It was a good day to be sat on a good show jumper as the final phase of competition got underway in Poland at the LOTTO Strzegom Horse Trials. Strzegom’s ring is not one for the faint of heart — it gives off a sort of “fish bowl” feeling, with its low boundary fences and tightly designed track. There is much atmosphere to take in, and the time on the clock is always hard to beat — especially if your horse is prone to distraction.
To that end, just five of the 32 finishers in the CCIO4*-S FEI Nations Cup division managed clear rounds inside the time allowed. Polish designer Lukasz Szustorowski’s jumping track required finesse and attention as well as a commitment to continuing to come forward through each and every turn and related distance. It was a true test on the final day of competition, and in the end the two top spots would remain unchanged as both Lea Siegl (AUT) and van Helsing P as well as Caroline Pamukcu (USA) and HSH Blake delivered emphatic clear rounds to cement their individual podium finishes.
Lea moved into the lead following Saturday’s cross country with the 13-year-old DSP gelding van Helsing P (Van Gogh – Carisma P, by Carismo), who was her partner for the 2021 FEI European Eventing Championships in Avenches (SUI), thanks to a quicker trip around than dressage leader Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Blake (Tolan R – Doughiska Lass, by Kannan). With a 4* win in her pocket already this season, earned at Montelibretti with her Olympic mount DSP Fighting Line, Lea now finds herself well-supported for a bid at this summer’s European Championships at Haras du Pin.
The Netherlands’ Olympic bid remains alive with an important win in Nations Cup team competition this weekend, earning 100 points while current Nations Cup standings leader Belgium collects 80 points for their third place finish. This will push the Dutch into second in the points standings with a total of 285, swapping spots with the Italians who will collect 60 points for a fifth place finish today. Belgium will maintain their lead with 350 points in total. Dutch Chef Andrew Heffernan cited the upcoming Nations Cup legs at Haras de Jardy (FRA) and Avenches (SUI) as well as August’s FEI European Eventing Championships (which stand alone as another chance to earn Olympic qualification — the two top teams without existing qualification will earn their ticket) as the immediate focus for his team.
“These guys performed so well,” Andrew said in a post-event press release. “It was a really tough competition and it was really refreshing to see such a strong and forward thinking and demanding cross country course. It also gave us good pictures. There were no nasty falls or moments and that was really good for the sport. These guys performed fantastic and that is why we won. I am very proud.”
Merel Blom, who piloted the 8-year-old Chinuk R to a top-10 individual finish today, summed up the driving force behind the Dutch effort: “There is not a bigger motivator than Paris. We stand up every morning just pushing for Paris and we will keep pushing until we are there, for sure.”
Silver for Team USA
Caroline Pamukcu might be sitting on the most consistent horse — HSH Blake — in the U.S. at the moment, with accolades ranging back to his debut eventing season as a 5-year-old. Beneficiaries of the Holekamp/Turner Le Lion d’Angers Grant via the USEA in 2022, Caroline tested the then-7-year-old by Tolan R against the best in the world at the FEI WBFSH Breeding World Championships, finishing 10th overall and on the pair’s dressage score that week.
“Tim Holekamp really encouraged me to do Le Lion,” Caroline said earlier this week, noting that HSH Blake is a prime example of a horse that’s followed the pipeline laid out in the States for up-and-coming elite event horses. “It’s really cool for America because we’re really developing a pipeline for horses and riders, and I think we need to push for programs like this to continue. Kudos to Leslie [Law] because he’s the one who’s been fighting for this all along, and it’s really showing how much it boosts our whole sport in the end.”
Caroline is hoping to be selected for the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile this October with HSH Blake, who was purchased with the help of Caroline’s mother, Sherrie, and Mollie Hoff. With the U.S. already earning its qualification for Paris at World Championships last year, the opportunity stands to send a developing team for some additional experience and — especially with the help of a strong development program — a healthy prospect of another Pan Ams medal.
“I just feel like I was made for this sport,” Caroline commented. “This is my career. I’m very grateful for this country and for this support. I want to represent my country so badly — it’s really what I love for, and I really hope I get that chance soon.”
Long lists for the Pan American Games are expected later this summer, with the final team announcement to follow.
The U.S. was helped to silver medal position by Jenny Caras and Cassie Sanger, who each contributed clear rounds with just a shade of time today to leap up in the standings, finishing just outside of the final top 10. Jenny and Trendy Fernhill, owned by Elyse Eisenberg, moved up to 11th from 18th after cross country on a final score of 52.4, followed closely by Cassie and Fernhill Zoro, who started their week in 27th and finished in 12th on a score of 54.7. Andrew McConnon and Ferrie’s Cello would be the dropped score for the team this week but nonetheless will have gained valuable experience and team exposure, finishing their weekend in 26th overall.
“I’m great!” Leslie Law said as we began our post-event debrief this morning. The British Olympian has been associated with Developing Rider programs and their various iterations since 2014, but his passion for continuing education and proper development is something that’s always been a fundamental part of his philosophy. “By nature, I’m a very competitive person and you know, I just want to give these youngsters a chance to taste what I had the opportunity to do,” he said. “It’s really rewarding to try and identify the young talent in the in the USA do your very best to mentor it and bring it through, and hopefully give us more and more depth in the end.”
The USEF Development Tour is a new addition to the program pipeline in 2023, and its specific target of Strzegom (which was chosen for its location on the calendar when accounting for preparation events and travel, according to Leslie), provides a way to mirror the experience of selection, training, preparation, and competition for a major Championship on a senior squad. Whereas previous Nations Cups teams might have been a blend of Developing riders and riders not a part of the pipeline, the Development Tour — which is also supported by funding from the Karen Stives Endowment — is a specific goal for Developing riders who have participated in the Eventing Pathway Program.
“The team experiences is so important,” Leslie continued. “And you know, it’s not easy to get that back in the U.S. compared to what the European countries are able to do. They’ve got Nations Cups, I feel like almost in they’re in their back gardens. So it allows them to experiment with up and coming riders on Nations Cup teams before they’re brought up to an Olympic Games or World Championship. And I think, if that’s your first team experience that’s a lot to take on. So the more we can get our athletes into that space, they’re only going to be better for it, having experienced it in a different slightly different situation. I think the team experience is probably the most important thing, but then to take them out of their comfort zone and to even experience the whole the whole traveling part — the flying of the horses, the grooms — it just puts you ahead in the future.”
To me, the responsibility of a developing team’s Chef is almost more nuanced in some ways than that of a senior squad Chef. As Leslie pointed out, he’s as competitive as anyone — “I wanted us to come here and be competitive” — but he’s also responsible for cultivating the skillsets each rider will need if they want to be successful on senior teams in the future. Here he credits the mentorship he gained from British team manager Yogi Breisner and his philosophy on team strategy.
“I think I had a great mentor Yogi Breisner. I think he used to get the strategy pretty good. I think that experience in being in and around that when I was riding on the team, I learned a lot from that the balance of being competitive, but not being reckless. Sometimes it can be hard — it was hard for Caroline to have to go the long way a fence four [on cross country] when she was in the lead after the dressage — it isn’t always easy. But in a team competition, the team does have to come first, and that’s all part of the strategy and that’s my job to make those decisions and hopefully get it right. And then you stand by it, even if you get it wrong then you take that on. You have to be strong enough to do that, and I see that as that’s what I’m here for.”
The Development Tour squad will now travel on to Germany and next week’s CHIO Aachen, where they’ll have the opportunity to observe the top-flight competition and U.S. senior squad comprised of Kentucky 5* winners Tamie Smith and Mai Baum, Kentucky third-place finishers Liz Halliday-Sharp and Miks Master C, 2021 Aachen 4*-S winners Will Coleman and Off the Record, and Tokyo Olympians Phillip Dutton and Z.
If you want to catch up on the Nations Cup action this week, I’ll drop the replays from each phase below. Thanks for following along, and Go Eventing.
Dressage – Thursday:
Dressage – Friday: