March 30, 2014--It doesn't get any better than this: Sunshine kissing the palm trees as a gentle breeze blows and beautiful horses at their best in two exciting show jumping classes.
What a perfect way to end Equestrian Sport Productions' 12-week FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, and what a contrast to last night, when a storm made the International Arena a lake, complete with a downed palm tree. A wise decision, actually the only possible decision, was made to put off the competition until today.
Although not every seat was filled, as might have been the case yesterday for the final "Saturday Night Lights," there still were plenty of fans on hand to cheer as the world's number-one ranked rider, Scott Brash of Great Britain, stayed true to form, winning the $500,000 FTI Consulting Finale Grand Prix on Hello Sanctos at the 5-star-rated show.
If you're old enough, you remember the "British Invasion" of the 1960s that rode on the wave of Beatlemania, as other British rock groups became popular in the U.S., along with various aspects of British culture (fashion, hairstyles, movies.)
I'm reviving the term to refer to the way the Brits came and conquered at this WEF. World number two Ben Maher, Scott's teammate on the 2012 Olympic gold medal squad, won five major grands prix and though he missed out on the jump-off today, he did receive a $50,000 bonus for earning the most points in the FTI Rider Challenge.
Another Brit, Tim Gredley, took the honors earlier in the day as a fifth-place on Unex Omega Star in the $100,000 Suncast 1.50 meter Championship Jumper Classic's final round boosted him to first in the Suncast series, good for a $25,000 bonus.
But let me get back to the feature, the richest class of the WEF.
There were 38 starters at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center over Anthony D'Ambrosio's interesting course, which had a beautifully landscaped water obstacle, sufficiently stiff oxers and a triple combination that challenged. A tight enough time-allowed kept Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze of Canada (Zigali PS) and Margie Engle (Royce), winner of 203 grands prix, out of the jump-off with one time penalty apiece.
Seven riders made it to the tiebreaker, with the USA looking as if it had an opportunity to shine with speedster Kent Farrington on Voyeur and Beezie Madden (Cortes C) on our side, along with the very consistent Jessica Springsteen (Vindicat W) who keeps improving and is riding like a pro.
On Thursday, she had to fly down from Duke University in North Carolina, where she is a senior, to ride in the grand prix's qualifying class, wing it back for classes, then fly back again. That was a handicap with which no one else had to contend
Going third in the order, she set a respectable time of 44.87 seconds, giving those who followed something to shoot at. And shoot they did. Ireland's slick Richie Maloney on Slieveanorra bettered Jessie just a tinch, in 44.64 seconds, but it was Scott who impressed with a rollback turn to an oxer that helped set him up for a 43.44-second clocking.
So, you're asking, what about Kent and Beezie?
Kent was, as I expected, the fastest (they had a press drawing for a bottle of champagne and I picked Kent to win, which means I'm drinking water tonight). But he dropped the front rail at the final oxer, which meant his time of 42.72 seconds made him the fastest of the 4-faulters behind the slowest of the clear rounds, put in by fourth-place Ben Asselin of Canada on Makavoy (46.01). Beezie had a rail at the same oxer to finish sixth in 43.72, while France's Marie Hecart and Myself de Breve was seventh after toppling two rails.
As everyone gears up for this summer's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, it's pretty obvious that the British will be the ones to catch. I asked Scott to talk about British jumper power (he has a great Scottish accent.)
Now, back to the morning class. It involved 17 horses who had come forward from an earlier round yesterday. There were supposed to be 18 after two initial scratches, but Darragh Kenny of Ireland had quite a tumble when his horse, Quiz, jumped through the final fence and fell, hitting Darragh in the process. Darragh limped off the field, but did not present his second mount.
Todd Minikus definitely has a new star in Babalou 41, a chestnut mare who competed in schooling jumper for two years before moving up.
Todd worried she was too exuberant a jumper to make it in the big time, but this was an opportunity to "press on the gas pedal, which he did, finishing in 48.78 seconds, ahead of Andres Rodriguez on the more experienced Caballito (49.97).
As Todd put it, "She's extremely careful, so if you can get her to the middle of the jump, chances are she's going to leave it up. She's ready to be a show horse now."
The mare doesn't stay with Todd; he "catch rides" her for trainer Stuart Moran and owner Bob Haefner, but he's been doing it for three years.
Babalou intrigued me, so I asked him a little bit more about her and her victory.
Rolex, as you probably know, has been a big sponsor of PBIEC, and this season it took an even larger role. I asked Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions about what the increased participation by Rolex has meant for the show.
The rain led to a change of venue for the $50,000 Hunter Derby, which had been scheduled for this afternoon over the course at The Stadium, a half-mile away, where dressage is held. But the grass route was soaked, so the Derby was moved to the Mische Hunter Ring at PBIEC, slated for the same time as the $500,000 class. That means I didn't get to see it, but it sounded exciting.
It had a rare jump-off (I'm told there's only been one previously) with Molly Ashe-Cawley prevailing on Kenzo, while Friday Night, ridden by Kate Ross, was second after a third round.
Although WEF is the world's longest horse show, the 12 weeks seem, in retrospect, to have gone by in a flash. It has grown enormously since Mark took it over from its late founder, Gene Mische, and has facilities and prize money that Gene could have imagined only in his wildest dreams. It's great to have something in this country that attracts big name foreign riders, because they add interest for the crowds and give American competitors a challenge against which they can test themselves.
If you've never been to WEF, plan a trip. It's world class, and the air fare is less expensive than flying to Europe.
One thing I wanted to mention was brought up by a friend of mine the other day, who pointed out that WEF employees are unfailingly courteous, helpful and friendly. Whether they're driving golf cart shuttles, giving out coveted wristbands at the International Club, waiting tables, guiding tours or doing any of the other myriad things that make the show what it is, they are dedicated to their jobs and to making the WEF an experience like no other. Of course, it's not perfect, but in so many aspects, it is far ahead of where it was years ago. That's progress, and Mark promised improvements will be made where needed.
I'm staying Florida for another week so I can cover the American Invitational in its new home in Miami next weekend. Look for my postcard from there April 6.