He and his fellow finalists raise the equitation bar.
Matt Metell, the runner-up in the 2008 Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Finals—East, was hoping he wouldn’t have to settle for second again as he led through three phases of the 2009 edition.
“My goal was to get to the top four and ride as best I could,” said the 19-year-old Falmouth, Mass., rider, who turned in stellar trip after stellar trip on a new equine equitation star, Pioneer, in Gladstone, N.J., Oct. 3-4.
This was one of the most outstanding renewals of the class, held at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters. Too often in the past, the difficulty quotient of the four-phase test resulted in many sub-par performances and criticism from the judges. But Joe Fargis and Linda Hough couldn’t say enough about the quality of the rides they saw.
“The American style is alive and well,” declared Hough, the mother of Olympic show jumper Lauren Hough. “The future looks great for the U.S. Equestrian Team, and these young people should go on to have great careers.”
“The better ones distanced themselves for sure,” added Fargis, a team veteran. He noted that he saw great improvement since the last time he judged the class, decades ago.
“People talk about the good old days. They were fine, but this is better,” he commented.
A record field of 97 contested the class, and 2006 ASPCA Maclay and Medal winner Maggie McAlary of Amherst, N.H., led the way with a 95 aboard Cheyenne in the flat phase.
Metell managed a tie for fourth in that segment before springing into the lead with a 96 in the gymnastics round, 2 points ahead of New Jersey rider Jessica Springsteen. She competed aboard Class Action, a new purchase who two weeks earlier was ridden to fourth place in the West Coast Talent Search finals by Navona Gallegos.
McAlary was disappointed in herself for earning only a 90 in gymnastics, which had a scoring multiple of 1.5 that gave it extra importance.
“I wasn’t as loose as I wanted to be,” she explained. Her flat performance gave her enough points, however, to slip into third place in the standings behind Metell and Springsteen. Christina Lin got a 92 in gymnastics, while Tina DiLandri and Jacqueline Lubrano were marked at 91.
Some wondered whether the gymnastics course might have been too easy. It featured three doubles, the last of which was a bounce, two trot fences and changes to the counter-canter before the third and last jumps. In previous years, the gymnastics were often obviously thorny, yet this more straightforward approach did the trick.
The secret to handling it, said Fargis, was to “keep a rhythm over a lot of difficult things. Just keep moving. That’s all.”
A good number of riders chose not to take any chances and preferred simple lead changes rather than flying changes. They had the option, but Fargis noted that, as is the case in show jumping, those who took the bigger risk and successfully got the flying changes were rewarded.
“The gymnastics phase was basic enough, but it was also difficult because you could easily make mistakes,” said McAlary.
One of those whose chances were scuttled there was Chase Boggio, second in the flat phase at Gladstone and the winner of the equitation championship at the Capital Challenge the previous weekend. However, he was unable to bring his horse down from the canter before the second trot fence, scuttling his chances.
Conrad Homfeld, Fargis’ teammate on the 1984 Olympic gold medal squad, designed Sunday morning’s jumping test. It featured a double right in front of the judges, half-way around the course, and ended with a triple combination heading toward the in-gate.
“Every jump was difficult. I loved 1 and 2, just a nice gallop, and then it stayed gently difficult everywhere; not impossible,” said Fargis.
McAlary redeemed herself with a 98, while Springsteen was .5 points behind. But that round belonged to Metell, who scored a resounding 98.5.
The three riders ranked behind McAlary; all had discordant notes in their rounds that put them out of the final four. Lin was tight to the double, while DiLandri’s horse splashed in the water jump and Christy DiStefano, who had been sixth, logged a time fault.
That put the next in line, Elizabeth Lubrano, into the last round after she pulled up her overall score with a 97. She advanced into the Final Four, where each of the riders rode the others’ horses over a short course.
Riding with a fever, the 20-year-old Penn State University intercollegiate team member understandably felt she was off her game—though she didn’t blame her illness—and it showed when she rode Springsteen’s horse. She had trouble with the striding at the first of two doubles, earning a score of 65 in that round and 314 overall.
McAlary couldn’t stay in the 90s, earning an 88 on her horse, a 97 on Class Action and then an 84 on Elizabeth’s LB Carte Noir, before getting a 93 on Pioneer for a total of 362.
Springsteen notched an 88 on Cheyenne and a 92 on her horse before earning the best score of the competition, a 99, on Carte Noir and finishing up with a 98 on Pioneer to bring her total to 377.
Metell was the most consistent, starting with a 98 on Cheyenne, then logging a 97 on Class Action, a 95 on Carte Noir and a 96 on Pioneer for a final score of 386. Though he was 9 points ahead of Springsteen, the judges noted that the difference between them was really just a matter of splitting hairs.
Like McAlary, Metell rides with Andre Dignelli and Kirsten Coe at Heritage Farm in Katonah, N.Y. He’s a sophomore at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Springsteen and Lubrano train with Beacon Hill Show Stable in Colts Neck, N.J., under the guidance of Stacia Madden, Krista Freundlich, Heather Senia and Max Amaya.
McAlary has been a real factor in the Talent Search, finishing third in 2005 and second in 2006, but she probably won’t try again for the victory that keeps eluding her.
“I think this will be it for me,” said McAlary, 19, a sophomore at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where she’s a member of the varsity equestrian team.
McAlary took last year off from the Talent Search but spent the summer with Dignelli, and two months ago he told her, “I think I have a horse.” She flew up from Alabama to get together with Cheyenne.
Springsteen, 17, a high school senior from Colts Neck, N.J., has one more year as a junior, but she’ll be heading to college next fall and doesn’t think she’ll continue with equitation—though there is a possibility she could come back for another shot at the Talent Search, where she was third in 2007.
Lubrano, 20, of Glenmoore, Pa., said her horse is being sold and she doesn’t plan to continue in equitation.
While Metell thinks he’d like to be a professional, he’s made getting a bachelor’s degree a priority. “But during the summers I plan to continue working for Andre and keep riding,” he said.
He’s also interested in being on a U.S. team, which is what the Talent Search is all about—looking for riders who can represent the United States on the international scene, like such past winners as McLain Ward (1990) and Lauren Hough (1994).
Pioneer, who came from Paul and Emil Hendrix, showed in Europe as a 1.45-meter jumper before turning to equitation.
“There’s something electric about the way the horse jumps. There was something exciting about that rider on that horse,” said Dignelli, who won the class in 1985.
Pioneer, who is owned by Heritage, won the Grappa Trophy as the best horse of the finals. The trophy was presented by 2000 Talent Search winner Sarah Willeman in honor of her legendary mount, now retired.
Dignelli said his cell phone was “blowing up” even as the class was going on with people calling to ask whether he would sell Pioneer. He’s not committing to parting with the 12-year-old bay, however.
“I’m going to have some fun,” he said. “I’ve had a drought. I’ve been second for many, many years here. It’s nice that it all happened.”
Dignelli, like the judges, was impressed by the quality of the competition.
“I think the level of riding was higher this year than we’ve seen it in quite some time. In my career, I will remember Matt’s round as one of the best jumping rounds I’ve seen,” he said.
“I thought the course today was fantastic,” he added. “It was even on both leads and asked all the right questions. You needed to find a lot of distances, but it wasn’t all about numbers.”
Asked to characterize Metell, Dignelli replied, “He’s a really hard worker, and he has a real gift for this. He has a great feel. He has it all. I was fortunate enough to start helping him a year ago [in] Florida. Teddy Demetriou brought him over, and we started working together.”
Metell and McAlary are working students for Dignelli, who knows how lucky he is to have them.
“I may never [again] help kids this talented,” he said.