Wellington, Fla.—March 3
The $150,000 FEI Nations Cup didn’t play out at all the way the American or Canadian teams would have wanted. Both are usually top contenders in any team competition, and on Saturday night both teams were populated with some powerhouse pairs: Beezie Madden led the U.S. effort, and “Captain Canada” Ian Millar anchored the Canadians.
But rails plagued both teams while clear rounds came time and again for Great Britain, Ireland and Mexico’s riders. Nine teams competed, and the top six came back for the second round. Finishing on a score of 8, the U.S. team clocked in at seventh and didn’t make the cutoff. Canada posted 9 faults to finish eighth.
This opened the door for British riders, who’ve been looking to turn their own luck around in team competitions. Great Britain employed a similar strategy to what U.S. chef d’equipe Robert Ridland has been doing with his Nations Cup teams—building their team with a mix of young and veteran pairs.
It paid off—the Brits finished Round 1 in the lead on a score of 0 and held on for the win with another zero-score effort in Round 2. Ben Maher and Tic Tac anchored the team and were joined by Emily Moffitt and Hilfiger Van De Olmenhoeve, Emily Mason and Explosion W and Amanda Derbyshire on Luibanta BH.
“We had a long talk before the weekend that we needed Great Britain to get off to a good start,” Maher said. “We had a few rocky times recently, and this year we are going to change it around.”
What specifically did Maher want to see change? He was pretty frank about it.
“Stop losing,” Maher said with a laugh. “We’ve been losing for too long, and I think for any rider or any team you can’t just go on a run of bad luck or bad results and all of the sudden come out and win a championship.”
The championship Maher is referring to is the FEI World Equestrian Games held in September of this year in Tryon, North Carolina.
“We have had many discussions behind the scenes with the British Equestrian Federation talking about how to change,” Maher said. “We’re had a slight change in the riders in our country; we’ve had some horses that were sold or got older and retired, and some riders have gotten older and retired.”
Most notably, the individual gold medalist from the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympic Games Nick Skelton has retired from top competition, as has his mount Big Star.
Great Britain’s chef d’equipe Di Lampard wanted her riders to come out strong early in 2018, and she couldn’t have asked for much more of her team Saturday night. With the lead in Round 1 they jumped last in the rotation for Round 2, and when Derbyshire had a rail and a foot in the water, Britain’s chance at the top podium spot hinged on Maher’s second clean round. Maher cemented the team’s win; Ireland took second on a score of 5, and Mexico took the third spot on 10 faults.
“Every rider put their corner in,” Lampard said. “They put in a great performance; they dug deep.”
“We have a younger generation now,” Maher said. “Everyone here has ridden one or two Nations Cups, and last week I was told this was my 50th, so I feel really old now. I think we need to make Di’s job a little easier. Everyone always complains back home that we need to produce more results, and Di should do this, and Di should to that, but in the end the riders are accountable. We need to start producing in the ring like we did tonight.”
U.S. chef d’equipe Robert Ridland was as surprised as anyone that the American effort of Lillie Keenan on Fibonacci 17, Adrienne Sternlicht on Cristalline, Catherine Tyree on Bokai and Madden on Breitling LS didn’t even get to jump a second time.
“It’s pretty unusual that you come out of the first round on 8 faults and don’t make the second round,” Ridland said. “It’s certainly a first in a long time. It’s a very competitive Nations Cup. We’ve now had two Nations Cups in a row that have been extremely competitive, and the courses have been right on.”
The U.S. team was intentionally comprised of young horse and rider pairs in part to give them experience for future events—the Wellington Nations Cup is a standalone event, not a part of the series that qualifies countries for the Longines FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona, Spain.
“One of the reasons Lillie Keenan was on the team with Fibonacci was to really give her a chance to get to know that horse,” Ridland said. “You have to do a lot of that in the ring, in the field of play. I guess one of the shocks is not even being in the second round because we had a totally different game plan that we were going to do for the second round. It would have been nice to see how that worked out for Lillie.
“What tonight shows though is that this is a strong sport,” Ridland continued. “The teams that are coming to play are real. It doesn’t afford you much of a margin for error, and we certainly saw that tonight.”