With Rolex just two weeks away, it’s time to start talking WEG. Which riders are likely to make the team, and which horses will they ride? Which pairs could play spoiler and emerge as a wild card? Without access to the Selection Committee’s crystal ball, these are tough questions to answer this early in the season, but there’s certainly some notable indicators we can look to with some of the big spring events behind us.
Let’s look at the season so far. The downpour during the dressage at Pine Top Advanced meant that phase turned into more of a survival-of-the-fittest challenge than a chance to evaluate how WEG hopefuls had progressed in the offseason. All that rain also led to some scratches from key pairs on cross country. Next at Red Hills, the dressage became more of a roller derby after yet another downpour, and the Arena Complex at fence 5 caught out a large majority of the field on cross country, leading to a rather messy leaderboard in the aftermath.
So Carolina International really became the first chance for the Selection Committee to see many of the WEG hopefuls in action across all three phases without Mother Nature or bogey fences rearing their ugly heads. And The Fork subsequently became a chance to see if the strong pairs at Carolina International could replicate their good work across all three phases over a tough course.
With that in mind, here are some very, very, very early in the season thoughts and predictions for Normandy, with the understanding that Rolex, Badminton and Luhmühlen will all play big roles in determining how this all shakes out, not to mention Jersey Fresh and Bromont — and the fact that horses are delicate creatures and Boyd Martin seems intent on setting a new world record for most bones broken in a calendar year.
Front of the Pack: Phillip Dutton and Mr. Medicott; Sinead Halpin and Manoir de Carneville; Boyd Martin and Shamwari 4, Otis Barbotiere or Trading Aces
Phillip and Cave struggled a bit to get to know each other in the beginning last summer, but the partnership has really come along beautifully since Pau last year, where they finished fourth across a thinking Pierre Michelet course. This is the most experienced horse Team USA has right now, having completed two Olympics — winning a team gold medal at Beijing — and Big Phil’s two Olympic team golds aren’t anything to sneeze at either. A good Rolex will almost certainly secure this pair’s spot on the team.
Much has been said about Sinead and Tate being left off the 2012 Olympic team, and heads might actually roll if they’re left off again for Normandy. While I’d like to say they have nothing left to prove considering past successes, there have been some blips along the way. After almost winning Burghley in 2012, a weak spot on a bone scan kept them from competing last spring, and then Sinead got herself banged up at Chatt Hills, which meant canceling their fall European tour. They came in to Fair Hill as the clear favorites to win only to part ways on cross country. But it’s a new year and a new season, and coming off a win at The Fork CIC3* means they’re perfectly poised for a good Rolex, which could solidify their rightful place in Normandy.
Boyd’s picture is a bit more unclear after cracking his leg in half at Carolina International. He’s withdrawn Otis and Shammie from Badminton, and all three of his top horses are still entered at Rolex. While I think there’s still a very good chance Boyd could ride at Rolex — remember the healing power of cats — it’s very much a long shot at this point. Pulling out of Badminton means Luhmühlen is still in the cards as a four-star qualifier, and Jersey Fresh and Bromont are also going to be closely watched by the selectors. So there are a variety of ways Boyd could get to Normandy at this point.
So the real question is which horse has the strongest change of making the team? After running out of steam at Rolex last year and being nursed home at Boekelo, there were a lot of questions as to whether Trading Aces could be a four-star horse. Turns out he wasn’t sweating properly, and the horse has come out looking much better this year, winning the Red Hills CIC3* as well as his Advanced division this past weekend at The Fork as the only horse to make the time with Phillip in the irons. The big test remains Rolex, and Oscar has unfinished business there.
Shamwari 4 is a very exciting new addition to Boyd’s string and another one with a lot of experience under his belt. He competed on the Swedish Olympic team in 2012 and also has a Europeans silver medal to his name. Poised to dominate at The Fork this weekend until a pilot error ended the weekend to soon, he still schooled the three-star course in good form on Sunday, and his hunt for WEG is still very much alive.
Otis Barbotiere has finally come back into form after a very long break following his injury at the 2012 London Olympics. He beat out fan favorite Neville Bardos for a spot on the team, largely chosen because of his talent in the show jumping, which he sadly did not even get to do after that injury on cross country. But Boyd said the horse looked as good as he ever has at The Fork this past weekend. The horse has only run Intermediate so far this season, and with Rolex coming up very quickly and Boyd still looking rather lame, I’d say there’s a good chance we see them in Germany for Luhmühlen, where Otis has all the pieces to pull out a very competitive finish.
Close to the Front of the Pack: Clark Montgomery and Universe or Loughan Glen, Tiana Coudray and Ringwood Magister, Marilyn Little and RF Demeter, Lynn Symansky and Donner, Will Faudree and Andromaque or Pawlow, Buck Davidson and Ballynoe Castle RM, Allison Springer and Arthur
Clark has a seriously talented horse in Universe, who bounced around both Badminton and Pau last year barely winded. He’s a horse who could literally go out and win the whole dang thing on any given weekend, which is why I like this pair a lot for an individual spot at WEG. Buzz’s nemesis remains the dressage, as his tension often gets the better of him in this phase. He’s a fantastic mover and all the pieces are there, so Badminton is going to be the do-or-die moment. Glen is coming back after his tie-forward surgery last season, and while he’s been incredibly competitive at the three-star level, he’s yet to complete a four-star. All that could change at Badminton next month.
Ringwood Magister is another horse who could go out on any given weekend and clinch a win, which is a big part of why he and Tiana landed a spot on the team in London. Badminton and Aachen last year showed this pair is becoming very consistent and competitive when it counts, so the selectors are definitely going to be watching them very closely at Rolex or Badminton depending on where Tiana decides to go.
Marilyn Little spent most of her season last year getting RF Demeter in front of as many judges as possible in Europe. The mare has a different way of going that many judges read as tension, which became an issue this past weekend when there was a seven-point spread in the marks on her dressage test at The Fork. But putting that aside, Demi has proven she can be incredibly competitive, looking fantastic with her win in the Carolina International CIC3* and placing second at The Fork CIC3*. Rolex is going to mean a lot for this pair’s chances for Normandy.
Donner is one horse we’ll see forego Rolex for Jersey Fresh and Bromont, as a bit of fill in his ankle is keeping him sidelined this spring. But after running double clear around Rolex and Pau last year, he really doesn’t have anything to prove at this point. Lynn is diligently working on the dressage in the downtime, and we’ll see them in the test ride at Kentucky. Assuming the fill in his ankle is just a minor thing and he’ll be sound come Jersey, this pair is an extremely strong possibility for WEG. How many U.S. horses went double clear around two four-stars last year? Exactly.
It’s tough to speculate before Rolex because that event can change so many things. While Pawlow had a runout at the corner coming out of the second water at The Fork, where he was leading overnight after show jumping, he could just as easily be back in the Selection Committee’s good graces if he manages a good finish at Kentucky, which we know he’s capable of after a sixth-place finish there last year. Andromaque looked fantastic at The Fork this weekend, so Will Faudree has two very good horses with shots at WEG.
And the fan favorite — Ballynoe Castle RM. This horse can really do no wrong, and while he’s entered at Badminton still, I think Buck Davidson wants to improve on that fourth-place finish in Kentucky last year, so I’m thinking we’ll see Reggie at Rolex. He looks fantastic so far this season coming off a long break following that pesky bone bruise in his stifle that kept them out of Aachen, and it seems like the extra time off really got him feeling good. He hasn’t put a foot wrong since coming back out at Red Hills.
Arthur is another horse who looks fantastic following an extended break last year. After garnering a top-10 finish with Allison Springer at Burghley in 2012, he didn’t come back out until Pine Top this spring. He’s looked very good since, and he can be very competitive across all three phases, especially in the dressage. Allison and Arthur had a blip at the angled brush following the mound complex at The Fork, but Arthur can jump those questions in his sleep. They’ve delivered at Kentucky in the past, and they’re ready to do it again.
Keeping My Eye On: All of these pairs have shown good form this spring at key events and are headed to Rolex (though keep in mind that Doug Payne has also applied for a grant to Saumur): Jan Byyny and Inmidair, Kristi Nunnink and R-Star, Jennie Brannigan and Cambalda, Michael Pollard and Mensa, Kim Severson and Fernhill Fearless, Doug Payne and Crown Talisman, and Sharon White and Rafferty’s Rules.
Kentucky and Badminton are going to prove extremely influential and it could very well come right down to the wire at Bromont and Luhmühlen in determining which pairs ultimately make the team for Normandy. What do you think, EN? Who would be on your fantasy WEG team based on what we’ve seen so far this season and which pairs have proven themselves in the past?