August 13, 2010 -- I woke up this morning thinking about Lucky Tiger. It was just one of those things; I realized I hadn't written anything during the World Equestrian Games selection trials about Pierre St. Jacques' feisty bay, who has been improving to the point where, to me at least, he looks like a whole new horse.
I picked the right day. Lucky Tiger was at his best, breaking 70 percent in the Grand Prix with two of the five judges and winding up third with a 69.489 percent total to break the top placings for the first time as the trials entered their second weekend.
Yes, the standings were shaken up a bit at the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions. Tina Konyot, however, is still above the fray with Calecto V, achieving a three-peat as she replicated her results for last weekend's first Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special. They call that a sweep. She was the only competitor this afternoon to score above 70 overall, with a mark of 71.319 percent.
I think it's safe to say she has clinched her place on the team that will go to Lexington, Ky., next month. The lone hurdle left (to use a mixed metaphor for dressage) is Sunday morning's freestyle, which counts just 15 percent.
Tina was very emotional today. She has, as she admits, a tough facade, but she teared up during the awards ceremony and again later as she talked about her third victory.
Tina was thinking about her late father, Alex, a master horse trainer and member of a famous circus family. She still carries in her purse the letter he wrote her six years ago, telling his daughter, "Your day will come." Tina re-read the letter before she rode today, and it's an obvious inspiration. Several times she has come close to making a team and missed, but now she's almost there.
Calecto had a few little wrinkles in his second Grand Prix; a bobble in the one-tempis, and the second piaffe wasn't his best. But these are small details. He's been outstanding throughout the trials.
"Of all the horses we saw today, he has the most elasticity," said judge Janet Foy. "He's like a huge rubber band and the enthusiasm from the hind legs is stunning. Sometimes, Tina can't control all that enthusiasm and that's where she starts to lose points...but the wonderful thing about that horse is that the hind legs never quit."
While Tina may have her niche reserved, the rest of the team spots aren't as certain as they looked last weekend. Katherine Bateson-Chandler, second twice with Nartan, dropped to fifth with 69.021 percent as her piaffe viewed from the front had a bit of a swing. She's still second overall, but Todd Flettrich, third twice with Otto, moved up to second today (69.787) and remains third overall.
Also suddenly in the picture is Catherine Haddad, who came all the way from Germany with Winyamaro, considered a horse for the future because of his lack of experience. Maybe, however, the future is now. She turned in quite a performance with the charming chestnut to earn 69.149 percent and boost her to fourth overall, just ahead of Lucky Tiger. So the freestyle looks like the final word on who will join Steffen Peters and Ravel (who got a bye) as the trials at the refurbished U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters go down to the wire.
I had a lot of questions to ask Pierre about his mount. Of all the horses at the trials, he's the one I've been watching the longest, but I must say, he has never impressed me as much as he did today.
"He's wonderful to ride. It's like sitting on an explosion, a big ball of fire," said Pierre, who exited the awards ceremony early so the explosion didn't erupt.
"There hasn't been one day where I haven't enjoyed riding him. Even some days that are difficult, there's always something he ends up doing well, so it's always fun," he said.
He and I chatted some more about Lucky Tiger's journey. Why not listen in?
We started the day with the Junior Team Test, which was dominated by California girls. Well, West Coast girls anyway; the winner, Jamie Pestana (don't you love that her horse is appropriately named Winzalot) and the third place rider, Genay Vaughn (Waranja), are both from California; second place Catherine Chamberlain (Verdicci) is an Arizonan, but she shows in California.
Jamie won everything she entered at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championship to take the individual junior gold medal last month, and was on the silver medal team with Genay, while Catherine was the individual silver medalist. So these ladies had a track record for being at the top.
Winzalot, a 6-year-old Hanoverian, is a definite star, but he had a hard trip from Kentucky to New Jersey.
"We think he may have fallen on the trailer," noted Jamie, explaining he had a couple of ribs out of place, while his haunches and ribs were sore on his right side.
"We spent the last two days giving him lots of pampering," said Jamie. That included massage, chiropractic and acupuncture that got Winzalot in shape to claim the blue ribbon.
"The best people in the country are here," she observed. Yes they are, from medical folks to trainers and riders. That's what makes this so exciting.
This evening was a bit of a break, with an exhibitors' party on the grounds of the mansion at the golf course that shares Hamilton Farm with the USET. Everyone really relaxed over barbecue. It was fun to watch Tina doing some fancy fast dancing with judge Axel Steiner, and see the owners, riders and officials mingle and hash over the events of the day.
It wasn't a late night of course, since tomorrow is another early day I'll be there to fill you in on the junior, Young Rider and Brentina Cup action.