Gladstone, N.J., October 8, 2006 -- You know what? The U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East gets more difficult every year, but the 2006 edition promised to be a real lollapalooza because show jumping coach George Morris was one of the judges. And those of us expecting a challenge weren't disappointed.
Before the competition, I was chatting with some trainers and said, "Remember the time George designed the Maclay course at the National and it seemed like it was all liverpools?"
"Yes," one of them told me, "and the next year, they outlawed liverpools in the Maclay."
This is by way of introduction to the fact that George doesn't ever present a simple test. This time, he joined forces with U.S. team regular Alison Firestone, the other judge, to come up with the routes that a record 71 competitors would jump. Or attempt.
I am not going to try spinning this tale in a suspenseful way. Unless you're reading with your eyes closed, you've already seen the photo of Charlie Jayne with the victor's cooler on his horse. He is one of several Jaynes (older sister Maggie and younger sister Haylie) who have attempted capturing this trophy, but the 20-year-old Illinois resident is the first in his family to triumph in what some consider the most difficult of the fall equitation championships. (Though this one is about more than equitation)
So I'll explain how Charlie got to the top of the heap. And it's not a short story, because the Talent Search is far from short. It began Saturday with a flat phase, which was separate from the gymnastics portion this year. The flat was won by Whitney Goulart on a score of 91, with last year's runner-up, EquiSearch blogger Maria Schaub, earning a 90. Everyone else was in the 80s, 70s or even (gulp) the 60s. But Charlie was close to the top, with 89.
He didn't fare as well in the gymnastics, however, on the hulking gray stallion Cassino Z, who belongs to his girlfriend, Lauren Sturges (she also competed and ended the Search in 15th place). Combined with his flat score, his gymnastics mark of 126 (multiplied by a coefficient of 1.5) gave him a total of 215 after phase II, putting him third.
But many riders came to grief on the clever gymnastics route, especially at the angled liverpool that was the sixth fence, going toward a five-stride bending line that ended at a red and white oxer angled the other way.
Too many riders cut the corner from a white oxer on the other side of the ring at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's headquarters, so they hit the liverpool wrong and their horses either ran out, refused or freaked.
Actually, it seemed some of the riders freaked going to the first fence, a cross-rail of natural poles that they were supposed to trot. A few cantered, some came with insufficient impulsion and there was even a refusal at this most simple of obstacles, no doubt because they feared what lay beyond it.
There also was trouble at the line diagonally across the middle of the ring starting with a white triple bar, three strides from a one-stride double of green and white rails over little walls. Refusals and knockdowns were rife there; Alison explained that it was important to add strides on the gymnastics to make them work out right, but so many equitation riders are more used to leaving out strides.
Other tests included a triple bounce and a gallop from fence eight to a double figure-eight that tested tight turns, with riders taking an airy white skinny, then going on to an equally airy oxer of white rails, returning to the skinny and back to the oxer before they could finally exit the arena a breathe a sigh of relief. Or perhaps shed some tears.
It too often wasn't a pretty picture, so I asked George what he thought about how so many failed the test.
"The culture is on the soft side," George said, noting how important it is to ride all types of horses, the way Alison did when she came up through the ranks.
"A lot of people today don't get exposed to that kind of thing. They get exposed to a situation like this and it's a big shock," George added.
On the other hand, many of the competitors have a lot of catch-riding experience, including Charlie, of course; Maria (who finished eighth on a borrowed horse she had only shown once); Whitney, who ended up sixth on a horse she first competed with last week at the Capital Challenge, and for that matter, Michael Del Fiandra, Charlie's roommate at Florida Atlantic University, who also had a ride loaned to him for this occasion.
Yet the top riders after the first two phases, Maggie McAlary and Addison Phillips, were on their own horses, Mid-Accord ("very cuddley," says Maggie) and Flight ("he is really a jumper," says Addison.)
At the end of the second phase, Maggie and Addie both had 227 points, but Maggie went to the head of the class by scoring higher in the gymnastics. Charlie, as I already said, was third, and Michael fourth on 212.5, 2.5 behind Charlie and 1.5 points ahead of Whitney.
And what about those who felt frustrated by the gymnastics?
"If people aren't quite up to it, it's a great learning experience for them," George observed.
Interestingly, this morning's round, which included a water jump that caused a high level of frustration in some quarters, did not enable anyone else to break into the Final Four. At the end of three rounds, Addie was first on 413 points, followed by Maggie (411), Michael (402.5) and Charlie (399), putting the eventual winner in a position for a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
The shorter afternoon course included several the elements of the morning route, but not the water. The idea was for each of the riders to take their own horses around, and then switch to the others, the way the individual medalists (and one leftover) did in the show jumping championships at the World Equestrian Games last month.
But the plan went a bit awry. In the first round, Charlie looked good and Maggie was superb, the clear winner (though no scores were given out). Addison had the last fence down and Michael also had a knockdown. As I said before, this isn't just an equitation class. Knockdowns and exceeding the time allowed are taken seriously. Then the rider's form is judged, more like the cherry on top than even the layer of whipped cream or the ice cream below in the parfait of equestrian excellence. (Forgive me, I'm hungry, no chance to eat today.)
Then a monkey-wrench got thrown into the mix as Maggie got on Le Grand and it was obvious he was off. The judges had their doubts about the horse in the jog, but they hated to replace him, because Michael would have had to give up his spot to Nikko Ritter, who was standing fifth (and wound up that way when the class was pinned).
So they went to plan B, in which everyone rode only three rounds. Maggie therefore sat out round 2, in which Addison didn't look as sharp as both Michael, on Flight, and Charlie, on Mid-Accord.
In the third round, Charlie sat out, and Maggie, on Flight, did the best, with Addison right behind her on Mid-Accord (the two are both trained by Andre Dignelli -- who won the Search 21 years ago -- and have watched each others' horses go repeatedly.) Michael didn't fare as well on Cassino Z, whose size and seeming lack of adjustability made him the bogey horse.
Maggie, apparently on her way to winning the Talent Search, ran into big trouble in the last round at the third fence, a vertical of planks. It was all she could do to get Cassino to jump it, and that effort was anything but smooth.
Explaining the moment when she lost the title, Maggie said, "It got a little bit away from me. I was just trying to get to the jump; I didn't want to have him drive by it."
Cassino does seem to be a man's horse. Charlie, who is nearly 6-4, was up to the big gray's challenge. It was obvious in the first round of the Final Four that he had finally figured out how to click with the Holsteiner.
"Once I got the first jump and picked up my pace and went to (number) two. the rest kind of just (got) put together. The test went pretty well with the three horses that I rode," Charlie said.
He ended up with 273 points, to 271 for Maggie and 259 for both Addie and Michael, who ended up tied in third place. Maggie got a bonus because Mid-Accord was named the Best Horse of the Final Four, and won the new Grappa trophy named after one of the greatest equitation mounts of all time.
Charlie's a character, who likes to play poker in his spare time and hopes to enter a big tournament someday with his best friend, Jack Hardin Towell, who finished 10th. (Oh, I should fill in the others in the top 10 I didn't mention before -- Sloane Coles, the equitation winner at Capital Challenge, was seventh and Hillary Dobbs was ninth.)
Let me wrap this up with George's comments about Charlie as a rider: "He has a beautiful touch, he has a beautiful eye. He can ride very softly, but he also can ride very strongly. No matter what presented itself, he could cope."
You'll be seeing lots more of him in the jumper ring. While he is coached by his father, Alex Jayne, and Missy Clark for equitation, Charlie is also working with Norman Dello Joio now and concentrating more on the jumpers than on the hunters. So he really is exactly what the Talent Search is supposed to determine--a rider with the potential to compete with the American flag on his saddlepad.