TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Saturday, March 30 was the perfect evening to mosey over to Wellington and enjoy the jumping under the lights at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Apparently, a lot of people made the same decision, for the place was packed with 8,600 enthusiastic fans running the gamut from babes in strollers to strolling seniors, texting teens and families complete with dogs. In addition to the jumping, there was a lot to enjoy, especially for the youngsters.
The carousel was spinning. The face-painting booth, petting zoo and bounce house saw steady customers. A man on stilts, a magician and jugglers entertained the crowd. A Greyhound rescue group had brought along dogs, and everyone stopped to pet them. It was a fun, upbeat atmosphere, everybody clearly enjoying themselves.
In the International Arena, a live band played while riders walked the course. This was the 12th and final weekend of the Winter Equestrian Festival, the featured class was the $500,000 FTI Consulting Grand Prix CSI 5*. The banks of lights grew brighter as the sky darkened, and at 8 p.m. we stood for the national anthem. The class began: 40 of the world’s top horses and riders trying to go clear and make it into the jump-off.
There were riders from Ireland, Chile, Greece, Russia, Japan, Colombia, Canada, Brazil, Great Britain and the United States. The course was challenging, and the crowd held its breath, then erupted in applause as the ninth rider, Athina Onassis de Miranda of Greece, was the first to go clear. There was pin-dropping silence again a few rounds later as hometown favorite Margie Engle went clear until dropping a rail on the last fence. A collective groan, followed by applause, followed her from the ring.
At 8:55 p.m., after the 20th rider, there was a seventh-inning stretch break as the water truck and four drag-towing tractors sped around the arena, smoothing the footing. We walked around, visited with friends, stretched, browsed the food, stood in line at the bathrooms. The class resumed, and not until the 24th rider did we witness another clear round — now we had a jump-off. Eventually, 10 riders went clear. There was another break as the course was reconfigured and the arena again watered and dragged. Fire jugglers strolled, and staff threw a few complimentary T-shirts into the stands.
At 10:10 p.m., the class resumed. Now it wasn’t just about going clear, it was about going fast, but cut a turn too tight or go just a hair too fast, and you chanced having a rail down. Jump. Land. Turn. Gallop. The crowd held its breath.
Athina completed a second clear round in 54.46 seconds. The next two riders each had rails down, then another clear round by Marie Hecart of France. The crowd oohed and erupted in applause: 47.77 seconds, a new leader until the next rider, Ben Maher of Great Britain, managed 44.88. Two more riders went clear, and Brazil’s Alvaro de Miranda on AD Rahmannshof’s Bogeno eventually won in 43.96 seconds despite his horse throwing a shoe partially through the course. Maher and Cella finished second, and Onassis de Miranda, Alvaro’s wife, placed third with Camille Z.
Kent Farrington had the fastest time in 43.52 seconds but knocked down a rail at the last fence. He finished fourth. The great Nick Skelton of Great Britain, ranked eighth in the world, on Big Star was also extremely fast in 44.21 seconds but dropped one rail and finished fifth.
By 10:30 p.m., it was all over. We filed out, and despite the size of the crowd, there was no jostling or rushing. We found our car, parked in what would normally be a hunter ring, and moved along, following all the other vehicles. It didn’t take long until we were back on the road, back in the real world, savoring the wonderful memories and excitement of top horses and riders pitting themselves against the clock, the course, and each other.
If you haven’t made it to any of the WEF shows, it may be too late for this year, but pencil it in for next season. Even if you know nothing about horses or jumping, it’s worth going. For the nominal fee of $20 per vehicle, it’s a great place for families and kids of all ages. Wellington is fortunate to have such world-class sport and entertainment right in its own back yard. And, who knows? Perhaps some youngster will watch a class and be inspired to try to achieve the same one day.