Wellington, Fla., March 4, 2010 -- The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) has been a vague glimmer on the horizon for years; we've been following its fortunes since the Kentucky Horse Park lost the 2006 WEG bid to Aachen, and then finally got the nod for 2010.
As I watched the third of five selection trials for the U.S. show jumping team, however, the September 25 opening ceremonies suddenly seemed very close.
Only a few spectators braved an afternoon in the powerful wind that gusted yesterday around the derby field where the old Palm Beach Polo stadium once stood, a short canter from the main showgrounds of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
But I felt the tingle of anticipation and excitement as America's best horses and riders tested themselves against an outstanding course built by one of my favorite designers, Guilherme Jorge of Brazil, and the weather (McLain Ward said he would have preferred rain).
Actually, to be accurate, I must note that not all of America's best horses and riders took to the expansive and expensive great grass track, liberally dotted with amazing fences like the wall built to resemble Palm Beach's famous Breakers hotel, or a double flanked by giant purple butterflies.
McLain's number one mount, Sapphire, with two Olympic gold medals and a WEG silver among her many credits, was given a bye from the trials before they began. And after the first two trials, Olympic team gold medalist Laura Kraut with Cedric and Lauren Hough with Quick Study also got byes when they tied for first place with two zero-penalty efforts.
McLain and I chatted about Sapphire's program, geared to ending the Florida circuit with the $500,000 finale later this month.
The third trial had 32 starters, compared with the group of 44 who competed in the first trial in February. But there are still 12 places left on the long list from which the final squad of five will be chosen, following three tours of European shows this spring and summer.
The winner of the single-round test was a rather unlikely one, in my view, McLain's other mount, Rothchild. He ran into trouble in the triple combination that was the last line during the first trial.
Reliving the error, McLain said, "He thought we were a little bit done and I knew it (the distance) was showing up long, I thought, 'Don't kick him through this.' But that's the one place, vertical/oxer, where he's not quite comfortable."
Acknowledging that was his mistake, McLain has big plans for his mount.
"He'll get there. He was jumping 1.20 meters a year and a half ago. I think he's a real top, top horse. Whether he's Sapphire or not, I don't know,'' said McLain, who's thinking of next year's Pan American Games and beyond that, the 2012 London Olympics for this bright chestnut.
Rothchild's speed is a strong point, and it was evident once again yesterday as he flew around the long and winding course in 74.72 seconds, with breathing room ahead of the second-place finisher, Rich Fellers of Oregon on Flexible (75.233). Beezie Madden was third with another clear on Danny Boy (75.534).
Beezie was one of the pillars of our 2004 and 2008 gold medal Olympic teams with Authentic, who is out with an injury, so she's had to do some scrambling for the trials. This one started out badly when a new ride, Coral Reef Via Volo, refused and sent her tumbling onto the turf. Mademoiselle, an even newer mount, lost a bit of form from her previous trial performances and had two fences down.
There were six clear trips yesterday, but another West Coaster, Californian Richard Spooner wasn't one of them. He had a single time penalty to finish seventh. His philosophy is not to rush Cristallo and leave the fences standing, which has paid off in making him first in the standings with a total of 6 penalties for three trials. Tied for second on 8 penalties are Candice King with Skara Glen's Davos and Nicole Shahinian-Simpson on Tristan.
Hillary Dobbs, the leader going into the third trial, had two knockdowns with Quincy B to put her in a tie for fourth with McLain and Rothchild on 9 penalties. Beezie is tied for sixth on 12 penalties with Danny Boy and Mademoiselle. New American citizen Mario Deslauriers, a native of Canada (Urico), and Charlie Jayne (Athena) also are part of that tie with 12 each.
Some of the riders have an unusually busy schedule, even more packed than usual. After tomorrow's fourth selection trial, McLain, Lauren, Kent Farrington and Ashlee Bond (another of the clear rounds yesterday with Chivas Z) will get ready to ride for the U.S. team in the country's only Nations' Cup, one of the highlights of the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival.
These riders won't have their best mounts for the Cup, however.
"With these trials, it threw a little loop," explained McLain, who will be aboard a developing stallion, Amoroso.
"I think we have a good group of riders and hopefully they will make up for the inexperience or maybe the past-their-prime of some of their horses and have a strong performance," he said.
I caught up with McLain, Kent and Lauren at a reception for Nations' Cup teams at the White Horse Tavern, which flanks the showgrounds. Riders sipped champagne and watched videos of previous Cups as they socialized in a variety of languages.
Lauren and I chatted about the trials and the Cup, in which she'll be riding Casadora, and about her stallion, Prezioso, who dropped out of the trials.
Kent, standing 16th in the trials with Uceko, talked with me about that horse and his Cup mount, United.
Mark Bellissimo, head of Equestrian Sport Productions, which runs the showgrounds, spoke with me about the old polo stadium area (now the scene of a steeplechase as well as show jumping) and the possibility that his group could bid for the 2018 WEG. It would be interesting to have two WEGs in the U.S. within eight years, especially in view of the fact that this year is the first time the WEG has been held outside Europe since the compilation of world championships began in 1990.
That's it for now, but I'll be back with a postcard Saturday morning to fill you in on the next selection trial and the Nations' Cup, where the flag-waving crowd, with enthusiastic national cheering sections, makes for an evening to remember.