Postcard: 2011 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival

Rodrigo Pessoa wins the World Cup Qualifier with Let's Fly. Great Britain's Nick Skelton is runner up with Carlo 273. Photos and interviews from the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla.

March 13, 2011–The real challenge in Wellington isn’t jumping a clear round or nailing a dressage test; it’s juggling everything that the equestrian calendar has to offer during a season crammed with competitions, benefit “galas” and a wealth of other horse-related activities.

This is a community like no other when it comes to equestrian activity. Last night, I had to decide between a $231,000 show jumping World Cup grand prix at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and the Challenge of the Americas, a fanciful dressage quadrille contest at the International Polo Club. (I picked the grand prix, the last U.S. qualifier for next month’s finals in Leipzig, Germany.)

Rodrigo Pessoa won the $231,000 World Cup qualifier with Let’s Fly. ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

The last two weekends have been nothing but decisions, decisions, decisions with all that was going on, pressure especially intensified by the presence of the World Dressage Masters and its attendant parties.
Wellington is a real home for equestrians, who stay there longer than anywhere else, because they’re on the road to shows the rest of the year. Folks in breeches and boots are a common sight at the nail salon and the mall, not to mention the supermarket. Even Olympic medalists have to eat. I ran into show jumper Chris Kappler toting grocery bags on my way into Whole Foods. When I went to put my suitcase in the overhead bin on my flight,? a pair of black dressage boots was in there already.

I asked Lauren Hough, who has been having a great season at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, what it feels like to live in a community where it’s all about the equestrian lifestyle.

Anyway, coming here during “circuit” is quite an experience. And that’s why, after I tell you about the grand prix, I need to throw in some bits and bobs I forgot to mention over my time under the palms.

First the grand prix. It drew a field of 42 ranging from 19-year-old former equitation whiz Jessica Springsteen (she didn’t make the jump-off, but she did make it across the finish line, unlike some more seasoned jumpers) to McLain Ward on Sapphire’s understudy, Antares F (he didn’t make the jump-off either.)

His rail came at a treacherous triple,? oxer/vertical/oxer with one stride between A and B and B and C. The triple was set fairly early in the course, the sixth of 14 numbered obstacles, which may have compounded the difficulty, along with a plain middle element. The triple was six or seven strides after an arched bridge, which may have been a factor as well. The route under the lights was set by Leopoldo Palacios, who brought eight through to the jump-off. Oh, and Leopoldo also set up one of his signature jumps, a bicycle (not a real one of course) that can be quite tricky as well.

Nick Skelton of Great Britain, runner-up in the World Cup Qualifier with Carlo 273. ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

No one managed a fault-free trip in the tiebreaker until Nick Skelton, sixth to go, did it on the amazing but “quirky” Carlo 273, a horse who is at his best in the show ring but apparently often at his worst elsewhere and is never, ever schooled over fences. Nick kind of crawled in a time of 55.23 (the best time to that point was 49.5 seconds from Lauren on Quick Study, the previous weekend’s winner, but she had 4 faults).

While he said he was slower than he wanted to be, he was most interested in having a fault-free trip and was willing to settle for second. His strategy paid off? immediately when Beezie Madden on Danny Boy was more than three seconds faster, but dropped two rails.

That put Brazil’s Rodrigo Pessoa in the catbird seat with Let’s Fly, a “suspicious” horse who left his phobias outside the arena and produced a perfect trip in 51.57 seconds to take the honors, while Nick was happy in second place with his spectacular steel gray mount.

Rodrigo had something in common with another weekend winner, World Dressage Masters champion Steffen Peters, who couldn’t help mentioning that for him, the third time also was indeed the charm.

Rodrigo Pessoa with Let’s Fly’s owner, Hunter Harrison. ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

Although Rodrigo is well-qualified for the World Cup, he is doing a re-think on that because his other mount, HH Rebozo, is on the injured list and he wants to have enough horsepower for the outdoor season and the all-important (and rich) Global Champions tour.

One of the best things about being at the WEF and environs is catching up to people when they’re not riding. I saw Rodrigo’s new daughter, Sophia, on whom he dotes. (He’s married to Alexa Weeks, whose family owns Madison, a former national champion jumper.)

Danielle Torano was trundling her nine-month-old baby, Jimmy (named after her husband) but not showing; she told me she doesn’t have anything in the way of horses right now.

Debbie Stephens is recovering from the broken hip she suffered while schooling earlier this month, but she didn’t? go back to her home on the west coast of Florida.

“She wanted to be in Wellington; there’s a horse show in town,” her husband, course designer Steve Stephens, said with a knowing chuckle.

Katie Monahan Prudent had a great time in the Pro Derbycross, the eventing hybrid event held last weekend.

“I like to go fast,” she said (as if anyone who ever watched her in a jump-off didn’t know that). She said she might have even given eventing a whirl if she had tried it in her younger days. But one thing Katie isn’t giving a whirl, she insisted, is a bid to take over the position of her mentor, U.S. show jumping technical advisor George Morris, when he retires after the 2012 Olympics.

“I have no desire whatsoever. They’re all asking me to; I will not. I like to coach. That is not a coaching job,” said Katie, who contends it is more of an administrative position.

Even though I rushed from the World Dressage Masters Grand Prix at the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center back to PBIEC, I just missed the formal presentation of the new PBIEC complex that will feature dressage facilities on the old Palm Beach Polo stadium grounds. (That’s what I mean about Wellington; busy, busy. And I have yet to perfect the cloning operation I was working on at the World Equestrian Games.)

I got there in time to pick up a recap. While I told you all about it, I wanted to let you hear what Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, had to say about the dressage situation in his own words. (Don’t forget, PBIEC cancelled the Dressage Masters this year and there was a lot of drama until it got rescheduled for Jim Brandon.)

The winning Young Rider team of Caitlin Ziegler, Christina Kelly, Quentin Judge and David Arcand. ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

Also that night (are you getting my point yet?) there was a team competition for Young Riders, part of a series aimed at getting an American presence at the European Young Rider championship next month. The top three will go, and the competition is intense. So it was nice to see how the winning team members worked together, particularly since the squad was multi-national. Caitlin Zeigler and Quentin Judge are American; David Arcand is Canadian and Christina Kelly is Irish.

The series ends next Sunday, but right now, 16-year-old Reed Kessler is in the lead. Precocious Reed frets about being too young to qualify for some of the big classes with the grown-ups, but she already has competed in Europe and won at the 2-star level.

Reed is a fun conversationalist . Take a listen.

A few more itinerant thoughts on the Masters dressage. Valentina Truppa of Italy, a member of her country’s military police, wears a sharp red and blue uniform with medals. She’d make a good recruiting poster.

Dutch rider Christa Laarakkers on Ovation had quite the mixed bag of music for her freestyle, from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” It definitely was a spiritual theme.

Disappointingly, while helmets were more in evidence than they were before Courtney King Dye suffered a near-fatal accident a year ago, few of the Masters competitors wore protective headgear. Only Jackie Brooks and Shannon Dueck, both of Canada, appeared in helmets. Steffen wore one for schooling and the awards ceremony, but if he would just put it on in competition, that would be a statement that could sway riders to doing the sensible thing and not risking harm. Accidents do happen, no matter how good a rider you are or how steady your horse is.

The WEF continues through April 3, but they’ll have to keep on working on giving away their $6 million-plus in prize money without me. My gallery from the weekend will be up this week and my next postcard after that is set for April 10 on the Gene Mische American Invitational, a classic.

Until then,


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