The anticipation was high.
After five starts, she had earned four blue ribbons and one third place ribbon. Her performance was most impressive. She was ready for more.
Consisting of veteran and younger professionals, and several top amateurs, the field of riders was exceptional. Its international breadth was comparable with a World Cup event. The show’s FEI schedule was one of the last opportunities to earn ranking points before the end of the 2018-19 FEI season. The final standings at season’s end carries weight. It could determine whether a rider would be invited back for the following FEI season. Those riding with sponsor backing, gaining additional points could be the difference in earning a seasonal bonus. For others, the multi-week Spring Classic was the beginning of their 2019 campaign. Undoubtedly, a strong performance could lead to future considerations.
The Grand Prix course layout was a 13 obstacle/16 effort design by veteran FEI course designer Leopoldo Palacios (VEN). A lifelong horseman himself, Palacios’ courses are known to showcase the artistry of horsemanship while being technically challenging.
With the start order set, Deborah was riding fifth, Tara 16th, Elizabeth 26th. Starting first was Hannah Selleck (USA) from New Mexico. Seemingly on her way to a clear round, Hannah pulled two rails in the middle section of the course. The next three riders suffered the same fate – pulled rails in the middle section of the course. Times were averaging in the 74-78 second range.
Deborah and Captain Andrew on the tunnel walk
Riding next was Deborah. She patiently worked Captain Andrew through the course. The middle section, which was proving to be most troublesome in the early going, she handled it with ease. Her bright smile at the end said it all. She and Captain Andrew had the first clear round of the evening at 73.42 sec. The next three riders to follow, Nicole Shahinian-Simpson (USA), Uma O’Neill (NZ) and Shawn Casady (USA), also advanced to the jump off by riding clear.
Though much of the field had yet to ride, four riders advancing to the jump-off out of the first eight underscored the depth of the field. When it seemed more riders may advance, the next six riders began to pull rails. No particular section was more difficult than another with rails down across the course. Rich Fellers (USA) broke the streak, becoming the fifth rider to advance into the jump-off.
Tara, with Cameron, was next. It was a steady, focused ride. Tara’s approach advanced her into the jump-off with a clear round, and with the second fastest time of the evening at 73.44 sec.
After Tara, half of the field was remaining to ride. Considering it included some very good riders, easily two or three, maybe four could advance to the jump-off. Again, rails began to be pulled. Like before, no particular section had become more difficult. The four, five, six or more, who could advance, did not. It is part of the unpredictability found in the sport.
The moment she worked hard to achieve had arrived. Riding under the lights, the evening start, made it extra special. A quick tap on the side of her helmet, she was set. It was time to ride.
A hushed quiet fell as they quietly cantered the course, lining up the start. Crossing the start timers, they began. It was smooth. It was fast. It was precise. It was effortless. When they completed the course, the crowd erupted with applause and a few cheers. It was a clear round, finished in 69.83 sec.
Her fast time in the Grand Prix round undoubtedly placed pressure on her fellow jump-off riders. They would have to take some chances with tighter turns and sliced jumps. Yet, she would have to take a few chances of her own. Positions on the leaderboard afforded no special advantage. Any one of them could win.
First to ride, in the jump-off, Deborah. She kept her turns tight, sliced three jumps to reduce her time over the seven obstacle course. Though the top rail bounced on her last jump, it stayed in place. Deborah finished clear with a time of 36.52 sec. She became the rider to catch. Knowing she needed to ride aggressively, Nicole was next. She, too, kept her turns tight. There were moments in which it seemed she didn’t have enough speed to clear a jump, but clear she did. Nicole finished with a clear round at 38.12 sec.
Both of their times had placed pressure on the remaining jump-off field, particularly Deborah’s. Next was Uma. She was going well, until she brushed the fourth fence. Rail down, her finish time at 38.89 sec. Shawn brushed the same rail, same fence during his run. He finished at 39.04 sec. Rich, he was on-track to ride clear also until he pulled a rail on the final jump. He finished at 38.77 sec.
Tara and Elizabeth remained. How they would finish would determine the outcome of the event. Tara cantered Cameron through the course before circling back to start. It was decidedly a fast pace. Cameron rubbed the top rails of the combination fence at #5 rather heavily, but they stayed in place. The slice on the final jump carried Tara tight against the post. She finished clear at 36.49 sec.
Tara and Cameron cantering the jump-off course
She flashed a smile when her time was displayed on the scoreboard. In first place, Tara waited on the remaining rider.
They slowly cantered the course in silence. She kept Lilith on a tight rein as they weaved their way. Crossing the start timers, they were very sharp. Suddenly, an uncharacteristic, out-of-the-blue moment occurred. A wrong footed landing after clearing #3. Her strategy for the jump-off was out the window. She had to adjust. With little forward momentum, they cleared #4. She tightened the turn heading into the combination at #5, which they cleared. A pair of slices on successive jumps, deliberately placed against the post. Every bit of the horsewoman she is was on display, and every bit of a thoroughbred Lilith is was on display too. Finishing clear, she knew she might not make the winner’s podium. Her time flashed on the scoreboard after a short wait. Elizabeth finished with a time of 36.27 sec, clinching her first 3* level major win.
The moment was made sweeter with Tara and Deborah joining Elizabeth on the winner’s podium and their 1-2-3 finish. Deborah and Tara also rode extremely well. Deborah won 1 blue, 2 reds (2nd place), 2 yellows (3rd place) and one fourth place while Tara won 3 reds, 2 yellows, and one fifth place.
After savoring this moment, it was studying the ride, then plan for the next show.