My next stop after Thermal was Wellington, FL. The Winter Equestrian Festival is a circuit that now extends for a full three months and is under the new management and ownership of Mark Bellissimo and his company. They have expanded the property to include the Littlewood show grounds and have named the entire facility the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
This grandiose name is appropriate. The caliber of footing, elegant landscaping, number of classes and special classes, and money offered leave no doubt that Bellisimo’s goal is to make his horse show the finest in the world. It is quickly on its way to becoming just that. He has even installed high tech mechanized disposable toilet seat covers in all of the permanent restrooms.
The majority of the Olympic show jumping Selection Trials were cleverly embedded in the big money classes. This allowed Grand Prix riders to bring their clients to the show and continue to compete on horses that they are developing for the future. The Trials were to name 10 horse/riders to go on a European tour this summer. At the end of that, the final four to compete in Hong Kong will be determined.
The process allows for the selection committee to offer byes to a few combinations if they have clearly proven their capability. Beezie Madden, Mclain Ward and Jeffrey Welles were named this way right off the bat. The final seven earned their berths on the shortlist through their success in the five-round Trials. They are Laura Kraut, Nicole Shahanian-Simpson (on a horse that Leslie Steele used to ride), Anne Kursinski (on two horses), Charlie Jayne (for whom I have special admiration because he trained with Missy Cark), Kate Levy and Will Simpson.
Hillary Dobbs and me.
California’s Will Simpson had an amazing three clear rounds in the Trials, but when his horse was temporarily injured before the final round, he was granted the final discretionary choice. The selection process is complex. Luck and strategy play a big part. I was truly inspired by the quality and quantity of outstanding horses and talented riders that contested the Trials.
The Nations Cup competition is one of the great spectator events every year at the WEF. Each team has a fan club in the stands, but none of them can compete with the Irish. Dressed entirely in green, they whoop and holler and even the children run across the field carrying gigantic green banners. Add to that a keg of beer in the stands and it starts to resemble a rowdy soccer match.
My North Run barnmates: Lauren Vogel, Alex Biederman and me
before the Georgia Morris Excellence in Equitation Class.
The U.S. had an amazing team comprised of Kent Farrington, Danielle Torano, Hillary Dobbs and McLain Ward and they won the competition. I was particularly proud of Hillary, my North Run barn mate. She had double clear rounds, which meant that McLain did not have to come back for a final round. Hillary is 20 years old and in her first year at Harvard University. She has had a really impressive year competing in Brazil for the U.S. and topped it off with several Grand Prix wins at WEF against some top Olympic riders.
Another highlight of my trip to WEF was competing in the George Morris Excellence in Equitation Class. Have you ever been on a movie set for a night shoot? The colors pop under the bright light and the people take on a surreal quality, like extras. That was the look of the International arena when the sun went down and the last riders were walking the course and formulating a game plan.
My fellow competitors and I salute George Morris.
I have a special fondness for this class because of its similarities to a competition sponsored by the R.W. Mutch Educational Foundation. I earned the privilege of riding with Missy Clark and John Brennan when I won the Ronnie Mutch Working Student Scholarship in 2003. This afforded me an opportunity to experience the world of “Big Equitation” classes outside my home of Santa Monica. The benefits continue in an ongoing alliance with Missy and John’s North Run.
The George Morris class emerged when the Ronnie Mutch Equitation Challenge moved from WEF to Thermal this year. I qualified for it by winning a USEF Talent Search class at Thermal.
Upon my arrival in Wellington the process of settling on a horse to ride began. I tried five or six in Missy’s stable before choosing Raven, a spectacular horse that was generously loaned to me by Rachel Udelson. Although I had not jumped him until the morning of the class it was a good match.
The George Morris class is similar to the Ronnie Mutch class in its intent to reward independent riders. It is comprised of two rounds with the top four from the second round returning and being assigned a horse to ride in a round that may include USEF Equitation tests 1-19. Forty-five riders qualified and we had to walk the course and warm ourselves up with no assistance from our trainers. We were given a score from two judges stationed in the warm-up ring. We were each allowed to have one assistant/groom to hold the horse and set the jumps, but we were not allowed to consult with them about the course. I had an unfortunate stop at the water, but otherwise the round went quite well. My barn mate Kimmy McCormack, winner of the ASPCA Maclay Final, came in second and Maggie McAlary won the class.
On another note, it is great to travel to the other end of the country. West Palm Beach is like a tropical rain forest. The plants and flowers are exotic and strangest of all are the alligators. I see them when I have my lessons with Missy Clark at Sarah Willeman’s Turn About Farm in Grand Prix Village. It is equipped with an elegant ring that overlooks a lake-like body of water. Two alligators find it a lovely spot for sunbathing. Brian Adams, the majordomo of Turn About, has quaintly named them Gucci and Versace. Fortunately the gators seem to have no interest in bifteck de cheval au beurre, (that’s French for “horse steak with butter sauce”) for dinner.