“How do you ride so fast?” came the question for Kent Farrington in the press conference after the second leg of the Longines FEI World Cup Final.
Farrington just grinned and talked about riding styles and horse choices in response to the question, but the bottom line is that Farrington gave the world a riding lesson in fast tonight as he and Voyeur blazed to the top of the grand prix-format class, leading a strong U.S. charge as the riders with Stars and Stripes on their saddlepads rebounded from a disappointing Day 1 to strut their stuff.
A jaw-dropping 21 riders of the 38 starters qualified to jump off in the class (read more about that controversy—and it’s a good one!—later in the story), so the jump-off was guaranteed to be a race like no other.
U.S. rider Charlie Jayne set the pace early with a extremely quick, clear round on Chill R Z, but Farrington made short work of shaving almost 3 seconds off of it. It was a mark no one else could match, though many of them tried.
Beezie Madden made a concerted effort on Simon but fell just short, placing third. The closest challenge came from Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, who guided his Olympic individual gold medalist Nino des Buissonnets to a clean jump-off less than a second off Farrington’s mark.
Farrington made it seem like he didn’t work too hard for the win.
“That horse is naturally very fast on his own, so I just let him run at his own speed. He goes best the smoother I ride. His speed is his speed, so the more I leave him alone, the better he jumps,” he said.
But he left nothing to chance with his tight angles on the verticals and a mad flat-out gallop to the last oxer.
Going For Broke
With so many in the jump-off, the class became a game of chess. The U.S. riders—who were all lower in the overall standings than they would have liked after a disappointing Day 1—had nothing to lose and went for broke.
It paid off with Farrington’s win, which puts him into a tie for 10th in the overall standings. And defending World Cup champion Beezie Madden went like Simon had wings tonight, too.
Her third place in the class puts her into a three-way tie for fourth in the overall standings.
“I feel good. I moved up a few slots today, and if I can stay on form for Monday maybe I can claw my way up a little higher. We’ve been in deeper holes!” she said.
Three other U.S. riders in the jump-off are clustered in 12th, 13th and 14th overall—Leslie Burr-Howard, McLain Ward and Charlie Jayne.
Burr-Howard looked on track to be competitive, putting the pedal down on Tic Tac.
“I wasn’t really planning ot go that fast, and it just sort of happened that way! It was just sort of like a snowball—we kept getting faster,” she said. The speed backfired at the end of the course with a rail, which dropped them to 13th in the class.
“I was thrilled [with him, though],” said Burr-Howard. “I wish that jump had stayed up, but it didn’t work out quite as nicely as I’d planned.”
Jayne was the one who set the crowd alight for the first time, turning in the pace-steer round early in the jump-off.
“I’m coming from a little bit behind since I had a cheap 4 faults yesterday, so really [my strategy] was to try to do the least amount of strides possible,” Jayne said. “He’s big, he’s scopey, he takes a long time in the air. I’m not going to win it over the jump. So I try to take the least amount of strides from one to the next.
“[Kent] naturally has a fast horse; I knew if he was clear he’d be ahead of me,” Jayne said. “But I’m glad that the U.S. came back today and is going so strong.”
Go Or No?
But for the riders at the top after Day 1, the big jump-off and fast times forced them to make tough decisions. Any mistake—a rail or a round too slow off the mark–would mean a significant drop in the class placings, and ergo, a fall down the overall rankings. Many of them chose to be more conservative, prioritizing a clean round over speed.
“When I went in the ring, I didn’t know which strategy to take—to go fast and possibly have a rail down or to go slower and end up down the ranking,” said Frenchman Patrice Delaveau, who stood second after the speed leg. “In the end, I adopted a halfway strategy between the two. I could have gone faster to the last jump, but I might have had it down, so I added a stride to make sure I jumped clear.”
Delaveau’s indecision on the gallop to the last jump put him in fifth for the class, and into a tie for first place with Guerdat.
Guerdat, who had been fourth on Day 1, is about as hungry to win a World Cup Final as a rider can be. For the last two years, he has come in second in the Final after losing a jump-off to an American rider. “I’ve been planning for this Final for a long time,” Guerdat said. “You don’t remember who’s second. I’m trying my best for this year. There’s a lot of pressure to jump clear rounds, and I want to make sure not to make a silly mistake that would change my placing.”
Guerdat played his cards perfectly, slicing the angles to perfection with Nino des Buissonnets to take second behind Farrington and tie for the overall lead with Delaveau.
For Pius Schwizer, the leader after Day 1’s speed leg, taking a risk didn’t pay off. He started off with a slower jump-off pace, then Toulago bounced a rail out of the cups. His 15th place in the class dropped him down into a tie for fourth with Madden and Ludger Beerbaum in the overall standings.
Why were there 21 in the jump-off? Course designer Frank Rothenberger was visibly irritated when asked about that in the press conference. He noted that he had wanted a jump-off of 10 to 12 riders.
“Unfortunately, the time allowed was not a factor tonight. If it had been, we would have had less clear rounds,” Rothenberger said. In addition, Rothenberger changed one line after riders intitially walked it. The distance from a Swedish oxer up the long side to a delicate gate-oxer combination was originally set at an awkward 4 1/2 strides, but it was reduced to a normal four strides.
Rothenberger said that he wheeled the course for distance and then calculated the time allowed based on the required speed for the course in conjunction with the Fédération Equestre Internationale judges (David Distler, Freddy Smeets, Patrick Bartolo and Gilles Perriere). Usually the course designer and the judges watch the first three horses jump, then decide together whether to adjust the time allowed.
“I wasn’t allowed to change the time allowed,” Rothenberger said. “The course was measured correctly, but for me, the time was too long. Normally we would have changed the time allowed, but the judges said before I even asked the question, ‘We will not change anything.’ I was very sure, after the first few horses had gone, that we would have too many clear rounds. End of story.”
In response to Rothenberger’s complaint, John Roche, the FEI Director of Jumping, jumped up from the audience of journalists and took a microphone. He emphasized that the FEI hasn’t changed any rules; it’s just more stringently enforcing the definition of the time allowed.
“The course is supposed to be ridden at a specific speed, and it’s supposed to be measured at the ideal track that the rider rides. [The calculation of those two numbers results in the time allowed.] That’s always been the way,” Roche said.
“Over the years, a degree of advantage has been taken of the situation and the time allowed has been changed without really a necessity to change the time. If the speed is not fast enough and the speed needs to change from 350 [meters per minute] to 375, then we should discuss that. But the speed is what is laid down, and the course is measured taking the ideal line to be ridden, and the time allowed is set according to that speed. It’s as simple as that.”
Roche explained that after the 2013 European Championships in Herning (Denmark), where the time allowed was altered to a very tight time, the FEI decided to enforce the time allowed rules more definitively.
“It created a situation when in actual fact the riders were no longer required to ride at the required speed, which was 400, but faster than that, which in actual fact is against the rules. So, we’re just following the rules. There has been no change. We’re just applying the rules,” he said.
Rider Steve Guerdat then spoke up, asking, “Is the World Cup Final the right place to apply the rules for the first time?”
“I think it’s the course designer’s job to decide the time allowed, and he knows his job better than any FEI judge or official,” Guerdat continued. “I think it should be up to him if he wants to change the time allowed.”
A reporter asked Roche whether he thought the enforcement of the rules changed the outcome of the class (i.e., resulted in 21 in the jump-off). Roche replied, “I don’t think that the entire blame can be put down to the time allowed.”
Rothenberger had noted that he built the class with very large fence dimensions. “We had six verticals at 1.60 meters and some oxers with a 1.90-meter spread. For me, it was big enough,” he said. “There are two big rounds coming on Monday, so I didn’t want to take too much out of the horses tonight.”
And Guerdat noted, “I think if you asked all the horses tonight, they would have preferred that the time was a little shorter instead of oxers wider and verticals higher. I’m sure they would have preferred that.”