December 30, 2012 — What’s your standout equestrian memory of 2012? For me, as for so many others, it has to be the London Olympics. Whether you were lucky enough to go in person, as I did; catch it on TV or watch via the Internet, it was unforgettable.
The Queen “parachuting” with James Bond into the opening ceremonies was the perfect beginning to days of glory, during which the Games, London and Great Britain were the biggest winners. The theme from the inspiring film, “Chariots of Fire,” and the iconic hymn/anthem, “Jerusalem” (the source of the movie’s title), became the practically non-stop soundtrack to which the pageant unfolded across weeks of athletic prowess.
Equestrian has never had such a beautiful backdrop, glowing with the alabaster of the Queen’s House, built for a 17th century queen and her successor (not Elizabeth, who is in residence elsewhere) and the National Maritime Museum, shadowed by Canary Wharf. Greenwich Park had the right charisma for incredibly dramatic competition, featuring cross-country fences and jumps in the stadium that mirrored the host country’s history and landmarks.
I want it on the record just one more time that I predicted three team gold medals for Great Britain. I came close, but the British eventers finished behind the Germans to mess me up. Still, I got the dressage and show jumping right. Having the home side do so well really made the Games even more meaningful for equestrian sports, not only in Britain, but elsewhere in the world, as people empathized with that karma. Having the much-photographed Royals on hand for equestrian competitions didn’t hurt either. And the Paralympics benefited, too, with good crowds watching brave and inspiring efforts.
I doubt we’ll see another Olympics with the cachet of London in our lifetime, or maybe ever. It offered the perfect stage on which dressage got a new identity and gained popularity with powerful performances that put previous Olympic competitions in the shade. How nice to see a nation besides the Germans or the Dutch on top.
On the down side, the Olympics provided some painful “wake-up” moments for the U.S. equestrian community. Mark Philllips’ conclusion, “We weren’t good enough” applied not only to his eventing team, but also to the American dressage and show jumping squads. It was the first time since 1956 that the country’s representatives had come home without a medal. Consider it an impetus for improvement.
My selection for equestrian athlete of the year is a tie: How do you decide between graceful Olympic double-gold dressage medalist Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain (who gets extra points for wearing a helmet during her rides on Valegro) and German double-gold eventing medalist Michael Jung aboard Sam. This is an amazing partnership that has also captured the European and world championships, combining with the Olympic achievements for a unique triple crown. You choose; I can’t.
Special mention has to go to Rich Fellers, the first American in 25 years to win the World Cup Show Jumping finals. He and his longtime partner, Flexible, went from that achievement to being the highest-placed U.S. rider on the show jumping Olympic team.
There’s no question about who made the comeback of the year. I still remember my shock on learning that McLain Ward had shattered his left kneecap on a jump cup when I heard the news last January. The big question was, would he be ready for the Olympics? In his second grand prix back in May, he won under the lights at Devon in storybook fashion and earned his way to the Games. They didn’t go as planned, but he bounced back a few weeks later with a victory in the HITS Pfizer $1 million grand prix. McLain missed the Washington International as his father lay dying, but after Barney Ward’s death, McLain dealt with his grief and re-emerged (with a few understandable tears) at the National Horse Show, where he won the $250,000 Alltech Grand Prix.
My Rising Star Award has become the Risen Star Award as Reed Kessler went from promising grand prix rider to the top of the charts in the selection trials, co-national champion and finally the youngest equestrian Olympian at the age of 18, all in the space of six months. And special recognition should be given to Jacob Pope, who came from nowhere, won the 2011 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Emerging Athlete Program finals and went on to take both the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East and ASPCA Maclay Finals not even 12 months later. Maybe he’ll be on the next Olympic team.
The anti-climax of the year was Totilas. We kind of figured that Edward Gal’s European and world championships gold medal mount wasn’t going to be winning Olympic gold with his current rider, Matthias Rath, but we didn’t expect him to be a no-show at the Olympics. Maybe it was just as well; when you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re not, well, let’s just say I think Valegro (and perhaps a few others) would have cleaned his clock.
Who knows when (or if) we’ll see Totilas in the ring again, but we know that 2012 retirees Sapphire and Ravel have competed for the last time. Sapphire, McLain’s illustrious mare who is the veteran of two gold medal Olympic teams, will be busy providing foals. Ravel, the USA’s top dressage horse for years, will be hanging out and relaxing as rider Steffen Peters concentrates on his new star, the 2012 national Grand Prix champion, Legolas.
Equestrian sport has been plagued by scads of legal battles over the years, but there’s only one choice for the legal wrangle of 2012. If you’re hoping for world peace in 2013, why not start small and ask for an end to the Wellington tug of war over the Global Dressage Festival showgrounds. So many accusations and lawsuits have been filed over this that it’s impossible to keep it all straight. The only thing that’s important to know at this point, however, is that the GDF will be operational for 2013 shows and further enhance Wellie World’s global reputation as a major equestrian center.
If you don’t want too many questions about something, announce it during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s what the FEI did with the news that Longines will be its first Top Partner (and official timekeeper and official watch), taking over the sponsorship of World Cup show jumping in October 2013. So what happened to Rolex, the World Cup’s current sponsor? Who knows; with offices closed for the holidays, it’s impossible to find out.
There are questions about whether the Rolex Kentucky three-day event will be affected, but the U.S. Equestrian Federation has an excellent relationship that goes back decades with Rolex Watch USA, so that should stand it in good stead. Still, one can’t help but wonder about the fate of the Rolex Grand Slam.
Who can forget that 2012 was the year for presidential politics? And not just at the national level. Bill Moroney and Mary Babick had a face-off for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association presidency, and incumbent Bill got the nod of the board of directors for a third (and final) term. Such contested elections are rare in horse organizations; Chrystine Tauber had no opposition in becoming the new president of the USET after Bill and Armand Leone withdrew their candidacies.
Meanwhile, Jane Clark announced she was resigning in January as president of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation after choosing British rider Ben Maher to ride her jumpers. Jane, who said she will continue her support of the foundation (which supplies the USEF with high performance money), felt that it wouldn’t be proper for her to remain as president if her horses will be on foreign teams. A top-notch replacement is waiting in the wings.
As every year ends, we think back on those who passed away during the preceding 12 months. The loss in April of Olympic and World Equestrian Games eventing medalist Amy Tryon still is terribly painful. Amy, who partnered with the former mountain horse Poggio, died too young of an accidental medication overdose. She was installed in the U.S. Eventing Hall of Fame this month, where so many others are immortalized. Their ranks include Jack Fritz, who contributed so much to the base and growth of eventing and dressage in this country. Jack, who also ran the U.S. Equestrian Team operation in Gladstone, N.J., died in March.
Dr. Craig Ferrell, the U.S. team’s wonderful physician, left us in May after a polo accident. He was an incredibly selfless man who never refused a request for help. Among the others who departed were Dick Thompson, a pillar of the eventing world who owned the Horse of the 20th Century, Biko; two-time Pony Club President James Ligon; dressage volunteer Patsy Albers and Paralympian Jon Wentz, who died weeks after realizing his ambition of riding in the Games.
Looking ahead to 2013, expect big changes in the way things are done in the U.S. to build a better high performance base in all three Olympic disciplines with an eye toward making the 2014 Alltech World Equestrian Games and the 2016 Olympics in Rio a success story for the USA.
Don’t buy your plane tickets yet, but the 2018 WEG will go either to Vienna (how nice that would be for something different) or Bromont, Canada. My money’s on Bromont, which hosted the equestrian portion of the 1976 Olympics, though there would be better desserts in Vienna. As for the 2020 Olympics, bet on Istanbul, where the FEI (international equestrian federation) had its General Assembly this year. The other contenders, Spain and Japan, already have hosted a Games, and Turkey is a fresh new location.
A 2013 landmark is the FEI’s new helmet rule, which goes into effect in January. It’s good, but doesn’t go far enough, because it still permits Grand Prix dressage riders and reiners to compete wearing top hats and cowboy hats respectively, though they are required to wear protective headgear much of the rest of the time they are on the showgrounds. How about just cutting to the chase and requiring protective headgear at all times for everyone, period. The exception would be vaulters, since I’m told helmets would throw off their balance.
So much of what happened in 2012 couldn’t be predicted (except the British gold medals, of course!). All I can guarantee is that the same will hold true in 2013 and I will be telling you about it. I’ll be sending my first report of the new year on Sunday evening from the debut of Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago show jumping grand prix in Palm Beach. Really Palm Beach, not Wellington, even though they call the showgrounds there the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. It’s 40 minutes west of the ocean, so that’s a stretch, but Mar-A-Lago has a genuine blue water backdrop. Can’t wait to see this competition!