October 4, 2009 -- "People talk about the good old days. They were fine, but this is better," Olympic double gold medalist Joe Fargis observed after watching a series of stellar performances at the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East.
Joe, who judged the two days of competition with Linda Hough, was as impressed as everyone who saw the best of the 21-and-under set compete at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's historic Gladstone headquarters. The 97 riders were, for the most part, poised, polished and up to the considerable task at hand.
I can remember when this class used to be a series of calamities, starting with the flat phase and deteriorating more in the gymnastics segment. But as Linda pointed out, today's trainers are tuned into the challenge of preparing their students for this ultimate equitation test, which includes fences up to 3-feet, 9-inches and a water jump. It's jumper-oriented to scout for emerging talent that could fuel U.S. teams down the road. It looks like they found it.
"The future is alive and well. That was some horsebacking," Linda said appreciatively.
The competition ends with the Final Four, modeled on the individual medal test at the show jumping world championships, where everyone rides their own horse over a course, and then tries it on each of the other competitors' mounts.
Right from the start, it was obvious who was going to be in the hunt when the finale rolled around. Maggie McAlary, a regular in the Final Four, won the flat phase with a 95. Jessica Springsteen (third in the 2007 Talent Search) was second with a 93 and Matt Metell, last year's runner-up, was one of three participants who scored a 90. After the gymnastics ended yesterday, Matt and Jessie both had a total of 234, while Maggie was on 230. The top three continued to soar in this morning's jumping round over a course designed by Joe's 1984 Olympic teammate, Conrad Homfeld. Matt got a 98.5, the high score of the day, while Maggie was right there on 98 and Jessie had a 97.5.
The route was gentle but challenging enough, drawing kudos.
"I thought the course was nicely friendly to the point that my green kids were able to get a lot out of the day and go home feeling they learned a lot," said trainer Stacia Madden of Beacon Hill.
"But then you saw some brilliant scores from these riders. That's so educational, too, for the green kids, to be able to watch that kind of riding. I thought the final four was really strong, but I thought the final 10 was strong to the point that if there had been a 10-way swap, all those kids would have earned their spot."
The only question was who would be the fourth component of the last test. Christina Lin, fourth after gymnastics, was very tight to the first element of the double on Conrad's course. Tina DiLandri, who was fifth, had a splash at the water jump, and Christy DiStefano logged a time fault.
So the fourth spot went to the next in line, Elizabeth Lubrano (her sister Jackie was third here last year). Elizabeth, a Pennsylvanian who was the reserve champion in the 2007 ASPCA Maclay finals, earned a 97 for her impressive jumping round on the cutely named LB Carte Noir, an adorable looking big black horse. Elizabeth's effort was noteworthy because she was suffering from the flu. While she admitted she wasn't quite herself, the 20-year-old Penn State equestrian team member refused to blame the outcome of the class on her illness. What a good sport!
She had a bit of a problem on Jessie's horse, Class Action, when the gray lunged at the second part of a combination and Elizabeth lost her position a bit. That netted her a 65, the lowest score of the ride-off. It was obvious she was going to be fourth. Her total was 314.
Maggie, a 19-year-old New Hampshire resident, the winner of both the Maclay and the USEF Medal in 2006, is a star on the intercollegiate team at Auburn University. This time she just wasn't quite as sharp as the first two. She was an obvious choice for third place on 362.
What wasn't as obvious was who would get first and second. Matt and Jessie laid down some great trips. Jessie's lowest score, an 88, came on Maggie's Cheyenne, and in the end that was what sank her, even though she got a 99 on Carte Noir. Matt was more consistent, never moving out of the 90s and scoring a 96 on his own ride, the estimable Pioneer, judged the best horse in the finals (Jessie got a 98 on him too.) The final totals were 386 for Matt and 377 for Jessie, though since the scores weren't announced while the class was running, it looked a whole lot closer. I asked Linda about that.
I can remember the days when there was a difficult horse or two in the Final Four and how the riders handled him (or them) was what decided the class. But all these horses were lovely, showing off the riders to their best advantage.
Jessie and Elizabeth were coached by Beacon Hill. Matt (and Maggie) are Heritage products, though Andre is quick to mention that Matt came to him from trainer Teddy Demetriou, who was on hand to pose for a photo with the winner.
The class once again was (as one trainer joked) "the battle of the bands.'' Stacia's Beacon Hill operation and Heritage, Andre Dignelli's shop, are, it seems, the stables most often in the finals.
Last year, I figured Matt would come back to win, so I asked him about his thoughts going into this year's competition.
Matt, 19, is a sophomore finance major at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He, like the others, hopes to ride for the U.S. team someday, but he plans to finish college first.
His horse really impressed me (and everyone else!), so I asked Andre about Pioneer.
Since the class had looked too close to call, I asked Jessie who she thought would win (neither she nor Matt knew who would come out on top.)
Here's what the 17-year-old New Jersey high school senior told me.
I was glad to see a big crowd come out to see the Talent Search. Although many of the spectators had a connection to the competitors (97 entries is a record for the Search) I ran into a good number of other people who just wanted to see it, some with kids in tow who are aspiring to ride in the class themselves one day. I'll look forward to writing about them.
That's it from here. I'll be back with you in two weeks with a postcard from the Dansko Fair Hill International three-day event.