WELLINGTON, Fla., Feb. 12-More riders from around the world were arriving for the CN Winter Equestrian Festival with competitors from at least 20 nations seeking a slice of the $5 million in prize money at the 12-week spectacular.
The intensity of the competition was on display last week when Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil nipped silver medalist Chris Kappler of the USA for the victory in the $60,000 Spy Coast Farm Grand Prix on Sunday. The event brought week four of the 12-week CN Winter Equestrian Festival, presented by Zimmerman Advertising, to a close at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
New Zealand became the latest country to indicate it will seek to field a team in the prestigious Nations Cup scheduled to be held under lights on Friday, March 7. Teams that have already announced their participation include Canada, the winners in 2007, Britain, Ireland and the USA. There may also be teams from Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela. In addition, individual jumper riders are from Iran, France, Brazil, Hungary, Chile, Denmark, Turkey, Belgium, Spain and Puerto Rico. In WEF dressage competitions there are also competitors from Australia, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and other nations.
The Nations Cup will be staged amidst the US Equestrian Federation Selection Trials for the Jumping team for this year's Olympic Games.
Of the five jumping selection trials from Feb. 28 to Mar. 9, three will be held at night in the newly rebuilt International Arena that has all-weather footing similar to that installed at the Olympic equestrian venue. The U.S. is the defending gold medal team. Spectators are encouraged to attend the selection trials to help create an atmosphere of crowds and activity that the team most likely will encounter at the Olympics.
In Sunday's Grand Prix, 14 horses advanced to the jump-off over the course designed by Steve Stephens of Palmetto, Fla.
Pessoa was the first to turn in a double clear performance, stopping the clock at 35.60 seconds riding Rufus owned by Double H Farm of Ridgefield, Conn. Kappler of Pittstown, N.J., was the next rider to jump double clear and with his time of 35.61 seconds, came heartbreakingly close to taking the lead with VDL Oranta.
"It is never great to come in the beginning, but when you nail it down and have others chase you, it is not so bad. If you go early and get everything nice and tight, you can make them have rails down," said Pessoa, 35, whose long list of accomplishments includes three World Cup Final victories, as well the Olympic and World Championship titles.
Double H Farm purchased Rufus for Pessoa a year ago, and the pair began showing last year at WEF in the 1.40-meter division. Since then, their successful partnership has produced team gold and individual silver medals at the 2007 Pan American Games held in Pessoa's home country of Brazil. He is aiming Rufus for the 2008 World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, as well as the Olympic Games in Hong Kong.
Kappler, who won team gold and individual silver medals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, again found himself behind Pessoa by the smallest of margins.
"I was a little slow to the first, but she did everything I asked of her," said Kappler of the 12-year-old grey Dutch Warmblood mare sired by Indorado and owned by M & K Oranta LLC. "This is only her second real Sunday back in more than a year, so I am thrilled with her."
Another American Olympian, Laura Kraut of Wellington, won Thursday's $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Series III. Kraut and her 17-year-old partner, Anthem, turned in the fastest time, 67.79 seconds, of the 49 challengers.
Hilary Dobbs, 19, of Sussex, N.J., and Marengo crossed the timers in 69.90 seconds. Canada's Ian Millar mounted a late challenge with In Style, but his time of 70.05 seconds would place the eight-time Olympian third overall in the final standings.
"With Ian and Nicole (Simpson), there were still enough people coming behind me that I didn't know if the time would hold up," said Kraut, who has been competing with Anthem in the International Arena for the past nine years. "I know Anthem's quick, and I relied on turning as quick as I could. He's such a good veteran, and he felt fantastic."
In the final standings, Dobbs finished second with Marengo as well as sixth with her first ride of the day, Corlett.
"I knew this would be a good course for Marengo if I could give him a good ride," noted Dobbs, a student at Harvard University. "It was one of the bigger classes that we've jumped in a while because I have been doing a lot of speed classes with him, which I love. I was really pleased with both my horses."
Dobbs and Marengo returned to the ring two days later to win the $20,000 Absorbine 1.50m Classic. The pair topped the eight-horse jump-off field by jumping clear in a time of 33.85 seconds. The final competitor, Lisa Silverman of New York, left the rails in the cups, but her time of 35.82 seconds riding the eight-year-old Ardeche van de Zelm was good enough for second place.
"We've been stepping him up. This is one of the biggest tracks, if not the biggest, he's ever jumped, and he showed scope," said Dobbs of the 10-year-old Holsteiner gelding owned by The Dobbs Group. "He knows what the jump-off is and he loves to win."
In the $200,000 FTI Rider Challenge which will be won by the top four riders after a series of designated WEF Grand Prix, Beezie Madden, the highest ranking American on the world rankings, took over the top spot.
A highlight of the ESP Dressage competition was the return to top form of the popular floppy eared mare, Rocher, ridden by George Williams. Owned by Chuck and Joann Smith of Gypsy Woods Farm, Richwood, Ohio, Rocher won the Grand Prix over Olympian Lisa Wilcox on Naomi.
Week Five of WEF features the $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Series Round IV on Thursday and Sunday's $60,000 CSI3* Grand Prix. Two-time Olympic course designer Olaf Petersen of Germany will have course designing duties in the International Arena.
WEF attracts the best horses and riders from around the world to Wellington and offers more than $5 million in prize money. For more information, please visit http://www.equestriansport.com
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PHOTO: Olympic gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa riding Rufus to victory at the CN Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center on Sunday. Photo: Ken Braddick-HorseSport USA
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<a href="http://www.equestrianmag.com/article/20-nations-wef-02-08.html">Over 20 Nations Competing at WEF</a> ~ EquestrianMag.com