Syracuse, N.Y., November 1, 2008 -- The triumphs have been snowballing in the last few weeks for Jessica Springsteen, but the capper came tonight in the fulfillment of her dreams, as she won the National Horse Show's ASPCA Maclay equitation finals with a flourish.
It was an ecstatic moment for the 16-year-old from New Jersey, who was bubbling after her first finals victory, surrounded by her parents, rock stars Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, and her brothers, Evan and Sam, as well as her trainers, Stacia Madden, Max Amaya, Custis Ferguson and Heather Sienna.
While her victory was solid, it wasn't easy to achieve.
The first round of the class, which began at 6:30 a.m., drew 149 riders under 18 from across the country and Canada who had qualified in regional ride-offs.
Jessica was the early leader in the standings, dropping to second behind Victoria Birdsall for the post-jumping flat phase, and then regaining her edge after that segment was completed. It was between the two of them all day and at the end as well, when judges Leo Conroy and Jimmy Torano ordered a test that gave Jessica the advantage at the Oncenter Complex where the National, part of the Syracuse Sporthorse Invitational, is being held.
Before the afternoon course for the top 25 competitors, "We had thought if Jessica comes in and absolutely nails it, it was going to be over," said grand prix show jumper Jimmy Torano, who judged the class with veteran trainer Leo Conroy.
But she didn't have the definitive performance.
"There was one jump coming by the gate that was a little bit weaker than everything else. She didn't just absolutely take it. These girls were all really, really close so we needed to let whoever wanted to win the class come and show us," commented Jimmy.
That prompted the judges to call for a test that began with jumping a fence parallel to the VIP area on the correct lead, then counter-cantering around a bend to the next jump.
The other riders in the test, who also included Christy DiStefano and Zazou Hoffman as well as Victoria, all did a simple change of lead to get the counter-canter.
Jessie, however, signaled her mount Papillon in the air, and he landed on the counter-lead as the crowd realized they had their winner.
At that moment, "I think everyone in the place knew it was over," observed Jimmy.
Leo said he told his judging partner, "If we don't let her win, I don't think we're getting out of this building alive."
Victoria, whose hand gallop was deemed a bit slow by the judges, finished second. Zazou was third and Christy fourth.
Stacia could only watch from the sidelines, and wasn't sure she would have recommended Jessie's strategy, but she trusts her student, who was Best Child Rider at both the Washington International and here, and took the Grand Junior Hunter Championship at both shows as well.
"In every situation with her, I give her options and say, 'Do what you feel,' because she's such a good competitor she always makes good choices," said Stacia.
Discussing how she planned her final performance in the class, Jessie said, "I watched the three riders go before me and they'd all been really good, so I wanted to do something different but I knew I didn't have enough room to do a flying change, so I hoped he would hold it (the counter-lead) and he did."
Jessie's father was awed by his daughter's accomplishment.
"It's amazing to see young girls her age, and boys, with the kind of adult discipline it takes to achieve something like that. It takes a very mature work ethic and character," Bruce said. "It's been exciting just watching her ride but exciting watching her develop into who she is through her activities with horses."
One of the most thrilling Maclays in memory started with a morning course that posed unexpected challenges.
The initial line, a seemingly uncomplicated set-up that started with a vertical of green rails three forward strides to a yellow and green oxer and then three steady strides to another vertical proved too much for some to tackle. A surprising number of riders had refusals or knockdowns there.
But several favorites found trouble further on along the route as it got even more difficult. Sophie Benjamin, winner of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Finals East in Gladstone, N.J., last month had to circle after the tricky narrow double of grass-topped tree trunks. Consistent West Coast competitor Tina Dilandri had a refusal at the first obstacle in that combination. Kels Bonham, winner of the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals last month, had a refusal at the fourth fence, a blue- and black-striped oxer.
I hope that's enough detail for you; I have to run and cover the Grand Prix. Check back tomorrow night to read my final postcard, and I'll wrap up the whole Syracuse/National experience.