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December 31, 2013

Beezie, Babies And Botched Grand Slam Attempts: The Chronicle's 2013 Picks

Beezie Madden's Rolex FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final victory was a favorite moment for several Chronicle staffers. Photo by Mollie Bailey.

With a horse show happening every weekend, and sometimes multiple major events taking place in locations around the country on the same day, the Chronicle reporters spend countless weekends on the road. But regardless of how many horses we see winning championships and cantering down centerline, a few special moments always leave a lasting impression long after the story is written and the results are old news.

As we head into the new year, here are a few of our favorite moments from 2013.

Mollie Bailey’s favorite memory: That perfect photo of Beezie

My co-worker Lisa Slade theorizes that she’s good luck for American riders. During her first trip to a Rolex FEI World Cup Final, she watched Rich Fellers bring the title back to the United States for the first time in decades. But me? Not so much

So it was all the more exciting when Beezie teetered on and near the top of the standings during the four days of this year’s Final in Gothenburg, Sweden. In the end, of course, it came down to a nailbiting jump-off against Steve Guerdat—just like last year when he went head-to-head against Rich Fellers. And in the end, Lisa’s lucky influence won out, and after Guerdat and Nino des Buissonnets logged two rails, Beezie went clean and claimed the day.

It’s always emotional to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" on foreign soil, but Beezie’s win hit me especially hard. In the awards ceremony, I was squashed against a few dozen European photographers all trying to get a perfect image of Beezie grinning ear-to-ear for their publications. From my angle, no matter how much I jostled, I couldn’t get a clean background, as her longtime groom Clark Shipley was in every image. 

Beezie World Cup win
 

The photographer side of me was annoyed, but the horseman who’s followed Beezie had a different take. I’ve followed Beezie since I was in pony straps working off her lessons (and asking her for autographs when she came to our barn for clinics), and I spent several years putting in blood, sweat and tears while grooming for a top winning rider. As I interviewed Beezie after another her major wins, I couldn’t help tearing up, knowing how important Clark’s been to her career. It was a wonderful problem to have to use another photographer’s image to run full page in the magazine. (Don’t worry—we ran one of Clark and Beezie together as well.) 

Lisa Slade’s favorite memory: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—for the second year in a row.

I was one of two Chronicle staffers lucky enough to witness Rich Fellers’ 2012 Rolex FEI World Cup victory in person, the first U.S. World Cup show jumping victory in 25 years. So it’s safe to say, after that, I wasn’t expecting another one soon. But as Beezie Madden and Simon stayed near or on the top for three tough days of competition in Sweden at this year’s FEI Rolex World Cup Finals, the whole American contingency started to believe it could happen again.

But still, two in a row? It seemed statistically unlikely. 

When it all came down to a jump-off again, I joked to a fellow American journalist that my frayed nerves couldn’t take any more. Then I looked to my right—I was seated in the media and rider seating—and I saw somone whose nerves were really frayed. It was John Madden, looking about as green as you can imagine. He jumped every fence along with Beezie in that final round, and I tried to watch them both simultaneously. (While also attempting to take notes. Not sure how well those notes came out...)

As soon as Beezie cleared that final fence, the color seemed to instantly return to John's face, and he bounded down the stairs to meet her at the in-gate. There's something about seeing someone else's emotion that makes a real impact on your own, and while Beezie is generally a quite reserved person, you could tell the World Cup victory hit her hard in the best way. 

Witnessing one American World Cup show jumping win was extraordinary. Two? Unbelievable. 

Molly Sorge’s favorite memory: The Alltech National Horse Show with husband and baby in tow

There was just one condition attached to my husband’s agreement to go with me to Kentucky for a week and supervise our 6-month-old infant while I covered the Alltech National Horse Show.

“I want to meet McLain Ward,” said the man who had also stood in line with jittery teenagers to get Boyd Martin’s autograph.

Fair enough. My husband, John, has to listen to me talk about these people constantly, whether anxiously awaiting their calls back, sharing a story of a great interview or remarking on their latest accomplishments. For a completely non-horsey person, he’s startlingly up-to-date on the exploits of most of the top riders, just because it’s my “what happened at work” dinner conversation.

I put the odd collision of my personal and professional lives on hold as long as I could, but John wasn't going to let it slide. So, on one of the last days of the show, I grabbed McLain when he was done walking the amateur-owner jumper course. I introduced them, and they discovered they’d had one of those “I know you from Facebook” moments in the parking lot. They cheerfully chatted away and finally ended up on a topic I never imagined—fishing. 

McLain and Toby
Toby show jumper

My husband’s an avid (is the word obsessive too strong?) fisherman, and McLain was taking his little brother bass fishing with a guide in the days after the National. Never in all my days did I think I’d witness my husband talking fishing with an Olympic show jumper. But hey, life is stranger than we imagine sometimes, right?

John was a phenomenal—and highly entertaining—guardian of our son that week, taking him to all kinds of Lexington, Ky., hotspots (you know, the truck stop diner, the Georgetown barber shop) and documenting it all with a hilarious Facebook photo album. I’d come back to the press room and open my computer and laugh at their exploits.

The crowning moment was when John held Toby up to the cut-out life-size image of Kent Farrington jumping Uceko and got one of the Alltech employees to snap a picture. That image never ceases to make me—and everyone else—laugh.

So was my favorite moment seeing John and McLain discuss fishing techniques? OR seeing Toby impersonating a top show jumper. It’s hard to choose.

Sara Lieser’s favorite memory: The brief period of time after Rolex Kentucky where both William Fox-Pitt and Andrew Nicholson were in the running for the Rolex Grand Slam.

When Rolex officials first introduced the Grand Slam of Eventing—you have to win Badminton, Burghley and Rolex Kentucky consecutively—I thought it would never be won. Who could win three four-stars in a row? But then Pippa Funnell did it in 2003, and since then I, and everyone else, has waited with bated breath to see who’d do it next.

In 2012 William Fox-Pitt had claimed two legs and was headed to Badminton to take a crack at the last when the event was canceled due to bad weather. There was some talk at that point of the unlikely possibility that two people could be in the running for the Grand Slam at once because it would be a full year before Fox-Pitt could have another try at Badminton, and someone could win Burghley and Kentucky in the meantime. But again, that seemed impossible. 

Enter Andrew Nicholson. He won Burghley. Fine. Then…he won at Kentucky this spring aboard the gorgeous Quimbo, relegating Fox-Pitt to second. I was there in the pressroom after the event, and we were all going crazy. Two icons of the sport with a longstanding rivalry battling it out the next week! But they were up against Michael Jung, the only man to ever hold the European title, Olympic title and World Champion title all at once. Badminton was shaping up to be the event of the century. 

Quimbo watch
 

The Rolex representatives were wild with anticipation over an epic showdown. The British press were smug that they’d be heading home that night in order to re-pack and head to Badminton. And the rest of us swung back and forth between excitement over the upcoming competition and despair that we wouldn’t be there to watch it in person.

In that moment, I hatched a crazy plan to get to Badminton. A friend offered me a buddy pass thanks to his commercial pilot girlfriend. Julie Harding, the editor of Eventing, Great Britain’s premier eventing magazine, said I could crash on her floor for the three-day and share a car with her. I spent 24, or maybe 48, hours seriously considering re-arranging all my plans and getting on that plane so I could be at Badminton to see it unfold.

In the end, I didn’t fly across the ocean, and neither Fox-Pitt nor Nicholson nor Jung claimed the prize. While Jock Paget’s fall Burghley victory has been taken away from him due to a positive drug test, he still has that amazing moment at Badminton when Clifton Promise jumped clear in show jumping for the first time in a four-star. Paget, who was not yet 30 at the time, beat Jung, the man many thought was invincible. He beat Nicholson, his Kiwi teammate and eventing legend, who’d mentored him throughout the years. He beat Fox-Pitt, one of the most accomplished riders the eventing powerhouse nation of Great Britain has ever produced.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it, although at least I was able to watch via the Internet. But even though I didn’t get to be there in person, it was an awesome reminder of why I love eventing so much. On any given day, anyone can win.

Lindsay Berreth's favorite memory: The retirement of a much-appreciated partner

As I was wandering around the arena shooting the CCI* and CCI** show jumping at Galway Downs (Calif.) this November, I started hearing rumblings that there would be a retirement ceremony for Canadian eventer Hawley Bennett-Awad's four-star horse Livingstone.

Since nothing had been announced formally, I hadn't planned to cover it. As I was sitting in the press tent chatting with CCI** winner Matt Brown, I heard announcer Mike Tucker introducing Hawley and "Hank," so I finished my conversation and literally ran to the main ring so I could snap a couple of photos.

I arrived ringside just as Mike was reading Hawley's tribute to Hank. There wasn't a dry eye in the house as Hawley sat on Hank fighting back tears. She dismounted and her husband, Gamal, threw a cooler over Hank as his support crew fed him carrots.

The 23-year-old Thoroughbred was still full of life, having just completed his final novice event with one of Hawley's students, and he let it be known that he was still worthy of everyone's attention by pawing, dancing around and nuzzling Hawley's bouquet of flowers. 

Hawley and Hank
 

After the ceremony, I chatted with Hawley, and she walked me through her history with Hank—of how he shaped her career at the upper levels, taking her to four four-stars, representing Canada at the Pan American Games, the Olympics and the World Cup Final.

Hank competed at the advanced level for 11 years, a feat that’s hard to achieve. After his four-star days were over, Hank taught numerous students of Hawley's the ropes starting at the FEI levels and carrying on through his final novice event.

I felt so privileged to have been there for Hank's retirement. I spend a lot of time talking with winners in my job, but we all know it's that one special horse that gave you your start who will always hold a special place in your heart. Hank was certainly Hawley's horse of a lifetime, and I think that's something we can all relate to, whether we're riding at the four-star level or jumping in the 2'6" adult hunters.

 
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