It feels surreal to say this, but welcome to the first day of competition at the first North American CCI4*-L of 2020. Twelve combinations presented yesterday to the ground jury of Sandy Phillips (GBR), Wayne Quarles (USA), and Valerie Vizcarrondo-Pride (USA). (Fun fact, Valerie will be competing her own Favian in the CCI4*-L at Tryon two weeks from now.) Despite the pandemic limiting the travel options for many in the United States, we still see a pair of Texas-based horses who made the long trailer-drive out west alongside a quartet of East Coast horses who hopped on a plane. Twelve pairs will be the largest field in this division since 2015, when 29 horses made their start.
Between the USEF Futures Team Challenge and a few heavy hitters looking to try and secure the 1-2 punch of wins at Galway and Tryon, we’re in for quite a competitive and exciting weekend out in Temecula. We’ll be bringing you day by day predictions alongside daily analysis of the results. At the bottom of today’s posts, we’ll also provide a few predictions for the overall results as well as for today’s dressage results.
Dating back through 2014, the lowest dressage score has been a 27.0, scored by RF Demeter and Marilyn Little in 2015. Four horses in this field have broken that mark, including Cooley Quicksilver who has broken it twice and Long Island T who has broken it an impressive eight times. Interestingly, only seven horses total have scored sub-thirty in the last five editions of this event (the division was not held in 2018).
The winner of dressage has held the lead only once since 2014; James Alliston and Happenstance led from start to finish in 2017. In the last three editions, the winner was either first or second after dressage. The last year that the winner came from outside the top three was 2014. Only Phillip Dutton comes forward as a previous winner of this event; he and Fernhill Fugitive won the division in 2015. Only two riders will be taking their first crack at the 4*-L, but six out of the 12 horses will be testing their mettle for the first time.
Long Island T has been a promising talent whose career has unfortunately been plagued a bit by poor timing. A cracking year in 2018 meant a potential 5* start at Kentucky in the spring of 2019, until a minor issue after his final prep run derailed those plans. He was aimed at the American Eventing Championships later that year, scoring a win and aiming for a big result at a fall 4*-L when his rider Boyd Martin suffered his own injury. A bout of self-doubt with a catch ride at Ocala Jockey Club made it evident that this horse was a one-man ride for the time being, which put him on the shelf for most of 2020 when the pandemic gave Boyd an opening to have enough time for a surgery he’d been putting off and a recovery period that lasted longer than expected.
However, these two clocked in a confident round at Morven Park at the beginning of this month in the Advanced, with a clean stadium round and a dressage test that was sub-30. These two have had yearly averages of 29.6 (2017), 27.1 (2018), 25.2 (2019) in the three full years they’ve partnered together. While the 29.1 they clocked in during their only Advanced start of 2020 didn’t quite reach the brilliance of the three tests they executed as a pair in 2019, it should be noted that there’s a good bit of rust that might have needed to be knocked off.
On the downside, Long Island will be the first horse in the ring, so Boyd Martin will need to have him tuned to perfection in order to lay down a test that will survive the challengers yet to come.
Phillip Dutton has brought Fernhill Singapore all the way out here for a crack at a second win in this division. This is a horse who can break 70% on a good day but toss in a score closer to 60% on a bad day; consistency can be an issue. Earlier this spring he brought his best foot forward and scored a personal best of 27.4 at Great Meadow 4*-S, but reverted back to a score of 34.3, more typical to his overall average of 33.1 over the last two years. He’ll be a bit of a wild card today and at fourth down the centerline, is not helped by the order of go.
Typically, Jollybo is not a horse who would get mentioned in the dressage portion of this analysis, but there’s some evidence that she and Hawley Bennett-Awad did quite a bit of homework while on lockdown. This pair began the year with their first run at Advanced since Kentucky, breaking 70% for the first time at the level in three years. Then everything locked down. Rather than running the experienced mare at the level this fall to prepare for this division, Hawley chose instead to build her confidence on the flat by clocking in a 26.1 first at Copper Meadows in the Prelim, then a 26.3 at the Intermediate at Woodside. A big question mark will be if that homework will pay off with a significantly harder test in a ring with considerably more atmosphere.
Making both of their first attempts at the 4*-L level, Woodford Reserve and Erin Kellerhouse have given no reason to indicate that they can’t be just as competitive as the more experienced pairs this weekend. While they’ve been limited to only four runs at the level thanks to the schedule, they’ve made each of them count and finished no worse than 3rd in any of their starts. Their worst score at the level is 29.6 and in their four starts they’ve averaged only 28.5 penalties, with all of their tests within two points of one another. Consistency paired with strong scores makes this a combination to keep a close eye on moving forward.
Liz Halliday-Sharp is always a rider to be reckoned with, and this fall she’s been nothing less than brilliant as she racked up wins at all three East Coast 4*-S, along with a smattering of wins at the 2*-S, 2*-L, and 3*-L levels. In short, she is on fire, and this weekend’s mount Cooley Quicksilver has been flying somewhat under the radar despite being Liz’s ride as the traveling alternate for the Pan Ams games. In four starts at the A and 4*-S levels this year, he has scored 27 or below on three occasions, with his 2020 average sitting at 27.6. This is more than a 5 point improvement from 2019, when his A/4* average sat at 33.3, and while his final 4*-S start prior to this event might indicate a touch of regression after he failed to break 70%, a 29.4 in the 3*-S at Midsouth indicates that things should be coming back on track.
Depending her home turf this weekend is Tamie Smith, whose best chances at a win this weekend lie with her catch ride Passepartout, normally piloted by Tamie’s daughter Kaylawna Cook. With Kaylawna out on maternity leave, Tamie has already piloted Passepartout to a win in the horse’s first 4*-S; now she’ll try to make it two for two at the horse’s first 4*-L. This pair has two dressage tests together, breaking the 70% mark on their first start together but then regressing a bit at Woodside to the tune of 32.3. However prior to Tamie taking the reins, the horse had broken the 70% mark in each of his three starts with Kaylawna, even breaking 75% earlier this summer at Galway Downs. Overall, this horse sits on a career average of 28.8 for the level and Tamie will be riding with the advantage of being next to last down the centerline on home turf.
The final horse of the day to enter the ring will be Dassett Choice, ridden by Rebecca Brown. This weekend will be the first 4*-L attempt for Rebecca Brown but this won’t be her first trip down centerline at this level; she’ll be competing the former Jenny Caras ride Fernhill Fortitude earlier in the day in his ninth 4*-L start. So Rebecca bookends the show a bit with one of the most experienced 4*-L horse in the country with a horse also making his first attempt at the level.
Regardless, Dassett Choice is the horse to keep an eye on for the first phase; this horse has broken 70% in three of his five A/4* tests, with a personal best of 27.3. Although he scored a less-than characteristic score of 34.7 at the Ocala JC 4*-S last fall, his typical range is from 69% to 73%. Being the last horse of the day might give him the boost to compete for the top slot if things have broken right.
PREDICTIONS – OVERALL
Division Winner: It’s ultimately going to be a battle royale between Liz Halliday-Sharp and Boyd Martin with Cooley Quicksilver and Long Island T respectively, coming down to the wire where even one or two time penalties might make the difference. In the end, I believe that Cooley Quicksilver will ultimately walk away with the win; Liz Halliday-Sharp has been absolutely on fire this fall and her riding is firing on all cylinders lately. Dressage day will absolutely key to that though, as Liz must execute a test that shows the horse is back on point after a minor regression; if he can equal his scores of the summer, he’ll be able to stay close enough to Long Island T after the first phase to put the pressure on him with the cross-country pace.
The Potential Spoiler: It’s difficult to get a good gauge on the performance of Tamie Smith and Passepartout as a pair with only one full start under their belt as a pair at this level, but this horse’s performances with Kaylawna Cook indicates that the win at Twin Rivers was no fluke. Despite being green to the level as both horse and rider, Kaylawna and Passepartout put in three impressive dressage tests, jumped clear in two of their three stadium rounds, and had two solid clear rounds across the country in two runs. At Twin Rivers 4*-S, Tamie was able to take advantage of his dressage and stadium strengths, then utilized her experience to push the pace on horse on the cross-country, producing the fastest round of the day. A similar performance this weekend would have this pair right up with the aforementioned pairs in contention for the win.
The Future Star: First time horses and riders to the 4*-L level often have a tough time of it; in a study I performed last spring of North American 4*-L riders, pairs tackling the level for the first time when neither the horse or the rider had previous experience at Advanced finished with clear cross-country rounds only 29% of the time; that’s compared to a 60% clear round completion for all starters. However, Erin Kellerhouse and Woodford Reserve have given every indication that they will be one of those who do finish clear; they have never had a stop, flag, frangible penalty, or any other difficulties on the cross-country in their career. Their record at this level indicates they could go for a win at their usual pace, with strong capabilities in both the dressage and stadium phases, but the biggest question for this pair on this weekend will be time….will they press the pace in their first attempt at the level or play it a bit safer?
PREDICTIONS – DAY ONE
Dressage Leader: Despite being first down the centerline, Long Island T with Boyd Martin has the talent and flash to hold the top position throughout the entire division. The biggest question will be how much of a cushion he will be able to create in front of the rest of the field; being first may narrow the advantage he has in this phase
The Field Above 70%: A number of horses in the field have the capability of breaking the 70% mark, but ultimately I think we’ll see only a third of the field (4 pairs) break into the twenties. Don’t expect the rest of the field to be strung out terribly far behind though; only two horses in the field have ever even scored in the forties, and they each only have done it once.
The Surprise: It’s likely that Jollybo will be the surprise of day one, with her recent record indicating that she and Hawley Bennett-Awad have been doing their homework at home since their last 5* start at Kentucky in 2019. As mentioned above, all signs point to the possibility of this pair breaking the 70% mark at a 4*-L for the first time in their career; their previous best score for this division level was a 34.2 at the Jersey Fresh CCI4*-L in 2018.
USEF Futures Team Challenge: These two teams will be neck and neck after dressage, with just over a point between them. Based off of expected averaged, Team Leslie, consisting of 4* pairs Tamie Smith/Passepartout, Rebecca Brown/Dassett Choice, and with Charlotte Babbit/2 A.M. participating as the 3* pair, will squeak into the lead with a predicted score of 93.5. Team Erik, with 4* pairs Liz Halliday-Sharp/Cooley Quicksilver, Emilee Libby/Jakobi, and 3* pair Sophie Click/Quidproquo will be hot on their heels, with an expected score of 94.7.