It’s hard to come up with adjectives adequate to describe Rich Fellers and Flexible’s performances this spring. Words like “phenomenal,” “incredible” and “unbelievable” are trite and cliché, and honestly don’t convey the true magnitude of his accomplishments.
When the U.S. team for the London Olympic Games was announced on June 17, Fellers’ name led the list, crowning a remarkable season for him and the dynamic little stallion Flexible. (The U.S. Equestrian Federation announced a list of 14 nominated entries in ranked order and will name the four team members and alternate on July 6 when definite entries are due to the International Olympic Committee. Barring replacements for veterinary or other reasons, the top four horse/rider combinations will be the team, with the fifth horse and rider as the traveling alternate.)
Veteran Beezie Madden will join him on the team with Coral Reef Via Volo, as will Reed Kessler, the teenage superstar who has performed beyond her wildest dreams and joins the list on her Cylana. Their teammate will be veteran McLain Ward, whose Olympic plans were seemingly shattered along with his kneecap in January, but who has battled back remarkably to make the team with Antares F. Each of them has a compelling story of their road to London, and Madden and Ward have team gold medals to their names from 2004 and ’08.
“I think it’s a strong team,” Fellers said. “I think Reed was so impressive from the very start in Florida. She’s stayed so consistent with both those horses. I have no concerns about her age or lack of experience. She’s a calm, cool competitor who can deliver. And Beezie and McLain are obviously proven goods; they’ve been there and done that. I think it’s a great team. I’m optimistic that we’ll be right there in the thick of things.”
Flexible On Form
Even before the final Olympic observation events, voices were clamoring to have Fellers and Flexible lead the U.S. team to the London Olympic Games. They’d conquered the world once already this year, winning the Rolex FEI World Cup Final (the Netherlands) in April. Then, they’d flown right home and promptly won both the Olympic observation events at the Del Mar National (Calif.) in May. Even though the pair was named seventh on the USEF long list for the Olympic Games after tying for third in the selection trials, their World Cup and observation event results made them the front-runners in the race to London.
But as Fellers stated in the Chronicle’s Del Mar coverage in the May 21 issue, he had no plans to stop jumping. “I’ve never gotten anything quick or easy my whole life,” he said. “I’m 52, and everything I’ve ever earned has taken time and patience and perseverance. So I’m in no rush whatsoever.”
So at Spruce Meadows (Alberta) on June 14 and 16, Fellers and Flexible went out and proved themselves yet again, putting an emphatic exclamation point on their dominating results. They won both USEF Olympic observation events at the Spruce Meadows Continental tournament, the Husky Energy Classic and the CN Performance CSI-W. Their adoring fans include Charlie Jayne, who was named the alternate to the U.S. team on Pony Lane Farm’s Chill R Z. “He won both classes hands down, doing incredible things. It’s really great to watch,” Jayne said.
“They’re in the zone and so focused and determined. When a horse and rider have that understanding and chemistry, it’s really inspirational. Everyone strives to have that perfect ride, and when we see someone who’s on a roll like this, it makes you realize just what can be done when it happens,” Jayne continued.
Fellers showed just what he and Flexible were capable of at Spruce Meadows. Not only did they gallop just a bit faster than Madden on Via Volo in the $34,235 husky Energy Cup on June 14, but they also spun around an inside turn no one else attempted in a seven-horse jump-off in the $195,606 CN Performance CSI-W. That turn brought them their fourth consecutive victory in an Olympic observation event—four clear first rounds and four fast, clean jump-off rounds.
“It really couldn’t have gone any better. I’m so thrilled with how he performed both first rounds and both jump-offs,” Fellers said. “He was nothing short of amazing. I put a lot of pressure on him, and I don’t like to do that very often with any horse, but he’s at a stage in his career where’s he’s very confident, so he can handle it.”
A Dream Come True
Kessler, who turns 18 on July 9, will be half the age of the next youngest U.S. team member, McLain Ward, 36, at the Games. Kessler will be 35 years younger than Fellers, but it will be the first Olympic appearance for both of them. Kessler turned the show jumping world on its ear in March, winning the USEF Selection Trials for the U.S. team at the London Olympic Games in Florida aboard her Cylana, and placing third on her Mika. She chose to compete at the Lexington, Ky., observation events in May, where Mika had a double-clear performance in the $75,000 Commonwealth Grand Prix and just 1 time fault in the $50,000 Lexington Hagyard Classic. Cylana had 4 faults in each class, which Kessler chalked up to rider error.
At the Spruce Meadows Continental, Kessler had to go first on Mika in the Husky Energy Cup, and she fell victim to a dastardly last line. Course designer Bob Ellis asked riders to jump an oxer to a vertical-vertical one-stride combination, with a choice of five or six strides between them. Then, a wide, square oxer followed five or six strides after the combination.
Not having the opportunity to see anyone navigate the line, Kessler chose to ride five strides from the oxer to the combination of verticals on Mika. “I really should have added down the last line, but the way it walked, it seemed that everyone would just do the five and five down the last line. It was much longer than it walked,” she said. Mika toppled the top rail of both verticals. Added to a foot on the tape at the water earlier, that left them with 12 faults.
“So on Cylana, I said to myself ‘You just had 4 faults; you need to bring it now,’ ” Kessler said. She turned in a clear round, then placed third behind Fellers and Madden. In the CN Performance CSI-W, both Cylana and Mika jumped clean in the first round—after the jump-off, Mika was third and Cylana sixth. “Cylana was just a machine all week,” Kessler said.
“I really wanted to finish this last leg of the selection process as strongly as I’d started,” Kessler said. “I feel like I did that, so I feel very content with the results.”
As she sat on a golf cart, headed for lunch at the Spruce Meadows venue with her boyfriend, British show jumper Tim Gredley, she felt her phone ring in her pocket. “Somehow, I just knew it was George,” she said. “He started by telling me how proud he was of me, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe! After the call, [trainer] Katie Prudent asked me who else was on the team, and I didn’t know! I didn’t even think to ask, I was so excited.”
Madden Is Sitting Pretty
Madden wasn’t sure what to expect of Coral Reef Via Volo in the observation events. The diminutive mare had been named to the long list in fourth based on their previous international performance, such as team gold and individual silver at the 2011 Pan American Games. But she’d contracted a nasty skin infection on a leg in January and wasn’t able to jump much.
Madden had to wait until May to show her and chose Devon (Pa.) and Spruce Meadows as the observation events for “Via” to show her readiness. The mare rewarded her patience with clear rounds in both classes at Devon, and clear rounds in the first round and jump-off of the Husky Energy Cup for second place. Her only rail came in the CN Performance CSI-W, when Via nicked the back rail of a triple bar. “It was an early jump, and it wasn’t a huge triple bar, but I probably just underestimated it a little bit. She shifted in off the rail, and she goes a bit left anyway, and she just clipped it behind,” Madden said.
“She felt better than ever, I have to say. She had beautiful rounds," Madden continued. "She’s more seasoned, even though she had that time off early in the year. She has a lot of blood, so the more she goes in the ring, the more relaxed she gets. It felt like it was good for her to do the jump-offs, for fitness and for getting in the ring a bit more.”
Madden is also the second alternate on the talented Simon. She’s had the ride on the powerful gelding only since November and had to develop a quick partnership with him. They had one rough round of 25 faults in the selection trials, but posted scores of 9, 4, and 1 fault in the other rounds. Simon jumped in the observation events at Kentucky, Devon and Spruce Meadows and never had more than one rail, winning the $50,000 Lexington Hagyard Classic. “He’s gotten quite consistent. I’d feel comfortable riding either one [at the Olympic Games],” Madden said.
Ward hasn’t had to prove himself for an Olympic or World Equestrian Games team spot since 2004. He had depended on the incomparable Sapphire, his mount for two Olympic team gold medals and team silver at the 2006 WEG. But Sapphire officially retired in May, and Ward suffered a compound fracture of his left kneecap in January. USEF selectors placed him eighth on the long list with his 2011 Pan Am Games team gold medal ride, Antares F. But Ward had a lot to prove at the observation events at Devon and Spruce Meadows.
Ward didn’t start showing until May, but at Devon he dominated, winning the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon and claiming second in the $50,000 Idle Dice Stake. At Spruce Meadows, he and “Andy” turned in two 4-fault rounds in the observation events. It was good enough for the selectors to name them into fourth on the ranked short list, making the team.
“I think he’s on really good form, which he showed at Devon. For sure, I would have liked to have been clear and clear, not 4 and 4, but there’s always a fine line between those two things,” Ward said. “I think you have to look at: ‘In the toughest situation, what’s a bad day?’ And if a bad day is 4 faults, that’s a good thing. Every horse can win a class, but if their bad day is five down, that’s not great. Basically, with Antares, not only has his international record been very good, but I think he’s shown that his bad days are never really bad.
“To be honest, the pressure I was feeling [on June 16 at Spruce Meadows] was a lot more than I’ve ever felt, even at an Olympic Games,” Ward said. “I think with this particular year and situation, I felt like I really didn’t want to let down all the people who have helped me and stood by me. It was a little bit of a stressful day, but the horse is solid, and he’s clear or 4 every time, so I’m excited to go. Everything with me right now is judged off the standard of Sapphire, who was unbelievably consistent, and you don’t find that often. But I think Antares has a great shot; I think he has the energy to go five rounds. I will only be healthier by then.”
Clear Rounds Pay Off
Rounding out the five is the traveling alternate, Charlie Jayne on Chill R Z. Jayne was in a unique position for selection. Chill R Z, who hadn’t even jumped his first grand prix until the winter of 2011, had a laceration just before the selection trials in March and was unable to compete. He and Jayne were placed in a tie for 35th on the long list. Jayne still had Olympic ambitions, however.
He entered Chill R Z, a 9-year-old Zangersheide stallion, in the observation events at Kentucky, Devon and Spruce Meadows, and the bay never had more than 4 faults. In fact, they had no rails in four of those six rounds. They won the $50,000 Idle Dice Stake at Devon with the only round with no rails.
“For me even to be considered, I wanted to do more than two observation events, to show the selectors what my horse is and really give them a chance to see my horse,” Jayne said. “[Chef d’Equipe George Morris] said, ‘Just go out there and jump clear rounds,’ and I think that’s how he proved himself during the observation events. At the end of the day, I think that’s why he was chosen as the fifth.
“Bumping 30 spots all the way up to fifth is really an achievement in itself. It’s an honor,” Jayne said. “Especially since he’s so young. But he does it like he’s been doing it for years. Honestly, we go in the ring, and it feels like I’m doing an equitation round. I feel like that horse has a bright future, and it will be a huge experience for me to go there and support our team. I really think the four best horse-and-rider combinations are going, and I think we have a strong shot at medaling. I’m so excited to be there for it.”
Madden, put into sixth on the list of nominated entries, is the second alternate. USEF will ship the top six horses to the Netherlands in early July to lay over and train at Johan Heins’ facility before the show jumping at the Olympic Games, Aug. 4-8. Until they ship out, the Olympic horses will remain at or near the Spruce Meadows venue.
One name notably missing from the top six on the nominated entry list is that of Margie Engle on Indigo. Engle and the gray tied with Kessler and Cylana for the lead in the USEF selection trials, then competed at Kentucky and Devon observation events. In Kentucky, they had one clean round and one with 12 faults, and at Devon they had rounds of 0 and 4 faults. They were named in ninth on the nominated entry list and aren’t planning to ship to Europe with the team.
Engle was concerned that the balance of objective versus subjective consideration has been tilted. “For sure, I was a little shocked and very disappointed to not be bamed to the team,” she said. Engle emphasized that she gives her full support to the riders selected for the team. “I don’t want to take anything away from anyone named to the team or be at all negative about them. I respect and admire all the horses and riders on the team and I think it's a really strong team. I wish them all the luck,” she said.
Engle is concerned about the balance between objectivity and subjectivity in the selection process and hopes that once the Olympic Games are over, perhaps a discussion could be had about that balance.
The USEF published selection procedure for the London Olympic Games does state that a horse/rider combination that did not compete in the selection trials for reasons other than discretionary selection, but has submitted an application for Olympic consideration, “will not be eliminated from the Selection Process, but will be awarded 20 penalties more than the competitor who has been the most severely penalized during the same round.”
Mario Deslauriers and Cella also missed the selection trials due to injury but competed at Kentucky, Devon and Spruce Meadows observation events. They were named to 13th on the nominated entry list after rounds of 1, 4, 4, 8, 1 and 8 faults over the six rounds.
• 2008 Olympic team gold medalists Cedric and Laura Kraut were given a bye from the selection trials and placed into third on the long list by selectors. They jumped to fourth in the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon with a clear first round and 4 faults in the jump-off, then had 12 faults in the first round of the $50,000 Idle Dice Stake. At Kentucky, they had rounds of 1 time fault and 4 faults. The selectors placed them into eighth on the nominated entry list.
• Deslauriers and Urico were fourth in the selection trials and then jumped at observation events in Kentucky, Devon and Spruce Meadows with consistent rounds, but they do not appear on the nominated entry list. On June 18, the USEF published the results of a May 30 hearing that resulted in the suspension of Bruce Burr, who was listed as the trainer on record of Urico, for a prohibited substance violation.
The violation was dated during the March 21-24 selection trials, and the USEF selection trials published procedure states in its section about drug testing that: “Any horse whose sample contains a prohibited substance or a restricted substance in a concentration greater than the applicable FEI limits for any FEI prohibited and/or quantitated substance may result in the elimination of that athlete/horse combination from the Selection Process by the Selectors upon the recommendation of the Veterinary Panel and with the approval of the Show Jumping High Performance Committee, High Performance Working Group, and the USEF Executive Committee or its designees. This provision does not abrogate the enforcement of applicable doping rules at FEI and/or USEF competitions.”