Wellington, Fla., March 14, 2005 -- Talk about an action-packed weekend. The wrap-up of the Winter Equestrian Festival's Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club segment went practically non-stop, with competition literally day and night.
The most important of all the classes had to be the Samsung Nations' Cup Friday evening. St. Patrick's Day will pale in comparison to the enthusiasm displayed by the Irish rooting section as their team came from behind to overtake Britain and win the most prestigious Cup ever held in the U.S., aside from the Olympics.
There were nine countries facing off under the lights on the Internationale field, as ripples of excitement went through a packed house. This was big-time stuff; Europe had come to America for this one, with a planeload of horses flown over the Atlantic.
Course designer Pepe Gamarra set quite a challenge, with an influential triple combination just three fences from the end of the course. The middle element was a wall, very unusual for those who are used to a straightforward series of poles, and it disassembled a lot of hopes.
Britain's John Whitaker, the pathfinder on Portifino, made it look easy by going clear, but many of the other competitors made it look as hard as it was. Second to try his luck, Federico Sztyrle of Argentina was spring boarded off his horse at the third element and cracked a vertebra.
That was the worst of it. The best of it was Ireland's Kevin Babington, the only rider to gain a double-clear, and he did it on an amateur-owner jumper. His top horse, Carling King, was out of commission with a stone bruise, but It's Morado rose to the occasion, as did the borrowed junior jumper, Lavaro, ridden by Conor Swail, also clear in the second round. Every time the Irish came through the finish line, their supporters cheered lustily, waving flags and a few beers.
The Brits had one clear in the second round, courtesy of 19-year-old Ellen Whitaker, niece of Michael and John, who turned in a clean round with Ak Locarno. But it wasn't enough. The Irish will to win triumphed as the rival nations ended on scores of 12 and 20 penalties respectively.
How did the Irish do it?
"The team just pulled together. We had one goal, and we were on it from the start," said Darragh Kerins, who is riding Galaad Du Murier for Norman Dello Joio. The fourth member of the squad was U.S.-based Jennifer Crooks with her own S.F. Cassandra, who had just a single knockdown in the first round and did not come back for the second after her horse overreached.
Although they were handicapped by the loss of Federico, the Argentines rallied and managed to come in third on 30 penalties.
And what of the U.S.? "Disastrous" was the word Lauren Hough used to sum up a performance that left the home side in fifth place on 35 penalties.
The No. 1 rider in the country, Laura Kraut, had 12 faults in the first round on the usually dependable Anthem. She thinks the horse was just plain spooked.
"Take me out," she told chef d'equipe Frank Chapot as she left the ring, and it was easy to oblige, since only three riders from each of seven teams came back in the second round. Lauren Hough's Casadora was green in the first round, equaling Laura's score, but came back to jump a clear round with one time penalty. Kim Frey had 13 penalties in the second round on Coletto K. James to go with her first-round score of 5.
The best of the Americans was Beezie Madden on Conquest, with 4 penalties in the first round and none in the second, but that was too little, especially compared to the Irish juggernaut.
"We didn't have any luck at all," sighed Frank.
"It's the best team we could have picked with the horses available. If I had to do it again, I'd do it the same way," he added, noting he really didn't have other options. "It didn't work."
The next day, the big feature was the WEF Equitation Championship for the Ronnie Mutch trophy.
Although he was a legendary trainer, trainers were not even allowed to warm up their students for this test of horsemanship. The kids were on their own, walking the course and in the warm-up ring, where they were given points (or had points deducted) depending on how they chose to prepare for the class.
The field of 21 was narrowed to 11 for the second round, where a trot fence and the need to counter-canter to another jump weeded out the ranks effectively.
Brianne Goutal, last year's winner, looked like she was on the way to another victory in the first round when the judge gave her a 93, the highest score of the class. But in the second round, she made an error approaching the trot fence and got over it awkwardly with Logan, earning only a 78. That put Brianne's total at 172, enabling her pal Sloane Coles to beat her on an 87 and 91 that added up to 178. It was especially impressive since Sloane, riding the handsome gray Cino, was fifth going into the final test.
Both are trained by Frank and Stacia Madden, who were proud to see their kids growing up and operating on their own. This was an opportunity for great sportsmanship, too. All of the riders helped each other, offering tips as the class went along.
There was a large cast for the presentation. Ronnie's son, Hugh (better known as Bert) was one of the judges, while Ronnie's other children and grandchildren did the honors. It's a great way to remember Ronnie, an inspirational teacher and a fun guy who is still missed by all, including me.
Saturday night I went over to Palm Beach Polo, just a short hack away, for the Challenge of the Americas. This was an informal dressage competition centering on quadrille. Groups of six riders from Canada and the U.S. and four from Latin America faced off doing coordinated freestyles to peppy music that revved up a more-than-capacity crowd. The scoring was confusing with two panels of judges, one of which included "celebrities" such as Debbie McDonald and Steffen Peters to deliver artistic points. The other group was just regular judges, like Stephen Clarke and Linda Zang, evaluating the movements.
I have to admit, I didn't understand the scoring, and I'm willing to bet most of the others in attendance didn't either, but it was an inspiring event that also included some individual rides to music.
The winners were the Canadians, whose horses were decked out in glittery red wraps that underscored the brilliance of such movements as a dual piaffe pirouette, with two horses facing in opposite directions as the other riders circled around. The Canadians were wearing pink ribbons to support breast cancer research, which is what the evening was all about. Organizer Mary Ross's mother died of the disease, and Mary is convinced that she intervened to help the event get over many hurdles that could have scuttled it.
Look at how much I've told you about, and I haven't even gotten to Sunday. No wonder I'm tired--exhilarated, but tired. And sunburned, for those of you northerners who want to feel envious--it was a gorgeous weekend in every respect.
I'm glad the sun was shining so brightly during the retirement ceremonies for Rhythmical. I've followed his career from the beginning. One of my favorite stories about this Russian-bred chestnut was the tale of how he originally was sold to Finland for a truckload of washing machines. (Money apparently didn't mean as much as Maytags in the old USSR.)
Anyway, this special boy went to the 1998 World Equestrian Games and the 2000 Olympics with rider Nona Garson, who understandably had a few teary moments as she, trainer George Morris and the 20-year-old gelding's owners, Kathy and Hal Kamine, appeared at a very emotional public farewell.
"He's been more than horse to me. He took my breath away," said Nona. "He tried to win every time he went through the gate," she added, noting with a smile that he was expecting to jump as he went on the grand prix field.
It did my heart good to see the Kamines retiring one of their stars. They didn't have the chance to do that for their Royal Kaliber, who died after winning two Olympic medals last year, a story you all know, unfortunately.
The Kamines are the kind of generous and loving owners every horse deserves. They are especially fond of Rhythmical because he was their first grand prix jumper. Can you imagine making the Olympics on your very first try?
And now, let me get to the finale. The $100,000 U.S. Open Jumper Championship presented by CN is the richest class of the Palm Beach circuit, and 49 riders turned out for it.
Pepe had another one of his trademark unusual triples for this class, a skinny, airy vertical fence that was a tight one stride to a Swedish oxer, then a long one stride out over another vertical. The first four riders faulted there until Argentina's Max Amaya made it through. In all, 24 entries had trouble at the series of fences done in a shade of green that matched several riders' faces.
"I guess you have to speak Spanish to figure it out," I said to Pepe, who is a native of Bolivia.
That remark turned out to be more prescient than I could have guessed. Max's teammate, Ramiro Quintana, won aboard Hurricane, the same great speedster who took McLain Ward to a Hampton Classic victory two years ago.
Only five made the jump-off, with Kent Farrington--a national horsemanship champion as a junior--neatly setting the pace on Madison in 41.72 seconds. Ramiro, a very astute horseman based in Virginia and helped by Olympic double gold medalist Joe Fargis, did one stride less than Kent between the second and third fences in the tiebreaker, taking advantage of the fact that Hurricane can really cover ground. He pushed just enough to snare the $30,000 first prize, with a clocking of 31.51 seconds for the only other clean round. Third went to Ellen Whitaker on Locarno with the faster of two 4-fault rounds. With a French rider in the jump-off too, it really reflected the international quality of the weekend.
Ramiro seemed stunned at the biggest victory of his career (he has won only one other grand prix) and noted, "I'm still in shock." But he added proudly that the victory "will be a big deal for my country."
It's fun to wander the showgrounds and hear the gaggle of languages being spoken. It shows how much the sport has come of age at the WEF, thanks in great measure to the vision of Gene Mische, the head of Stadium Jumping, the organization that puts on the whole shebang.
I wish I had the space to write more. I could go on and on about all the great riding and horses I saw over the course of three days.
But I don't want you to think that the Florida circuit is over. Nope, it's just changing coasts. Next stop is Tampa, ending with that granddaddy of them all, the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational on the first weekend in April. I'll be back on April 4 to tell you all about it. It's hard to believe that's just the kickoff for a month that includes the World Cup finals and Rolex-Kentucky.
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