In a picture-perfect setting, with a full crowd and a top-class, turf field, the United States’ Marilyn Little and Corona 93 executed a skillful double clear to win the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping at the Live Oak International CSI3*-W in Ocala, Florida. In the final event of the inaugural North American League, the 34-year-old rider, and double-gold medalist in Eventing at the 2015 Pan American Games, showcased her multi-discipline talent by expertly answering all the tests in Leopoldo Palacios’ (VEN) course design aboard the 12-year-old, Hanoverian mare (Cordalme Z x Lenz XX), claiming victory over a starting field of 32.
The 1.40-metre to 1.60-metre course, with 14 obstacles and 17 jumping attempts, incorporated challenges like a wide, plank fence similar to the one at the legendary Hickstead and a big scope test in the design’s final three jumps. But it was a big wall to a wide triple bar and a steady double vertical combination that posed the biggest questions on course.
“I tried to do the best for the field,” said Palacios. “I have a good feel of the riders and the conditions were very good. I needed to build it strong for the conditions. When you have a ring with such good footing as we have here and we have very good set of fences and how the ring is now is way better after all the improvements that Live Oak did (like enclosing the ring); it’s fantastic.
“I had a lot of pressure. Walking the course, some riders complained it was too hard, but I believe that with the good footing, the conditions were super good, (the horses and riders) can jump harder courses.”
After the first two riders on course incurred time faults, the time allowed was extended by 3 seconds to a new limit of 90 seconds. Ten riders were clear in the first round to advance into the jump off.
“I thought the course was a little deceiving, a little on the low side,” said Little. “It was very progressive, and Leopoldo turned up the volume exponentially by the time you were midway through the course. By the end, there were a lot of technical, scope and stamina questions. It was a very long course, and the horses jumped to the best of their ability. It was a real thrill for both horse and rider.”
“There are no more challenging courses to jump than Leopoldo’s courses,” she added. “There’s always a number of tricks hiding in there and this was no different. It was brilliantly designed, and he had a beautiful, incredible field to work with in an electric atmosphere.”
All-female podium sweep
Out of the ten, talented horse-and-rider pairs, only three of America’s leading ladies went double clear to secure an all-female sweep of the top results. Little set the bar high as the first to leave the rails standing in the jump-off order, followed in hot pursuit by the youngest rider in the class, 19-year-old Chloe Reid, riding 9-year-old, Irish Sporthorse stallion Codarco (Darco x Orame). Last to go, 22-year-old Katie Dinan and 11-year-old, Irish Sporthorse gelding Dougie Douglas (Ard VDL Douglas x High Roller) chose a slightly more conservative track to finish in third.
“I’m set to graduate from Harvard in May and I’m going to be riding full time after graduation,” said Dinan. “I’m really looking forward to that. I’m going to try to take my riding further and focus on that full time. It’s really exciting.
“I’m in the process of making more definite plans, but over the last few years, I’ve been competing in Europe over the summers when on holiday from school and during the school year I’ve been in America. So when I graduate, I’ll have more flexibility. I’ll be able to choose my competitions around my horses rather than around school, and I’ll see what happens with that.”
Dinan acquired the horse that she rode to a podium finish in the final North American League event from the Goresbridge Supreme Sale of Showjumpers last November
“I got Dougie at the end of last year and our first show together was at the beginning of January,” she said. “I believe this was our fifth competition together. I’m really grateful that so far, he’s been just wonderful. He’s so much fun to ride, he has a great personality, he seems to love show jumping, he has a lot of experience, which I feel very fortunate I can draw off of because he’s been to a lot of different venues.
“He’s jumped on a lot of grass fields, and that was one of the reasons why I decided to bring him to Live Oak because this is as beautiful as a grass field as there is to ride on, and I thought it would be a really good venue for him.”
A family affair
The well-regarded, annual competition, Live Oak International, is held on second-place finisher Reid’s grandmother’s farm and is organised in partnership by her uncle, Chester Weber and her mother, Juliet Reid.
“I couldn’t ask for a better placing at a better venue than right now and to do it and sit up here (in the press conference) with my uncle and my mom is incredible,” said Reid. “It’s a dream come true today and everything that’s happened this week.
“I have to give my success to my family. Without their support behind me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. And also to the group of people, my trainers, grooms, everyone who has helped me to be able to bring my horses and be best prepared for this moment.”
The 2016 season is set to be a breakout year for the young, American rider, who trains with Germany’s Marcus Beerbaum and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. Last month, she was also the youngest entry in the $130,000 Adequan Grand Prix CSI3* and placed third.
“I was actually talking to my dad before we started the class today and I was like, ‘I hope the course is challenging enough this morning,’” Reid said. “Because if the first go around at a show is challenging, that just makes me ride even better, I think. I was looking for the additional pressure today, but anytime you enter a class with the amazing riders that were in the class today is always such an honor and today definitely proved to be.”
“I think that Juliet and I often talk about Aachen as a model for the best annual horse competition in the world and that’s something that we look to,” said Weber. “When we started the show jumping, we did that together with the team from Spruce Meadows because we felt like that they could help bring us knowledge. We learned a lot from them, we still call them if we have questions; they’re great at answering those kinds of things. We have a great team in place, and we are talking back and forth about perhaps adding eventing.”
“There are about 2,000 eventing horses in Ocala in the winter; it’s a kind of mecca for eventers,” he added. “We have some big challenges to work through and whether 2017 is the right time, or if the right time will come, but I think not unlike Aachen, you’ll see some other sports happen here, but they have to come at their own logical time.”
Speaking of eventing, Little has based her winter operations out of Ocala for the last two winter seasons to best prepare her eventing and show jumping strings at the same time. During the warmer months, Little and her family’s Raylyn Farms return to Frederick, Maryland, where her parents settled 36 years ago.
“It’s easier to get the eventing horses fit in Ocala,” said Little. “And also, I have 28 horses in the stable at the moment, primarily between ages 5 and 7 that I’ve bred, and it was a financial decision to develop the young horses here in Ocala. I am looking to return to Wellington next year.
The grand prix show jumper turned to eventing in 2010, quickly working her way to the 4* level, the highest level of competition. “Anytime you’re entering another world or learning another sport or language, the best way to do it is full immersion program,” she said. “The goals that I had in eventing, there was really no other way to do it other than to completely immerse yourself and put everything, your whole heart and whole head, into it and that has been a focus for five or six years now.”
“I think that there’s certainly a way to play both sports at a very high level, if you have the team behind you that’s helping you play that game,” she added. “Because we all know that this looks like an individual sport, but it’s far more a team sport than the public may realise. I do hope to be able to do both and believe that it’s possible.”
Little’s eventing experience played a role in her approach to today’s course, especially in the long gallop to final oxer in the jump-off round
“There, I was lucky; I knew that when I landed from the second to last fence, I could ask her for some speed then kick her into her highest gear then back off,” said Little. “I hoped that I would see the distance as far off as I possibly could, going at 750 metres a minute and trying to see a distance 12 strides out – that was a bit of eventing.
“I think eventing makes me sharper (for show jumping), and there are things that I feel that I do better than I did before I evented, and I wouldn’t trade those things for anything. And I think that being here in the show jumping ring will help me stay sharp for what I hope is coming in the eventing arena.”
But despite the recent success in show jumping, not only winning the Longines FEI World Cup™ qualifier but also the $35,000 Live Oak International the day before and finishing in second in the $10,000 speed class on Friday, Little’s 2016 plans of focusing on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games for eventing have not changed.
“I have a very special horse in RF Demeter for high-level, performance eventing,” Little said. “She is in top form, and I can’t help but look toward Rio with her. So I have to stay the course for her and her owners and for myself because we’ve had a lot of years preparing for this season. We’re heading into the final Olympic trials prepared and fit, so a lot will have to go into that to make sure she’s on point.
“In jumpers, things are evolving quickly, and I can’t say that I have a solid plan for what’s coming in the next few months. There are a few things on the table but the plans will have to be made with Demeter in mind and her goals.”
Little’s return to the international show jumping ring largely stemmed from Corona’s development since Little acquired the talented mare last year from American rider Lauren Tisbo.
“There’s no question that Corona wouldn’t be part of the eventing string because dressage wouldn’t be a part of her repertoire,” said Little. “I think the judges’ comments would be that she’s not submissive and I would have to agree with them. “She is an extraordinary woman and she knows it and we have to treat her as such. She is 12 years old, and she’s in a new program so we have to find our way and it’s give and take. But she is a wonderful competitor, and I know she’s going to give 150 percent when she walks through the in gate.
Despite the win, Little’s late start to the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping season means she will not head to the Final in Gothenburg, Sweden next month but will keep the next Final in mind for planning after Rio. “That’s an incredible goal,” she said. “I have a very special horse that is telling me that she’s ready for that, and that’s a dream and I will work toward that. At this point, it’s still one show at a time, one class at a time and hopefully the road I’m part of leads to the World Cup Final.”
Following the final event of the North American League, the qualified U.S. riders are already planning the upcoming weeks that lead up to traveling to Europe.
“I am planning on going to the Final and will take Lucifer and New York,” said second-place finisher in the East Coast league, Hardin (Jack) Towell (USA).
The East Coast league’s third place finisher Quentin Judge (USA) finished in fifth in the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping in Ocala with HH Whisky Royale, but plans to take HH Copin van de Broy to Sweden.
“I thought Whisky Royale was great today,” Judge said. “He jumped really well in the first round, very easy to jump clear. But in the jump off, I cut the turn to the first fence too tight and knocked the standard with my foot. He jumped double clear; the rail was my fault.
“I’m planning to go to the Final with Copin and will jump him in two small classes before we head over to Gothenburg in a few weeks, to make sure he’s fit and ready to go.
Current Longines Rankings number four Beezie Madden (USA) also plans to head to the Final, despite missing the last two East Coast league events. “We’re hoping to be able to go, that’s for sure,” Madden said. “Right now, Simon and Cortes will not go, but we have two horses, Quister and Breitling, who are doing really well and we just have to see which ones of those two we’d like to take the Final. Breitling just jumped double clear at last week’s Nations Cup so we’re really excited about him.”
Kent Farrington and McLain Ward do not plan to travel to Europe next month, instead opting to focus on qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. In their place, it’s likely that alternate Dinan will receive a bid.
“I was waiting to see after today that if it does work out, I’d plan on taking Nougat du Vallet,” Dinan said. “He competed in the World Cup qualifier at the Wellington Masters two weeks ago. I will figure out what makes most sense because I’ll be qualified on multiple horses but that would be my plan.
“I jumped him in the World Cup Final at Gothenburg in 2013 and always wanted to go back there. I’m heading back to Boston right now and come back to Wellington to jump in Florida in the next two weeks. If I end up getting into the Final, then I’ll organise my schedule around that.”
In the West Coast league, all three top U.S. riders, Karl Cook, Rich Fellers and Richard Spooner plan to compete in the Final.
“I would like to do the World Cup Final with the horse because I really need to get to know (new horse, Big Red),” Spooner said. “I really want to feel confident on the horse and I want to feel 100 percent, if Rio were to be in his future, that I would feel 100 percent confident in our ability to do that and I have a short time to do it.”
“I just have a simple rule with what I do with my show jumpers, which is I just let them tell me how they feel and I go with that, and he feels really good,” Fellers said of 20-year-old stallion Flexible and their plans to travel to the Final. “I don’t have any explanation for it, but he just feels as good as ever.”
Photo: FEI/Anthony Trollope