Last fall when 1996 Olympian Mara DePuy won the Morven Park CCI* on her youngster Nicki Henley it seemed clear that he was going to be a star for the future. But then this summer DePuy suffered a bad accident while competing at the Stuart Horse Trials and broke her ankle in several places. Grounded, but with a fancy youngster that was fit and ready to go, DePuy opted to search out a jockey for the fall season. Not everybody has the option of picking an Olympic gold medallist for their horse, but as David O'Connor coaches DePuy, he agreed to take the ride. That decision culminated in a win for O'Connor aboard DePuy's Nicki Henley at the Radnor Hunt CCI**.Last fall when 1996 Olympian Mara DePuy won the Morven Park CCI* on her youngster Nicki Henley it seemed clear that he was going to be a star for the future. But then this summer DePuy suffered a bad accident while competing at the Stuart Horse Trials and broke her ankle in several places. Grounded, but with a fancy youngster that was fit and ready to go, DePuy opted to search out a jockey for the fall season. Not everybody has the option of picking an Olympic gold medallist for their horse, but as David O'Connor coaches DePuy, he agreed to take the ride. That decision culminated in a win for O'Connor aboard DePuy's Nicki Henley at the Radnor Hunt CCI**.
Last fall when 1996 Olympian Mara DePuy won the Morven Park CCI* on her youngster Nicki Henley it seemed clear that he was going to be a star for the future. But then this summer DePuy suffered a bad accident while competing at the Stuart Horse Trials and broke her ankle in several places. Grounded, but with a fancy youngster that was fit and ready to go, DePuy opted to search out a jockey for the fall season. Not everybody has the option of picking an Olympic gold medallist for their horse, but as David O’Connor coaches DePuy, he agreed to take the ride. That decision culminated in a win for O’Connor aboard DePuy’s Nicki Henley at the Radnor Hunt CCI**.
The weekend started on a challenging note as the previously drought ridden and rain-starved region of Chester County, Pennsylvania experienced it’s first significant rain in months. And it experienced a lot of it-more than five inches in 36 hours. The organizing committee had spend the weeks treating and aerating the rock-hard ground, and in a matter of hours it turned from concrete into molasses. The mud was deep and constant, and so on Friday, the ground jury and technical delegate made the unusual decision of changing the format of the three-day event. The show jumping would run on Saturday, and the speed and endurance day would take place on Sunday. The final mandatory jog would take place 45 minutes after a given horse had finished the cross-country. According to the officials, this was only the second time in the history of FEI competition such a thing had been done.
In addition, because approximately 120 horses were set to run at Radnor, it was decided there would be some alterations to the cross-country course in order to insure that those that went early in the day did not have gigantic advantage over those who went later in the day. The famous double-corner combination at fences 7 and 8 would be altered so riders could chose to jump one corner or the other so the original narrow line between the two would not be the only place 120 horses were tearing up the ground. Other fences were dropped five centimeters in height. And the steeplechase phase was cut down to two minutes-essentially one loop over the jumps, and not two.
Finally, in a sign of great solidarity, the riders elected to move, by hand, the entire show jumping course from it’s normal, but especially swampy, location on the racecourse, to the bluestone ring where the dressage took place. The route between the two locations was all uphill, and in places knee-deep in mud, but the rider’s commitment to their horses was paramount.
After the first day of dressage, O’Connor found himself atop the leader board, but not with eventual winner Nicki Henley. He was leading aboard Jim and Julie Richards’ (nee Burns) young homebred mare Wyndham, whom O’Connor described as a "lovely horse who tries hard and wants to understand her job."
In second behind O’Connor and Wyndham was fellow WEG gold medallist Kim Severson-Vinoski and Oliver Edgecombe, who had put in a trademark top test. Severson-Vinoski had overcome earlier disappointment when her second horse, Royal Bart, was excluded at the first vet check.
After the second and final day of dressage, O’Connor stayed in top, but had taken the lead with the spectacular moving Nicki Henley. The bay Irish Thoroughbred put in an excellent performance which made O’Connor proud given some of the horse’s previous behavior.
"He’s a spooky individual, and the atmosphere in that ring is a lot because it’s all so close to the spectators and everything, but he was good," said O’Connor. "He was workmanlike and confident so he didn’t have trouble paying attention."
Wyndham stood in second after dressage, with Severson-Vinoski and Oliver Edgecombe in third.
Sally Ike’s modified show jumping course was a very different kettle of fish than her original design, as was the condition of horses who were going to be jumping it. The ring where the jumps were moved to was approximately 1/3 the size of the original, so the course became one which strongly tested the adjustability and turning skills of horse and rider. Faults were spread evenly and heavily around the course, but the roll back turn to the oxer at three seemed to catch a lot of people off guard, as did the narrow flag jump set off a roll-back turn, and the final triple line set on long strides but coming off a tight turn. It was clear from some fairly wild rounds that many horses had clicked in to cross-country mode and weren’t overly interested in being careful and slow over the show jumps. Out of 114 horses and riders, only 15 had clear rounds, so the standings changed quite a bit going in to cross-country day.
O’Connor dropped two rails on his young mare Wyndham to drop her to fifth, while Nicki Henley had one rail, though his dressage lead was significant enough to keep him in first even with his rail. Severson-Vinoski had a rail with Oliver Edgecombe to drop to 7th. Meanwhile, Michael Dan Mendell put in a brilliant clear round with only one time fault with his youngster Dark Harbour to move in to 2nd, and Debbie Adams and her veteran Special Attention also gained only one time fault to take third. Canadian young rider Katie Evans and her handsome young gray Lord Ledgerwood put in a double clear that belied their youth and vaulted her in to fourth.
The glue-and-good-pony award for the day goes to Canada’s Leohona Rowland and Upolu, who misjudged the triple and crashed through the middle element, flipping Rowland up completely out of the saddle and across the horse’s neck. As Rowland clung there, Upolu kept his ears pricked forward, put in two strides, and hopped over the final element and cantered through the finish line. Rowland clung on gamely across the horse’s neck, but as she didn’t fall during the course she was only counted with the one rail for demolishing the one fence. The crowd cheered wildly as she shimmied her way back in to the saddle and patted her horse for keeping his mind on the job at hand.
Since most of the horses atop the leader board were youngsters, the riders were very clear ahead of time that they weren’t sure how the conditions were going to affect their mounts, or their game plan for the course.
"Both of my horses are young intermediate horses, especially for conditions like this," said O’Connor, who added that his previous outings with Nicki Henley had not been completely successful, including a stop in show jumping at their first event, and what he referred to as a "drive by" when the horse became strong and ran past a jump on course.
"My horse is young and is the most talented horse I’ve ever had," said Mendell. "It will be interesting late in the day to see how it’s jumping. I’d rather my horse mature in his career if the footing is deteriorating by going slow, rather than pushing for the win and taking too big a risk."
"He’s a cool young horse, but we go late and I want to see how it’s going. I don’t want to wreck him, he’s just too cool," agreed Evans.
Adams didn’t appear overly concerned about her veteran Special Attention handling the footing, but horse and rider have come back from a series of injuries, and she ultimately chose to withdraw before the start of cross-country.
Mike Etherington-Smith’s cross-country course wasn’t vastly changed from previous years, but he had tweaked it slightly, and it was unknown how the going would alter the way it rode. The two fences that seemed to cause the most grief throughout the day was 5ab, the Drop, a maximum bank followed four strides later by a narrow flower box, and 14 abc, the Cherry Bank, a big jump up over a ditch and bank, over a log on top of the bank, down a small slide, and a bending line to a very narrow-faced flower box. In addition, at the end of the day something seemed to change at fence 16, The Lane Crossing, and out of the last 30 or so to jump it, there were 5 falls and two stops.
The riders seemed to find the going easier than they feared, as 18 had double clear rounds to alter the standings extensively. The fastest round of the day went to Sinead Halpin and the New Zealand-bred Cruzin On who smoked home 24 seconds fast to move in to 14th overall. Nine people chose not risk the going and withdrew before the start.
Among the first of the top placers to test their mettle against the course was O’Connor on the mare Wyndham, who came home with only 2.6 time penalties. They would eventually finish 6th. Severson-Vinoski and Oliver Edgecombe flew around the course, the big New Zealand-bred gelding eating up the terrain and having no trouble in the footing to come home double-clear and vault them in to the early lead.
Adrienne Iorio-Borden and the gigantic gray Make Mine Irish put in a ground eating clear round that would move them in to fourth overall, while Canadian veteran Stuart Black would also go double clear on the Thoroughbred gelding Wolftown to move in to fifth.
Australian Phillip Dutton is always a threat, and he proved why yet again at Radnor by riding three horses, and going double clear on all of them . Unfortunately one horse, Don’t Ask, would be excluded at the final vet check. However, his double clears in cross-country and show jumping with Anne Jones’ The Foreman would move up them up steadily throughout the weekend to give him third place overall. With Roger and Mari Secrist’s Dutch Warmblood cross Damien he would move in to 10th place overall.
The Foreman is a 7-year-old American Thoroughbred that came from race trainer Bruce Fenwick’s farm earlier this year, and is in his first year of competition. Dutton acknowledged that he was stepped up to this level rather quickly, but feels the horse was well able to handle it, though now he’ll have some time to get comfortable at this level.
"He has three good phases, he’s smart on the flat and is a careful jumper," said Dutton. "Now he just needs more time.
"I pushed to get him here, but I’m glad I did because it was a very educational course for a young horse. He needs another two-star, and he’ll do one in the spring, and then we’ll see how he goes," he finished.
Leader O’Connor and Nicki Henley would be nearly the last pair to tackle the course, and O’Connor knew he had a bit of breathing room as Severson-Vinoski still held the lead with a 54.21. His score of 46.61 meant he could afford some time penalties, but only a few. After surviving a scary moment at The Drop at fence five where O’Connor had to shove a wiggly Nicki Henley over the narrow, they went on to a clear but cautious round that added 3.6 time penalties to their score, enough for the win, and to drop Severson-Vinoski to 2nd. They were met at the finish by a happy but hobbling DePuy, who had hugs for horse and rider.
O’Connor was pleased with his rounds, despite surviving a scary moment on the Roads and Tracks with the spooky Nicki Henley. "He did spook and wheel pretty badly, and he almost got me off," he said laughing. "Luckily I already had a hold of the breastplate so I was OK.
"The course rode really well," he continued. "The footing was not an issue all day, and I didn’t notice a difference between the beginning of the day and the end of the day. It was very educational for the younger horses."
Though Nicki Henley is slated to go back to DePuy when she is able to ride again, it appears he will be retaining the ride on Wyndham. "She handled this with ease, and I’ll let her tell me where she wants to go next," he said.
This is the second red ribbon for Oliver Edgecombe in a CCI-he was second at the Virginia CCI* this spring, but Severson-Vinoski has decided to sell the big bay. "He was originally brought from New Zealand to be sold, and we though he’d go first because he’s the biggest, but he’s the only one left. But he is too big for me, and it’s smart to sell him while he’s going good.
"If he hasn’t sold by the spring, then I’ll probably take him to Foxhall," she finished.