Wellington, Fla.—March 24
He’s been to the London Olympic Games as the first alternate for the Irish squad. Ditto the 2010 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games (Ky.). He’s been double clean in major competitions around the world and generally made himself a household name in the show jumping scene. But until today’s $101,000 Pennfield Feed Grand Prix, Shane Sweetnam had never won an Fédération Equestre Internationale grand prix.
His partner for the honor couldn’t have been more unlikely. Sweetnam tacked up Solerina, who’s been showing only at the 1.45-meter and 1.50-meter level this circuit. This was by far the biggest class he’d taken her in during the year and a half they’ve been together.
“It’s a bit unexpected,” admitted Sweetnam, who lives in Wellington but is originally from Limerick, Ireland. “She’s a really competitive horse. Her results have been good, and she gave me everything she had. I knew in the jump-off I could go in and take a chance.”
Thirty-four riders headed over to the grass field of the Stadium at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center for the class for the last big jumper class held on the grass of the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival. Course builder Richard Jeffery sandbagged the jumps as best he could to keep them from toppling in the wind that gusted up to 36 mph.
That serious breeze didn’t keep spectators from flocking to the top of Mount Wellington or the VIP test to watch the Irish bred Solerina (Cruising—Diamond Ballerina, Diamond Lad), owned by Spy Coast Farm and Sweet Oak Farm lead a field of three chestnut mares to the top spots. Sweetnam laid down a speedy clear round in the jump-off to take blue, ahead of the four other jump-off contenders.
“She’s got a bit of character, like chestnut mares have,” he said of the mare owned by Sweet Oak Farm and Spy Coast Farm. “If she’s not fighting you, she’s fighting with you. I prefer when she’s fighting with me.”
Sweetnam’s had to learn to work with her. She’d never been on the grass field before, but in a way, that field was an advantage as she’s inexplicably scared of the trademark bridge over the in gate to the International Ring at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. To combat her other big fear, the dreaded jumbotron, Sweetnam’s set up her own private TV in her stable. She likes watching Guy McLean, but Sweetnam thinks it’s time to expand her DVD library.
Marie Hecart’s second-placed horse Myself de Breve laid down a clear as well. Hecart picked out that petite mare—she stands at just 15 hands—at an auction when she was just 2. Now 13, Myself de Breve and pretty confirmed, “Mini Me” didn’t show the first few weeks of circuit. Like Solerina, she also has a few strong opinions.
“When I saw her as a 2-year-old you could tell from her attitude she was really good—and she knew it!” said Hecart. “She gets in the ring, and even though she’s small she thinks she’s taller than everyone else. She’s really confident. You can watch her with the groom all day long, it’s like a story between them. She puts on the saddle, and she has something to say, and again with the bridle. If she could talk it would be really annoying. But she’s super and by now she really knows her job.”
That Selles Français mare (Quidam de Revel—Aprege de Coudre, Grand Veneur) also has a 5-year-old offspring in training with her father, Michel Hecart, back in Marie’s native France.
Kirsten Coe took third on Baronez (Heartbreaker—Skippy II), logging a single time fault in the jump-off in an effort to leave the poles in the cups.
“She really likes it out here,” said Coe. “She won the [WEF Challenge Cup] Week 7 on the grass, and she’s brave as a lion.”
Five Things You Didn’t Know About Shane Sweetnam
- He’s a new father for the third time, as he and his wife Allison just welcomed Lucy into the world four weeks ago.
- He listens to dance music (think Swedish House Mafia).
- “My favorite food is Mexican—oh wait, Irish, it’s Irish. My mother would kill me otherwise.”
- He’s a huge sports fan, soccer first and foremost (Liverpool’s his choice in the English Premiere League). He also watches rugby, NFL (all of it) and NBA (Miami Heat).
- If he wasn’t a show jumper, he’d like to be a professional soccer player. “But I know that’s a dream. I’m not good enough.”