March 22, 2012--Many years ago, when I was attending what in those days passed for a big horse show, I first heard the phrase, "They're jumping houses out there." I was a little confused. When I looked at the ring, all I saw were the usual rails and standards.
Then I got it -- the fences were set so high that they seemed to be the show jumping equivalent of houses.
I thought about that this afternoon during the second Olympic show jumping trial, where the triple bar obstacle literally did involve "jumping houses," standards crafted to look like, well, houses. It was huge, 1 .57 meters high and 2 meters wide, typical of the scopey tests that were highlighted in this round.
There were six clean trips out of 32 starters (the group had whittled itself down from the 37 who embarked on the first trial yesterday). Only one, however, had fault-free outings on both days: The irrepressible Reed Kessler, at 17, the youngest of the group.
She led the standings following the afternoon class, with a score of 0 on Cylana, while none of the others who scored a perfect round yesterday could manage it in today's trial number two.
After the third trial tonight, however, she had to share first place with Rich Fellers on Flexible (4 faults in the first trial, 0 in the second and 4 last night) and Margie Engle on Indigo (0 in the first trial and 4 in each of the next trials). Reed couldn't hang on to her 0 total this evening. Cylana dropped the first element of a difficult liverpool double, then toppled a rail at the oxer that ended a triple combination, which began with a triple bar two strides from a vertical, which was a single stride from the double. So all the leaders have 8 penalties.
The closest anyone came to a clean round last night was Mario Deslauriers on Urico, who had no jumping faults but 1 time penalty as he took extra care near the end of the very strenuous course, and Brianne Goutal, who achieved the same score with Nice De Prissey. Mario stands fourth with 9 penalties, two better than Pan Am Games double gold medalist Christine McCrea on Romantovich Take One, who had an uncharacteristic stop at the middle element of the triple and wound up with time penalties as a result. Brianne, however, is further down the line with 25 penalties total.
There's a lot of jumping left (tomorrow morning I'll fill you in more on tonight's action). It all ends Saturday evening, when riders will be ranked and the national show jumping championship is awarded at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, home of the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival.
But in the meantime, we're conjuring the possibility that a teenager could wind up on our Olympic squad as a teammate with riders who have nearly two decades, and more, on her.
I asked Reed's dad, Murray Kessler, how he thought she would handle it if she made the team.
"She would ride like the wind and jump clear rounds," he said with assurance.
Then I put the same question to her trainer, Katie Monahan Prudent, who was a whiz kid herself a few decades back. She was just as confident.
Reed, however, was more down-to-earth.
"I'm still catching my breath," she admitted after the second trial.
Cylana she compared to an equitation horse. "She's so easy," said Reed, who has green-painted fingernails (left over from St. Patrick's Day, perhaps?) that contrast with her mature attitude.
Reed got Cylana last July, when she had never jumped anything higher than 1.45 meters. But it was easy for the talented chestnut to make a transition to the next level.
"She's got an amazing brain," said Reed. "When you're riding her, she's just so effortless. She never once struggled, so we kept moving her up."
As for the possibility of making the team, she acknowledged, "It's a longshot; it's all I want, whether it's this time or years from now, that's my goal."
Here I should interject that she also was fault-free during the afternoon on Mika, her other mount, who had 4 faults on Wednesday (and sadly, 8 tonight.)
But Reed is still amazing. With one semester left at the Professional Children's School in New York, she knows exactly what she's going to do after graduation--ride. No college for her at the moment. And she's got to be encouraged by how the trials are going.
"This is without doubt the greatest moment in my riding career," she said after the second trial.
"I know it might be very, very short-lived, because it's (the course) only getting bigger and harder, but for now, I'm very, very happy."
Rich Fellers, who came all the way from Oregon, is a silver-haired age 52, a visual contrast to Reed's youth.
He is one of the best veteran international riders who has never made an Olympic or World Equestrian Games squad (though he has been on the Pan Am team), but he and the Irishbred chestnut stallion are a great pair who may well earn a shot at London this summer.
We discussed his hopes this afternoon.
During the morning, the WEF class held every Thursday went to the winningest rider on the showgrounds, Great Britain's Nick Skelton. I've never seen a streak like this. He went last on Big Star, one of his two Olympic prospects (the striking gray,Carlo, is the other) and made the most incredible turns look easy.
He's had a broken neck, a hip replacement, suffers from sciatica at the age of 54 and may need a back operation. I asked if, under the circumstances, he might consider retirement, and he said with a grin, "Not while I've got them two, anyway," referring to his superstars.
Check back tomorrow morning for more details on these tough trials.