Gladstone, N.J, October 5, 2008 -- What impressed me most about Sophie Benjamin wasn't her riding--it was her smile. Sophie's beaming face spoke volumes after her rounds at the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East. And that was before she knew she'd won!
It was the first finals victory for 18-year-old Sophie, a delightful native of California who is a freshman at Princeton University, a 40-minute drive from here.
I asked her about that glowing smile, and she went on and on to the effect that much of it was due to loving her mount, Sir Neel, the best horse she's ever had. Well here, let her tell you.
Sophie's last outing in the Talent Search was in 2007 in the West Coast Finals, where she was sixth. When I asked how she thought she would have done if she had been in the West Coast finals this year, Sophie insisted she wouldn't have beaten that event's winner, Hannah Selleck, her gold medal teammate from the North American Junior and Young Riders' Championship.
We had a great weekend at the historic U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters, with a huge field of 94 riders 21 and under for the class, which ran over two days in really decent fall weather against a backdrop of leaves changing color.
The flat phase, which has a coefficient of one, went to Maria Schaub, our longtime blogger on EquiSearch.com. Her score was 91, just one point ahead of Christy DeStefano. But things change fast in this most testing of equitation finals. Maria was riding a horse on which she had little experience. Trainer Frank Madden said they didn't know him very well, and that was evident from her score in the second phase, gymnastics, which has a 1.5 coefficient. I was holding my breath to see if this horse would hold the counter-canter that judges Anne Kursinski and Ralph Caristo had mandated between the end of the triple, 7ABC and the eighth fence, a vertical. He did, but not gracefully; all credit to Maria for being able to get it done.
The gymnastics was a real challenge, with a spooky-looking first obstacle, a trot fence that was a rolltop with a rail over it. I lost count of how many people had trouble trotting the fence and broke into the canter. The second fence was a deep X, which is pretty unusual. From there, they went to an oxer almost in front of the judges, four strides to a bounce and then on to a liverpool. After that, riders were asked to hand-gallop to an oxer and trot another deep X that was the first element of the triple. Those were the highlights, along with two doubles at the end of the test.
I was disappointed not only about the problems at the trot fence, but also with the counter-canter. So many competitors just didn't seem to know how to get their horses to counter-canter, couldn't hold it, or barely bothered with it.
But Judge Anne believed the difficulty likely came more from nervousness than incompetence (which, frankly, was my first thought.)
"Part of it, I think, is being at the finals, nerves, the atmosphere, the presentation there at Gladstone," she said. "For some people that aren't as seasoned, that will have more effect. The strong riders, hopefully, can maintain their focus and not let that get to them. It's like the Olympics or any championships; it's the pressure."
This morning's course, which had a coefficient of two, was designed by Anne (with input from Ralph) along the lines of the Nations' Cup second round at the Olympics, where she was the U.S. reserve rider. She also had thoughts from Olympic course designer Steve Stephens. Obviously, today's route wasn't as high and didn't have any dragon plank jumps, but it was as testing as it needed to be. The water jump particularly was the donnybrook for a number of riders.
Our Maria made a heck of a comeback, having learned from recent experience what she had to about her horse, Kaiser de la Couer, a Selle Francais palominoesque chestnut stallion with platinum mane and tail. She went from 21st to sixth with a power round, just missing the Final Four. Not bad.
Although Sophie was on top going into the third phase, she actually finished third there behind her on-the-road roommate Jacqueline Lubrano, whose style I also find very impressive, and Carolyn Curcio, who was just two points back of Jacqueline in this round. It was the overall that counts, however, and Sophie was second behind Jackie, ahead of Victoria Birdsall and Matt Metell.
Matt, on Rhythm & Blues, was standing eighth heading into this morning's round, and knew he had to go for it. So there was no conservatism involved in that trip, which got him into the Final Four as number four. The Massachusetts resident, who won the equitation championship last weekend at the Capital Challenge, is an 18-year-old business major at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
For the Final Four, no penalties are carried over. This course was less testing because the horses were getting tired, and each rider had to compete over the same route on the three other participants' horse, as well as their own.
It was hard to pin the class without sitting in the judges' booth. There were no hideous mistakes. While all the competitors agreed Jackie's Lennox was the toughest horse to ride, he wasn't like the "bogey" horses who seemed to pop up in every Final Four during the early years of this class.
Although Sophie had some time faults and a few cross-cantering strides during her performances, the judges here were looking at the bigger picture, a different perspective than officials might at more standard equitation championships such as the ASPCA Maclay. The Talent Search is just that; a proving ground for people who someday might ride for the U.S. team.
I asked what won Sophie the class.
"She really went to the jumps and wasn't playing it conservative," said Anne.
Matt wound up as reserve, so I wondered what put him there.
While emphasizing that Sophie and Matt both rode well, Anne said he was "a touch more conservative."
The outcome was good enough for Matt. He achieved what he sought here, and I'm sure we'll be hearing from him at the other finals to come.
Sophie was pretty far ahead of Matt, 350 points to 344. Matt, in turn, was just one point in front of Jackie, who was third. She had 10 points on Victoria, who finished with 333 aboard Cheyenne.
Sophie, who is very loyal, was adamant that I mention her trainer at home, Susan Artes. She also works occasionally with another California trainer, Karen Healey, who is a big fan of Sophie's. Karen was on hand here, so I asked her to talk a bit about the winner.
Sir Neel has quite an Olympic connection. He is by Darco, the sire of McLain Ward's Hong Kong Games mount, Sapphire. Sir Neel's dam is by Guidam, the sire of Authentic, Beezie Madden's Games mount.
Victoria Hobbs, a friend of Sophie's who practically has fairy godmother status, owns Sir Neel, and Sophie leases him. Next year, Sophie thinks the horse should go on to another equitation rider to give him or her the same wonderful experiences that she has enjoyed, though she will be very sorry to see him go.
In the East, Sophie is trained by Beacon Hill and Stacia Madden, Max Amaya, Krista Freundlich, Heather Senia and Custis Ferguson.
Matt rides at Heritage in New York with Andre Dignelli, Pat Griffiths and Kirsten Coe. Andre and Stacia were the only two trainers involved in the Final Four; Jacqueline also trains with Stacia, and Victoria is with Andre.
As for the rest of the order of finish, Carolyn Curcio was fifth; Maria sixth, as I said; Christy seventh; Jessica Springsteen, eighth after her horse's hoof splashed in the water jump; Reed Kessler ninth and Michael Hughes 10th. Watch out for Michael--he's only 12 and the youngest competitor this year, as he was last year. The son of professional horseman Eamonn Hughes, he's going to be a star, no doubt.
I'm having a busy fall. My next EquiSearch.com postcard will be from the Fair Hill International on October 19, followed by the Washington International (celebrating its 50th anniversary) the next weekend, and Syracuse (coupled with the National Horse Show) the first weekend in November.