The Olympic dreams of a select few in our sport will materialize this summer in Hong Kong. Those dreams might have begun as fairy-tale like visions stirred by the sight of a first pony, but the long getting there was probably not clearly in their sights at the time.
Achieving Olympic level abilities is an accomplishment of talent, time, hard work, money, hard work, more time and more hard work. After all that, there is the tough process of making the cut in the dressage, eventing and show jumping Olympic selection trials.
The processes in the three sports vary a little, but share the obvious common ground of striving to field horse/rider pairs with the best possible chances of scoring a medal, and doing so in the fairest way. The systems for all three are based mostly on objective results of their respective trials, whether these are designated all-in-one Selection Trials, as in show jumping, or free-standing competitions that serve as try-outs for hopefuls, as is mostly the case in eventing.
Eventing allows the selectors committee the most subjectivity in fielding a team, while jumping and dressage rely heavily on the standings after their purely objective trials. Jumping and dressage selectors do have the option of naming a pair that did not compete in or complete the trials, but that is intended only for extreme and unusual circumstances. Jumping and eventing produce “short lists” of their top Olympic candidates, who then undergo further competitive tests before selectors name the final squads.
In each discipline, Olympic hopefuls must have proven ability to compete at the Olympic level. In dressage, for example, an applicant must have received a minimum 64 percent score by two different FEI International judges of a nationality other than their own. These must be earned at CDIs, and one of them must be at an event after Jan. 1 of this year. Horse/rider pairs can also meet that minimum standard by having helped the U.S. win a medal in an Olympic or World Championship within the last four years. Being an alternate, known as a “traveling reserve” in dressage, doesn’t count.
We are lucky to have the dressage selection trials on the West Coast, as we did in 2004. The two-weekend event returns to the Oaks Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park in Orange County’s San Juan Capistrano on the weekends of June 21-22 and June 28-29. California’s own Glenda McElroy, and her team at Cornerstone Events, will again manage the Trials, a high stakes event for the participating riders and the sport. It’s a great chance to market dressage to Southern California’s devout equestrian fan base and beyond, and the Cornerstone crew is the right one to pull it off for everybody involved.
The top two horse/rider pairs from these Final Selection Trials are assured Olympic berths. The third pair may be the third Trials finisher, although this is where the selectors can stray from the results if they feel the situation warrants it. A fourth pair, named as the traveling reserve, will be either the third or fourth finisher in the trials, depending on how the third pair is selected. The reserve horse and rider travel with the team to China, participate in the vet check, but won’t compete unless one of the top three can’t.
Show jumping fans have been badly spoiled since the turn of the Century. We’ve had everything from at least some to all of the trials for the 2000 Olympics, the 2002 World Equestrian Games, and the 2004 Olympics, not to mention the World Cup Show Jumping Finals in Las Vegas in 2000 and every odd year since 2003. This year, the Olympic tests will be held in Florida, on a date between late February and early April that was still being finalized at press time.
Having the trials back East is a bummer for us local fans, and a big challenge for local riders like Richard Spooner and Will Simpson who are expected to lead our West Coast Olympic charge. But Robert Ridland, president of past trials host, Blenheim EquiSports, says having the trials back east fits with the natural order of things.
When he led a contingent of West Coast advocates to lobby for local trials about 10 years ago, the argument was that “the trials have not been west of Gladstone, N.J. in the existence of the USET,” he explains. “We felt it was time to rotate them around a bit and have a little geographic diversity.” Now, after three championships trials in a row, it’s time for them to be in the East. “If we said otherwise, we wouldn’t be true to our original argument,” Ridland notes.
For those reasons and lacking “anybody beating our doors down to have them out West,” Blenheim EquiSports didn’t bid on the trials this year. But, Ridland says the company is likely to go after plenty of big-time trials down the line. Although BES’ lease on the lovely Riding Park in San Juan Capistrano runs out at the close of this year, after a final full slate of hunter/jumper shows, Ridland and company have some very interesting venue plans up their sleeve. More on those as they take shape . . .
In 2004, there were six rounds of trials staged over two weekends. This year in Florida, it’s five rounds in five days, but day four is a rest day, and day five is a two-rounder simulating the Olympic format. A total of 10 horse rider pairs will be “shortlisted” after the trials: the first six finishers, then four discretionary picks at the unanimous choice of the selectors. If agreement isn’t reached for any of these slots, the decisions are made based on Trials standings. These 10 will be split into two groups for European tours in the spring and early summer. After both tours are done, the selectors will choose their strongest four pairs and one alternate.
Gina Miles and McKinlaigh at the 2007 Pan Am Games.
Photo: Diana DeRosa
Eventing hopefuls first vie for a spot on the shortlist, which will consist of at least five horse/rider pairs and could include up to 15. They will be evaluated at “try-out” events that include 2007 and 2008 Rolex Four-Stars, this year’s Rolex Selection Division, Jersey Fresh, and various events in Great Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere. The Pan Am Games, where Californian Gina Miles and her horse, McKinlaigh, earned team gold and individual bronze, is also on that try-out list.
Once shortlisted, the riders answer to USET eventing chef d’equipe, Captain Mark Phillips, and they must contest a “mandatory outing,” either in England or in the States, in July. The Great Britain outing is the CIC Three Star at Barbury Castle, where the team horses will spend quarantine before China. For that reason, that’s the mandatory outing Gina Miles is targeting. That is, assuming all goes according to plan at the Rolex Four Star in late April.
Miles’ fellow West Coast Four Star veteran, Amy Tryon of Washington, is expected to make a strong bid, too. The selectors give more weight to experienced Four Star pairs, but Miles notes that our region has strong candidates with Three-Star success. “They just have a bit more to prove,” she notes. Every day on the shortlist is “pretty tense,” Miles continues. “Soundness is always such a big part of it, and especially then. We have veterinary inspections every five days during that period, and that seems to be when the horses try to hurt themselves. That’s when a little bit of luck is needed!”
Based in Central California’s Creston, Miles and McKinlaigh have experience and more in their favor. The 13 year old Irish Sporthorse’s cross-country and stadium scores have always been great and his dressage is improving every day, Miles reports. “We’ve earned a 67 percent score and we’re striving for a 70.”
The final team of five pairs is wheedled down after the mandatory outings, with the selectors considering overall performance, fitness, past successes and the likelihood of helping produce a medal in China.
March 15 is the Olympic application date, and July 15 when the USEF must report to the United States Olympic Committee who is representing our country in the equestrian events.
For all their similarities in selection procedures, the three disciplines do differ on minimum ages for horses and riders. Eventers must be 18, and their horses 8; dressage riders can be just 16, and their horses 8; and show jumpers must be 18 and their horses, 9.
Keri Potter and her daughter, CC.
World Cup at the Half Way Point
Keri Potter, Mandy Porter and Will Simpson hold the top three spots after the first half of the 12-round West Coast World Cup qualifying league. The next four qualifiers will take place in Thermal, starting in February and the final two take place in Del Mar and San Juan Capistrano.
Keri is back in her native San Diego after several years living in Belgium with former husband Rodrigo Pessoa. She was good when she left and it seems the years competing in Europe have made her even better. Riding mostly her own Rockford I, she earned points in every World Cup class so far to sit on top of the standings with 60 points.
However, the low-key Keri may or may not go to the Finals even if she qualifies. Her top priority is 3 year old CC, who’s been with the rider every step of the way. When seven hopefuls fell off during the early November Las Vegas qualifier, CC dutifully reported each spill to her mom as she warmed up for her own go. Keri is based at the Buie family’s Fairbanks Ranch and, along with Dale Harvey, is working with top junior rider Paige Dotson.
Mandy Porter and Summer are as steady and speedy as ever, and looking for their second trip to the World Cup Finals, which will be held this year in Gothenburg, Sweden, April 24-27. Will Simpson missed the first two qualifiers because he was competing in Europe and Spruce Meadows, but he’s made up for lost time with a win at Del Mar International qualifier and the Nov. 15 “make-up” class at Los Angeles Equestrian Center. He has two hot and fast horses for El Campeon Farms: Tosca, with whom he won at Del Mar, and his LA Nationals partner Carlsson vom Dach. Will, however, is likely to opt for the Olympic trials instead of the Thermal WC qualifiers.
Behind Will, it’s Las Vegas WC winner Allison Kroff, the always-impressive Jill Humphrey and Finals veteran Richard Spooner. We hear Richard, too, is targeting the Olympics, but he has so many horses he may be able to commute between coasts to do both the WC qualifiers and the trials. And, Oregon’s Rich Fellers can never be counted out. He and Flexible looked fantastic winning the Nov. 17 Los Angeles National class and he’s within spitting distance of the leaders from his ninth seat on the ladder.
Speaking of Richard Spooner, his assistant rider, Canadian World Equestrian Games star Chris Pratt, is burning it up in the World Cup classes. After his win in San Jan Capistrano, he’s racked up 76 points, and leads the foreign riders by a good margin. New Zealand’s Guy Thomas has 53 and Australia Harley Brown has 44.
A second test ride of the Thermal footing was slated for Dec. 13. HITS recently announced that it is working with the German company, EquiBaseTM Arena Systems/Wolfgang Bacher, for the footing in the FEI ring, which will be tented to simulate the World Cup Finals indoor setting. (EquiBase is distributed in the U.S. by ComfortStall Stable Supply Company.)