Sally Cousins had several good reasons to celebrate her win at the Jersey Fresh CCI**, May 13-16, on Trout Walk Farm's The Mistress II. In addition to sealing Cousins' third two-star victory--she has also won at Essex (N.J.) and Bromont (Canada)--she answered a major question regarding the 13-year-old mare.
"We've struggled with her breathing," said Cousins, who's ridden the mare by Jaguar (a Selle Franç¡©s-Belgian Warmblood) out of a registered Cleveland Bay, for 1 Â½ years. "It turns out she is allergic to wood shavings."
Before she won the event at the Horse Park of New Jersey, in Upper Freehold Township, Cousins had started "Roxy," formerly owned and ridden by Jesse Akers, at the Foxhall CCI*** (Ga.) in April.
"She went most of the way around Foxhall and jumped beautifully, but she just ran out of air," said Cousins, who knew it wasn't a conditioning problem. Since the only three-star events left for the spring were in Europe, Cousins decided to resolve the allergy problem and test the results at Jersey Fresh. The outcome couldn't have been better.
"The conditions couldn't have been worse for a horse with allergies; it was hot and humid," said Cousins, of West Grove, Pa.
Cousins rose from fifth place after dressage to win on a neat, clean show jumping round. She bested defending champion David O'Connor and two rising stars, 16-year-old Emilee Libby, second on Cahir, and 23-year-old Clark Mont-gomery, third with Silent Faith.
The cross-country route, designed by O'Connor's 2002 World Eques-trian Games gold medal teammate John Williams, really changed the standings. The leader after dressage, Kelli McMullen Temple on Paris, came into the second day with 44.6 penalties but ran into difficulties at fence 5. It was the first of the troublesome pair of Crescent Brushes, set going downhill. These jumps surprised a lot of horses, coming so early in the course, with 15 of the 50 that started cross-country faulting at one or the other of the obstacles. Temple elected to retire and save her mount for another day, as temperatures climbed into the mid-80s. The heat mandated an extra 10-minute hold on the C-phase.
Linden Wiesman, second after dressage with 45 penalties on Trooper Tobin, had a hard fall at fence 11, The Hayracks, which eliminated her.
O'Connor Takes Over
The departure of the top two put O'Connor into the lead with Dunston Celtic, who was third after dressage with 46 penalties. Dunston Celtic was O'Connor's mount in last October's Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.), where a fall sent the rider to the hospital with a broken wrist and ankle.
"That fall was my fault, so I can't count that against him," said O'Connor after his perfect cross-country trip on the bay gelding who, like his retired Olympic gold-medal mount, Custom Made, is owned by Joe Zada.
"He's just taken a long time to get the communication skills in there. Today was certainly one of his best rounds. I was very pleased with him; it was a great step," added O'Connor. "Realistically, he's really comfortable at this level. This is probably the level he should stay at. At the next level, he has to try so hard, he tries too hard."
O'Connor hopes to hand his former Olympic prospect off to a young rider, as he did with Gorta Glen, his winner in the inaugural Jersey Fresh CCI. Austin Allen, son of Kent Allen DVM, now competes Gorta Glen and finished ninth in the Virginia CCI-Y* the weekend after Jersey Fresh.
Dunston Celtic was one of 17 horses to run inside the time on cross-country day, but that didn't mean the circuitous route was a walk in the horse park.
"It was definitely harder than I expected it to be," said Montgomery.
"It was more accuracy than last year," added Libby, who is trained by Jersey Fresh founder Debbie Adams.
Last year more than 20 people had no time faults. "I was hoping [this year] there wouldn't be a whole lot more, if any, trouble on the course, in terms of stops and falls, but I expected to see that fewer people made the time," said Williams.
One of his most significant changes was to add a fence, which brought the course to the maximum number--35. He also shortened the distance by about 100 meters to make it a little more difficult to make the time (8:06) over the good galloping and fairly flat ground.
One of those who didn't get the time, ironically, was The Mistress II. Fourth after dressage, she had 2.8 time penalties cross-country and went into a tie for fifth with her stablemate, Tell Me Why, just a single penalty back of Rebekah Simmons on Guinness, whose score was 48.6. But cross-country was far from the whole tale.
Not Over Yet
The show jumping course, designed by Sally Ike, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of show jumping activities, was not merciful. Both Libby, on 47.6 penalties and Montgomery, with 47.8, had a knockdown. Simmons' horse refused at the third fence and incurred 15 time penalties to finish 21st.
Cousins' perfect trip--one of only five in the top 15--left her less than a knockdown behind O'Connor. Knowing how Dunston Celtic show jumps, O'Connor had expressed trepidation about how he would fare on the final day. His fears were well-founded; Dunston Celtic dropped two fences, sinking to seventh overall and leaving Cousins the winner by 2 penalties over Libby.
Cousins was delighted with Roxy, who she is pointing toward a three-star at either Blenheim (England) or Fair Hill (Md.) this fall. The night before show jumping, she said, "I did think I was in there with a chance. The scores were so close; even a time fault would have made a difference. I know my horse is a very careful jumper," said Cousins.
Cousins, a former financial consultant, left her day job two years ago to become a professional. "I was sick of working in an office and decided to pursue what I really love," she said. "It was a little scary. But I get to wake up every single day and do exactly what I love, and I am very lucky to do that."
Now Cousins, 40, said her move has paid off. "It's pretty exciting that I'm being able to more consistently place well and win more," she said. "I've got the program working well."
Cousins said most of the people who know the mare call her "Princess." "She has a lot of attitude, so I try my best to humor her,'' said Cousins.
The event's Young Rider trophy went to Libby, who would like to ride at Badminton (England) and in the Olympics. But since she's too young to do either (or even to drive a car in New Jersey), she's got her sights set on the North American Young Riders Championship this summer.
Libby started riding when her older sister, Jennifer, 21, got involved with horses. Jennifer, now a professional, finished 11th at Jersey Fresh on Draco.
Ann Glaus of California took fourth place, jumping to impressive, fault-free rounds both on cross-country and in show jumping with Bellair. Glaus is married to another athlete, Troy Glaus, a three-time All-Star for the Anaheim Angels baseball team.
Buck Davidson juggled three horses at Jersey Fresh, getting an extra mount when his father, Bruce, was taken to the hospital with gastro-intestinal problems. Buck's highest finish was on his father's mount, Jam, who was 14th.
Next year, the Horse Park of New Jersey will embark on an even more ambitious undertaking, because it will include a new three-star as well as the two-star.
"The facility is amazing," said Montgomery. "The stabling is great, the show jumping is great, the dressage arena was great, the footing is fabulous on the cross-country course."
The loamy footing is probably the biggest virtue of the park, which will also host the final outing for the U.S. Olympic eventing team in July. Even so, dry weather had made the ground a little hard, a condition alleviated by aerating the steeplechase course and galloping lanes right before the competition.