Wellington, Fla., March 13, 2006 -- This certainly was a whirl of a weekend in Wellington, where the action never stops during the "season," which seems to get busier every year.
When the horse shows wrap up for the day, there's always at least one party, and usually two or three on the same evening. Yesterday, the person with the biggest reason to celebrate was Kent Farrington, the 25-year-old phenomenon who blazed across the U.S. show jumping scene last year with Madison. He guided this fleet bay mare, enthusiastically sharing his work ethic and love of competition, to the 2005 American Grand Prix Association Championship title. It appears to me as if he's headed for even bigger things in 2006.
Kent, who doesn't look much older than when he won the Medal finals in 1998, took the measure of many of the world's greatest riders in the $150,000 U.S. Open Jumper Championship at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club during the Wellington Finale show.
It was a long afternoon, with a starting field of 47, 13 of which made it through to the jump-off. Course designer Steve Stephens, a candidate for that job at the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics, was planning on a large tie-breaker.
"It's been a very hard circuit," said Steve, "and a few of the riders had asked me, 'What are your intentions? Are you going to make it as difficult as the other grands prix have been?'"
The answer was no.
"I would like to calm it down," he told them, and was figuring on 10 clear, "but when you open the door for 10, you can get three more. And who I got in the jump-off were the players."
Many of them also were the legends that Kent idolized as a kid coming up in the sport.
"These are the people I watched forever and read about in my books. It's an honor just to have the opportunity to compete against riders and horses of that caliber," he said. What he didn't add, but I will, is that it's even more of an honor to beat them.
I felt the route wasn't quite as easy as Steve made it out to be. First of all, when he increased the original tight time allowed of 86 seconds to 88 seconds, it didn't do much to eliminate time faults.
And there were several trouble spots on the course, especially a triple combination, a vertical to two oxers, with one stride in between the fences, that dashed the hopes of many--including British veteran Nick Skelton, who had a fall there with Arko after a refusal. I counted 15 knockdowns on that test, stuck in a corner of the ring, jumping toward the crowd, near the end of the course.
Those are all elements that can cause problems.
Steve set a lot of verticals at the beginning and middle of the route, which got the horses jumping "up" but not necessarily "across," so the oxers came as a real shocker, like an early morning alarm clock, to some of the horses.
We also had a sad scene there, as the veteran Viktor, with Todd Minikus up, stumbled after clearing fence 11C. All I could think of at that moment was Royal Kaliber bowing his tendon in the Athens Olympics. Viktor was taken off the field in a horse ambulance. When I went back to the stables to see him afterwards, Todd was standing by his stall, mute with sorrow, while the 15-year-old horse--bandaged from forearm to fetlock--was being attended to. It won't be clear until later today exactly what Viktor's injuries are.
One thing about a big jump-off is that it becomes a real speed duel, and the crowd of more than 8,000 was really into it. The pace-setter was Olympic team gold medalist Beezie Madden on Authentic, a little more conservative than usual, perhaps, because her horse had slipped during the Nations' Cup jump-off Friday night.
The consensus was that her clocking of 34.92 seconds for a clean round was beatable, and sure enough, it was clipped by the next rider, nine-time Olympian Ian Millar of Canada, though he had a rail down in 33.42 seconds.
Kent went eighth, and by that point the mark he had to beat was 34.19 seconds, set by Samantha McIntosh of Bulgaria (she's a native of New Zealand who rides for her boss's country.) Aboard Loxley, the same horse that she finished second with last weekend in the CN Worldwide Florida Open, she neatly crossed the finish line in 34.19 seconds.
Kent had his work cut out for him, but as I told the photographer standing next to me, I knew he was up to the task and felt sure he would win.
My confidence wavered for an instant, however, as Madison took a funky leap at the next-to-last fence, a wall with holes carved in it.
"I rolled back really short and was trying to leave one [stride] out, but I got a little ratty in the turn and had to add [the stride] in at the last moment, so it was sort of an awkward fence," Kent acknowledged. "It made the eight (strides) really long to the last jump but she's a fighter and I'm a fighter, so we kicked on and went for it."
Their mark of 33.15 seconds was beaten by two horses, but both had rails down, leaving Madison ahead of Loxley, who edged Roxana with Anne Kursinski up for third.
Kent was especially thrilled with the victory because he felt he let the American team down on Friday night in his Nations' Cup debut with a knockdown, forcing the jump-off that left Canada the winner.
"I kind of felt like I had something to prove today," said Kent, who certainly did that.
The night before the grand prix, I went to a really fun event at the new International Polo Club, a five-minute drive from the showgrounds.
The Cadillac Challenge of the Americas grows every year. There were about 1,600 people on hand to watch this melange of pas de deux and quadrilles, all at Grand Prix level, and ridden either in costume or fancy dress, to a variety of popular music.
It's a benefit for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (the Canadian horses had pink breast cancer ribbons drawn on their rumps) and while aiding that cause, it always brings in new converts to dressage.
There were regular judges and then a panel of celebrity judges, which included Germany's Ulla Salzgeber and our own Debbie McDonald and Steffen Peters, who were in town for a Young Riders' clinic organized by Cetty Weiss.
I caught up with Steffen last night at yet another party (this one for the Young Riders) and asked him what he thought of the Challenge.
"It's fun to be a part of it. You don't see anywhere else in the world that many Grand Prix horses get together for pas de deux and quadrille, because everyone is showing here." So with that talent pool, it made for a delightful evening.
Tina Konyot and Katherine Bateson-Chandler had their horses, Liberty and Rainier, spray-painted with flames and stars. The camouflage was so good that I couldn't figure out who Katherine was riding until I saw that trademark swishing tail and knew it had to be Rainier. The women's faces were painted gold, with weird eye make-up, to look like aliens, and they danced to several outer-space tunes, including the themes from "Star Trek" and "2001." (An aside here: Remember when 2001 was the future? Ohmigosh...)
The quadrilles were equally imaginative, with lots of "threading the needle," as we used to call it on my camp drill team, and circles with everyone doing canter pirouettes at the same time. The U.S. team, Team Purina Mills USA, wore cowboy hats, bandannas around their necks and rode to country songs such as "Achy Breaky Heart." The Canadians brought their own honor guard of "Mounties," young women dressed in red wool jackets and pith helmets they borrowed from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
This event involves a lot of work for riders, who have to practice several times a week to get their complicated routine down and make sure it works (I saw a couple of near-collisions, but no one made contact.)
The Americans won with a total of 98.30 percent (the pas de deux counted 40 percent, the quadrille, 60 percent.) Anky van Grunsven would die for such a score. But scores weren't the point; increasing the popularity of dressage and doing something for charity is what this was all about.
My favorite part of the evening was an exhibition, with U.S. coach Klaus Balkenhol, an Olympic gold medalist, sharing the stage with Leslie Morse. He rode her stallion, Kingston; she was on her other horse, Tip Top. The celebrity judges wisely gave this duo 100 percent. Can you imagine Debbie and Steffen training with Klaus after they gave him less? Of course, he really deserved accolades, coaxing an amazing performance out of Kingston.
"I was sitting next to Ulla, and we decided that if we both ride like that when we're 66, we'd be very happy," Steffen told me.
OK, so as you could tell from the name of the show, this weekend was the end of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington. It now moves on to Tampa and the American Invitational April 1.
But things will be far from quiet here. Next weekend is a big dressage show featuring the national freestyle championship and the league finals for the World Cup. I'll be around to bring you up to date on that, so be sure to check for my EquiSearch postcard on that event.
Now I have to rest up from all those parties...