Gladstone, N.J., October 7, 2007 -- I like a guy who kisses his horse. So when Nikko Ritter gave Clover Count a smooch after winning the U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East today, it put a big smile in my face.
When Nikko talked about Clover Count, he lit up. The horse is owned by Linda Bakker, but Nikko has a long history with this Irishbred trooper.
It all paid off on his fifth run at the Talent Search crown, one of the most hotly contested that I can remember.
At the age of 11, Nikko started riding the big brown gelding, who has done everything from the jumpers and the hunters to the eq with a variety of people.
"He's a great horse," said Nikko, who noted the gelding's riders have included Sloane Coles and Courtney McKay.
Now Nikko is 19, and the horse is 20. Clover Count is headed for the low adult hunters; Nikko is headed for stardom in the grand prix ranks, he hopes, while he juggles riding and most likely, Rollins College.
But first, there's just riding, as he takes a year off from school and turns professional. A summer spent in Germany honing his craft with Holger Hetzel improved him as a rider and a person, according to his mother and coach, Wendy Peralta.
You remember Nikko--he was one of the stars of Animal Planet's "Horsepower" series. It made him a big fish in a small pond, something it can be hard for a teen to handle.
"He had a lot of celebrity, but when he went to Germany, nobody knew who he was, nobody cared. He had to work really hard and sift what was important in his life through his brain," said his mother, who also gave credit for his victory to Stacia and Frank Madden and Beacon Hill.
During his time abroad, Nikko became "a different person," she said. "It gave him a lot of clarity and he was able to see how hard it is to be in this business and he decided he wanted to give it a try and see how it goes."
Actually, Nikko wasn't sure he would attempt the Talent Search again (his previous best finish was fifth), but a last-minute decision paid off.
"This was always my favorite final, I always wanted to win this," said Nikko, who is not going on to the other equitation finals because he has aged out.
"I think this one shows you are able to ride. You have to do the gymnastics, you have to do the flat, you get on other people's horses and just do it."
Although his efforts on the flat were improved by his time in Germany, Nikko finished tied for 14th in that phase, which was won by Kyle Wolf, who would wind up ninth overall when the ribbons were awarded.
But after the flat phase, the tables were about to turn, and the gymnastics started Nikko's rise to the top.
Jumper riders Jimmy Torano and McLain Ward served as the judges and set the gymnastics course, which was a lot different from the tricky set-ups I've seen in the past here at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters.
It wasn't, as trainer Andre Dignelli told me, "gimmicky." It was "a horsemanlike test, something you would jump with a good horse."
The judges wanted it to be a learning experience, not a quick way to eliminate a host of the 82 contenders. For some, trotting to an X of natural rails caused a problem, but I was interested to see how well the poles placed before and after jumps were well-handled by many, teaching the horses to regulate their stride.
Nikko moved up to third after the gymnastics, where Addison Phillips, Andre's student and a six-time finals competitor, pulled into the lead, with Kimberly McCormack right behind her. Given their track records, those three looked likely to make the "Final Four," but who would get the last slot in this afternoon's ride-off was a very open question.
This morning, everyone jumped a course that again, wasn't tricky, but demanded smooth riding. Jessica Springsteen, who also rides with Beacon Hill, came up from 10th place to find a berth in the phase that would decide the top ribbons.
Addie remained in the lead by more than 15 points, with Nikko second and Kimberly third after the jumping, but everyone started equal in the last test.
The Talent Search, sponsored by Platinum
Performance, is based on the show jumping World Championships format. You remember that from the World Equestrian Games last year, where everyone rides a short course, then switches and rides the three other competitors' horses.
In the old days of the Talent Search, before everything was so sophisticated, there was always one "bogey" horse who tested everyone. The rider who could handle him best usually was the winner.
Now all the horses are top-notch, so it becomes sort of a war of attrition. Whoever makes the least mistakes in four rounds wins. But how close was it this time? Jessica won the first round, with a score of 90 and Nikko right behind her at 89, with Addie at 88 and Kimberly at 85.
In the next round, the first where the horse switch began, it ended all tied up at 176 points total. Who could believe it? People were asking, "How would they break a tie?" Never fear, there were two more rounds.
It turned out the most difficult horse, if you want to put it that way, was dear old Clover Count, seemingly feeling the unseasonable heat and the workload a bit. He had a rail down with Jessica, who had tied on 81 with Kimberly, but then lost three points for exceeding the time allowed. Nikko was best in this one, with 87 points for a total of 263, followed by Addie with 260, Kimberly with 257 and Jessica with 254.
Nikko did more than hold it together in round four. He had the advantage of making his last bow on Addie's well-schooled and highly experienced Flight. He came up with a 92, the highest score of the Final Four, and locked up the victory with 355 points. Looking at my photos of the competition, I can see he never even had an elbow out of place.
Addie's 91 in the last round made her second for the second time in the class, with 351 points, and she says this is her last try at it. The Harvard student is going to concentrate on the jumpers after doing the other equitation finals this year.
Jessica finished with 342 total after getting 88 points on Kimberly's Hetoile Paltiere. She was third and got a bonus because her Deneuve won the Best Horse trophy. Kimberly, whose sister Kristy won the Talent Search in 2002, had a rail with Clover Count in the last round for 81 points and 338 overall, which put her fourth.
The judges noted how "fantastic" the Final Four riders were, and how separating them really became a matter of details, since all of them rode so well.
How did the others do? Californian Zazou Hoffman came in fifth, just missing the Final Four. We'll be hearing lots more from her.
Our intrepid blogger, Maria Schaub, one of the favorites, had a round this morning that was a little dodgy with Perfekt, a jumper she has been riding for only a month. He looked like he wanted to be a jumper again, but only part of the time. Though he seriously considered running out at the last fence, Maria showed her strength by getting him over it. That kind of problem precludes blue-ribbon smoothness, but she still managed to finish 13th and will be heard from again, you can bet, probably next weekend at Washington.
The biggest leap was made by Michael Desiderio, whose mother and coach, Stephanie, was a top equitation rider in her day. Michael started out 67th (he needs a bit of practice on his flat work) but wound up 18th in an impressive display of upward mobility.
The Talent Search, geared toward developing riders for international competition to represent the U.S., shows off not only those who are at the peak of their game, but also those on the way up.
The quite adorable Michael Hughes certainly fits in that category. An 11-year-old who is riding as age 10, he made his debut in the Talent Search really count. He told me, in quite a grown-up way, that this was just a first step for him and his horse, Show Time, so they could get their feet wet. Next year will be when they focus on winning.
Missy Clark, who also trains Kimberly, is working with Michael, the son of professional Eamonn Hughes, a native of Ireland, and his wife, Kathy.
I asked Missy if she had any trepidation about putting a small child over 3-foot, 9-inch fences.
"Four thousand nine hundred and ninety nine out of 5,000 10-year-olds, yes, but for him, no question that I had no qualms. He got second place in a high junior jumper class a couple of weeks ago. He's an up-and-coming force. I think we're going to see a lot of him in the future."
Next week, I'm off to the Washington International, one of my favorite shows. I'll be sending you another postcard the night of October 14 to fill you in, so be sure to check back then.
Who won out west? Read the results of the 2007 USEF Talent Search Finals West.