(C) ESI PHOTOGRAPHY. McLain Ward and Rothchild.
Ocala, Florida (February 20, 2016): The U.S. dream team including Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, Todd Minikus, Lauren Hough, and led by Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland, claimed a memorable victory at the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup CSI04*, presented by Edge Brewing Barcelona, at HITS Post Time Farm on Friday, February 19. Not only winning the class and a piece of the $112,900 prize purse, but the U.S. team also secured a spot at the top of the 2016 FEI Nations Cup rankings for the Furusiyya Final in Barcelona later this year.
The stage was set at HITS Post Time Farm complete with two sold out VIP clubs, a bustling grandstand and thousands viewing a live FEI TV webcast, all waiting to see which of the eight teams – Australia, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States – would go home with a win. Competitors did not disappoint their fans as the showdown for international bragging rights ensued.
A total of thirty-one riders from across the globe contested the FEI Nations Cup course set with 12 obstacles at 1.60m and designed by Alan Wade of Ireland. The first three competitors, Luke Dee (NZL) and Aucland De I’enclos, Daniel Bluman (COL) and Conconcreto Sancha LS, and Shane Sweetnam (IRL) riding Eregast van’t Kiezelhof, all sped through the course with hopes of going clear, but fell victim to penalties during their attempts. It wasn’t until Matt Williams (AUS), aboard Valinski S, entered the ring did onlookers see a clear round. Williams was just over the time allowed leaving him with one time fault and Australia for the lead.
The crowd went silent as the fifth rider in the order, McLain Ward (USA) and the iconic Rothchild, appeared at the in-gate. In true Ward fashion, he gave spectators just what they wanted – a clean round.
“Alan did a spectacular job as usual. We were actually speaking at dinner last night about what a fan we all are of his courses. When I walked the course I thought it was quite big, but straightforward enough. I was a little concerned,” said McLain. “We have a strong team here and we wanted it to be difficult but I was thinking it might ride a little too easy.”
Second to ride for the Team U.S.A. was 2015 Nations Cup Ocala alumni, Lauren Hough (USA), piloting Cornet. Careful in their step, they cruised over the obstacles but trouble at the triple would cost them four faults.
Competition grew fierce, and the audience more engaged, waiting to see who, if anyone, could best McLain. Third to ride for Colombia, Fernando Cardenas (COL) and Quincy Car, whipped through the turns of the course, going clear and confirming that a race to first place was on.
Pressure was building for Pan American Games Bronze Medalist and 2014 HITS Saugerties $1 Million Grand Prix winner, Todd Minikus (USA) and Babalou, who were on deck for the States. Keeping his cool and living up to a winning reputation, Minikus went fault free to continue his team’s success.
The next few trips ended with penalties for downed rails but that came to a halt when Scott Keach (AUS) and Fedor, rode fourth representing the Land Down Under. Keach led his bay mount to a clean finish for Australia’s only zero fault score in round one.
The chase continued for the final U.S. rider of the round, Beezie Madden (USA) and Breitling LS, who once again proved that she is the ultimate horsewoman. Careful and efficient, Madden cleared the final jump as the crowd erupted in cheers. After the FEI Nations Cup™ scoring format was applied, dropping the highest penalty from each team, the standings going into the second round had the U.S.A. in first, Colombia in second with Mexico trailing by one point in third, Australia in fourth, Ireland in fifth, New Zealand in sixth, Canada in seventh and El Salvador in eighth.
Round two commenced as ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ filled the air for the first six riders who all had rails in their paths leading to penalties against their teams. Seventh in the round two order was Daniel Bluman (COL) who was ready for redemption and rode his 13 year old bay to a zero fault finish. Ward, who was the next trip of the day, hoped for a repeat performance from his round one success but a rail at the second obstacle of the combination would result in four faults, leaving it up to his teammates to pull through for a win.
“I think riding for your country is the ultimate goal or dream, and when you get the opportunity you certainly want to do a good job,” said Ward. “These three riders here and the Chef d’Equipe – I have the utmost respect for them and I consider them my friends. I didn’t want to let them down.”
Troubled trips leading to scoresheet faults continued for the second wave of riders with only one, Cian O’Connor (IRL) and Sam du Challois, going clear. As Hough prepared to ride second for her team she was determined to put it all on the line and trust in her gifted, four-legged partner. Unfortunately, she would have two rails in the triple combination for eight faults but that didn’t mean the U.S. was out of the game just yet.
“The first round he withheld himself a bit at the triple and I knew I had to really ride him strong in the second round, where he held himself even more. I was lucky to actually get out of the triple with only two down,” said Hough of her 12 year old grey mount. “I still had a long way to go and I fought really hard to make it home. Thank goodness I have three strong teammates here.”
Third to ride for their country, Amy Millar (CAN) and Heros, Claudia Hay (NZL) and Euro Sport Centavos, Richie Moloney (IRL) and Ypaja Yando, Thomas McDermott (AUS) and Quick Petite Folie, Federico Fernandez (MEX) and Guru, Fernando Cardenas (COL) and Quincy Car, as well as Todd Minikus (USA) and Babalou all left the ring with faults, leaving the crowd questioning who would pull through as the champion. Would the anchor riders clean up? Could a sleeper pull ahead and place in the top three? Only time would tell, but one thing was certain – powerhouse Beezie Madden (USA) was the final trip of the day.
The fourth rider for each team gave it everything they had, but once again fallen rails would keep them all from the top spot. A legendary anchor, Madden was on her A-game to close out the day. With precision and caution she navigated Breitling LS to a clear round and although taking her time would cost her one time fault, she sealed the deal for a Team U.S.A. win.
“I had a nice position because I could afford to have two rails down and still win, so as an anchor rider that is one of the best positions you can be in. Thanks to these guys [pointing to her teammates] we were in that position,” said Madden.
Humble in her win, Madden gave credit to her partner, adding, “I took a little extra time with the second round. He is just now starting to get pretty dependable at this level and we couldn’t be more excited about him.”
Dressed to the nines in Furusiyya coolers and sashes, with smiles larger than life, the home team took a well-deserved victory lap in the Ocala Horse Properties Stadium as the National Anthem carried throughout the stands.
Beaming with pride, Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland praised his teams’ performance. “We knew coming in that the competition was going to be tough. We had to bring our best team to be able to have a chance to win. It was definitely stressful and we did it a little bit differently than in the last few years. We had a habit of easing off in the first round, unintentionally, and come back in the second… We did come with our best and we were fortunate to come away with the win. We are fortunate to be where we are today.”
Ridland continued, acknowledging HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri for a superior event in the heart of horse country. “Tom, you and your staff at HITS, and of course the sponsors, did a tremendous job in putting this on. A beautiful course and an incredible crowd on a Friday afternoon – it couldn’t have been better.”
A common theme of patriotism and honor continued during the post-event press conference, with Course Designer Alan Wade adding, “It is a great honor to be chosen as the course designer for the Nations Cup. Everyone that competed in that class today – you cannot take that away from them. They were chosen as the best in their country in the sport and whether you had a rail down or three down that is something you cannot take away from them. They represented their country on that stage.”
“When we hired Alan for this class it was unlike most hires. It was moving to hear him talk about it. It is really important to him and it’s even more important to me to hear his sentiments,” said HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri. “It was great to have this team that Robert brought here. I can’t imagine how it must be to ride for the U.S. Team because I was moved to hear the anthem at the end, and that made it worthwhile for me.”
FEI ranked competition at HITS Ocala continues on Saturday, February 20 with the $34,600 HITS Jumper Classic and on Sunday, February 21 with the $100,000 City of Ocala Grand Prix.
Todd Minikus for one is already looking ahead to the weekend, adding, “Babalou jumped fantastic in the first round. And to tell you the truth she’s been off her game a little bit this week and I think she just got a little down in the second round. She’s going to make a heck of a comeback in the Grand Prix.”