September 7, 2014 -- It's over. Big sigh -- a sigh that the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy is history, and a sigh of relief.
I've been in Caen and environs since Aug. 21, living on a treadmill with no time for anything but photographing horse sports and writing about them, grabbing a little bit of sleep and doing it all over again. Ditto, ditto, ditto.
It's a long haul, but I'm sure as time goes by, I'll forget how tough it was and just savor some amazing memories: The incredible ability of Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin, the most decorated dressage horse/rider combination ever; Sandra Auffarth's triumph in eventing when cross-country conditions weren't optimal; Harry Meade's classy statement in the wake of his horse's death; watching the endurance horses canter past Mont Saint-Michel; the beauty of vaulting; impressive performances by the world's top four-in-hand drivers, and today, as the WEG wrapped up, an exciting Final Four in show jumping. (Time constraints and schedule conflicts prevented me from going to reining and para-dressage).
Beezie Madden earned another bronze to accompany the U.S. team bronze from last week, and her mount, Cortes C, got special recognition as Best Horse in the finals. He joins an exclusive list that also included Gem Twist at the first WEG in 1990.
The Final Four works this way: The top four riders from the series of show jumping competitions at the WEG ride their horses over a course that is shorter and lower than the ones they have been jumping all week. Then they all switch horses and ride each others' mounts over the same route, with only a three-minute session and two jumps to get to know the equine athletes.
Of course, they're all great riders and great horses, so it isn't quite as difficult as it might seem; just difficult enough. (Those of you who have experience with the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Talent Search finals will know what the Final Four is all about, because that class uses the same format.)
The Final Four seemed almost like two classes. The first was the Netherlands' Jeroen Dubbeldam vs. the French fave, Patrice Delaveau. Jeroen was the only rider in the competition to be fault-free over four rounds, while Patrice had a single time penalty.
Beezie, meanwhile, had her work cut out for her. She was clear as usual on Cortes, but uncharacteristically had a single knockdown in each of the other rounds. Her opposition was Rolf-Goran Bengtsson of Sweden, who started out with a knockdown on his horse, Casall Ask, then proceeding to have another on Jeroen's Zenith SFN, plus two time faults. Finally, he also had a rail with Patrice's Orient Express HDC. But Beezie made it a nailbiter when she was on 8 penalties to Rolf's 14 and decided we needed a little more excitement.
On her last ride, Orient Express, she dropped the B element of the troublesome triple that had plagued her through the previous two rounds. With three fences to go, it was hold-your-breath time, but she made it to the finish without incurring any more faults. Score: Rolf 14 penalties-Beezie 12. A little too close for comfort.
I know how I felt when that rail fell for Beezie, and wondered what she thought.
Jeroen didn't waste any time in starting to celebrate being the world champion. He passed the finish line, took off his helmet, saluted the crowd and raised his hands in triumph. Then he covered a good bit of the ring doing more of the same.
He's an emotional guy. The first time I met him was at the Sydney, Australia Olympics in 2000, when he was relatively unknown and defeated the big name riders to take the gold medal. Tears ran down his face as he recounted how hurt he was by German rider Ludger Beerbaum's comments that he and his countryman, Albert Voorn (who wound up with silver in Sydney) would not be a factor for medals.
And at this WEG, just to wrap up my story, Ludger was 33d.
I caught up with Jeroen to find out what's next for him.
Zenith, a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood, interested Jeroen after watching him go in a young horse class. "He was quite green, but he now shows what I felt then," said Jeroen.
Patrice noted that his loss, because it was so close, really, a difference of one stride that caused the time fault, "was a little hard to swallow. But Jeroen truly was the best today."
Beezie noted, "I'm happy to come away with another bronze medal. I'm so pround of my horse, I've always believed in him."
Beezie's husband, John Madden, is head of the FEI jumping committee. I caught up with him after the competition to ask about the future of the Final Four. It's quite controversial.
There was a time when horses and riders around the world weren't as refined as they are now, and the class had merit as a contrast in training and styles. But with a much more homogeneous approach these days, I wondered if the Final Four approach is out of date.
Listen to what John told me.
Course designer Frederic Cottier, a former French show jumping star, said that rather than feeling pride, he felt relief (sort of like me). What he wanted most was to avoid the jump-offs of the last two Final Fours, and that he got.
"At the level of the sport, what a success it has been," he commented.
Covering the Games over a period of 15 days is difficult, tiring and sometimes discouraging, as I pointed out in my Friday postcard. What helped get me through is the kindness and help of so many people.
Andy McMenamin was a really good photo chief who gave us more leeway than I've experienced at an event of this caliber, while still keeping a hand on the reins. Laura Green, who worked with him, also was always a help. We never would have made it through the weeks in the media center without Edith de Reys, the incredibly industrious Belgian woman who has made so many pressrooms work over the years and around the world.
I'd like to thank the Australian man who carried my heavy camera case to the marathon obstacles at the driving venue when I was having trouble staying on course in the mud and long grass. And thanks also go to the French woman who took one strap of the bag while I carried the other on the way back to paved footing.
Alltech's main man, Dr. Pearse Lyons, took pity on me at the driving venue when I must have looked extremely bedraggled (I need to stop carrying 25 pounds of equipment everywhere) and rescued me with a ride to the stadium in an air-conditioned car (bliss).
Alltech also rescued the rest of the media. Special commendation should be given to the WEG's title sponsor for improving life in the press center.
They had a chill-out room with couches and coffee, and started feeding us in the second week. That's important, because we have no time to sit down and eat, so a sandwich on the run is most welcome. It was nice to know that someone cared, and appreciated our efforts which, after all, are about letting the world know about what happened at the WEG.
Special mention from me should go to Alltech's Maeve Desmond and Roland Matyasi, who always did what they could to help and boosted my spirits when I was dragging.
I made it through, and now I'm looking forward, in equal measures, to getting home and getting some sleep.
But I'm not going on vacation. I'll be sending you more postcards from the new Central Park horse show in New York, starting Sept. 19.