October 4, 2010 -- On a long, long day of show jumping at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, there were two highlights: The U.S. took the early lead in the standings, with Mario Deslauriers and McLain Ward finishing one-two, and it was great to see that third place went to a fresh face who was a complete unknown to most of us.
Jimmy Wofford always mentions the "Who-dat?" award in his annual predictions for Rolex Kentucky. It refers to someone who usually flies under the radar but then suddenly does something brilliant. Today that was Sandor Szasz of Hungary.
More about him in a minute, but first, let me set the scene. Conrad Homfeld (with course designers Richard Jeffery, Anthony D'Ambrosio Jr., Guilherme Jorge, Michel Vaillancourt and Eric Hasbrouck on hand to lend whatever assistance was needed) laid out a route that had few options, but was doable for all 120 entries. Amazingly, when you consider all the different levels of ability and experience in this contest, there was only one elimination.
With a record 27 teams, it was the most exotic show jumping competition I'd ever seen. Riders hailed from such far-flung ports of call as Chinese Taipei, Quatar and Turkey. There even was a woman from the United Arab Emirates, Sheikha Latifa al Maktoum, a first at this level from her nation. And hers wasn't the drop score.
After 45 trips in the one-round speed class, however, my eyes were starting to glaze over. I was taking photos of nearly every rider, and kept clicking away as usual when Sandor started out on Moosbachhofs Goldwing, an improbably named Hanoverian by Ludger Beerbaum's former mount, Goldfever. I had never heard of either Sandor or his mount and was stifling yawns. Then halfway through his trip, I woke up. This guy was going fast, I realized. Wow.
Sandor took over the lead with a fault-free trip in 73.24 seconds. Ten trips later, Mario and the long-striding Urico went around in 71.25 seconds, putting Sandor second. With 64 more horses to come, I figured Sandor might sink in the standings. Wrong. The only rider to better him under the faults-converted-into-seconds format was McLain Ward with Sapphire, surely the favorite for the individual gold.
Isn't it great that Mario is an American citizen and riding for the U.S.? He was one of the top Canadians; in 1984, at age 19, he was the youngest person ever to win the World Cup finals. He's had a business in this country for 24 years, and last year married American show jumper Lisa Tarnopol Silverman. He also rides for U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation President Jane Clark, owner of Urico, so a switch was logical, as he noted. So you can see why he figured it was time to become an American.
I asked Mario about how he was able to put in a ride that held up through the afternoon.
McLain's entrance into the ring was greeted with a mighty roar by the crowd, and he didn't disappoint them. Sapphire was clocked just a hair slower than Urico, in 71.79 seconds. Noting that it was getting dark (I told you it was a long day) and "spooky" he didn't pull out all the stops, taking a cautious wide turn to a skinny oxer after his horse overjumped a double combination.
"I felt I should take a bit of time there. I was happy with how she felt," said McLain, noting the route was "challenging from the beginning to the end" without stressing the horses.
McLain has been waiting for the WEG for a long, long time; actually, since he flew home from the gold medal team's performance at the 2008 Olympics. And he went third from the end, which meant even more anticipation. We talked about how he handled it.
While half of the team did well, the other half didn't have a good day. Coach George Morris noted that in Rotterdam, an all-female team won the Nations' Cup earlier this year. Here, it was the men who took the team to first place, so he thought that balanced out.
Lauren Hough finished 41st with Quick Study after dropping two rails. Lauren Kraut was 49th with Cedric, who also had two rails down (faults are penalized by adding four seconds to a rider's time), which was the drop score.
The U.S. has 5.69 penalties. Germany has 9.80. Its best rider was Meredith Michaels Beerbaum who stands seventh on Checkmate, having left her aging World Cup winner Shutterfly at home. France, winner of the Meydan Nations' Cup League, is third on 11.32 while the Netherlands is fourth (11.33).
George and I talked about what it means to win on the first day, when there's lots more jumping to come through Saturday at the Kentucky Horse Park.
It was amazing to see Sandor sitting next to two of the most famous riders in the world on his first trip to America, and I asked him how it felt. He emphasized (through a translator) that he not only was sitting next to the riders, but he also is "with them", and he feels a lot of pride in that.
Sandor, who lives in Germany, has never jumped at this level. He is the son of a carpenter. He owns a stud farm and is unmarried, but has a girlfriend. At one point years ago, he got some training from the legendary former U.S. coach, the late Bertalan de Nemethy, who was Hungarian. Interestingly, George, who rode on Bert's teams, also paid tribute to his longtime coach for giving American riding the foundation that has enabled it to build to this point.
There's a whole different atmosphere here for the show jumping, now that the eventers and dressage riders have gone home. Walking around the stadium during the lunch break was like being in Wellington, Fla., for the Winter Equestrian Festival. I saw Jimmy Torano, Chris Kappler and Andrew Philbrick among other familiar faces. Another WEF regular, Nick Skelton of Great Britain, is here cheering for Laura Kraut and walking with a cane; he just had a hip replacement.
Tomorrow will be another long day, with the team competition getting serious. I'll be back to give you the details.
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