The final year of the quadrennial schedule dictated by the Olympic Games was certainly a wild one. As I write this column, in mid-December, it’s still not official just who won either the team or individual medals at the Olympics in August!
It appears that our U.S. team (Chris Kappler on Royal Kaliber, Beezie Madden on Authentic, McLain Ward on Sapphire, and Peter Wylde on Fein Cera, with Chef d’Equipe Frank Chapot) might well have won its first team gold medal since the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984. It’s just that the International Olympic Committee hasn’t yet officially told us that it’s so. Chris and his beloved but now deceased Royal Kaliber might also be figuratively standing one rung higher on the long-since dismantled podium once all the legal machinations are completed.
With appeals almost certainly in the works, we might be well into the next quadrennium before all the dust settles. The only sure thing is that all the 2004 winners will be deprived of the joy and unmitigated pride that should come with such a tremendous accomplishment.
This unprecedented situation is due to medication-control results the likes of which have never been seen in our sport. There was no change in the number of horses tested or the mechanism for determining who would be tested this year; so my guess is that there wasn’t a dramatic difference in the way horses were treated prior to or during the competitions themselves. It seems to be the increased level of sophistication of the testing procedures, together with the FEI’s “zero tolerance” rule structure, which has put our sport on its ear.
It makes little sense to simply lump all the “positive” drug cases together. Traces of multiple long-acting tranquilizers (as are alleged to have been found in the individual gold medalist’s sample) would be considered by many to be a rule infringement of a far higher magnitude than a trace of a corticosteroid drug commonly used in various topical medications. Yet zero tolerance means just that, even when the laboratories can detect amounts very, very close to that precious zero level.
My bet is that medals will be stripped, even while the ponderous machinations of the appeals process grind on. The only hope is that this truly sad, costly and embarrassing situation will force our international governing body (the Federation Equestre Internationale) to acknowledge that our sport is conducted on a professional level these days and not on the amateur level of the past. This should dictate professional levels of competence in every position that influences the outcome, together with rules that respect the welfare of our horses–as the athletes that they truly are.
It should also mean each and every individual with a credential to enter the stable area should consider his or her role with a new level of seriousness and a complete knowledge of the rules we’re playing under. I find no excuse for chefs d’equipe, trainers, veterinarians, or grooms to cite ignorance–or too casual or cavalier an attitude–as justification for errors of this magnitude.
Yes, it truly was a rollercoaster year for our Olympic effort. We went from the high of the Olympic Trials, to the low of Royal Kaliber’s missing Aachen (Germany) with an injury. We all experienced the thrill of our team standing tall on the silver-medal podium, while learning that Authentic and Beezie Madden had earned the “pole position” for the individual competition.
Two rounds of the most difficult jumping that course designer Olaf Petersen could devise saw Chris and Royal Kaliber emerge in a jump-off position versus former World Champion Rodrigo Pessoa and his venerable Baloubet du Rouet for the individual silver medal.
Then, on the verge of jump-off victory, disaster struck. A serious tendon injury cut short the jump-off bid of this gallant horse, and Chris stood alone on the podium without his partner behind him. Short weeks later “Roy” was humanely destroyed when even surgical intervention proved not enough to save him from serious intestinal adhesions.
All true horse lovers must empathize with what the Kapplers, the Kamines, and the whole Hunterdon team went through this year. Royal Kaliber gave all of us, but most of all his “family,” unbelievable excitement, joy, satisfaction and pride. This only made the shock of his passing that much harder to bear. Seldom do we see any animal with more strength of character and will to excel than this horse displayed. He will truly be missed.
The Best Possible Preparation
Our most serious endeavor, outside of the Olympic Games, was our participation in the Samsung Super League. It’s contested at eight Nations Cup events, and each of the eight nations qualified must field a team at each event. This is far easier for our European competitors than it is for us, an ocean away. Despite limited funding and the necessary emphasis on Olympic preparation, our teams held their own, and our middle-of-the-pack finish in the final standings assures our country’s continued participation in 2005.
These hotly contested competitions at some of the world’s best venues provide our riders with the best possible preparation for future championships.
Several riders who started the year with limited international experience took part on our Super League teams and returned home to demonstrate just how much is to be gained from it. Without the distraction and conflicts of selection trials, our team will be able to make the Super League a priority in 2005.
An important segment of the pipeline that produces new international riding talent is the North American Young Riders Champion-ships. I find it very gratifying to see more and more of our most serious competitors in this 16-to-21-year age group giving this event high priority in recent years. The enthusiasm and hard work of individuals like Ralph Caristo in the Northeast goes such a long way in making riders aware of the event and assuring teams that are up to the task at these demanding championships.
Being firmly convinced that riders can only benefit from challenge, a change in routine, and exposure to the stresses and joys that come from a team effort, I hope that we will continue to build this event into a real equivalent of its European counterpart. As it has been in Europe for decades, our own continental championships for young riders should be the launching pad for riders with aspirations and the aptitude to go on to the international stage.
For the second time the United States played host to the FEI World Children’s Championship. Hosted this year by David and Suzanne Saperstein at their beautiful facility in Simi Valley, Calif., this event created memories for a lifetime for riders 12 to 14 years of age from around the world. Foreign visitors are mounted on borrowed horses for this event–a special challenge for organizers and riders alike! The Sapersteins not only rose to the challenge to present a truly exemplary event, but they have also offered to have this championship return to their venue and even expressed an interest in hosting a first-ever FEI World Junior Championship.
As is the case with many special events, far too few of our competitors are even aware of them. We have a big country with a widely scattered base of potential participants, which makes communication with all of them a formidable task. Special competitions in any discipline help to stimulate interest and enthusiasm, to say nothing of being a great deal of fun. Whether it is the trainer, owner, parent or rider, listening for and finding out details on special competitions can be well worth the effort.
So it’s my wish that within the next few years we’ll have an outdoor junior continental championship (for 14- to 18-year-old riders) to complement the NAYRC. I’ll even extend my wish to see a continental children’s (12 to 14 years of age) and a continental pony jumper championship (16 and under), all under the same rules and conditions put down by the FEI for these events.
Bringing together riders from the countries in our North American continent to compete is not “undoable.” And it would do so much to raise the awareness of international competition while it helped prepare riders for the multi-day, multi-phase rigors to be met by those who go on to compete in senior championships. Whenever I see that the resume of a winner at the senior FEI level includes their prior successes in European pony, junior and/or young riders championships, it confirms my opinion that this is one of the most valuable things we could offer our riders of the future.
The Other Half
But riders are only half of the equation in our sport, and today the vast majority of horses ridden by U.S. riders were purchased in Europe. Many–perhaps most–were imported with a great deal of their training and competitive “seasoning” already applied in Europe.
We’re well aware that our own breeding industry, while growing fast and certainly not lacking in quality bloodlines, had a far later start than the big breeding nations in Europe. Beyond this, however, I’m convinced that what might be our biggest handicap in producing home-grown superstars comes from our still weak or non-existent system of getting horses from the pasture into the sport (especially to the higher levels).
Our system of equitation focuses almost entirely on the ability to produce sterling results on already completely “made” horses. Only a handful of young professionals have much experience (or interest) in getting a horse from the very green stage up to a high level of training. Add to that today’s costs of maintaining and showing a horse, and it becomes daunting to consider taking on even the most spectacular prospect.
The Young Jumper Championships, a program started by the International Jumper Futurity, reached the point of nationwide familiarity in 2004. Attempting to refocus the levels of show jumping from the old “prize money won” (using the preliminary, intermediate and open divisions) to “age of horse” (5-, 6- and 7/8-year-olds) hasn’t been easy. But the Eastern and Western League Finals of the YJC help provide a goal for, and put a spotlight on, the horses being developed in this country. And the qualifying classes–or the hugely popular whole sections where shows offer them–give those producing our equine half of the duo a chance to put a better sort of experience into their charges.
It has always amazed me that while we would never consider forcing an 11-year-old child to compete against adult professionals, we’ve been content to have our 5-year-old horses go in the ring against horses with eight or 10 years of show mileage under their girths!
Do you recognize any of these names: Judgement, Casadora, Pinocchio, Equinox, Nabucco, Allegience, Gardenio, Little Big Man, Gitan Rouge, Contigo M, Mr. Acobat, Andy, El Campeon’s Ado Annie, His Horse, Madison, Riane, Online, Couletto K James, or Onira? All of them, and many more of today’s winners, are “graduates” of the YJC and/or IJF.
Change For The Better
While 2004 marked the death of Steve Hawkins (see sidebar) and Royal Kaliber (see memorial article on p. 190), it also saw the new United States Hunter and Jumper Association get up and running. Largely through the efforts of President Bill Moroney, this new association has been recognized by the U.S. Equestrian Federation not only as the official national affiliate for hunters and hunt seat equitation, but also as the FEI affiliate for jumping. While every other discipline has benefited from the efforts of organizations dedicated to the promotion of their own unique aspect of the sport, hunter and jumper members have always relied on the federation (whether called the American Horse Shows Association, USA Equestrian or the USEF) to act on its behalf.
Despite some misgivings about having a single board of directors divide its attention between the concerns of the purely national hunter and equitation divisions and those of jumping (which will always be heavily swayed by the FEI’s ultimate authority), I have high hopes for the USHJA. It is an important change that can provide more focused education and promotion for our segment of the sport.
It’s too bad that change always seems to be regarded as a dirty word in our sport–going forward into the future is our only option, and change is how you get there.
Certainly 2004 was not just another year for the sport of show jumping. Much of what transpired will have a considerable impact on the sport for years to come. And, just think, this year we’ll finally find out just who actually won the show jumping medals in the 2004 Olympic Games!