-star was a former assistant U.S. attorney, Wendy Bebie on Phoenix (55 penalties), while Phillip Dutton had 56.3 with Tru Luck to finish third.
That's a wrap from the Horse Park for now, though I'll be back in July to tell you about the final outing. In the meantime, look for my EquiSearch.com report from the WEG dressage selection trial later this month at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone. It's also the national championship in both Grand Prix and Intermediaire I dressage, with Young Rider and para-equestrian in the mix as well, so there will be a lot of news from there. You can count on me to bring it to you!