A hard, steady rain threw a wrench into the first day's competition at the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East, Oct. 8-9 at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's famed Gladstone, N.J., training center.
Though the footing held up, horses were splashing around the sand arena behind the landmark red-roofed stable, and the downpour sometimes made it difficult to see, as well as making things very uncomfortable for the 56 soaked riders, who were performing flatwork individually before segueing into a gymnastics test.
By the end of the weekend, four riders emerged for the ride-off, which began and ended with Julie Welles first, followed by Maria Schaub, Maggie McAlary and Natalie Johnson. Each of the top four riders rode the course on their own horse, then catch-rode everyone else's mount along the route.
Judges Karen Healey and Conrad Homfeld were hoping for a bold approach in the first round, but with the bad weather, some riders tended to play it safe.
"I expected a few more brilliant rounds," Healey said.
The route consisted of three main lines; one of Swedish oxers, and another in front of the judges that had a double of liverpools in the middle, with riders taking those in either direction. On the center line, competitors started off by trotting over three poles on the ground to a crossrail, and then putting in a tight one-stride to an oxer. Next up was a triple bar, and they finished over a double of verticals.
It was exciting to note the improvement in the first phase compared with not so many years ago, when riders tended to lack a concept of flatwork beyond basic walk, trot and canter, and gymnastics also proved to be a mystery in some instances.
However, trainer Frank Madden, who coached last year's winner Brianne Goutal, said he didn't often see a contrast between collections and extensions. Yet riders who did demonstrate those movements effectively were prepared for Sunday morning's difficult course.
"It made the horses more adjustable," Madden said. "There was no cheating; you couldn't add strides."
Emily Hock, who trains with Peter Leone, held the lead on the first day. Hock, last to go in the Sunday morning round, seemed to be nailing
the course until her horse stopped at a problematical water jump and she went over his head and out of the picture.
Madden's student, Schaub, winner of the Zone 2 Maclay finals this year, remained in second place, but a spot-on trip from last year's ASPCA Maclay runner-up, Welles, elevated her from third place to first. Charlie Jayne, who has been in the final four a few times, dropped out of sixth place with several knockdowns.
Meanwhile, Johnson, from Connecticut, made the biggest leap, from 10th to fourth, while McAlary of New Hampshire went from seventh to third, impressive because it was her first time in the finals.
Addison Phillips, always a contender and second last year, just missed the final four, finishing in fifth place, rising from eighth. Her trainer, Andre Dignelli--who also trains McAlary and Johnson--was marking the 20th anniversary of his victory in the class, which is designed to find riders with international potential.
Unlike many of the judges from past years, Healey and Homfeld did not use a point system, so riders only knew the order of preference, not how much they were ahead or behind. For the final four, the judges had the riders start from scratch, so they began on even footing.
"I liked not knowing the numbers so everyone thought they had a chance," said Dignelli.
"It was great to have two super horsemen sitting here judging," said Missy Clark, who trains Welles with Linda Langmeir. "I think we all followed what they did and how they arrived at what they arrived at."
Healey said, "I didn't want numbers deciding who was in the top four and who was the eventual winner." The system she and Homfeld used gave them the flexibility to move people around as they saw fit, rather than being locked in by announcing numbers.
It was obvious where McAlary and Johnson would place as the last phase progressed. In the second round, while riding McAlary's Mid-Accord, Johnson smashed through an oxer in the double combination that ended the course.
In the last round, McAlary was riding Johnson's Chagall when she toppled the planks over both elements of a double of verticals halfway through the seven-obstacle course and then got too close to another vertical at the end of the ring.
"One, maybe, you could have gotten away with," said Healey with a smile.
But it was closer between Welles, another Connecticut rider, and Schaub, who lives in New Jersey. From the sidelines, it looked like a toss-up. Welles found all her distances perfectly, while Madden theorized that in one round, Schaub may have "parked" a bit before the vertical at the end of the ring.
"Whoever won the last round was going to win it," said Healey, calling it "as good a final four as I've ever seen." She added, "Any one of the kids in the top 10 or 11 could have been in the final four; they were that close."
As the ribbons were being pinned, Welles and Schaub touched hands briefly in a gesture of sportsmanship, and Schaub seemed genuinely glad for Welles. That was the spirit prevailing in the ride-off, understandable because all but Schaub competed together on the Zone I team in the Prix des States at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show the following weekend.
"We all tried to help each other out," said Schaub, who had never placed in the class previously. The riders had two minutes to warm up after switching mounts and could only take two fences in the process, so tips from those who knew the horses better were welcome.
Welles, ninth in the Talent Search last year, was aboard Gabby Slome's Lando, while Schaub rode Goutal's Orion. Schaub's horse has been out for months with an injury, and she emphasized how grateful she was to the Goutal family for the loan so she could participate in the class.
All of the finalists are planning to go to college (Johnson already attends New York University) and didn't make any commitments about what they want to do in the sport, except that they will keep riding.
But as Homfeld noted, "If you want to go forward, this lays a good foundation."
Welles, sitting in the USET's trophy room surrounded by history, said, "Many great riders have won this final and gone on to do really extraordinary things. Just to be in the final four means a lot."
Gladstone, NJ--Oct. 8-9.
USEF Show Jmp. Talent Search Finals, East - 1. J. Welles; 2. M. Schaub; 3. M. McAlary. 4. N. Johnson; 5. A. Phillips; 6. C. Kelly; 7. B. Marano; 8. N. Ritter; 9. A. Welles; 10. C. Wright.