North Salem, N.Y.—Sept. 14.
After winning team and individual gold at the 2011 Pan American Games (Mexico), Christine McCrea and Romantovich Take One were hot favorites for the 2012 London Olympic Games team.
But the U.S. Equestrian Federation Olympic selection trials didn’t go as planned for McCrea and “Dutchie.” They were off form and finished out of contention for the team.
“I think all the traveling last year and stress of the whole year in general maybe took more out of him than I thought,” McCrea said. “As it turned out, he had raging, bleeding ulcers. Then his back got sore, and it all sort of fell apart. As we were trying to fix it all, we were in the thick of the trials, and of course that was a bad time to have it happen. But that’s horses.”
McCrea worked hard to get Dutchie healthy and happy again, and by the summer he was back to his old self. But they just couldn’t catch a break. “The middle of the summer onward, he’s really peaked,” she said. “We’ve just had the most frustrating string of 4 faults in every grand prix. It seems like the last seven or eight classes, I’ve had the last jump down or a really unlucky rub.”
Their luck returned in the $50,000 American Gold Cup Qualifier, where they triumphed in a six-horse jump-off for the blue.
McCrea’s home base of East Windsor, Conn., is just an hour or so up the road from Old Salem Farm, so she had grown up showing at the facility. But it’s been a few years since she’s been back, so McCrea was taken aback at the appearance of the facility, which has had quite a facelift. “When I came back, I didn’t recognize where I was. It’s gorgeous; they’ve done a fabulous job,” she said. “I think this show is going to bring a lot of people back in the springtime. I’m now planning to come back in May; normally, I’d go to Kentucky, but I really want to support my local shows. I’m very impressed with this facility.”
Old Salem Farm was built in the 1960s and features a complex of indoor rings and stabling in a cluster of buildings. Recently redone, the buildings have an elegant look now. Nestled in 120 acres of land in Westchester County, N.Y., the show features an expansive grass grand prix field complete with rolling hills and a bank. The American Gold Cup had been held at the Devon Horse Show grounds, and then in Ohio, but had to be put on hiatus last year. This is the first year it’s been held at Old Salem.
Riders in the $50,000 American Gold Cup Qualifier had to contend with the ups and downs of the field’s contours, including one turn early in the course where they had to run up a hill, gallop behind the scoreboard, and then back down the hill directly to an oxer, with a bending line to a narrow vertical.
“The course was tricky because I think the terrain here adds a lot of spice,” McCrea said. “If you don’t ride on terrain like this very often, you can really struggle with it. I think it was abnormal for a regular grand prix horse to gallop up the hill and around and down the hill. When you came to the skinny, they were just flying down the hill out of balance.”
Reed Kessler and Mika have spent the year whetting their skills at jumping clean over big courses, as Kessler, 18, prepared for her Olympic team debut. But there was something missing from Mika’s repertoire.
“This horse has always been one that I babied along because he’s a little bit nervous,” Kessler said. “So, this year, after the trials, it’s been all about getting him comfortable going fast and trying to win one.”
As Kessler and her trainer, Katie Prudent, watched the first two in the $50,000 American Gold Cup qualifier jump off, Prudent told Kessler she’d rather Kessler was sixth with two rails gunning for the win than fourth with a slow, careful clear round.
Kessler might have been a stride conservative from the first to the second jump, but from there, she turned on the turbo on Mika. “He was fantastic. He’s getting it,” she said. “There were a few places, like the six strides to the vertical, where normally at that pace to a vertical he might struggle, and he’s learning to stay calm and careful while going that fast. I’m excited it’s all coming together.”
Kessler was also returning to Old Salem after a few years away from a once-familiar venue. She started out showing small pony hunters at Old Salem. She grew up in neighboring Armonk, N.Y., though her family moved to a Lexington, Ky., farm this year. Her boyfriend, fellow grand prix show jumper Tim Gredley of Great Britain, is visiting and jumped in the class as well. “Tim asked me where the hotel was, and I had no idea! I’ve never stayed in a hotel around here,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be home. It’s been the biggest year of my life, and everything has happened so fast. It’s amazing to be back somewhere where I’m really comfortable.”