Monday, Apr. 15, 2024

Skelton Makes History In The CN International

Aboard the stallion Arko III, this British rider claims an unprecedented fourth title in one of the world’s richest grand prix events.

Looking for more photos from the Spruce Meadows Masters? Click here!

Eight years ago Nick Skelton’s show jumping career appeared to be over. After he broke his neck in two places in a riding accident, Skelton’s doctors told him he’d risk his life if he continued in the sport.
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Aboard the stallion Arko III, this British rider claims an unprecedented fourth title in one of the world’s richest grand prix events.

Looking for more photos from the Spruce Meadows Masters? Click here!

Eight years ago Nick Skelton’s show jumping career appeared to be over. After he broke his neck in two places in a riding accident, Skelton’s doctors told him he’d risk his life if he continued in the sport.

But when a talented young stallion named Arko III appeared in his life, Skelton took a chance.

“He’s always been a special horse for me,” said Skelton, noting that Arko is the best horse he’s ever ridden. “That’s the reason I got back on after my accident—if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have rode again.”

Skelton, 50, put his trust in Arko, owned by John and Lisa Hales, and the pair became an international force in 2003. Now, the pair added their names to the winning trophy in the $937,867 CN International at the Spruce Meadows Masters, Sept. 3-7 in Calgary, Alta.

Skelton and Arko accrued 1 time fault over two rounds to clinch the title over reigning World Champions Jos Lansink and Cavalor Cumano, who tallied 3 time faults. U.S. rider Richard Spooner, aboard Cristallo, was the fastest four-fault rider and took home $93,464 for third place.

For Skelton, though, this CN title makes Spruce Meadows history—he’s now the first rider to win the class four times in the event’s 28-year span; he moves ahead of fellow Brit John Whitaker, who has taken the title three times. Skelton’s previous victories came aboard Everest St. James in 1985, Everest Dollar Girl in ’93 and with VV Hopes Are High in 1998.

The record-setting victory couldn’t have been more apropos for Skelton, who has been traveling across the pond to Spruce Meadows for more than two decades and has earned close to $1.5 million at the venue, with Arko his top money earner.

“This is probably the last year we’ll see him here,” said Skelton of Arko. “He’ll probably retire this year. His owners want to breed him. It’s a pity because he’s jumping better than he has in his life.”

With his winning check of $303,758, the Hanoverian stallion (Argentinus—Unika) now has career earnings of more than $1.8 million.

Arko represented Great Britain in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, where he finished 11th individually, but he missed the 2008 Olympic Games reportedly after his owners and veterinarians believed it “wouldn’t be fair” to Arko to travel to Hong Kong. The elegant bay does double duty in the competition ring and breeding shed.

Instead, Skelton earned a spot on the seventh-placed British Olympic team with Lisa Hales’ gray stallion Russel. “I’ve been very lucky to have good horses, and success breeds success,” he noted.

Leopoldo’s Testing Test

When nearly $1 million is on the line, a rail can be expensive. And course designer Leopoldo Palacios ensured that the riders in the 2008 CN International earned every penny.

Spruce Meadows Tidbits

•    Four of the top five finishers in the $937,867 CN International were stallions—Arko III, Cavalor Cumano, Presley Boy and Hickstead. Cristallo, who placed third, was the lone gelding.

•    Of all the riders at the Masters, Beezie Madden, Cazenovia, N.Y., led the most
victory gallops in the international classes. She won two aboard Judgement, one with Prima and earned more than $40,000 for her efforts.

•    Californian Ashlee Bond, with her blonde ponytail flying behind her, made her presence known at the Masters. She piloted Cadett 7 to second place in the $28,136 AKITA Drilling Cup and won two classes in the All Canada ring with Southern Girl (by South Pacific), including the $23,447 ATCO Frontec Cup.

•    This year Cavalor Cumano’s son, Chivas Z, a 9-year-old Holsteiner, joined him in the CN International. Under Bond, the look-a-like gray finished 35th. 

•    John Anderson, Calgary, Alta., drove off from Spruce Meadows with the first Mercedes-Benz automobile awarded at the venue after earning the Leading Canadian Rider title during the series.

•    For the first time in the 19-year history of the Telus Battle of the Breeds, Team Mule won the overall competition that includes barrel racing, jumping, trail riding, driving and compulsory skills. The long-eared equines topped such versatile breeds as Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Appaloosas and Welsh ponies for
their title.

“He built a real difficult track,” said Beezie Madden in an interview during a commercial break. “This is an extreme test and the most difficult course of the year. The second round looks like a real bear.”

Although Madden’s eight-fault first round didn’t qualify her for the second round, she and Judgement, winners of the CN International in 2005, had a banner week at the Masters. The 17-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (by Consul) went two for three, winning the $32,825 Finning Welcome and the $93,787 EnCana Cup earlier in the week.

Of the 39 starters in the imposing and technically challenging first round of the CN, seven posted clears including U.S. rider Todd Minikus with Pavarotti. An additional four qualified as the fastest four-faulters, with Richard Spooner at the head of that quartet with Cristallo.

Canadian Eric Lamaze, who was in line to earn a $450,000 bonus for winning back-to-back CN International classes in the CN Precision Series, also jumped clear with his Olympic Games individual gold medal-partner, Hickstead, to thunderous applause from a record crowd of 63,761 show jumping fans.
As the skies darkened with rain clouds in Calgary, the top 12 riders returned to tackle Palacios’ second round “bear” of a course.

And as Madden predicted, the rails dropped.

It wasn’t until Spooner went, fourth in the order, that the course was mastered. He and Cristallo soared over the tallest and widest fences and made the CN plank vertical to double liverpools, the last line, look like a gymnastic. They even regrouped in time to carefully negotiate the notorious Dutch bicycle fence that Palacios had cruelly set as the final element off of a tight turn.

After jumping what would be the only clear in Round 2, Spooner sat back to await his fate. “Every time a rail dropped, I made more and more money,” he said with a smile. “It was lucky for me that it played into my hands today.”

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Eventually, the Californian leapfrogged up the standings from ninth to third.

“I was lucky that I had the rail relatively early [in Round 1],” said Spooner. “I had two lines that I could make up with long gallops, so I just turned it into a jump off for the last four jumps because I knew how the scoring goes, and I was lucky no more rails fell down.”

Lansink and the popular gray stallion Cumano didn’t come near a rail, but Cumano’s bucking antics between fences, while amusing to the spectators, cost them precious time. They added 2 time faults to their 1 time fault from Round 1 to take over the lead. Although with all seven returning clears to go, a victory was in doubt.

As the rain began spitting, the clear rounds became few and far between. Young Brits Ben Maher and Tim Gredley both incurred multiple faults to drop out of contention, while Italian rider Piergiorgio Bucci, who had earlier in the week won the $28,136 Zeidler Financial Cup, posted 20 faults aboard Da Zara Porto Rico.

Then a tremendous roar welcomed Lamaze back into the ring with Hickstead. The golden boys from the Olympics had further won over the Spruce Meadows fans after jumping double clear in the previous day’s BMO Nations Cup to help Canada into a tie for second place.

Spooner’s Secret Weapon

Some riders may rely on a special warm-up routine or even retain certain superstitious practices before a big competition, but Richard Spooner went one step beyond.

The California-based rider left his top mount Cristallo with Austrian Hugo Simon for the month prior to the Spruce Meadows Masters and met his horse in Calgary, Alta., just prior to the start of competition.

So when Spooner and Cristallo produced critical clears on the winning team in the $328,254 BMO Nations Cup and placed third in the $937,867 CN International, Spooner knew whom to credit.

“The Nations Cup team [win] meant a lot to me,” said Spooner. “It’s the best result in the CN I’ve had, and I’m really proud of my little fighter. And I have to also thank my mentor, Hugo Simon.

“[Cristallo] came here and jumped clear and was second the first day [in the $32,825 Finning Welcome]. Then he was double clear in the Nations Cup. I made a
little mistake in the first round today, and then in the second round he saved me again in the last line. So my hat’s off to Hugo,” said Spooner.

Spooner, 38, Agua Dulce, Calif., met Simon in 1988 when he was 18. “Hugo was the first individual at the top of the sport who really believed in me,” said Spooner. “And his and my friendship evolved from that time, and I would spend any vacation time I had riding with him. And still to this day I try to spend time riding with him, but now it’s almost impossible.”

Spooner said Cristallo needed to stay in Europe due to quarantine restrictions. “And I needed to have him trained, so both of those things produced the result,” he said. “Hugo was nice enough to do it for me—I had to twist his arm a little bit. He was concerned with the responsibility. But to me he’s the greatest horseman of all time, so I wasn’t worried. The opportunity to have a master ride your horse is a lucky one. Look at the results.”

Spooner said this was one of his best Spruce Meadows seasons to date, and only 2002 compares when he won the Queen Elizabeth II Cup and the Chrysler Derby, two of the major summer classes, with his venerable Robinson. “I miss Robinson. The shows aren’t the same without him,” reflected Spooner. “But he deserved to retire, and Cristallo is doing his best to fill those shoes.”

It was eerily silent as the bay Dutch Warmblood stallion (by Hamlet) and Lamaze powered over each fence. As they approached the final line, the crowd began to murmur in excitement. When the pair cleared the final liverpool and turned toward the bicycle, their fans were already cheering, certain they’d witness yet another clear.

Cheers turned to groans, however, as Hickstead first tapped the top rail of the bicycle with his left front hoof before rolling the rail off the flat cups with a hind rub.

Lamaze lost not only his opportunity at a second consecutive CN International title but also the $424,000 bonus in the CN Precision series and a shot at the winner’s check of $303,758.

 “I think it was the most expensive rail in show jumping history,” quipped Spruce Meadows commentator Ian Allison.

While Lamaze was certainly disappointed, he pointed out that Hickstead’s incredible performances over the past month—including individual gold and team silver at the Olympic Games—more than made up for the lost income.

“For sure it hurts a little bit,” said Lamaze with chagrin. “But it’s been so tremendous, the experience I had at the Olympics and even getting to the second round here with so many great riders, it’s amazing.

“He’s a great horse, and maybe we just ran out of luck. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what happened,” Lamaze admitted of the rail he later sawed in half at a post-class party. “I’m not disappointed—poorer—but not disappointed.”

Hickstead returned to Europe the day after the CN International to spend the fall competing. He’ll return to the United States in late December where he’ll have a break before starting back at the end of the Winter Equestrian Festival circuit in late February.

“I’m so proud of him,” added Lamaze “He’s just had one rail this week and two rails the whole summer. It’s really kind of insane when you think about how many clear rounds that horse has jumped.”

Skelton Soars In Second Round

Skelton knows the Spruce Meadows Internationale Arena well. He won his first CN International 23 years ago. The venue has changed over the years, but that feeling of cantering into the ring under the Spruce Meadows Clock Tower remains a powerful emotion.

“I was only a young kid, and I didn’t know any different, to be honest,” said Skelton of his first CN International victory. “I’ve come here now and seen the best riders win this class. This is always a special class to win, and it’s never easy.”

Indeed, Arko, who has seemingly endless scope, worked a little harder than usual in Round 2 but didn’t hesitate to try. When Arko aired the immense liverpool oxers at the end of the course by more than a foot, it was obvious he was on target.

“Nick was good. He played the game well,” said Palacios. “What’s good about this class is that the jump-off is against the fences and not against the clock. Normally, my feeling is that the best jumper is not always the fastest. It’s different here at Spruce Meadows. I try to have one clear round maximum.”

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Palacios fell just a fraction short of his goal, with just one rider with 1 time fault over the two rounds. So Skelton was left to see if the remaining two riders could jump clear.

Minikus sat in the catbird seat. He returned with the second-fastest clear first round and knew what he had to do. The flashy chestnut Dutch Warmblood Pavarotti (by Lancelot) jumped with ease until fence 8, an airy oxer, when he caught a rail behind. Then, when the Dutch bicycle fell so too did Minikus in the standings.

Mexican Jaime Azcarraga and Presley Boy, the last to go, made it all the way to the CN planks at fence 9. When the top dislodged, Skelton’s victory was sealed, with Lansink holding onto second place.

Cumano, the victor in the CN International in 2004 and third in 2007, returned to full strength after a tendon injury at Spruce Meadows last year sidelined the powerful gray stallion.

“I was unlucky, he slipped in the first round after the gate [fence 8], then he was bucking and playing around,” explained Lansink. “In the second round it was more important to go clear and not worry about the time. I’m very happy with the way he jumped. I know my horse very well, so I felt very confident coming into today.”

Although disappointed to lose his CN title to Skelton, Lamaze was respectful of the accomplishment. “What a great class it was, and for Nick to win it is fantastic. Four times—I don’t know if anyone is going to do that again,” he said.

A “Rich” U.S. Victory

There was a lot riding on the $328,254 BMO Nations Cup. The home team was fresh off of their silver-medal performance at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong; Germany, which had a lackluster performance there, was aiming for redemption; and the United States, the Olympic team gold medalists, hoped to remain golden.

In addition, the team from Norway, which may lose their Olympic team bronze medal after a positive drug test, sought to prove their talents again, although without Tony Andre Hansen who is currently
suspended by the Fédération Equestre Internationale.

In the end, though, it was a tough battle between four teams: the United States, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. Norway didn’t factor.

Palacios’ course was technical and imposing, but in an unusual move, the Venezuelan course designer provided a generous time allowed, negating the stress of galloping for time. Nevertheless, the course proved meaty.

Nine teams began the day in front of a record 63,115 fans, and Germany led the way with perfect performances from riders Holger Wulschner, Thomas Muehlbauer and Markus Ehning. Therefore their fourth rider, Alois Pollmann- Schweckhorst, didn’t have to start.

In addition to Germany, five teams returned for Round 2 with just three rails separating them. The United States was one of three teams with 4 faults. Canada, fielding three of its four Olympic Games silver medalists (with the addition of Jonathan Asselin), also accumulated 4 faults as did Switzerland, led by Pius Schwizer, who was on the fourth-placed Swiss team in Hong Kong.

For the United States, Lauren Hough’s Quick Study, a 9-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding, and Nations Cup novice, and Rich Fellers’ Flexible each tallied 4 faults in the first round. Todd Minikus with Pavarotti and Richard Spooner aboard Cristallo posted crucial clears, however.

 Clear rounds became the norm in the second round, so the rails that did fall were critical.

Jill Henselwood’s uncharacteristic 12 faults with Special Ed became the drop score for Canada. Even with Ian Millar’s double clear with In Style and Eric Lamaze’s perfect score with Hickstead, Canada couldn’t move up the rankings as Asselin posted 4 faults with Rayana Chiara.

Likewise, the Swiss team collected faults in Round 2, with the nemesis Dutch bicycle wreaking havoc for them. None of their riders could jump clear, and they dropped out of contention.

The U.S. riders dug in for Round 2, and after Hough’s 8 faults with Quick Study, those remaining jumped clear, with anchor rider Fellers and Flexible, his 12-year-old Irish-bred stallion, adding the exclamation point to the U.S. score of 4 total faults.

On the other hand, Germany just barely held on as each of their first two riders dropped rails. When Ehning finally jumped a second clear with Plot Blue, his 11-year-old stallion, it all came down to their anchor rider, Pollmann-Schweckhorst riding Lord Luis.

If Lord Luis jumped a clear round, Germany and the United States would tie with 4 faults and jump off for the title. Any penalty and the victory would be lost.

But would skipping the first round be an advantage for Lord Luis? Would a fresh horse prevail in this two-round test of endurance over a demanding course?

“We were all concerned,” said Minikus. “A few of us jumped for joy when Rich [Fellers] jumped clear in the second round.

“[Lord Luis] jumped fantastically the first part of the course. He was no closer than a foot to the rails,” added Minikus. “Then he ran into bad luck at the end.”

Two rails dropped Germany into a three-way tie for second place with Canada and the Netherlands with 8 faults.

This was sweet redemption for the United States, which hadn’t won the BMO Nations Cup since 2002. The depth of the U.S. team showed, though, as none of the four winning team members were on the gold-medal Olympic Games squad.

“This was a very strong team,” said Chef d’Equipe George Morris. “I had a lot of confidence in this team.”
All four riders are natives of the West or Midwest, with Fellers and Spooner still residing in Oregon and California, respectively.

“This week is at the top of my list here at Spruce Meadows,” said Spooner, a regular visitor to the venue. “It’s my second time on a Nations Cup team, and what a place to win. There’s nothing like winning at Spruce Meadows. This is a tremendous vessel for our sport. It’s so impressive. It builds our sport up to a professional sport, not an amateur sport.”

Tricia Booker

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