February 6, 2016 -- When you think of Wellington, Florida, and the Winter Equestrian Festival, the first things that come to mind are jumpers and dressage. But the third Olympic discipline, eventing, is gaining ground and fans in the town that proudly calls itself, "The Winter Horse Capital of the World."
The $75,000 Asheville Regional Airport Wellington Eventing Showcase drew a top group of campaigners from four countries to an interesting test under perfect conditions. For a number of the participants, it was the first time this year that their horses had competed.
With a flat cross-country course (except for one rather mild man-made hill) and an optimum time of 3 minutes, 58 seconds, it was a great way to start the competition season.
Several of the riders brought two horses, including the 2015 winner, the irrepressible Boyd Martin. He was looking at a $10,000 bonus if he could win the competition twice in a row. He brought Welcome Shadow, a former foxhunter with Millbrook, and Blackfoot Mystery, who looks as if he may be going to the top of Boyd's line-up.
Boyd was third after Friday's dressage with Blackfoot Mystery and 20th with Shadow. This morning's show jumping over an attractive Richard Jefferey-designed course brought Blackfoot Mystery to the top of the class on a clean round, and ready for this afternoon's cross-country, done in reverse order of standing.
As the day got under way, Boyd and I talked about eventing in Wellington. Click on the video to hear what he had to say.
Blackfoot Mystery aced the cross-country course, beautifully designed by Mark Phillips, the former U.S. eventing coach and a veteran of the world's great 4-star events, as well as being an Olympic medalist.
Boyd said the course was harder this year than last, when eventing debuted in Wellington, and the field was more competitive.
His horse belongs to a syndicate, and a few of the supporters who had never seen him came to the Adequan Global Dressage Festival grounds, also known as The Stadium, to watch.
"There are not many ways to better impress our owners than bringing them to Wellington and sitting them in this beautiful marquee (tent) and having the horse win," he said, a few minutes after being congratulated by his wife, Sylva, and baby son, Nox.
"I was very pleased on all levels," Boyd continued.
"When these people buy the horses, they have to believe what you tell them." And in this case, seeing was believing.
"At the moment, it looks very promising and I think this horse has a great future," he said.
The highlight of the course was its finale, in which horses came off the field and up a "runway" into the VIP tent, before jumping down into the ring and over a final fence.
Talk about crashing a party! Jumping through the VIP tent was all the buzz before cross-country, so I talked to Mark Phillips to learn how the concept came about.
Click on the right-hand arrow for this audio to hear his rather interesting story.
Boyd finished on his dressage mark of 30.6 penalties, followed by Colleen Rutledge on Covert Rights (31) and Dan Jocelyn of New Zealand (32.3) with Devil Munchkin.
Colleen and her 1/4 Clydesdale Olympic prospect look as if they are really in sync. They should be, I guess; after all, she bred him and brought him along (how often does that happen with top equine campaigners these days?)
She had no hesitation about jumping him through the tent.
"For me, it's really the partnership and the horse is willing to do what we ask him to do. I pretty much know him inside and out. Because I asked him to go through, he didn't question it," she said.
Dan, who is based in Britain, came over earlier this week to ride two borrowed horses. I was interested in his thoughts about his first experience in Wellington (Florida--as opposed to Wellington, NZ).
Click on this video to listen.
I had my eye on Sinead Halpin, who was riding one of the most experienced horses in the line-up, Manoir de Carneville. Tate was the alternate for the 2012 Olympics; was second at Burghley and third at Rolex Kentucky, so he's got a lot of cred. Tied for fifth with Covert Rights after dressage, he went well in this morning's show jumping, until he had an uncharacteristic refusal at the last fence and nearly lost his rider. Sinead blamed herself, saying she lost count of the striding, and obviously Tate felt her uncertainty. He cleared the jump and went on to have 3.2 penalties on an otherwise uneventful cross-country trip to finish 22d with 50.2 penalties.
However their horses jumped, I have rarely heard riders be more enthusiastic about a competition than they were about this one. Michael Pollard, 19th on Boris O'Hara (48.2) said it well. Click on the right-hand arrow to hear what he had to say.
Next year, the event will be even better, doubtless in part because Winter Equestrian Festival organizer Mark Bellissimo has promised to raise the prize money to $100,000. That's double the purse of last year--pretty impressive. It's come a long way since it was first proposed and called a "high-risk strategy" by some wary souls.
Mark wants to build the sport of eventing. One of the goals of this event was to bring in both new fans and prospective owners. As Mark observed, "A lot of the eventing facilities happen to be in remote places and it's a limited audience and you're preaching to the choir."
He puts his money where his mouth is; Mark has bought a horse for eventers Dom and Jimmie Schram. And the advent of eventing in Wellington has encouraged others to do the same. Robin Parsky, more closely identified with show jumping, now has two eventing horses, Overdressed and Scandalous, with Marilyn Little (Jacqueline Mars, a long-time eventing pillar, is involved with that too.)
Mark always talks about bringing the sport to the people, as he has done the last two years with the Central Park show.
This September, it may have an eventing component, though it will be confined to the arena; no one is going to have to go out on Fifth Avenue and gallop down the sidewalk.
For a complete list of results for the Wellington Eventing Showcase, presented by Wellington Equestrian Realty, go to http://www.evententries.com/livescoring/123456.html. Also, be sure to look at some more photos at facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
Tomorrow night, I'll be reporting on the Wellington Masters, a brand new show about a half-mile from the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Our coverage will feature the $200,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Wellington, so you'll want to be sure to follow that action. We'll have photos up on facebook in the afternoon.