We went to sleep last night feeling fairly secure in the U.S. team’s position ahead of show jumping at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile. But, as we all know, this is sport and this is horses, and with that combination anything is always possible.
Following a dramatic conclusion to eventing competition today in the show jumping, we now see a majorly shuffled leaderboard, though one thing remained the same: Caroline Pamukcu won individual gold, earning this in her senior team debut aboard the exciting 8-year-old HSH Blake (Tolan R – Doughiska Lass, by Kannan).
In the team competition, it was Canada’s day to shine, validating the country’s hard work, improved organization and high performance leadership structure with three clear rounds to secure a come-from-behind gold medal. It’s Canada’s first team gold in eventing at the Pan Ams since 1991, and this win also stamps the country’s ticket to the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Big Changes at the Top
Let’s go back to the start of the day. The U.S. team came into today with a cumulative score of 86.2, with 3 rails and some time in hand over silver-placed Brazil. Canada was also well in the hunt, less than a rail off of Brazil’s score.
The rails were flying early, and it took us until Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca and Ballypatrick SRS‘s (Pacino – Ballypatrick Romance, by Clover Hill) turn to see a pair leave all the fences up. One second of time would prevent a double clear. That honor would go to Colleen Loach and FE Golden Eye (Goldfever – Cascade, by Contendro), who in their spare time like to jump in the grand prix ring. That practice paid off, as Colleen and “Goldie” were the sole double clear of the entire day. This effort moved Colleen up into sixth in the final standings and put the pressure on Brazil. While Brazil did produce two clear rounds, a combination of time penalties and poles down for Rafael Losano and Carlos Parro would drop the team into bronze overall.
Additional clear rounds from Mike Winter and eventual individual bronze medalist Lindsay Traisnel sealed the deal for Canada to at least earn its Olympic spot, and two rails down for Karl Slezak and Hot Bobo would not endanger their finish.
As the reverse starting order ticked down and the first U.S. riders entered the buzzy main stadium, there were about seven rails in play. No one expected what came next.
Sydney Elliott and Carol Stephens’ QC Diamantaire (Diarado – Lantana, by Sandro Hit) entered as the first of the U.S. to see, lowering two rails and adding 3 seconds of time. With one score to drop (the Pan Ams are run on the older Olympic system of four riders to a team, with one drop score), the pressure mounted but wasn’t quite boiling yet.
Sharon White, in individual bronze after cross country, was the next to jump with her own Claus 63 (Catoo – Tina II, by Levisto). This pair lowered a shocking four rails, including a heartbreaker at the final fence, and added one second of time, dropping out of individual contention but still leaving the team gold intact. Liz Halliday was next in with Ocala Horse Properties’ and Deborah Palmer’s Miks Master C (Mighty Magic – Qui Lumba CBF, by Quite Easy), going for individual silver. This round was also something of a shock, as Liz and “Mikki” had three rails down. And with that, the U.S.’ seven-rail padding was erased, sending Caroline Pamukcu into the arena with ten times the pressure than she’d started the day with riding on her shoulders.
That pressure may have seeped through one tiny bit, as Caroline and HSH Blake miscommunicated at an oxer off a turn, swimming through it and adding 4 penalties. Without any further rails in hand, that rail gave Canada the team win, but Caroline did have those penalties in hand to keep her individual gold. Punching the air after clearing the last, Caroline capped off a stellar senior team debut and subsequently was the last woman standing for the U.S. on the individual podium.
So with all that dust settled, we have Canada in team gold, the U.S. in silver, and Brazil in bronze. Shuffled, the individual podium was Caroline Pamukcu (HSH Blake), Brazil’s Marcio Carvalho Jorge (Castle Howard Casanova), and Canada’s Lindsay Traisnel (Bacyrouge).
Canada Shows Up
For the Canadians, this weekend’s performance comes after a huge amount of reorganization of leadership and structure that began before the World Championships in 2022. Installing a High Performance Advisory Group tasked with laying out not just a “let’s get to this Championship” plan but a “let’s establish a multi-year pathway” plan, Canadian eventing now enjoys some fruits of its labor.
Rebecca Howard, a member of the last Olympic team Canada fielded in Rio de Janeiro (2016), is one of the newer leadership members, taking on the chef d’equipe role and immediately establishing herself as a shrewd leader with extensive experience in these high-pressure situations.
“It was unexpected, to be honest,” she said in a post-ceremony interview. “I mean, the way the guys performed wasn’t unexpected, but the actual outcome to be standing at the top of the podium was an extra bonus. Really the message of the week was really just for the guys to go and do what they do. It’s nothing extraordinary. It’s just literally doing what they’ve done all year. The way they’re performing was going to produce a good result, and that’s exactly exactly what happened. They went in there and performed the way they can, which we believed in them and knew they could do, and then also, luck fell our way. And that even added a better result than we were expecting. We’re absolutely obviously thrilled. The number one goal was was the first qualification. And we got a bonus on top of that.”
“I hope so!” she said when asked if eventing in Canada was in its RED ERA [she wasn’t actually asked that, but had I been there, that’s how I would have phrased it]. “I mean, we’ve got a super group of people involved that really wants what’s best for Canadian eventing and I think spirits are high and momentum I hope we can continue to build on. I’m sure there’ll be, you know, peaks and valleys to come, and that’s the way these things go. But we just keep plugging away and with a super group of people and great group of riders and horses.”
[You can read more about Canada’s new structure in this article Amanda Chance wrote earlier this year.]
After missing out on the Tokyo Olympics team competition, sending individuals instead, Canada can now firmly set its sights on Paris. Two Olympic berths were to be given out at Santiago this year, meaning the two top-placed teams not already qualified would stamp their tickets.
“This is the culmination of a year and a half, two years of complete high performance restructuring,” Mike Winter, who produced a clear round with El Mundo (Numero Uno – Calvaro’s Bria Z, by Calvaro Z) as the second Canadian in the ring. “It goes so much more — we executed today, but that foundation, what we’re surrounded by is so important.”
“I think what we’ve done is we’ve tried to align training pathways culture, mentality, and competitive execution,” Mike continued. “And Rebecca Howard [is] there to enable all our training pathways, whether it be with our own individual coaches, or her as our primary coach. It’s just been a really positive environment, and it’s allowed us all to do our best and be able to perform to our best. And I think that’s so key — it’s so key. It’s not one thing that sort of magical or exceptional, that does it — it’s all the sort of small things that come together, and everybody is so dedicated to that process.”
Debriefing the Day for Team USA
This obviously wasn’t the result the U.S. team wanted — I doubt anyone would’ve pegged Liz or Sharon to have the rails they did. Is it reason to panic? Absolutely not.
For starters, all pairs on this team are well-proven in this phase. Liz and Miks Master C have had two rails down, at one of their first FEI competitions together last year, but have otherwise had single-rail or clear rounds on their international record. The same for Sharon and Claus — they had two rails down at the 4* level during Claus’ first season at the level in 2021 and have just 5 rails in total across 12 other starts at 4*L/S.
“I think there’s probably a lot of ‘if only’s’ going on right now in our own heads,” Sharon White said. “So, so close. But you know, we fought hard to the bitter end and today was obviously a little bit disappointing, but I think all of us are so proud of Caroline, and they’ll all have learned so much. It means everyone’s already planning how we’re going to fight hard to get it done better next time.”
“I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit gutted right now — I think we all are,” Liz Halliday said. “It’s certainly not the result we came here to do. Sometimes that’s how things go with horses. So we have to take it on the chin and stand up and be proud of what we did achieve already. And just looking at ways that we can keep fighting hard to be better, because I believe that the USA has really strong riders and horses right now. We’re just going to keep pushing.”
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Sydney Elliott said. “I think for me, I was very proud of our weekend. Being alongside these ladies — it was a great experience.”
At the end of the day, this is sports and in that realm exist a myriad of variables and “what ifs”. Was it the pressure? Was it first timer-itis? Was it the fact that most riders agreed that yesterday’s 3*-L-spec cross country didn’t quite back their horses off enough, resulting in a lack of rideability today, or were the horses more tired than typical today? We won’t definitively know, but chef d’equipe Bobby Costello did observe what could have been more fatigue than usual from some of the horses.
“First and foremost, we’re thrilled for Caroline, and all of her owners and her support group,” Bobby said at the outset of his post interview. “She was great this weekend. So that is first and foremost.
“I think everybody was a little bit surprised that a couple of horses jumped seemingly a little bit more tired today,” he continued. “I thought the riders rode well, but the horses just weren’t their usual buoyant, you know, jumping out of their skin [selves]…we think that they’re maybe a little bit more tired. But, you know, it’s hard to, in the moment, look back — I think we all have to just think about it for a couple of days and I think with that comes a little bit of clarity what we can do going forward.”
For me, outcomes like this — especially when the final margin of loss was .1 penalty — are more of an opportunity for learning and empathy than disappointment and blame. Am I an eternal optimist? Of course — you have to be, in this sport. It’s also imperative to remember that no matter what preparation and mental fortitude one has, this is a sport involving horses, who give us what they can every day and who can’t always be predicted.
Bobby remains pragmatic.
“The last few of these competitions have been very exciting, come down to the very last, you know, tenth of a point or hundredth of a point. And sometimes you’re on the right side of that, and sometimes you’re not.
“It’s good to be disappointed with silver because that means that you just want to be better. And we’re all good friends with the Canadians and so we’re super happy, genuinely happy for those guys. They deserved it — they absolutely deserved it. And it was great to see Brazil up on the both the team and individual podium. So I think for the sport and the growth of the sport, it was a good weekend. And we’ll just have to, as a team, go away and come back even stronger.”
Brazil Stamps a Ticket to Paris
Brazil also earns their way to Paris with a strong team performance this weekend. They’ll also need to do some work in the show jumping phase with a total of six rails down, but now the focus moves to the next stop on the championship tour.
Ruy Fonseca, four times a medalist at the Pan American Games and a two-time Olympian, piloted Ballypatrick SRS to a smooth clear, the first clear of the day, with some time to add to his overall finishing score. Two rails from fellow Pan Ams medalist and Olympian Rafael Mamprin Losano and Withington (Wolkenderry – Unnamed mare, by Loughahoe Guy xx) as well as four down from Olympian and Pan Ams double gold medalist Carlos Parro and Safira (Spring’s Spirit – Hidden Sapphire, by Uptons Deli Circus) added some unnecessary penalties to the team score, but a healthy amount of penalties in hand and stylish clear from Marcio Carvalho Jorge and Castle Howard Romeo (Womanizer – K Cavalier Belle, by Cavalier Royale) secured the final result.
It’s an exciting time for Brazil, whose riders benefit from the expertise of British Olympian William Fox-Pitt. All four riders were on horses aged 12 of younger, showcasing the talent that is poised to peak and have a strong showing at the upcoming Olympics. As with many countries that lack expansive competition and training opportunities, these Brazilian riders (and a large number of other competitors from this Pan Ams field) do not live and train in their home country. They’ve relocated, primarily to the UK and Europe, with some spending time in the U.S. as well, to pursue their competitive aspirations. This type of commitment is almost required in order to gain competitive edge, and it’s a true display of drive for excellence and love of the sport that will always have our respect.
Individual Medalists Highlight Rising Talent
Caroline Pamukcu has been vocal about her intentions this year from the outset: she wanted a chance to represent the U.S. on a senior team. After winning silver as a team in Strzegom’s FEI Nations Cup event (June) and second as an individual, Caroline hoped she’d done enough to get some notice for the Pan American Games. HSH Blake was the most obvious choice, having strong results starting with the YEH Young Event Horse program (he won the 2020 East Coast Championships as a 5-year-old) and continuing with the receipt of the Holekamp/Turner Le Lion Grant to compete as a 6-year-old at Le Lion d’Angers. Caroline and Blake, who is owned by Caroline, her mother Sherrie, and Luann McElduff, finished 10th at Le Lion.
“I just have to say I’m really, really grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “I’m really grateful for having such great teammates, [they] take me under their wing and just support me and just again, the opportunity to come here and just show off our country and represent what the U.S. [has] and what we’re building. There’s a pipeline in our country at the moment. That’s exciting for us. There’s so many horses at home — there’s really [a lot of] depth in our string at the moment between young horses, older horses, older riders and younger riders.”
“I get a little bit eager sometimes and you know, that was definitely showing my age there!” Caroline said ruefully of her near-miss in the show jumping. “But I’m grateful for a great horse who saved me. I just saw one, and I sent it — I drank way too much Red Bull! I feel awful, if I didn’t have that silly rail, it cost us the gold. But, you know, I promise I won’t make such a silly mistake again. I can’t wait ’til I’m like 50 and I’m like, ‘do you remember that? I swung and missed so hard, I almost fell off — it was amazing!'”
Individual silver medalist Marcio Carvalho Jorge and Castle Howard Casanova, owned in partnership with Arabella and Hugo Mackenzie Smith and Annabel Vere Nicoll, are another pair that frequent the show jumping circuit, competing up through the CSI4* level on this year’s Sunshine Tour in Spain to get their season started. Marcio bases in the UK full-time, and now this long journey becomes even sweeter as this medal is Marcio’s first individual podium finish. He’s a multi-Olympian and also represented Brazil at the World Championships last year.
“This is a really special horse, he’s a really good jumper and really smart as well and I hope he will be ready to be competitive in Paris next year,” Marcio said in the mixed zone after his round.
Lindsay Traisnel was asked repeatedly if she expected to end up on the individual podium this week. If you’ve watched her prepare Bacyrouge for this event, you wouldn’t be surprised to see this result. Lindsay flies a bit under the radar, not having a ton of horses at the top levels and also basing herself in Europe for multiple years before moving back to Canada in 2017.
“Dreamy”, as Bacyrouge is known at home, was originally put into Lindsay’s program while she was based with Lucy (Wiegersma) McCarthy, intended to be a resale project. He quickly showed that he intended to stay, was taken off the market and is now owned by Lindsay and her parents. Lindsay started competing Bacyrouge in FEI competition after moving back to North America (2017), steadily making progress though the levels until stepping up to 4* at Bromont in 2021. They’ve since finished second and third in the 4*-L at Bromont, arguably one of the toughest 4*s in the U.S. and Canada, en route to this first team selection.
“I would say it’s a little unexpected that I have an amazing horse and a great team,” Lindsay said following the medal ceremony. “So it was really just riding him well, and I knew he was dependable and would do the job.”
Individual celebrations almost seem a bit of an aferthought given the “all hands on deck” team mentality, particularly when an Olympic spot is on the line. “The focus was the team this week and I’m just so excited,” Lindsay said. “We got our Paris qualification and I’m so happy to be part of this group.”
With that, a thrilling week of eventing concludes in Santiago as the final equestrian showdown — show jumping — of the Games gets underway next. There will be plenty in play for the U.S. jumping team, as this is their final chance to qualify for the Olympics next year.
I know I, for one, had some major FOMO watching these Pan Ams from afar. The sell-out crowds in Chile showcased just how impactful this sport can be, and I truly enjoyed being a witness to a stellar week of sport. Safe travels to all on their respective journeys home, and Go Eventing.
Catch up on EN’s coverage of the Pan American Games, presented by Ocala Horse Properties, here. We also recommend following @usefeventing on Instagram and Facebook as well as @canadianeventingteam for more content from on the ground, as well as roving photographer Shannon Brinkman here. To follow along with more from the jumping competition at Pan Ams, follow @usajumping on Instagram.