Despite being defeated by Ireland in the two Nations Cup competitions held in this country, in the most critical aspect of these two events the U.S. leads Canada, Mexico and El Salvador in the race to qualify for the all important finals in Barcelona.
The U.S. has 90 points towards qualifying for Barcelona from its second place finish in Ocala, but it’s dangerously close, as Canada has 80 points for its third place finish and Mexico has 70 for fourth, Columba was fifth and El Salvador withdrew after the first round while Venezuela was eliminated in the first round.
Two more Nations Cups remain for qualification, at the Coapexpan Equestrian Club in Xalapa in Mexico on Friday, May 5 and in Langley, Canada on June 2, and with only 20 points separating the U.s, Canada and Mexico anything can happen.
One of the most significant aspects of the two Nations Cup is that two completely different United States teams were fielded, showing a depth of horses and riders never enjoyed by the U.S. in the past.
When Robert Ridland took over as chef d’equipe after the London Olympics in 2012, he said that he would put one, two or three younger, unproved riders with two veterans, and that plan has resulted in success and, more importantly, in the depth that the U.S. now enjoys.
Ireland won the HITS Nations Cup on Feb. 17 with 12 faults, and the U.S. team of McLain Ward on Rothchild, 0/4, Lillie Keenan on Super Sox, 8/4, Lauren Hough on Cornet, 12/4, and Beezie Madden on Breitling LS, 0/0, was second with 16 faults, while Canada had 24 faults and Mexico 28 faults.
At the WEF Nations Cup, Ireland won with four faults, the young U.S. team of Ali Wolff on Casall, 1/8, Catherine Tyree on Bokai, 0/0, Chloe Reid on Codarco, 4/0, and Georgina Bloomberg on Lilli. 4/8, was second on 13 faults, Brazil was third with 16 faults and Great Britain was fourth with 28 faults.
“AS A SPORTS fan, from the beginning I’ve seen that pairing veterans with rookies seems to work,” said Ridland. “Mixing them up is not only good for the younger riders but is good for the veterans, too.”
“Last year in the Barcelona Nations Cup Finals, we certainly had the youngest team we’ve ever had there, and we still were third,” said Ridland. “Three of the five riders there were under 25, Audrey Coulter, Lucy Davis and Lillie Keenan.”
“In theory, in the first four Nations Cups, and that encompasses the three qualifying events for Barcelona and the WEF, it would be great to have 16 different riders,” said Ridland. “But we’re never going to sacrifice success for diversity.”
“It worked well in Florida,” Said Ridland. “ There were several different priorities, like the World Cup, pulling riders in different directions.”
“At HITS, the major objective was to win, so we wanted a veteran team,” said Ridland. “It was fun to have McLain and Beezie together again. They’ve been such a successful duo as lead-off rider and anchor. We got the results we needed for points.”
“At the WEF, we had a young team, but we thought it would be a strong team,” said Ridland. “We’re putting teams together for a purpose. We’re not putting teams together for experience. We’re always going in to win. Lucy and Lillie are young but they’ve had experience.”
“The team dinner was really fun,” said Ridland. “I don’t think we talked about horses once all night. The team went into the Nations Cup with great confidence. It’s great to put young riders in a place where they’re succeeding, and that’s what it was at Wellington.”
“Cats went double clear, and Chloe’s second round clear when it was vital was important,” said Ridland. “Georgina relished being the veteran.”
“David Distler told me that if you added up the ages of all four of our riders it didn’t add up to the age of Ian Miller (Canada’s Olympic veteran who is still competing),” Ridland said. “Those two Nations Cups were great fun,” said Ridland. “It’s great fun seeing young riders shine like that.”
“At HITS, there were a lot of good teams,” said Ridland. “Mexico sent a very good team, and Canada had three of its four Olympic riders on its team. They weren’t going to miss going to Barcelona again.”
“We didn’t separate much distance from Canada and Mexico,” said Ridland. “It’s a wide open race. All I can say is there’s not a lot of breathing room”
KEVIN BABINGTON of Gwynedd Valley, Pa., Cian O’Connor, Shane Sweetnam and Richie Moloney rode on the winning team at HITS $100,000 Nations Cup.
“We came in with the intention to win,” said Sweetnam. “The Course Designer (Marina Azevedo of Sao Paulo, Brazil) did a fantastic job. It was nice but tough in places. It should be to jump at this level. We were quite confident coming back in but knew that we still had to put in our best effort to win.”
“This win means a lot to us,” said Moloney. “It feels great to be sitting at this table with the lads. We had a great time in Ocala and I’m very happy with the result today.”
“I had the rail at the ‘C’ element of the combination,” said Babington. “I got there a bit rushed in the first round. In the second round, I wanted to get there slowing down, and I thought it had come to plan, but I ended up having ‘A’ down. Everything else worked to plan but when we returned, five horses had landed in the water, so I rode the water a little bit harder coming back in.” The two final riders on course were Madden and O’Connor.
The atmosphere was electric as Madden was clean on Breitling LS, giving Team USA a final score of 16.
But O’Connor on Seringat cruised through the course for a clear round and sealed the victory for Ireland.
“You learn to deal with that extra pressure you have as the anchor rider, and I feel that I perform better under the pressure,” said O’Connor. “When you see people work together to come and take this winning result, there’s nobody here that wouldn’t say that the biggest buzz there is is to win a team event. The Nations Cups are great, they prepare riders to deliver results on the day when it counts.”
O'Connor and Sweetnam were joined by Paul O'Shea and Conor Swail for the $150,000 Nations Cup March 3 at the WEF, and they won for the second year in a row.
"I am a very proud Irishman. I am absolutely delighted," said chef d’equipe Michael Blake, who also led the team to victory at HITS. "We came here to win, and we went to Ocala to win. It is very easy to win with these guys because they are really good. Basically, if you have a bit of a plan and tell them in time where they are going, they are going to turn up. That is what they did on both occasions. People asked why I changed the winning team from Ocala (switching out Babington and Moloney). I changed because I was looking at Paul and Conor, and I think their form is fantastic. I did not think they were quite ready in time for Ocala, but I knew they would be ready now, and they were fantastic."
Tyree jumped double clear in her first-ever senior Nations' Cup appearance for USA.
"I'm thrilled with how my horse went," said Tyree. "He has such a great character and such a great mind. I knew once I went in the ring that everything would be okay. I jumped the first jump, and it felt like every other class that I have done so far down here. I could not be happier."