Who Will Make the U.S. Pan American Games Team?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“There are going to be a lot of disappointed people on the day the team is named” — that’s been the overarching theme of the U.S. Pan American Games selection process for the past eight months, ever since Team USA’s bid for Olympic qualification breathed its last on a muddy cross country day in Normandy at the World Equestrian Games.

That instantly changed a few things about Team USA’s participation in the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. While the Pan Ams have generally been used in the past to give riders with no prior team experience and greener horses a chance to shine on the world stage, the Games suddenly became less about giving experience and more about winning.

With Canada gaining a ticket to Rio after France’s disqualification from WEG, the U.S. no longer needs to win in Toronto in order to qualify for the Olympics. And in truth, we never needed to win it even under that scenario. We could have finished in silver position with Brazil taking gold and still have qualified for Rio, as the host nation automatically qualifies for the Olympics.

Now with Canada qualified, the U.S. has even more breathing room, as we could finish in bronze position behind both Canada and Brazil and still go to Rio. But these latest developments haven’t changed the tune of Coach David O’Connor, the selectors or the riders. The goal in Toronto remains unchanged: Team USA wants to win gold.

A must-win scenario

A Pan Ams win is important for a number of reasons. It would give a much-needed boost to team morale, which suffered at the World Equestrian Games. It would also help prove the U.S. can still deliver in high pressure scenarios, something we’ve struggled to do for the past few years. The U.S. hasn’t finished a team since the Nations Cup at Boekelo in 2012. We need to complete a team — period.

With the must-win scenario in mind, we can look to the burning question at hand: Who will the selectors send to Toronto? Will they want seasoned team riders like Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin? Will they want horses with plenty of three-star and even four-star experience? Or will they take a chance on hot shot two-star horses like RF Scandalous or Mai Baum and riders who have never been on a championship team like Lauren Kieffer and Matt Brown?

With the team set to be named no later than May 20 — the final team vet evaluations are taking place early next week in Virginia — there are still a number of different team scenarios we could see come Wednesday. We don’t have a crystal ball to know exactly what the selectors are thinking, but here’s what’s likely on their mind right now.

Selection criteria

The selectors want to see consistent good form — that’s a theme Bobby Costello, who chairs the USEF Selection Committee, has emphasized over and over since taking on the job. Any outlying high dressage scores, cross country jumping penalties and show jumping rounds with high rail counts since the selection period began last summer will affect a horse and rider’s chances.

That philosophy of consistent good form applies to both how horses and riders performed at selection trials (you can see the full list of those here) but also at other events during the selection period. While results at selection trials carry more weight, the selectors also need to see good results across the board.

Recency also plays a role in selection. A horse with a good result at a selection trial in the fall that then had a light spring season or didn’t contest a spring selection trial can be overshadowed by horses with multiple good results at selection trials in both 2014 and 2015.

Consider that there are 17 horse and rider combinations that completed two Pan Ams selection trials with a qualifying score. (Fun trivia fact: One pair, Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver, completed three selection trials with a qualifying score.) Any horses and riders that completed their selection trials close to that elusive 45 final score mark will have an automatic advantage.

Team scenarios

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty and look at some scenarios. What about horses like RF Scandalous, who have recorded only one result at a selection trial? The mare has won five FEI events in a row, including the selection trial at Ocala CCI2*, but her results are now arguably overshadowed by horses that have done more than her by recording two good results at selection trials.

There’s also the question of how forgiving the selectors should be of an outlier on a horse’s record since the selection period began, be it an usually high dressage score, 20 jumping penalties on cross country or more show jumping rails than the horse usually has.

Take Cyrano, for example. He had 20 jumping penalties at Pine Top in February and then another 20 jumping penalties in the selection trial at Ocala CCI2*. He and Michael Pollard then went on to win the final selection trial at Jersey Fresh CCI2* on a score of 36.9. Do the selectors forgive those jumping penalties at Pine Top and Ocala and take Cyrano based on the Jersey Fresh performance?

Mai Baum is another interesting case. He had 40 jumping penalties at the selection trial at Fair Hill CCI2*, but with young rider Alex Ahearn in the irons. Since then Tamie Smith has taken over the ride, and she and Mai Baum won The Fork CIC2* and finished second in the selection trial at Jersey Fresh CCI2* on 41.5. Do the selectors forgive the jumping penalties considering they were with another rider?

There is also the debate of two-star horses versus three-star and four-star horses. With the Pan Ams being a CCI2*, should we only send two-star horses horses? If you answer yes to that, what about horses that have only competed in one CCI2* in their careers? Is a good result at one CCI2* enough to send a horse to a championship with so much on the line?

These are just a handful of the questions the selectors will be wrestling with over the next few days. While 126 horses have recorded a qualifying score at a selection trial since the selection period began at Rebecca Farm last year, we’ve narrowed down the list to the front runners who likely have the best chance at being named to the team. Let’s break it down by rider.

Front runners

Phillip Dutton: Phillip’s experience and leadership on a team has been demonstrated many times before, and he’s someone the selectors will likely want in Toronto as the team looks to take gold. He’s also already a Pan Ams team gold medalist and individual silver medalist with TruLuck from the 2007 Games in Rio.

Phillip had all but locked up a spot on the team with John and Kristie Norton’s I’m Sew Ready until the second to last fence at the Jersey Fresh CCI3* when they parted ways. Tom Tierney and Simon Roosevelt’s Fernhill Cubalawn, who won the USEF CCI4* National Championship in Kentucky, would be the natural next choice, but Phillip confirmed to EN that he would like to take the horse to Aachen instead for the Nations Cup and has asked the selectors not to consider “Cuba” for the Pan Ams.

So in steps Tom Tierney and Annie Jones’ Fernhill Fugitive, another newly minted four-star horse that finished ninth at Kentucky. He did the best dressage test of his career at Rolex to score 47.3 and jumped clear in both cross country and show jumping to finish inside the top 10 — talk about peaking at the right time.

Fernhill Fugitive averages a 50.5 in dressage at the Advanced level with a total of about 11 cross country penalties and 4 show jumping penalties. He does have a 20 on his score card from Blenheim CCI3*, which was a selection trial, so the selectors will have to decide if the Big Phil factor outweighs those jumping penalties.

Boyd Martin: Not only has Boyd been the highest placed U.S. rider at the last two World Equestrian Games, but he’s never had a cross country jumping penalty on any team he’s competed on, whether it was for a Nations Cup or the Olympic Games. He has delivered time and time again under high pressure scenarios, and his experience would count for a lot in Toronto.

While Boyd has both Steve Blauner’s Master Frisky and the Pancho Villa Syndicate’s Pancho Villa qualified for the Pan Ams, he requested that the selectors only consider Pancho Villa so he can keep Master Frisky on a path for the 2016 Olympic Games, where he hopes the horse will be a good back-up for Shamwari.

Pancho Villa averages 48.5 in dressage at the Advanced level with about 11 total cross country penalties — most of those coming from time penalties — and about 3 show jumping penalties. Boyd hasn’t always pushed this horse for time, which affects his cross country average, but when he pushed him for time at Jersey Fresh CCI3*, the horse had just 1 time penalty.

Lauren Kieffer: Sending Lauren to Toronto is a win-win in that it accomplishes giving a new rider team experience and also sends one of the most consistent horses at this level we currently have in our arsenal. With Red Hills CIC3* winner Czechmate withdrawn from Jersey Fresh due to a minor injury and subsequently unable to qualify for the Pan Ams, Marie le Menestrel’s Meadowbrook’s Scarlett stepped in as Lauren’s best shot at the team.

The mare definitely didn’t disappoint, finishing second in her first CCI3* at Jersey Fresh on a score of 46.0 after jumping double clear cross country and pulling just the fifth rail of her entire career. Indeed, Meadowbrook’s Scarlett’s record is almost too good to be true — not a single cross country jumping penalty in her career and a show jumping record that Silvio Mazzoni dreams of at night.

Tamie Smith: Tamie started her spring campaign with three Pan Ams hopefuls in Twizted Syster, Mai Baum and Fleur de Lis, and Mai Baum has emerged as the front runner after Twizted Syster sustained a minor injury before Jersey Fresh and Fleur de Lis did not have the show jumping round he needed at Jersey.

As discussed above, Ellen and Alex Ahearn’s Mai Baum has been unstoppable since Tamie took over the ride this winter, and since then their record has been virtually flawless. In their four events at the Intermediate level, Tamie and Mai Baum have averaged a 36 on the flat, 1 cross country penalty and 2 show jumping penalties.

The horse also did his first Advanced event this spring at Twin Rivers and won it on a score of 25.6. The selectors will have to decide how much weight to give that one Advanced start, but it does potentially give Mai Baum a slight edge over some of the other two-star horses that haven’t yet stepped up to the highest level.

Marilyn Little: RF Scandalous, owned by Raylyn Farms and Phoebe and Michael Manders, has been on a hot streak since Galway Downs CCI1* last fall, winning five FEI events in a row including the selection trials at Ocala CCI2*. While she’s now won four two-star events, just one was a CCI2*, and that’s the only CCI2* RF Scandalous has ever competed in, which means other horses in Pan Ams contention have more experience and results on their record.

RF Scandalous is also one of the only horses in this group of front runners that we did not see at Jersey Fresh. Instead, Marilyn chose to get her qualifier done at Ocala in early April, which will certainly give her an advantage at the vet evaluations early next week, as just about all of the other horses being looked at had to run over hard ground at Jersey Fresh last weekend.

Marilyn also has two other horses in the hunt in RF West Indie and RF Quarterman, both owned by Raylyn Farms. RF West Indie is an interesting case in that she won the selection trial at Galway Downs CCI2* and placed fourth in the selection trial at Ocala CCI2*, but Marilyn also fell from her at the selection trials at Fair Hill CCI2*, as well as at Pine Top in February, so that leaves her picture a bit unclear.

RF Quarterman is also in the mix having finished third in the selection trial at Fair Hill CCI2* last fall, but that’s his only qualifying result for Toronto after only competing in CICs and National horse trials this spring. After the falls from RF West Indie and RF Quarterman’s one qualifying result from last fall, RF Scandalous is likely Marilyn’s top Pan Ams hopeful at this stage of the game.

Matt Brown: Matt has arguably done the most of any rider to try to land a spot on the Pan Ams team, having hauled east from California twice during the selection period. He took two horses to Fair Hill last fall and three horses to Jersey Fresh, which shows a lot of dedication to be visible in front of the selectors at these big events.

Before Jersey Fresh, Matt’s top three horses could be ranked in this order: Super Socks BCF, Happenstance, BCF Belicoso. But an uncharacteristicly high dressage score saw Matt withdraw Super Socks BCF before cross country at Jersey Fresh. That left CCI3* first-timers Mary McKee’s Happenstance and Blossom Creek Foundation’s BCF Belicoso to shore up his bid for Toronto.

Both horses stepped up admirably, and Happenstance just edges BCF Belicoso after jumping double clear on cross country and adding one rail to finish in fifth place in his first CCI3*. In four starts at the Advanced level, Happenstance is averaging a 48.8 on the flat, clear cross country trips with 3.8 time penalties and just over 1 rail in show jumping.

It’s also notable here that Happenstance had 20 jumping penalties at Fair Hill CCI2* last fall, where he led the 111-horse division after dressage. But he also won the selection trials at Rebecca Farm CCI2* last summer, so he has two good results at selection trials and one not so good result. The selectors will have to decide if they are willing to forgive that Fair Hill performance.

Michael Pollard: As mentioned above, Carl Bouckaert’s Cyrano has had a mixed bag this spring. While his dominant performance in the CCI2* at Jersey Fresh is fresh in everyone’s minds, the horse had 20 jumping penalties at Pine Top and 20 jumping penalties in the Ocala CCI2* . That could be one too many mistakes for the selectors to look past.

Michael also has Pan Ams veteran Ballingowan Pizazz in the mix, but this horse has the disadvantage of not having competed at all last summer and fall when the selection period began. The horse also had an uncharacteristically high dressage score at Carolina International when he was not happy in the busy atmosphere.

But his sins could be forgiven after a sixth place finish in the final selection trial at the Jersey Fresh CCI3*, where the horse jumped one of the three double clear show jumping rounds in the division. Ballingowan Pizazz averages 48.4 in dressage at the Advanced level, with clear rounds and 7.8 cross country time penalties, and just over 1 show jumping penalty.

Buck Davidson: Buck started the year with three very good two-star horses in Be Mine, Carlevo and Quasar, but things came unraveled for all three at various points. Carlevo had 20 jumping penalties in the Carolina CIC2* and also had two rails down in the Jersey Fresh CCI2*. Quasar had five rails down in the Ocala CCI2*, and Buck fell from Be Mine in the Jersey Fresh CCI2*.

So that leaves Buck with Carl Segal and Sherrie Martin’s Copper Beech as his frontrunner for the Pan Ams, which is made interesting by the fact that the horse is getting on a plane on Monday to go to Ireland for the Tattersalls CCI3*. His record hasn’t been super consistent this spring either.

After finishing second in the selection trials at Galway Downs CCI3* last fall, Buck retired Copper Beech at Red Hills after picking up a 20 on cross country. He also didn’t run at The Fork (withdrawing before cross country after Caroline Martin and Pebbly Maximus’s fall) and just did the CIC2* at Jersey Fresh (which he won) in preparation for Tattersalls.

Of course, Buck also has U.S. All-Time Highest Scoring Horse Ballynoe Castle RM qualified for the Pan Ams after winning the Jersey Fresh CCI3*, but Buck and owner Carl Segal made it clear at Jersey that they don’t expect “Reggie” to go to Toronto. While the horse is very experienced, the selectors have enough good options that the horse really won’t be needed.

The bottom line

Beyond the horses and riders named above, there are other combinations that applied for the Pan Ams and have good qualifying results, like Julie Richards and Beaulieu’s Cayenne, Maya Black and Doesn’t Play Fair, Elisa Wallace and Corteo, Lillian Heard and Arundel, and Will Coleman and OBOS O’Reilly. It’s very possible we’ll see one of those combinations named to the reserve list.

So after chewing on the data and closely following the selection process, who do I think will be named to the Pan Ams team? The selectors will name four team members and up to 12 reserves on May 20. Just one horse will go to Toronto as a traveling reserve for the games in July.

With the must-win scenario in mind, my picks are Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Fugitive, Boyd Martin and Pancho Villa, Lauren Kieffer and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett, and Matt Brown and Happenstance. The race for that fourth slot is extremely close in my mind; you could easily put a hot shot two-star horse there, but I think the three-star experience might just give Happenstance the edge. I think we’ll see just about all of the additional names bolded above named to the reserve list.

That said, I would also love for the selectors to send a “greener” team with the future in mind. Yes, we want to win the Pan Ams, but we also have an exciting amount of depth at the two-star and three-star level right now. My dream team would be Lauren Kieffer and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett, Tamie Smith and Mai Baum, Matt Brown and Happenstance, and Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous.

Now let’s hear your picks for the team, EN. Who would you send to Toronto? Let us know in the comments below. We wish the best of luck to all the hopefuls during the vet evaluations next week. Keep it locked on EN, your top source for Team USA news, as we count down the days to Toronto.