With a horse show happening every weekend, and sometimes multiple major events taking place in locations around the country on the same day, the Chronicle reporters spend countless weekends on the road. (See this month’s The Chronicle Connection for some fun stats!) But regardless of how many horses we see jumping jumps and cantering down centerline, a few special moments always leave a lasting impression long after the story is written and the results are old news.
As we head into the new year, here are a few of our favorite moments from 2011.
Mollie Bailey’s Favorite Moment: The U.S. Show Jumping Gold At The Pan Ams
It’s a privilege to stand ringside to watch and document equestrian sport, and every year there are always a few spectacular moments that stick out. There have been moments of incredible horsemanship, like when Rodrigo Pessoa finessed a rowdy mount through a temper tantrum during the $50,000 G&C Farm Palm Beach Jumping Derby in Wellington, Fla.
There are sights that make me go home and take my stirrups off my saddle to trot around the field, like when Sinead Halpin cleared the final fence of show jumping in her first four-star event to clinch a very hard won third place at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. And I’m a sucker for those moments of sheer joy, like seeing a Devon first-timer squeal with delight after her second-placed score in the small pony over fences class this May in Pennsylvania.
But for me, nothing beats the thrill of watching high stakes team competition when everything goes just right. I’ve been lucky enough to watch the U.S. show jumping team in international competition over the last few years, and I’ve always been struck by how calm and collected every individual is. But that’s not to say it’s easy.
Oct. 27 was an incredibly stressful day for the U.S. show jumpers at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. After a disastrous 12 months of team competition, that day was the absolute final chance for the team to earn a qualification for the 2012 London Olympic Games. I stood nearby snapping photos as the U.S. camp walked and rewalked the course. The riders looked overly serious and almost a little grim as they listened to George Morris carefully articulate his advice. It wasn’t a lack of confidence on the riders’ part that imparted the somber mood, but there was simply no room for error.
I positioned myself near the riders’ stand, and when McLain Ward lay down a clear round I quickly swiveled my camera to try to catch a glimpse of excitement from his teammates in the support staff in the tower. Nothing—it was like they’d just watched a student finish with two rails in a junior jumper class. Chris McCrea and Mario Deslauriers clapped a few times, while Kent Farrington and George continued deliberating over a turn. It wasn’t lack of support, but there were seven rounds left, and in a sport that depended on luck, the U.S. squad hadn’t caught a break all year.
As the U.S. riders one by one proceeded to jump fault-free rounds, the mood in the riders’ box stayed the same. During the rounds I glanced over at the box and saw a squad full of tense riders and staff. When Kent jumped his final round, the one that could clinch the gold, I kept half an eye on his team. Everyone in the box rode each stride along with Kent, and after he cleared the final fence, they finally, finally allowed themselves to celebrate.
Beezie didn’t need to ride clear on Coral Reef Via Volo that day—her score counted as the drop score for the afternoon, and the United States already had seven clears—but she did it anyway with the same quiet confidence she always exudes. At the afternoon’s press conference veteran riders reckoned the day’s stress more intense than the last Olympics and the worst in their career. Watching four riders plow through that kind of pressure with an intense focus to put up nothing but zeros on the scoreboard served as the best inspiration around.
Molly Sorge’s Favorite Moment: Hickstead At Spruce Meadows
It was almost as if the green turf of Spruce Meadows’ center stage morphed into a Hollywood red carpet as Hickstead trotted out onto the field for the second round of the $1,003,159 CN International Grand Prix. A jubilant roar greeted him, and every head swiveled to follow him. The diminutive bay stallion flicked his toes and cast a haughty eye out over the crowd. They loved him. He knew.
As Chronicle reporters, we get the privilege of watching the best horses compete time after time. But there are still moments and performances that stand out, imprinted vividly in the mind’s eye as if warped by some funky Photoshop tool. Watching Hickstead bounce around that second course is one of those for me. His sheer delight in the challenge seemed to ooze from his pores and infect his rider, Eric Lamaze.
There was a deathly tight one-stride combination on that course that had proved disastrous for more than one rider on the day. Hickstead’s buoyant leap over the liverpool vertical into that combination vaulted him to a landing point far past where it should have been possible to organize his feet to take off again. If I didn’t have the series of photos to prove it, I might say he didn’t really even touch the ground between the two fences, his legs tap-danced so quickly. His one stride pitter-pat might have covered 8 feet of ground.