It came full circle. The season beginning and ending on the world stage.
Making a fifth consecutive appearance at the Nationals, in Las Vegas, was a fitting reward for an outstanding riding season. Their excellence was quite evident. In their first appearance, in 2014, “we were quite green then,” Deborah recalled. “It showed in our riding. We were rather inconsistent. Ride well here, kind of middling there. The poor moments, a few. Most fortunately, we improved along the way.”
Each season has its own expectations. “They can become greater, or fewer,” Elizabeth remarked. “Success, much or little, has a way of doing that. A rider needs to keep their own expectations in check, making them non-factors.” Tara added, “The pressure, to achieve this or that, can be overwhelming. Trust yourself, trust your horse. The rest will follow in due course.” Fluorishing under the instruction of Mark and Trish, they’ve earned their equestrian spurs many times over.
“Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara, their intangibles are insane,” Trish has raved of her charges. She had no doubt they’d be riding at this level. “You will not find another rider, at any level, who will outwork or outstudy them. Their attention to detail is second to none. It shows in their riding. A new wrinkle here. A refinement there. An adjustment on the fly.” The professionals, they have taken notice too.
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The best competing with the best. Strong riding at its best. Fast. Crisp. Precise. Disciplined. Strong fundamentals. The fastest horse, or an aggressive riding line, does not necessarily ensure a place high on the leader board. Or, a place on the winner’s podium. Opening night could not come soon enough.
A field consisting mostly of professionals and a few top amateurs were invited to ride the FEI events. The 45 riders included defending 2017 World Cup Las Vegas winner Richard Spooner (USA), East Coast sub-league contender Molly Ashe Cawley (USA), Georgina Bloomberg (USA) and Nayel Nassar (EGY). Among the amateurs, my daughters were fortunate to be invited once again. They were coming off strong performances in a highly competitive season.
The excitement. The anticipation. The sights, the sounds. The pageantry. They permeated every corner of the equestrian center. The riders were eager to compete on the FEI courses laid out by Anthony D’Ambrosio (USA). His courses, noted for their technical features, include tight turns, bending lines and smooth transitions while showcasing the power and agility of the horse.
The first event was the $35,000 FEI 1.45m Blenheim Jumper Classic. Using a power and speed format, the short jumper course had bending lines, two combinations and technical inside turns. The fastest time with the fewest rails down (preferably none) wins. Richard Spooner, riding 13th in the start order, smoked the course with a blistering 23.18 sec on board Arthos R. Known for his “Master of Faster” pace, Richard made it look easy – Arthos jumped easy, smooth turns, smooth transitions. Molly Ashe Cawley finished second at 24.26 sec and Nayel Nassar finished third at 24.74 sec. If this first event was an indicator, this meet was going to require every rider give their very best effort. Finishing lower on the leader board, my daughters swept the 11th (Elizabeth), 12th (Tara) and 13th (Deborah) places with good times but with one rail down (4 penalty points).
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Attention soon focused on the $40,000 FEI 1.50m Las Vegas National Welcome Jumper Speed Classic. It would qualify the 30 rider field for the World Cup event. In previous years, the FEI occasionally granted wild card entries into World Cup events. This season, they dropped the practice entirely. A rider had to make the elimination cut to make the field. Where the cut line is set, a variety of factors, from course design to competitiveness to the number of qualifiers, determine its placement.
Nicole Shahinian-Simpson (USA), riding third in the start order, took the early lead at 63.54 sec. While riding early has some disadvantages, she established a strong time on the speed course. Nicole’s lead was holding firm. While other riders chipped away at her time, they were taking penalty points for pulled rails in the process. Georgina Bloomberg turned in a very solid ride, finishing second at 64.07 sec. Elizabeth rode next. She was quietly putting together the best ride of the evening. Very precise, very patient. A slight brush with a top rail on a double combination fence dropped one end. Though her ride seemed to have a very deliberate pace, Elizabeth had a blazing fast time of 60.08 sec. Deborah and Tara rode back to back three spots later. They were riding the course much like Elizabeth, precise and patiently. Both had brushes with a top rail also, but at different points in the course. Deborah finished at 62.84 sec, Tara at 63.67 sec. What mattered was that all three would advance into the World Cup event on Saturday night.
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World Cup Day had arrived. The first order of business was the FEI riders’ meeting. The day’s schedule was reviewed, times noted. Practice times were slotted according to bib number; the walkthrough of the course build would begin at 4:00 pm. The last piece of business was the blind draw for start positions. It’s the one part of a riders’ meeting that becomes semi-raucous. The FEI officials tried to keep the decorum serious. The banter among the riders was less serious, from “What start position did you draw?” to “They’re using the bingo drum from the casino.” It was a matter of staying loose, staying relaxed. After all, a whole day had to unwind first.
assembling the course for the World Cup – Las Vegas qualifier
Shortly after 4:00 pm, the course build was open for the rider walkthrough. The track was fast, the turns were tight, the transitions challenging. The footing and lighting perfect. While my girls evaluated the course together, they found their quiet spaces to set their riding lines. Since D’Ambrosio was using power and speed designs, it was determining which options would best fit the course layout. Riding from middle start positions, my girls would have time to watch the course develop. Deborah would ride just before intermission, Elizabeth and Tara after.
The riders and their horses were warmly greeted during the opening ceremonies. The excitement level was very electric, very Las Vegas in every sense. The course, a highly technical 13 fence, 16 effort design. The field, a mix of veteran professionals and young, fast-rising talent. For the winner, a qualifying entry into the World Cup Finals in Gothenberg, Sweden. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.
The world stage was ready. Jennifer Gates (USA) had the unenviable task of riding first. She kept Monaco on a rhythmic pace throughout the course. Finishing with a clear round, Jen was the rider to catch. The next four riders to follow also used a rhythmic pace, but were pulling rails. They wouldn’t be joining Jen in the jump-off round. Harley Brown (AUS), riding sixth with Mylord Cornet, finished with a clear round. Though nearly two seconds off Jen’s time, his clear round assured there would be a jump-off.
With Deborah riding from the 14th start position, the seven riders before her rode the course with a rhythmic pace also. They finished with times in the 73-76 second range, along with penalty points for downed rails. They filled places lower on the leader board. It was time for Deborah and Comet to ride the course. Starting their turn in a rhythmic pace, they stepped up the tempo. Coming out of fence 6, a pulled rail and a stumbled landing, they managed to recover. Once in the exit area, Comet was limping noticeably. Dismounted, Deborah walked him into the holding area. An exam by one of the FEI veterinarians said Comet likely had a sprain in his left front leg. An ultrasound confirmed the sprain injury. They finished at 74.23/4 penalty points.
Though concerned for Comet, Elizabeth and Tara continued with their warm-ups during intermission. Among the first three riders coming out of intermission, they had to focus on their own rides.
practice time: Elizabeth with Lilith waiting for their turn
The first rider after intermission, Elizabeth began in a precise, patient manner but with a stepped-up tempo. To make the jump-off, Elizabeth decided the best approach was to be fractionally ahead of the fastest time at each split. Her approach was paying dividends; with Elizabeth ahead at the splits, she was on track to have the fastest time over the course. On 9A, it was a slight brush of the top rail that brought down one end. The fault was like her qualifying ride in the Speed Classic, an end of a top rail down. When she finished the course, Elizabeth owned the fastest time on the course. Though, she didn’t make it into the jump-off with the four penalty points, her 69.57 sec time had turned heads. She was cheered for a beautiful ride.
Laura Tidball (CAN) was the next rider. A former Olympian (1988), Laura was having an evening not to remember. Three rails down, a slower time. She gave a nice pat to Concetto Son for a good effort. It was now Tara’s turn. Joining the jump-off was her aim. Like Elizabeth and Deborah, Tara was having a good meet too. Staying precise, staying patient. Having the fastest time wasn’t important, it was knowing when to be fast. Over the first third of the course, Tara established a half-second lead over Elizabeth’s time. Somewhere over the second third, her time lead evaporated, falling a full three seconds behind Elizabeth’s over this section of the course. While it seemed Tara had Cameron clearing the second top rail over fence 11, he gave it a slight rub. Rail down. It was so close. They finished at 74.84/4 penalty points.
Kristen Vanderveen (USA), who followed Tara, rode clear. Then, Wilhelm Genn (GER), Richard Spooner and Nayel Nassar each rode clear, setting the field for the jump-off. Riding the jump-off is a mix of strategy and risk taking, but most of all, trusting your horse. Over a shortened section of the course, the fastest time with the fewest rails down (preferably none) wins the jump-off and the event.
If there were favorites going into the jump-off, it had to be Nayel Nassar and Richard Spooner. Riding a short jumper course, there is no one better than Richard. Also, as the defending champion in the jump-off, winning back-to-back carries plenty of motivation and incentive. Nayel, simply, he was riding hot, having won the three World Cup qualifiers coming into Las Vegas (Sacramento, Del Mar, and Thermal). He was riding well here too. Richard dropped a top rail trying a slice on fence 3, the next to last fence on the jump-off course. Nayel, riding last, was riding behind Richard’s time. Crossing fence 3, Nayel slightly rubbed the top rail. Rather than falling, the top rail bounced in place. Another win for Nayel, and second for the day.
Elizabeth finished 7th, Deborah 10th and Tara 11th.
A respectable finish by any measure.
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Side Notes –
Deborah spent the night with Comet after his injury, fearing the worst as he slept. A few of the other riders dropped by to check on the both of them, which was very kind of them. Having the hardest moment, though, were Francie and Ali Nilforshun. Francie, on board Clarinius, the 12 year old gelding collapsed and passed away in the exit area shortly after completing the course. They were having a very good meet. Tara knows this feeling all too well herself about losing a horse in competition. It is believed Clarinius died from a heart seizure.
In the morning, Comet was airlifted by FedEx to Colorado, accompanied by Deborah. Met at the FedEx terminal, at Denver International Airport, by Mark and Trish, and Andrea, Comet was transported to the veterinary hospital at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for further evaluation. Dr. Kennerly, our horse veterinarian, met them to perform the more extensive orthopedic evaluation. The ligament in his front left leg, near the knee, was sprained. If not for his physical strength, Comet likely would have broken down. And, the outcome could have been very different.
Since then, Comet has recovered nicely. His extended rehabilitation and training program is nearly complete. Comet is scheduled to return to competition in June. Until Comet’s return, Captain Andrew Evan Stedman is Deborah’s #1 while five year old Odyssey continues with his qualification program.