Wellington, Fla., March 11, 2007 -- The sign on the stable gate at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club said it all: "Canada Again." Pinned up next to a red and white Canadian flag, it originally referred to the north-of-the-border gang's hijacking of Friday night's Nations' Cup for the second straight year.
But as the weekend went on, it became apparent that it referred to success after equestrian success, both at the show and down the road, where the Phelps Sports Challenge of the Americas was being held at the International Polo Club.
The Maple Leaf was raised once more today, as Mario Deslauriers won the $150,000 CN U.S. Open Jumper Championship, the richest competition thus far at the 2007 Winter Equestrian Festival.
Mario was the youngest rider ever to win the World Cup finals when he did it at the age of 19 in 1984. He may have lost a lot of hair since, but his ability is intact, as he demonstrated with a well-calculated ride on Paradigm to take the $50,000 first prize after handling a course that was unexpectedly tough.
Designer Pepe Gamarra had expected twice as many to go clean as the three riders who actually qualified for the tiebreaker, but time and again, the competitors were foiled. Footing has been an issue all week. On Thursday, there were a bunch of slips and falls on the grand prix field, which has succumbed to the pressure of seven weeks' showing and the thousands of trips over the surface during that time.
The grass hasn't held up, so 250,000 pounds of limestone screenings were dumped on the surface last week in an attempt to make it better. But Pepe thought competitors were (understandably) a little cautious. That led him to extend the time allowed from 74 seconds to 80 seconds after the first three riders tried their luck and had problems. Even with the extra grace on the clock, 14 of 39 entries had time penalties, nine retired and one fell.
"For sure, the condition of the ground plays a big role in horses having fences down and then this touches their confidence," said Olympic individual gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa, part of the elite and international jump-off. The other contender was the USA's always determined Todd Minikus with Pavarotti.
Both of Mario's challengers had the disadvantage of not knowing their horses well. Rodrigo only had recently started riding Couer, who belongs to Hunter Harrison, the president of CN, the championship's sponsor. Todd bought his mount, the Dutch warmblood Pavarotti, a year ago and started grands prix with him in July. Todd believed the white-faced liver chestnut was "ready to move up, and luckily he was. He's been tossed into the deep end of the pool and has found his way to the edge."
Todd had the disadvantage of going first in the tiebreaker, but turned in a more than respectable time of 47.03 seconds.
Rodrigo went next on the generous gray who looks like a true Olympic prospect, logging would be the best time, 46.98 seconds, achieved with an inside turn after the narrow CN train obstacle, the third-to-last fence in the nine-fence tiebreaker. But speed came at a price, a rail down at the final fence that would put him third.
Mario knew what he had to do, and handled it just right.
"I watched Rodrigo go and his horse is a big mover, a little slow-going but a big mover. I tried to stay on the same track, but he turned inside after the train, and I left one out to the train, there was no way for me to turn inside. My horse is quick...so I knew I was close. I couldn't have told you how close, but close enough."
A look at the clock revealed that he was a little more than half a second better than Todd, who like Mario, left all the rails in place to finish as runner-up.
Earlier in the afternoon, Anne Kursinski paraded her 1996 Olympic team silver medal mount, Eros, in the show's second retirement ceremony. But it seemed no one mentioned retirement to Eros, who is 20 (since he is Australian-bred, he won't be officially 21 until August, because that's the way they do it there, Anne told me). Wearing the trademark red ribbon in his tail, he was so full of it Anne could barely hold him, and her mentor, George Morris, suggested he should go in the grand prix instead of being draped in a garland of flowers and led toward green pastures at Anne's New Jersey farm.
On Friday night, it was Carling King's turn to bow out. The ride of U.S.-based Irish rider Kevin Babington will now be living in his rider's backyard.
Saturday night, the Challenge of the Americas yielded another Canadian victory (okay, to be exact it was a Can/Am victory for a mixed Canadian/U.S. team), but the scoring for this mostly dressage fun competition is so complicated I doubt NASA could figure it out. Therefore, I won't bore you with the numbers.
The feature, which drew a capacity crowd at the polo club, just a few miles from the equestrian club, is devoted primarily to pas de deux and quadrilles, though this year an added feature was a high jump, with Candice King of the U.S. taking the unscheduled individual honors there after clearing 6-feet, 9-inches on the lighter-than-air gray, Perfekt.
Highlights among squads from the U.S. and Can/Am as well as an "international" group of varied backgrounds included a pas de deux to Michael Jackson tunes with Lisette Milner and Susanne Dansby-Phelps dressed like the gloved one in military braid on horses who inexplicably looked as if they were braided with curtain rings (darn, I should have asked them about that) and had white stars stenciled on their rumps. Tami Hoag and Betsy Steiner reprised their 2006 ride to the music from "Chicago," with their saddlepads and hatbands all a-glitter.
The six-horse quadrilles were a marvel of precision in their circles and pass-throughs that reminded me of shuffling a deck of cards.
There was lots of pink in evidence on horses and riders (even pink hair on the men on the Can/Am squad), since that is the symbol of the fight against breast cancer, and the event was a benefit for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In the six years since it started as informal luncheon exhibition, the Challenge has raised nearly $600,000 for a good cause.
Steffen Peters and Edward Gal of the Netherlands were on hand as celebrity judges. Forget the rumors: Steffen said Floriano, the U.S. sensation at the World Equestrian Games last year, is ready to show in the League Finals at the end of March and take his shot to qualify for the World Cup in Las Vegas during April. Edward, who was second in the 2005 Cup in Vegas with Lingh (who now belongs to Karin Reid-Offield) told me he is planning to come to the Cup with Gribaldi.
And perennial World Cup champ Anky van Grunsven will, I am told, decide in a couple of weeks whether she is coming following the birth of her daughter, Eva, earlier this month. Do you have your tickets? This should be quite a show!
The Nations' Cup was a heartbreak for the U.S. and a hand-break for team member Lauren Hough, who fractured her right hand when Casadora refused twice in a triple combination. That left the team with only three riders, which meant all three scores had to count.
The teams with four riders were at an advantage and Canada made the most of it, winning on just a single time fault. The star of the evening for the top team was Erynn Ballard, who had the only Canadian double-clear. (Captain Canada, Ian Millar, might have done the same, but he didn't have to go in the second round because his squad was so far ahead.)
Interestingly, Erynn has ridden on only one other Nations' Cup team (compared to Ian's 109!) but that was the big victory at Spruce Meadows last year.
This was the third time in five years that Canada claimed victory. The team also included Mario and Eric Lamaze. Chef d'equipe Torchy Millar hopes his riders can stay hot through this summer's Pan American Games and qualify for the Olympics next year.
Second with four faults was Ireland, which imported Conor Swail and Cian O'Connor for the purpose, as the nation tries to make its way back into the Samsung Super League of Nations' Cup countries. The U.S. had to settle for third with 12 penalties, despite McLain Ward's brilliant double-clear on Sapphire. The squad missed Beezie Madden's World Equestrian Games mount, Authentic, who was withdrawn and replaced by the less-seasoned Integrity because of the footing issue.
I'm through with the glitz of Wellington for awhile. The pink golf cart with Daddy's Girl spelled out in rhinestones on its side and the Manolo Blahnik paddock boots on sale for $1,000 (or $5,500 if you want crocodile) at the showgrounds have put me over the top in terms of the elegant excess that is the currency here.
The next time you'll hear from me is Easter weekend (April 8), when the Budweiser American Invitational wraps up the Winter Equestrian Festival. I'll talk to you then.