Wellington, Fla., Feb. 21, 2005 -- Last weekend was the right time to attend the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) for the eclectic among us, those who appreciate not only a show jumping grand prix, but also top-flight dressage and big time hunter action.
The Lincoln/Florida Classic/World Champion Hunter Rider Spectacular at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club had all that as well as a party (natch!) and gorgeous weather (no surprise) to properly showcase many of the country's best horses and riders.
The biggest excitement was the $60,000 Lincoln Idle Dice Classic, named in memory of one of the greatest show jumpers of all time. One of the few benefits of being the age I am is that I can remember the exploits of the super horse everyone called "Ike," and his partner, red-headed Rodney Jenkins.
The situation for the Idle Dice was the exact opposite of what happened the previous weekend in the Kilkenny Grand Prix, when so many riders had mishaps over British course designer Robert Ellis' route that he wound up with only a three-horse jump-off.
This time, we had a different course designer (Guilherme Jorge of Brazil) and a 12-horse jump-off, as more than 25 percent of the field of 44 from nine countries managed to go clean in the first round.
"I could have made the time allowed three seconds less for a little more pressure," mused Guilherme as we chatted during the class. But he had set the TA at 84 seconds, which was quite comfortable for most competitors. He did note, however, that prior to the grand prix, he hadn't seen the jumpers go on the Internationale field, since this was the week the hunters were using that arena. Thus, he was unable to assess how they went there, and build accordingly.
The Idle Dice was an especially important grand prix, since it served as a qualifier for the World Cup finals, April 20-24. Everyone wants to compete in that event, not least of all because of the Las Vegas venue, which heightens the thrill quotient. And Guilherme will be the course designer there, so the riders yesterday got a little taste of what he'll be doing in Sin City. Don't be surprised if we see a replica there of this grand prix's unlucky fence 13, the final obstacle on course. It was a liverpool topped by airy white rails that fell 16 times.
It didn't figure in the jump-off, though, where a 5-foot, 3-inch black-and-white vertical had the crowd of nearly 11,000 actually booing in sympathy for the riders after it toppled for the first four in the tie-breaker. And by the way, the fence came down twice more after that.
It wasn't until Ireland's Kevin Babington, seventh to go in the tie-breaker, that a clear jump-off round finally was recorded. Kevin was on his Olympic campaigner, Carling King. While the big chestnut has lots of scope, he doesn't like right-hand turns, and there were too many of those on course for Kevin to be able to go at optimum speed. With five riders yet to come, he had a feeling his clocking of 43.88 seconds wouldn't hold up.
Three horses later, his fear became reality. Anne Kursinski, who has been riding Roxana for only seven months, turned in a perfect trip in 43.32 seconds on the Hessen mare, who has become her friend as well as her partner.
"We just clicked," said Anne, who notes that riding Roxana is "a bit of a compromise," since the horse, "a real thoroughbred type," (despite her pedigree) doesn't want a rider who dictates to her.
As it turned out, Roxana's time also was one that could be caught -- but as we know, going fast isn't the only element to winning. The quickest trip was turned in by Laura Kraut, who won the grand prix the previous weekend with Anthem. But the bay gelding toppled a pole at the infamous black-and-white, putting Laura third on four faults with a time two seconds faster than Anne's. Laura took the blame for the mistake, and contended Anthem was angry with her for making him lose. I guess he prefers blue ribbons to having a yellow one pinned on his bridle.
We had the same kind of excitement Saturday night in the $46,600 American Hunter Jumper Foundation Hunter Classic Spectacular, which ran under the lights in the Internationale Arena. There were 25 starters who qualified by virtue of being either champions or reserve champs in their divisions at the show.
I was amazed at the size of the crowd--after all, the hunters don't usually attract hordes of spectators--and the dinner party in the posh Jockey Club alongside the ring was actually sold out. The way the horses gleamed in the electric glow gave a surreal feeling to the class, as they smoothly slipped around a course that used the entire ring.
The first round went to Havens Schatt on Cortie Wetherill's Take Away, who scored an 89.625. That gave her the privilege of going last in the second round, which had only eight participants.
Louise Serio, who was second in the first round with an 89, laid down a very forward trip with Shaw Johnson Price's Costello, earning 89.500. She left it up to Havens to top that with her mount. The outcome was a close call, but Havens just missed on 88.625. The title and $12,000 first prize went to Louise by 0.25.
The outcome was especially appropriate, since Louise founded the AHJF with Geoff Teall, who was doing commentary. I remember talking with Louise at the Monmouth County, N.J., show about the AHJF concept more years ago than I care to recall, and thinking that her dreams would outdistance reality. Shows what I know. Louise and Geoff made it happen, and the Classic is only one of many accomplishments for the foundation they established.
Missing from the Saturday night fray was Strapless, the incredible mare who won the classic four times in a row. I caught up with Tom Wright, her trainer, in the party tent, and he told me that even if Strapless had recovered from a hoof abcess in time to participate, she wouldn't have shown. Strapless is being allowed to stand on her laurels for this one. A trophy has been established in her name, to be awarded to any horse that can match her record.
I had to ask Tom about the rumor that the Lindner family, who owns Strapless, was planning to sell her. He just laughed ruefully.
"Now we know how Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt feel," he said, commenting on the furor caused by the unsubstantiated gossip on the Internet. Strapless, he told me, will be bred when she retires and the Lindners have no intention of parting with her.
"She's a member of the family," he explained.
St. Nick is also a member of Caroline Moran's family, and despite his retirement ceremony at intermission during the Classic, he'll still be traveling with her to the shows so she can be close to the 16-year-old gray stallion. Caroline explained she's not home enough to see him as much as she wants if he retires at her farm. And she loves to ride him. After the ceremony, she hopped on him bareback outside the ring. Fun!
In the Zada Classic dressage show that ran concurrently with the hunters and jumpers, it was all Leslie Morse at Grand Prix level. The Californian headed east to gain experience this year, working with her old mentor, Robert Dover (who left Kennedy in the barn this weekend), and taking advantage of the fact that Florida has several CDIs (international dressage shows) this winter, while California has none.
Kingston, the Olympic reserve horse last year, won both the Grand Prix (72.014) and the musical freestyle (77.167 percent), performed to the catchy music from "Pirates of the Caribbean." Kingston is still a work in progress, though. He had trouble with both the one- and two-tempis in the Grand Prix, and was still fumbling lead changes in the freestyle. On the other hand, the dark brown stallion has amazing presence and power that Leslie is learning to capture.
In the Special, which she also won (69.133), Leslie rode last year's national Intermediaire I champ, Tip Top. This marked Tip Top's debut in the Special. He's still trying to find his balance in the piaffe, but you can see all the elements are there for a very promising performance not too far down the road.
Next month, the Palm Beach portion of the WEF wraps up with the Nations' Cup. Although it started out as a low-key event a few years ago with just teams from the Western Hemisphere, this time stadium jumping impresario Gene Mische told me he's flying over 29 horses from Europe. Among the countries that will be represented are Belgium, Switzerland, Britain, France and Switzerland. So look for another postcard with international flair March 14. Until then, au revoir (See, I'm practicing for Cup weekend already!)
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