March 5, 2011 -- What's the word of the week? If you've listened to the radio or watched TV in the last few days, you know it's "win-ning."
And members of the? U.S. squad definitely made it their own last night with a clear-cut victory in the country's only FEI Nations' Cup before a well-behaved crowd of more than 8,000 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
It was only the fourth time in 10 years that the home team managed to take the big prize. Naturally, McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Margie Engle and Mario Deslauriers were in an ebullient mood on the podium, as the boys squirted Veuve Cliquot champagne in celebration (a fun photo, but what a waste of good bubbly...).
They rolled out the big guns for this one. McLain was on his amazing Sapphire, than whom there is none better; Beezie brought the rapidly rising Coral Reef Via Volo, while Margie was aboard another new star, Indigo, and Mario rode Urico. In contrast to last year, when C-team horses were used to save the best for the World Equestrian Games, no stone was left unturned in the effort to top the charts.? There even was a U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation pep rally, complete with cheerleaders, at the White Horse Tavern on campus Thursday night.
Despite all that, winning was far from easy. The route included three double combinations, the last of which had a vertical as the A element after the water jump, and you know that can be trouble unless a horse is good at stretching and then compressing.? Needless to say, not all of them were. The next-to-last fence was an arched brick viaduct of two different heights, which had some of the horses looking and a few stopping.
McLain said the course was "the hardest Nations' Cup we've seen here," yet the U.S. at its best obviously is up to that kind of challenge. "We came with a very strong team...it' a good solid win; it's what we came to do," said McLain.
(Sidenote: The course was designed by Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens. Steve managed to focus, despite the fact that his show jumper wife, Debbie, broke her hip in a schooling accident on Wednesday and was operated on yesterday. She'll be fine, but Steve noted she faces a long recovery.)
Okay, back to the class: Canada, which had won five times, including 2009 and 2010, settled for second on 16 penalties, eight behind the winners. There was a three-way tie for third among Ireland, Britain and Australia, much further back on 37 penalties. Eight teams took part, with Mexico sixth, followed by Venezuela and Colombia.
Only McLain and Australia's James Patterson-Robinson on Niack De L'Abbaye could manage double-clears. James was imported for the occasion from Holland, where he has lived for a decade, long enough to trade his Australian accent for a Dutch one.
The day before, after Mario won the weekly WEF grand prix on Vicomte D, I asked him why this Nations Cup is so important. After all, it's not in the Super League. But it seems it's actually in a league of its own.
Beezie had a bit of a problem at the beginning of the first round with Via Volo. She handled it (she's been going to a personal trainer since she got down here and she is fit, fit, fit) and finished with only 4 faults. However, in the second round (the Cup is run in two rounds over the same course) when only three members of each team could return, coach George Morris opted to leave Mario (who had 4 fault in the first round) on the bench and gave Beezie the nod because he felt her mare was fresh and could use an opportunity to try again. Naturally, she put in a clear trip in her patented Beezie fashion.
Afterwards, we talked about the evening and beyond.
I was glad members of the crowd, happily nationalistic, cheered for their favorite flag bearers but weren't as raucous as last year. There were concerns then and they were addressed by stepped-up security measures.
The showgrounds look terrific, though as usual, there's still some planting and sprucing up going on three-quarters of the way through the circuit. But in comparison with how things were before the current regime took over; well, there's no comparison. We still must pay tribute, though -- it took innovation to even start a showgrounds here, so they have been building on a good foundation.
As I was heading toward the parking lot after the Nations' Cup, I saw a chef making crepes in a little tent and passed what looked like a disco. A disco? At the showgrounds? I asked Mark Bellissimo, the main man behind the facility's improvement, what that was all about (as music blared in the background.)
And folks, you ain't seen nothing yet. In a casual convesation, Mark revealed that there are plans to do something with the old Palm Beach Polo stadium grounds across the street (what I referred to in my conversation with Beezie) where a few events, such as one of the 2010 show jumping selection trials, have been held. But the property eventually is going to host a hotel, facilities for dressage and who knows what else.
Expect word soon about a 2012 dressage series planned for PBIEC, which offers no dressage this year after a decision to cancel its hosting of the World Dressage Masters. That competition was revived to be held ?nearby next week, and I'll be there. There's also talk about construction of an indoor ring, maybe even a stadium. Is a bid for the World Cup finals far behind? (There already are plans to bid for the 2018 World Equestrian Games.) "Think big" is the motto here, but the revamped look of the showgrounds is proof that mindset works (with the help of a lot of money.)
The Palm Beach Dressage Derby runs concurrently with the WEF, which makes for difficult logistics in trying to cover both, since the Derby is in much more rural Loxahatchee, a 25-minute drive from the PBIEC showgrounds.
It's a whole different world out there. Example: I passed a house that had two mules grazing in the rather unkempt front yard, as opposed to the expensive warmbloods that tend to populate well-manicured properties in Wellington.
There's a lot of open land in Loxahatchee to host the Derby, with its multiple rings and fields for more relaxed warm-ups. I made the trip for one reason--to see Heather Blitz? ride Paragon. I had lots of company. A crowd gathered as she put the 18-hand 8-year old Danish warmblood by Don Schufro through his paces before entering the arena for the Prix St. Georges.
The leggy chestnut reminded me of what we called a very tall local bus driver when I was a kid. His nickname was "Stilts," and I'll always think of Paragon that way. This ace performer uses his stilts well, with an incredible reach at the extended trot. But that isn't his only strong point. Six-time Olympian Robert Dover, who has been helping Heather, was in awe after the PSG and called the tempi-changes "extraordinary."
The judges agreed; Paragon is all about big numbers, his scores as well as his height. He earned 76.053 percent to win, a mile ahead of the runner-up, Shawna Harding with Rigo, a Hanoverian scored at 71.491 percent.
Heather was glowing after she dismounted and I caught up to her to discuss her ride.
I'm heading back to PBIEC, where the features tonight include a puissance (I was very interested to hear how folks around the grounds are looking forward to it) and a derby cross team event featuring eventers, show jumpers and polo players over cross-country fences. There are some big names participating, including David O'Connor. This should wrap up a good week for him; he was named to the very short short-list for the next U.S. eventing technical advisor (more commonly thought of as "coach.") The only competition for David, the individual gold medalist from the 2000 Olympics, is U.S.-based Brit Leslie Law, who took the individual gold at the 2004 Olympics. I sense a pattern here.
I'll be back with another postcard tomorrow evening to fill you in on tonight's action, as well as tomorrow's $150,000 4-star show jumping grand prix.