Wellington, Fla., Feb. 14, 2005 -- The Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) never ceases to amaze me. It's an overwhelming welter of golf carts, ATVs, motorbikes, bicycles and yes, horses, that somehow sorts itself out into top-caliber competition from the grand prix field to the pony ring.
There's an ambitious scale to the world's largest horse show (seven weeks in the same place counts as that, even if each week has a different name). Finishing on top at the WEF, whichever of the eight arenas you're in, is cause for celebration.
But nowhere is that more true than on the grass Internationale field, where the best jumpers meet at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club. They're cheered on during a Sunday grand prix by local folks in the bench seats around the arena and the elite who pay $20,000 for a season's table beneath the Jockey Club's chandeliers at the top of the hill.
A lot of the applause last weekend was devoted to saluting Laura Kraut, who won the WEF class on Feb. 10 with her perky gray mare, Miss Independent. Then she turned around yesterday and, aboard Anthem, took the $50,000 Kilkenny/ICH International Cup at the 3-star-rated show of the same name.
"I had an amazing week," Laura said modestly. The Kilkenny was an amazing class, too. Anthem, a businesslike bay, was the 18th horse and the first to go clean on the course set by Robert Ellis, a designer from Britain who is new to the Florida scene.
Before the competition, I asked Robert--who has designed at such famous fixtures as Hickstead and Olympia in his homeland--where he thought the trouble spots might be on his route. He figured they were pretty much everywhere, and wasn't sure how things would turn out.
"They've got a car waiting for me outside the gate," he said with a smile as he contemplated a quick getaway after describing some of the challenges, which included a 12-foot-wide water jump off a bending line going away from the gate and toward the crowd. Then there was the obstacle topped by a white plank that had a propensity for toppling and stood 5 feet, 1 inch, the same height as the CN jump flanked by red locomotives (my favorite), and the final fence in the first round.
"I don't know all the riders," Robert told me, explaining his greatest difficulty was with "judging the standard."
After Laura, only two others in the field of 47 qualified for the jump-off. They were Lauren Hough, Laura's 2000 Olympic teammate, who has won before on the Internationale turf with her longtime star, Clasiko, and a surprising newcomer, Cayce Harrison. She's the daughter of CN (Canadian National) railway President and CEO Hunter Harrison, who is also McLain Ward's sponsor.
Two other riders came through without jumping faults, but both Belgium's Eric Flameng on Roxanne and Clare Bronfman with Equinox logged a time penalty for going over the 85-second time allowed, scaled back after the first three horses jumped from the original TA of 93 seconds. They finished fourth and fifth respectively.
Although Robert "expected more clear rounds," he wasn't sorry he had changed the time allowed.
"Luck wasn't with me today," he shrugged, citing "silly mistakes everywhere" by the riders. But frankly, watching a total of 50 rounds in one afternoon was probably enough for the majority of the 9,000 spectators on hand.
Laura, however, didn't stick around to see most of the first round. Instead, she went to another ring to coach a student in the low junior jumpers, which she called, "kind of a nice distraction." She kept an ear tuned to the Internationale Arena, though, and observed, "I didn't hear the crowd scream once, other than to say 'awwwww.'" But she came back to see Clasiko, 41st in the order, because, "I had a very positive feeling Lauren was going to go clean," she commented.
Cayce was last to appear on Couer, her striking gray 9-year-old Holsteiner formerly ridden by Britain's John Renwick, and the 21-year-old Sarah Lawrence College student drew hearty "hurrays"
for her clear round.
Laura led off the tiebreaker, saying it is "hard going in the jump-off when there's so few." Her strategy was just to turn on the speed. Anthem "went as fast as I think I could have gone," she said, noting that was even though "he had a slip on a turn" but "recovered from it amazingly."
Lauren had the third of nine fences down. After that, she didn't push, knowing she'd be no worse than third. Her time of 47.92 seconds was far back of Laura's 43.50-second clocking.
"My horse is not the fastest horse in the world," said Lauren, who commented that since the season is still young, he's also not at peak fitness.
Cayce was really trucking until she smashed into the third-to-last fence, a tall vertical.
"I think the last horse, if she had put one less stride in, she would have won it," Robert told me.
Even so, Cayce's time of 47.83 was good enough for second in her third major grand prix. It was the second weekend in a row for a former Young Rider star to finish as a runner-up, since Paige Johnson did it the previous Sunday.
"It's so wonderful to see these great young riders doing so well at the highest level at one of the hardest venues in the world," said Lauren, who was just a kid herself when she made her Olympic debut. "Their families have both been wonderful supporters of our sport, and it's wonderful to see it pay off."
McLain, who coaches Cayce, called her, "an incredibly talented and sympathetic rider. Cayce's a perfectionist, so that's one of the hurdles we've worked on, just going and doing it and not overanalyzing it. The hard work's starting to pay off.
"It's thrilling," continued an obviously jazzed McLain, saying someone suggested to him that it was nearly as good as if he had gone clean.
"I've done that before," said McLain who found this more exciting.
Cayce got her horse in late July. When she started showing him in Holland, "it did not go very well," she conceded. "I had a rough couple of shows on him and I was doubting our partnership a little bit."
But with good coaching, she finally got together with her horse. Even so, to do so well at the beginning of this year is "a little bit surreal," said Cayce, whose achievement gave her a very special high. "I see why you get addicted. I'm thrilled."
While the days are busy here with major competitions like the Kilkenny, the nights tend to really buzz. Parties are as integral to the WEF as those golf carts or jump cups. Socializing seems as important as schooling--actually more so in some cases, because the parties are a place where the people who aren't riding can shine.
But the Feb. 12 gathering was a far cry from the usual glamour get-together. The Equus Foundation, which donates to such equestrian causes as therapeutic riding, the Equestrian Aids Foundation and riding programs for inner-city children, held a gymkhana featuring grand prix stars, trainers and young riders.
This "Fete Cheval" was a fun evening that was over-subscribed, as more than 400 people crowded into a tent alongside the Internationale Arena to watch some famous names clown around. There was a costume class, in which riders had to respond to commands (counter-canter, posting trot) while trying not to spill a drop of the glass of tomato juice they were carrying.
Margie Goldstein-Engle in a red polka dot Raggedy Ann pouf hat and dress eliminated herself early by drinking the tomato juice and then balancing the glass on her head.
Trainer Frank Madden, wearing a Darth Vader-like motorcycle helmet for much of the time, won the overall title by standing in the saddle, jumping "no hands" and singing "Jingle Bells." You had to be there...
So you can see the WEF is not all serious showing, horse sales and shopping. Isn't it nice to know there's a light side (for a good cause)?
I'll be back with you next Monday to tell you about another action-packed WEF weekend that features dressage, the World Cup grand prix and the American Hunter Jumper Foundation Hunter Spectacular of Palm Beach. In other words, the granddaddy of all hunter classics. See you then!
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