Final Postcard: Bayer/USET Festival

June 23, 2002, Gladstone, NJ —
My head is spinning like a reining horse in overdrive. Where should I begin to tell you about everything that happened today as the Bayer/U.S. Equestrian Team Festival of Champions had its grand finale?

I think I’ll start by explaining the importance of the Festival. Its unique personality makes it so special in a world filled with McShows. Brendan Furlong, the USET veterinarian, and I were chatting about the old days, when each competition had its own character to be appreciated, instead of being stamped out of a cookie-cutter. Back then, we also were not so specialized. I used to ride in hunters and jumpers and little combined training events, as well as dressage shows and western pleasure AND gymkhanas (loved the trail class).

The Festival, with all its disciplines, brings that back to me. I think a lot of people (there was a great and enthusiastic crowd today) had their first exposure to some of the disciplines here. They may have come for show jumping, but many wound up at reining. And I saw some of the folks who greeted me this morning at the dressage ring down by the jumper arena later.

The grand prix was, of course, the highlight of the jumping activities, but earlier in the day I got a kick out of Evan Coluccio, a 14-year-old from Virginia who was first and second (with White Russian and Gulit) in the $10,000 USET Junior/Amateur-Owner Talent Derby.

His performance fits in perfectly with his goal, and guess what that is? “I want to train to ride in grands prix and the Olympics,” he said, so he loved being at the USET Training Center.

“Few shows get spectators like this,” he explained.

“The riders feel more important being at this venue. It’s seen the start of a lot of great careers,” said Evan’s mom, Allyson, who trains him with her husband, Rob, and Lynne Little.

Lynne couldn’t be on hand because of a family reunion, but she emphasized the honor of her Raylyn Farms rested with Evan because Lynne’s daughter, Marilyn, had won the class four times previously. Marilyn didn’t want to come back. She figured she had to lose sooner or later, Evan explained, but he did his trainer proud.

By the way, I loved White Russian. He has the perfect name – he’s a Russian stallion, and he’s a shade of gray that’s almost white.

Evan is now off to Europe where he will ride under the supervision of Jan Tops and Rolf Goran-Bengtson, big names in the grand prix world. I’ll bet it won’t be long before we see this determined teen on the team — which in a way is what the Festival is all about.

So guess who was first in the featured $50,000 Rolex-USET Show Jumping Championship? How about McLain Ward, who has won everything else? Yes, he and Viktor did it again. As was the case in Friday’s $25,000 grand prix, he was involved in a speed duel with Margie Goldstein Engle, the perennial number one on the computer list before McLain took over that spot a while back.

There were only 15 starters, since the jumpers didn’t support the Festival the way one would expect them to, although many are at Spruce Meadows preparing for the World Equestrian Games selection trials. But anyway, it was a high-quality competition, though Viktor and Margie’s Hidden Creek’s Perin obviously were the class of the class.

In the seven-horse jump-off, Candice King set the time to beat with Caliskan, a neat round in 42.596 over the route designed by Richard Jeffery. Then came Margie, and we knew the pace would quicken. Sure enough, she and her 2000 Sydney Olympics mount were quicker, in 41.754 seconds. But with McLain behind her, there would have had to have been a mistake on Viktor’s part for Perin to pull out the win. And of course, McLain got it right, winning with a 41.198-second trip. I think that now puts him in the lead in the American Grand Prix Association Rider of the Year standings, another race he has won before.
As for his victory today, McLain said he and Viktor are perfectly in tune when he’s against the clock.

“Viktor’s a great ride,” he explained. “You think it and he does it.”

Okay, now for the reining. The second round of the $75,000 USET Championship this afternoon selected the team for the WEG. The top four from Thursday’s first round – Tom McCutcheon on Conquistador Whiz, Shawn Flarida on San Jo Freckles, Craig Schmersal with Tidal Wave Jac and Tom’s brother, Scott, on Inwhizable (like Conquistador Whiz, he’s by Top Sail Whiz) are going to Spain.

I have to put in a word about Gunner, who wound up sixth and will not be on the team. I write a lot about Gunner, but it’s not only because he’s based in New Jersey, like I am. It’s also because this bald-faced paint stallion has loads of personality. Hey, he was just immortalized as a Breyer horse, so that tells you something.

Anyway, he did his best today, but as rider Bryant Pace noted, “He wasn’t 100 percent.” He suffered abrasions doing his sliding stops last week, and water therapy and Vaseline — the only type of treatment allowed under international rules — didn’t do the trick. It was obvious that Gunner was ouchy, and Bryant was a good loser.

“I’m still the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I’m so happy I had the opportunity to show that horse and come out here and sign autographs and be a hero for a couple of days. He’s the greatest horse I’ve ever been around.”

The Sloans, Kim and Debra, who own Gunner are going to rest him for six months and see what his future holds. I’m guessing retirement.

“This will be the greatest horse I’ll ever know in my lifetime,” said Kim, who felt the stallion was okay to start today, but stung himself again in the right circles during his run.

“I applaud the people who beat him today,” he said. “There were four better horses out there this weekend, and now I want the U.S. to go out and win the gold medal.”

The singles drivers also want to win some gold. This was the final selection trial for their world championships, not part of the WEG. Scott Monroe, the 50-year-old Connecticut arborist I told you about yesterday, put in a clean cones round and won with his Morgan, Shadow. Everyone in the top three had clean cones. That was Nancy Johnson, second, and Fred Merriam. The team is supposed to be announced tomorrow, and I’ll bet they’re also considering Kimberly Stover who was fourth and seemed destined for several world championship squads but has never made it.

There were some very poignant moments today, aside from what happened with Gunner. The show was dedicated to the members of the uniformed services and the Port Authority who answered the call on Sept. 11, 2001, and I saw a lot of folks from those departments at the show.

Also present was Les Nicholls, a Texas racehorse trainer who is riding from the Alamo to Ground Zero, where he’ll arrive on July 4, to commemorate those who lost their lives and those who saved lives during that tragedy. The most amazing part is that Les is going to race one of his horses when his odyssey ends.

There was also a tribute to the late USET show jumping coach, Bert de Nemethy, beautifully delivered by USET Chairman Emeritus and Olympic gold medalist Billy Steinkraus, and USET President Armand Leone, Jr. Some of those on hand to honor Bert who had a connection to him were former team members Carol Hofmann Thompson and Frank Chapot, and former USET Three-Day Coach Jack LeGoff.

Well, this is the end of my Festival odyssey. I’ve seen some amazing performances, and gotten a kick out of nibbling at this well-presented equestrian smorgasboard. I wish I could have seen every round in every sport, but until I clone myself, that won’t be happening. Still, I can’t wait until the WEG so I can start rushing around covering everything again.

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