It was pretty obvious what the U.S. team’s intentions were for the $75,000 Nations Cup when the team members were announced. “When I saw the line-up for the American team, I knew they weren’t fooling around,” said Canadian legend Ian Millar.
“We knew we were going into battle with giants tonight, and we consider it a great result to just come out intact!” Millar continued.
For the past few years, the U.S. has fielded greener teams for the Nations Cup during the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, and other countries have taken advantage of that, winning on U.S. home turf in Wellington, Fla. But on March 4, U.S. chef d’equipe George Morris made it clear he was tired of watching other countries celebrate wins in the only Nations Cup held in the United States. He picked a veteran team, led by the famous Sapphire and McLain Ward, and they got the job done pretty effortlessly, leading from start to finish to take the title.
“The powers that be aren’t obvious about it, but I got a lot of what I’d call ‘indirect rein pressure,’” Morris said with a grin. “Some years, we’ve wanted to save our more experienced horses for other things, but this year, it worked out that we could aim some of our best for this class. And we finally beat our neighbors to the north—even if it was by a squeak!” The U.S. team finished with a total of 8 faults to Canada’s 16, while Great Britain, Ireland and Australia all tied for third with 37 faults. Teams from Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico all finished well out of the running.
Ward and Sapphire, who jumped one of only two clear rounds on the night, were joined by their Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games teammates Mario Deslauriers on Urico, and veterans Beezie Madden and Margie Engle on newer mounts for them, Coral Reef’s Via Volo and Indigo. “We all made a big effort to make this class a real priority this year,” Madden said.
Getting It Done
Madden and Coral Reef’s Via Volo jumped to two four-fault rounds over the imposing track Steve Stephens and Leopoldo Palacios built for the course. Deslauriers and Urico had 4 faults in Round 1, but did not return for Round 2 (per Federation Equestre International rules, at a four-star CSIO Nations Cup, only three riders from each team return for Round 2).
Engle and Indigo had a lovely clear round in Round 1, and were looking to be on their way to another one in Round 2. The last line had been studied very carefully in the course-walk and caused lots of conversation—it was an odd-looking arched brick wall that had three panels, with a higher panel in the middle and panels to the left and right a bit lower. “It caused a certain amount of consternation when we walked the course,” said Ian Millar. After the wall, a long bending line of 11 or 12 strides led to the final fence, an oxer over a Liverpool.
In Round 2, Engle landed over the wall, then seemed to have a bit of a disagreement with Indigo on the way to the last oxer. The interruption to their flow brought the back rail of the oxer down. “I wasn’t his fault. I jumped the wall and then I kind of relaxed and didn’t really give him the direction he needed,” Engle said. “He got a little lost for a minute—I think he thought he was finished and got a bit confused.”
Clear rounds were definitely in short supply in the Nations Cup. The only double-clear performance other than Ward and Sapphire came from Australia’s James Patterson-Robinson on Niack de l’Abbaye. “This was the hardest Nations Cup course I’ve seen here [in Wellington],” Ward said. While faults were spread pretty evenly over the course, one line in the middle caused a lot of problems. Stevens placed the open water at the beginning of a diagonal line across the ring. Either five or six strides after the water was a tight one-stride combination. The top rail of the vertical at 10a was a plank on flat cups, and it toppled frequently.
A Valiant Effort
The Canadian team has enjoyed much success at the Nations Cup in Wellington, and they put up a determined effort this year, but couldn’t quite conquer the U.S. juggernaut. The only new names on the Canadian squad were those of the horses, as veteran riders seemed to be testing greener horses’ mettle. Ian Millar rode a lovely 10-year-old bay, Star Power, to 4 faults in each round. In Round 2, the horse had an early rail, then impressed the crowd with phenomenal efforts over the rest of the course.
Millar was joined by his son, Jonathon, who rode Contino 14 to 4 faults in Round1 and a clear round in Round 2. Eric Lamaze has a fancy new star in Sidoline van de Centaur, who jumped clean in Round 1, then had the planks at 10A down in Round 2. Veterans Yann Candele and Pitareusa rounded out the Canadian effort with 8 faults in Round 1.
This was the first time Australia had fielded a team in the Nations Cup at Wellington. “This was a little bit of a discovery tour for us,” said the Australian chef d’equipe Stephen Lamb. “We’re looking ahead to the 2012 Olympic Games, and seeing what horses and riders might be looking good for that.” U.S.-based Aussie Harley Brown, who usually competes on the West Coast, showed the East Coast what Cassiato can do. They had just a foot in the water in Round 1, but then Cassiato jumped through Fence 2 in Round 2, unseating Brown a bit, and he had to pause to regroup. They finished Round 2 with 12 jumping and 1 time fault.
Patterson-Robinson was the star of the Aussie team, with his double clear aboard Niack de l’Abbaye. He shocked the press in the press conference, though, speaking in clipped European tones rather than the slow Aussie drawl. Patterson-Robinson has been based out of the Netherlands for the last 10 years, and has lost many of his Down Under speech patterns. He was thrilled with Niack de l’Abbaye’s performance, as he definitely has his eye on the 2012 Olympic Games with the 10-year-old. “I rode him on the team at the [Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games] last year, and it was maybe a little bit too early for him,” Patterson-Robinson said. “This was his first show outside this year, and he was quite fresh and strong, but he jumped great.
A Battle For Third
The chef d’equipe of the team from Great Britain, Rob Hoekstra, definitely has the 2012 London Olympic Games on the mind, and he used the Wellington Nations Cup to try out a few younger riders and horses on the world stage. “For three of our horses, this as the first time on a team at this level,” he said. “We’re trying to develop horses and riders for the tour in Europe, so we had three riders here under the age of 30.”
English veteran Nick Skelton led the way for the team, with the spectacular gray Carlo, who is just 10. Carlo jumped clean in Round 1, and has just 4 faults in Round 2. Ben Maher is a younger rider, but he has lots of team experience, with an appearance at the 2008 Olympic Games for Britain. He rode Tripple X III to 12 faults in Round 1 and just 4 faults in Round 2. Gemma Paternoster was enjoying her first trip abroad with the British team. “It was so great to be here at such a spectacular venue, and competing against all these great riders. It was a treat just to get to watch them ride,” she said. She rode Osiris to 8 faults in Round 1 and 17 in Round 2. Scott Brash jumped in just Round 1, riding Bon Ami to 13 faults.
The Irish contingent is always the most vocal and enthusiastic in the crowd, but their team didn’t quite catch the positive energy. All of the Irish riders on the team are based in the United States—Darragh Kenny who rides for Missy Clark on the East Coast, Jennifer Crooks who rides on the West Coast, Paul O’Shea who just came to the U.S. to ride for owner Harry Gill out of Pennsylvania, and Shane Sweetnam, who lives in Florida. Kenny and Gael Force posted rounds of 8 and 4 faults, while Sweetnam rode Rolette to 4 faults in Round 1 and 8 in Round 2.
Crooks didn’t have the best of first rounds, as SF Uryadi ducked out at the fourth fence. She re-grouped quickly and finished the round with just 9 faults. She then came back to have just one rail in Round 2. O’Shea has been on fire at WEF, winning multiple classes, but his Realman took exception to the arched wall in Round 1, stopped and toppling the bricks. He finished with 9 faults for that round, and didn’t return for Round 2.
The seats were packed with spectators for the class, but the tone was noticeably quieter this year. Each year, the cheering sections for each country have gotten louder and more competitive, until last year some cheering caused problems for a horse on course. This year, the crowds were enthusiastic, but much more sedate.