While the goal was simple—qualify for 2023 Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Final—the strategy to achieve it has been the product of a great deal of planning.
With the completion Sunday of the three-leg North American series of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup at the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Canada CSIO5* (British Columbia), the U.S. team secured its top placing and a berth to the 2023 finals, to be held Sept. 28-Oct. 1 in Barcelona. The berth is vindication after 2022, when the U.S. failed to qualify for the finals.
More importantly, the finals represent one of two remaining opportunities left for the U.S. jumping team to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“The plan that we developed, literally at the beginning of the year, was reverse-engineered from our ultimate goal, which is a podium finish in Paris. In order to do that you have to qualify for the Olympics,” said Robert Ridland, chef d’equipe.
With only the Nations Cup Finals in Barcelona and the Pan American Games, to be held several weeks later in Santiago, Chile, left as qualifying events, Ridland put the country’s top firepower into qualifying for the Nations Cup Finals during the North American series.
“Our strategy was to really hit the ground running hard, throw everything against the wall, when it came to the first two,” he said. “The goal was to basically create an insurmountable lead, so to speak, so that we had some options going into a third one. As we know, that’s exactly what happened.”
By winning in Mexico and California, the U.S. extended its lead in the North and Central America and Caribbean division to 200 points over Mexico (170 points) and Canada (150) going into the final event, held June 4 at Thunderbird Show Park in Canada. There, the U.S. team finished third but the placing did not affect their overall finish.
“Winning in Mexico in the jump-off and then winning in California created basically a mathematically insurmountable lead, as long as we didn’t get eliminated, as long something didn’t drastically go wrong, which can happen anytime,” Ridland said. “If you have a horse that retires on course, or if you have a horse that colics the night before and you end up with three horses and no discard score, that can happen. And obviously you try to cover your bases so the chances of that are minimal.”
The team for Canada featured veteran Kent Farrington and his younger grand prix mount Landon, who were also on the winning team in Mexico, as anchors. Karl Cook and Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet, who were on the winning team in California, were the team’s pathfinders. They were joined by five-star first-timers Charlotte Jacobs on Edocenta and Lacey Gilbertson on Karlin Van’t Vennehof.
Cook, Rancho Santa Fe, California, led off for the U.S. over Canadian course designer Peter Holmes’s track in the first round, posting a quick time of 71.20 seconds but adding 8 faults. Jacobs, East Aurora, New York, and Edocenta followed Cook, accumulating another 8 faults after dropping a rail and touching the tape at the open water. Gilbertson, Lake Forest, Illinois, and Karlin Van’t Vennehof were the third U.S. pair to finish under the time allowed but added 16 faults to their score.
As the last combination and under pressure to secure a clear round and keep the U.S. in third after the first round, Farrington and Landon answered the call, going clear in 73.99 seconds and moving the team into round two on a total score of 16.
“The course ended up being a good course,” Ridland said. “It was as it should have been—hard enough—and it was a tremendous learning experience for Charlotte and Lacey in their first five-star team competition.”
Opening the second round, Cook and Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet, a 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare owned by Signe Ostby and groomed by Brooke Belden, delivered a fault-free round. Jacobs and Edocenta, an 11-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by North Star and groomed by Paulo Moreira, finished on 4 faults to improve on their first-round effort. Gilbertson and Karlin Van’t Vennehof, a 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare owned by Seabrook LLC and groomed by Olivia Swanson, navigated the track within the time allowed and finished on 8 faults to conclude their debut for the team.
Farrington and Landon, a 10-year-old Zangersheide gelding owned by Haity McNerney and groomed by Denise Moriarty, had 8 faults on their second tour of the course, with the team finishing on a total of 12 in the second round.
The team finished the competition on a total of 28 faults, earning a podium finish behind Ireland, which took first on 4 faults, and Canada, which finished second on a total of score of 8.
“You’re taking veteran riders and you’re giving experience to newer riders, riding side by side in a five-star Nations Cup environment,” Ridland said.
“You obviously always aim for the podium—higher up the podium, that’s even better,” he added. “We achieved that. We were on the podium, and the three younger riders all got valuable experience. All three of them had stronger second rounds than the first round, which is pretty much the test right there.”
Looking ahead to the fall and these last two chances for Olympic qualifications, Ridland said he intends to stick with the plan that has served the team well the first half of this year.
“We’re going to do exactly the same strategy for these last two crucial events of the year,” Ridland said. “What we’ll do is we’ll look at the various puzzle pieces, horse-rider combinations, and we’ll basically do the same thing. We’re going to split the A-team in half, and half are going to go to Barcelona and the other half will go to the Pan American Games.”
In Barcelona, the U.S. team will need to finish first among the teams that have not already qualified for the Olympics to earn a spot. No teams competing at the Pan American Games are qualified for the Olympics yet, so the competition will be stiff. There are three spots up for grabs there.
Mexico and Canada finished the series tied for second with equal points, and according to the rules, the second invitation to Barcelona went to Mexico as that country had more clear rounds throughout the series than Canada.