Saturday night’s $125,000 Longines FEI Word Cup Grand Prix in Washington D.C. left beltway spectators in awe. There was no shortage of pomp and circumstance at the posh event, a staple on the D.C. calendar since 1958. While it’s tough to top the Shetland steeplechase, the Grand Prix riders certainly tried their best.
The field was a talented mix of twenty-eight horse and rider combinations. The line-up included known superstars, like Olympic veterans McLain Ward and Margie Engle, alongside multiple under-25 riders who showed us the sport has a very bright future.
The course, designed by Anthony D’Ambrosio, proved difficult. The long, narrow shape of the Verizon Center arena was an obstacle in itself, forcing tight tracks that resulted in a fair number of rails. Fences 3b and c, the second and third elements of a substantial oxer-vertical-oxer Longines triple combination kept the jump crew busy as horses struggled to maintain momentum over the long one-stride combinations.
The real heartbreaker was fence 12a – the second-to-last of the course – which shattered the hopes of those otherwise faultless. Riders that opted for just five strides after fence 11 suffered the 4-fault consequence more often than not, while those who steadied for 6 or 7 had better luck at the yellow and green striped vertical.
Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium, a 22 year-old budding star aboard H&M Forever D’Arco Ter Linden, put in the first clear. Second clear was 19 year-old Jos Verlooy, also of Belgium, who secured a jump-off spot aboard the elegant chestnut gelding, Sunshine. Jos and Sunshine had already shown their mettle the previous night by taking blue in the Puissance by clearing an impressive 6’11 wall.
In the end, six of twenty-eight moved on to the jump-off, including 18 year-old Tori Colvin who just an hour before won the WIHS Equitation Final aboard Patrick. At her post win press conference Tori was asked if she had any nerves about taking on the 1.60 meter Grand Prix. As usual, she was totally unfazed; her biggest concern was whether to change into her white breeches before or after the course walk.
Philippaertes was first to test the 9-obstacle jump-off, setting a blistering pace to clock in at 38.17, but the lightest touch by his bay stallion resulted in an unfortunate 4 faults.
Verlooy and Sunshine took a more conservative approach but still suffered a rail. Colvin, aboard Cafino, and Jack Hardin Towell on Emilie De Diamant A S each had two rails for 8 faults apiece.
When Callan Solem entered the ring she knew there was a big decision to make – go conservative and aim for clear, or up the ante and race the clock. She later admitted that before her round McLain Ward offered some sage advice. “I was fortunate to have the counsel of McLain,” said Solem, “he said, ‘Callan, you have to try to win! Harrie is going to be fast so you have to do 4 strides in the first line. You’re third a lot, try to win!’ ”
Solem and VDL Wizard – a chestnut who has become notorious for whinnying at the in-gate – did just that, leaving up the rails and clocking in at 39.43. Though not the fastest to go, she was the only clear and moved into first. But Smolders and Emerald were waiting eagerly in the catbird seat.
Smolders and the chestnut stallion knew what had to be done as they entered the ring. “I knew the pressure was on,” Harrie said after his ride, “I was pleased because I knew what I had to do. If there’s no one clear you have to make a decision how conservative to be but in this case I had no choice – I had to go.”
Despite a hair-raising slip in the turn to fence three – a moment that sent the crowd into a collective gasp – the pair turned in a clean round at 39.32 seconds – .11 seconds faster that Solem and Wizard.
Emerald seemed to happy to win, sniffing the President’s Cup – engraved with the Presidential seal – and hamming it up for the cameras during the award presentation. Smolders himself is no stranger to the Washington International, having won the same event at his WIHS debut ten years ago.
The future is bright for Smolders of the Netherlands and Emerald, who Smolders says is “a bit of a stallion, but super talented” and entering his prime. Their next stop is another World Cup qualifier in Lexington with their sights on the final in Gothenberg next March.
Perhaps the quote of the night was from Callan Solem, who seemed happy to have her European counterparts stateside, adding with a smile on her face, “With these guys coming from overseas it made it a more diverse group – we don’t compete against them week in and week out like we do the other riders. So it’s definitely nice to get beat by somebody different.”