Lexington, Ky.—July 18
Flowers to the right, medals to the left.
That was the directive from Chef de'Equipe John Brennan to his gold medal team of Junior Riders from Zones 1 and 9 as they stood posing for pictures on top of the podium, proudly holding out their gold medals and bouquets for the crowd of well-wishers and photographers gathered at the Rolex Stadium. Sara Nordstrom, McKayla Langmeier, Jennifer Gates and Victoria Arute earned their 15 minutes of fame center ring following the NAJYRC Junior Team competition—they conquered a course that left many of their peers collecting rails, refusals and occasionally hitting the dirt.
Sara Nordstrom was one of six Junior riders who succeeded in posting two clear rounds over Steve Stephens' course, and she surprised herself with the result.
“It’s my first time at young riders. I moved up to the high [juniors] a couple months ago. Just to be able to jump two clear rounds—it didn’t quite sink in until after I jumped the last jump each time,” Nordstrom, 19, said at the press conference following the team competition, shaking her head as if she still could not believe the result. “It was so, so exciting.”
Watching the rider’s exchange jokes and grins on the podium and at the press conference, you would not have guessed that they only just met one another. Combining riders from Zones 1 and 9 to form a team was a decision made at the eleventh hour Thursday, when Zone 1 rider Hannah Patten’s horse came down with a fever and was moved to a veterinary clinic, removing the pair from competition. This left Zone 1 in need of at least one rider to be able to compete in the team competition, and preferably two to insure their highest score could be dropped in the Nations Cup style competition.
Enter Zone 9 riders Jennifer Gates and Sara Nordstrom—their zone could not field a team with just two riders, but the two zones could be combined to form a single team.
“Our chefs came back after the meeting [Thursday] and told us that we had been paired,” Nordstrom explained. “We came up to this competition and it was just [Jennifer Gates] and I, and we were hoping we were put on a team. To be able to compete in this team competition as a team is really exciting, and just really fun. I think we made a good team!”
That’s an understatement. A course the Zone 1-9 team made look effortless was in reality a very challenging test for horse and rider. Clear was the goal, but certainly not the norm. The open water in particular caught many off guard as they turned towards it after of a tough triple combination, with a number of horses dropping a foot in the water or simply refusing to go anywhere near the obstacle.
The closer a rider got to the end of a course without faults, the louder the collective groan was when a rail fell. It did not matter who you were pulling for in the class—the crowd was itching for a fault-free effort, and they were left disappointed by most.
Missing the gold medal by a single fault and taking silver instead was Zone 5, represented by riders Alec Bozorgi, Vivian Yowan, Meredith Darst and Kady Abrahamson. Bozorgi came very close to posting a double clear effort—he collected no faults over the first course, but a single toe in the water added 4 faults to his second-round score.
“I hoped he didn’t, but I kind of knew he had a foot in the water,” Bozorgi said of his round. “I was going around to the Spy Coast oxer like, ‘Alright, I’m not even going to look at the scoreboard.’”
But look he did at the end of the ride, and the score board left the 18-year-old Chicago native shaking his head as he trotted his mount Navy Blue Torroy back to the in gate.
“It’s a shame,” Bozorgi said. “I’ll lose a lot of sleep over it. It was stupid of me, and it was completely my fault.
Mexico took home the bronze medal in the Junior Rider Team competition, and two members of their team had more in common than their matching medals.
“I’m his twin brother,” 18-year-old Andres Berganza said at the press conference, motioning toward rider Adrian Berganza. “My whole family rides. We’ve been riding since when we were 1.”
The relationship between Andres and Adrian is not the archetypal sibling rivalry you would expect from two brothers competing together. “Between us, there’s always been a team,” Andres explained. “We’re actually supporting each other.”
“I really get nervous when he’s in the ring,” Adrian, 18, said of Andres. “Even more nervous than when I’m going to the ring.”
As the junior riders slowly converged on the hospitality tent to enjoy lunch following their team competition, the Young Riders took to the Rolex Stadium to begin theirs. Clear rounds were even harder to come by in this division, with almost every ride being punctuated by the sound of several tick-thumps of rails hitting the dirt.
By the time Taylor Alexander headed out on course, 20 riders had attempted the course, and none had managed a clear round. As she got closer and closer to the final fence, the crowd grew quiet. As she guided G&C Flash through the last combination before the final fence on course, the stadium whoa-ed with her, willing the rails to stay put. She turned toward the final fence, taking a hold of her horse’s mouth and setting him back on his haunches, begging him to pay attention to just this one final fence.
She rubbed the front rail, rolling the pole back and forth in the cups. But it stayed put.
The stadium instantly erupted in whistles, claps and shouts, Alexander grinning as she pulled G&C Flash up and headed out the gate. She was the first to break the fault streak, matched only by Michael Hughes and Luxina in the first round of the NAJYRC Young Rider Team competition.
While Hughes and Alexander’s rounds were clearly the high points of the first round, neither rider ended up being on the winning Young Rider team competition. That distinction belongs to a team who kept their faults low in the first round before shining in the second: Zone 3.
Of riders Christina Firestone, KC Van Aarem, Chloe Reid and Alison Cooney, no one on the team managed a perfect first course. Reid and Firestone dropped one rail apiece, KC Van Aarem had a rail and a time fault, and Cooney was eliminated after a fall. Reid, Firestone and Van Aarem came back with a fire in their bellies for the second round, Reid and Firestone posting clear rounds and Van Aarem adding a single time fault to the team score.
When asked what their team’s secret for success was, Van Aarem said it was good old fashioned bribery from their Chef d'Equipe, Sandra Ruiz.
“She promised us pound cake!” Van Aarem joked.
Reid, 17, of Washington D.C., said the team drew much of its inspiration from their pastry-promising chef, and all four riders attended a team dinner last night with Ruiz.
“Sandra has a lot of energy, she puts a lot into this,” Reid said. “So just giving this back to her is a huge honor for me and I think for all of us.”
For many competitors at NAJYRC, the championship is a rare opportunity to participate in a team competition, and is considered by many a stepping stone for riders looking to compete in Nations Cup classes. Reid is making the leap between the two faster than most.
“I’m very excited, they called me earlier this week and asked if I’d be on the U.S. team for Ascona, [Switzerland] and Bratislava, [Slovakia],” Reid said. “So I’m very excited, it will be my first big U.S. team.”
International competition is in Reid’s DNA; her uncle is four-in-hand driver Chester Weber, and when asked about her future aspirations Reid had him in mind. Weber is currently competing for the United States at the Aachen CHIO (Germany).
“My uncle Chester Weber just did the Jump and Drive with Reed Kessler today in Aachen,” Reid said, referring to the ride and drive class at Aachen. “So to be able to do that with him, to be on the Jump and Drive with him would be awesome.”
Zone 4 took the silver medal in the Young Rider team competition, represented by riders Tori Colvin, Brittni Raflowitz, Virginia Ingram and Haley Gassel. Zone 2 took the bronze medals, fielding only three riders: Michael Hughes, Riley Newsome, and Victoria Press.
To read more about all the winners at NAJYRC, check out the August 4th issue of The Chronicle of the Horse print magazine.