March 2, 2014—This was Nations' Cup weekend at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, but the team initiative ended with Friday night's competition.
Today, the focus became every man or woman for themselves, with $150,000 at stake in a 4* grand prix that attracted 50 starters, as 11 went on to the tiebreaker.
I figured that Great Britain's Scott Brash, the world number one, and Ben Maher, world number two, would be itching to avenge their defeat last weekend by 21-year-old college student Audrey Coulter. Audrey's sister, Saer, was in the class, but she didn't make the jump-off, and neither did Scott. He was aboard his Olympic gold medal horse, Hello Sanctos, who started competing here this week after Ursula XII got a well-earned rest. But Sanctos looked perhaps a little rusty, as he had an uncharacteristic two rails down to wind up 35th.
Ben, however, was in great form with Urico, as he won his fourth grand prix of the season. He now has topped half of the eight big money classes offered so far on the circuit. Someone called Ben an excellent tactician, and listening to him explaining his winning strategy, I had to agree.
"I tried to ride the jump-off that I could do, not one I couldn't do," he said, explaining that his mount, Urico is fast, "he kind of anticipates turns before you're even there."
Still, Ben played things cool because, "it looked to be one of those jump-offs where rails were falling and it maybe wouldn't get too quick."
He went fourth to last, following a 44.09-second round by Laura Kraut on her rising star, Nouvelle, who has come back from a broken pedal bone and was competing in her first grand prix in seven months. Ben appeared to be giving a lot of consideration to Olympic individual bronze medal winner Cian O'Connor of Ireland on Quidam's Cherie, a mare who went in her first Nations' Cup Friday night.
"I knew that Cian's horse was quite an inexperienced horse and jumping very well, but I didn't know how quick he would go," observed Ben. He also realized that Beezie Madden, coming after him on Cortes C, was a real threat.
"I knew Beezie would be faster than me whatever I did, so I rode the round I could. Fortunately for me, it was just quicker than Laura today."
Uh, that was an understatement. Ben's time was 40.85 seconds -- he blew Laura's doors off. And Beezie was indeed faster, finishing in 40.58, but she had a rail. Fastest of all was Kent Farrington on Blue Angel, who has won her share of grands prix here too, but a rail in 38.30 made him just the quickest of the 4-faulters. That put him fifth, one spot ahead of Beezie.
Laura also rode the only jump-off that she could do, explaining, "I knew with Ben, Beezie and Kent behind me there was no way. I was really hoping to finish in the top six. Ben beat me by a lot, it wasn't 'just,'" said Laura, who was thrilled she was able to do the inside turns.
"That's the brilliant thing about coming to this festival, that the horses really get mileage," he commented.
He noted Cherie was clear in the first round of the Nations' Cup, though she got a little tired in the second round and had yesterday to freshen up.
"I'm very excited about her. It's been a while since I had a horse as talented as that," said Cian.
Ben is practically a force of nature on horseback and seems poised to take over the number one spot in the world rankings from his teammate Scott.
"It's been incredible here so far for me," he said in a masterpiece of understatement.
"Things seem to be going my way right now. I know how quickly things can change around, so I'm enjoying it as much as I can while it's happening," he continued.
"It's probably even more special for me today because we took a lot of time with Urico. We had a few perhaps teething problems. Jane believed in my system and let me get on with it and it really paid off. He's a really useful horse to go with Cella and my other horses right now. It's a big milestone for us today."
Teething? I asked Ben if I'd heard him right. No, it was nothing to do with the mouth, it is a British expression meaning, "difficulties encountered during the initial stage of an activity or project." Thank goodness I asked. I could have really gone off on a tangent and given him a referral to my horse's wonderful dentist.
One of the neat things about Nations' Cup weekend (and actually, the WEF in general) is its real international flavor. Each in the top four was from a different country. Fourth went to New Zealand's Sharn Wordley on Derly Chin de Muze with the slowest of the clean rounds in 46.86.
Cian was a touch conservative while playing it well to wind up third with a clean trip in 44.23 seconds. His mare had done 2*s in Germany with a previous rider but was very green.
It's been a busy two weeks here between the dressage and show jumping. I almost don't mind going back to the snow so I can get some sleep. But I'll be back at the end of March for the last week of WEF, which includes a 5* dressage show and a $500,000 grand prix.