Evergreen Irish showjumper Flexible has taken out the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League class at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, British Columbia.
Ridden by the USA’s Rich Fellers, the stallion topped a field of 25 to claim the victory in Canada.
Sunny skies and warm temperatures greeted a record-breaking number of spectators to the beautiful, green show grounds, where the sport’s top athletes attempted to clear the first round of 13 obstacles with 16 jumping attempts. A variety of rails dropped throughout the 1.60-meter track, indicating a well designed course. And multiple riders accrued faults at the triple combination that followed the sliced turns from the jump-eight oxer.
The questions asked by course designer, Ireland’s Alan Wade, proved difficult for the inexperienced and the experienced pairs alike. Just a few months after appearing at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Las Vegas, Vinton Karrasch (USA) and Coral Reef Follow Me II were eliminated after two refusals. Two other horse-and-rider teams did not finish the round.
Sixteen pairs unsuccessfully attempted clears before the first clear round came from the USA’s Will Simpson and The Dude. Following a record-breaking HITS Thermal winter circuit earlier in the year, the 2008 Olympian efficiently maneuvered the sprawling course without a single fault.
“When you’re riding The Dude, anything can happen,” Simpson said of the nine-year-old gelding.
A few rounds later, 2012 Olympian Fellers and his 19-year-old chestnut stallion added a second clear round to make for a jump off. Canada’s Ben Asselin, aboard Plume de la Roque, was the third and final clear as the 24th in the order of go.
“We’re probably the most experienced pair in the world, if you add our two ages together,” Fellers, 55, commented, as he and Flexible exited the arena after their first round. “He’s just a dream. He keeps getting smarter and better.”
Fellers drew on this experience in the jump off, shaving just over a second off of Simpson’s clear round. Asselin attempted to improve on Fellers’ score, but a pulled rail in the seven-obstacle course forced him to settle for third place.
“I have so much experience with that horse that there’s not too many things that I see anymore that we haven’t seen before,” Fellers said. “I really thought it was a difficult course when I walked it, but I rode just like I walked it, and he rode just like I wanted him to ride.”
But Fellers knew he would have to push hard to beat Simpson. He and Flexible entered the ring for the jump off after only jumping one, small vertical as a warm up. The first round had taken a lot out of the horse, and Fellers wanted to allow for Flexible’s breathing to return to normal before asking for another big effort.
“I watched Will (ride the jump off), and I’ve seen him ride for years,” Fellers said. “I think he’s a phenomenal and fast jump-off rider, perhaps the fastest in the world. I watched him win and win at Thermal this year. He laid down a brilliant round, and the horse jumped super all the way around and was quite fast. I knew I couldn’t take it easy.”
So in his plan of attack, he shaved tighter turns, almost hitting his knee on a ditch jump in the ring. He also opted to take out a stride in his approach to the double combination.
“It went great,” he said. “It was one of those rounds that everything came up sweet, so there wasn’t a lot of stress on Flexible, which is one of my goals at this state in his career. He’s never been better. I know that doesn’t make any sense with his age – that he could be as good as he ever was – but he feels as good as ever.”
Regardless of winning the first West Coast event for the North American League, Fellers’ goals for Flexible aren’t set on the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, just yet.
“He’s never sharp coming out of the winter, and I think it might have something to do with his testosterone and that he’s a stallion,” Fellers said. “I know the Finals are in March so that makes it a little more unlikely (in terms of timing).”
Flexible is scheduled to remain at Thunderbird for another week to compete in an upcoming three-star class on Sunday. Then he’ll return home to Oregon for a couple of weeks to rest before traveling to the Spruce Meadows Masters and to the next North American League event on the West Coast at the Sacramento International Horse Show.
“At this stage, he’s feeling great, super sound and loving the sport and craving competitions,” Fellers said. “As long as that’s the same, I’ll keep carefully picking and choosing where he competes. I’m into ‘simple.’ That’s how I evaluate everything (for Flexible).”
Course designer Alan Wade, who designs three or four FEI World Cup qualifier events each year, said he preferred grass footing. “When you have proper footing, it takes a lot of pressure off me as a course designer. I liked that the footing (at Thunderbird) was the same from start to finish.”
Wade is confirmed to design the courses at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League classes at the American Gold Cup and at the Sacramento International in September.
A total of 14 athletes from the new North American League will qualify for next year’s prestigious Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final, which will take place in Gothenburg, Sweden on 23-28 March 2016.
The top seven athletes from the East Coast US, top three from West Coast US and the two best-placed athletes from Canada and Mexico will qualify for the Final, alongside winners of the 13 other leagues from around the world.
Reporting: Esther Hahn
- Flexible (Richard Fellers), USA, 0 faults/40.51 seconds (JO);
- The Dude (Will Simpson), USA, 0 faults/41.71 (JO);
- Plume de la Roque (Ben Asselin), CAN, 4 faults/43.01 (JO);
- Agrostar (Ashlee Bond), USA, 4 faults/79.90;
- S F Ariantha (Andres Rodriguez), VEN, 4 faults/82.56;
- Tembla (Karl Cook), USA, 4 faults/83.29;
- New York (Jack Towell), USA, 4 faults/84.11;
- Calero (Allyssa Hecht), USA, 4 faults/84.76.