The first Nations Cup of the North and Central America & Caribbean division took place in Mexico this weekend and already the 2022 season has the convoluted plot line of daytime soap opera.
Let’s start with the drama off the field of play…
The North and Central America & Caribbean division is made up of three eligible teams (Canada, U.S.A and Mexico) and three events (one in each host nation). The season typically starts in the U.S. in February, then heads to Mexico in March before finishing in Canada in May. The two teams with the most points advance to the Final in Barcelona, Spain in September to face off against the six other division finalists and the home team.
This year the division series was slated to start in Mexico, then head to San Juan Capistrano in California, May 10–15, 2022, where it was to be hosted for the first time by Blenheim EquiSports and American chef d’equipe Robert Ridland. Alas, it was a bust before the season could begin. In a decision supported by the venue, the FEI and the U.S. national federation, the American leg was cancelled due to the ongoing EHV-1 outbreak in California.
“The safety and welfare of our members and their horses is our top priority and most important responsibility, and while we are disappointed for the Blenheim EquiSports management team and all of the athletes, we are fully supportive of this decision while the mitigation and containment efforts for EHV-1 are still ongoing in California,” said Bill Moroney, Chief Executive Officer of US Equestrian. “We are thankful to the FEI for their understanding and continued alignment with us given the circumstances we’ve faced on the West Coast this season.”
And then there were two. (Division events.)
With the official start of the North America, Central America & Caribbean season in Coapexpan last weekend came the debut of Mexico’s new chef d’equipe, Mark Laskin, who up until five months ago was chef of the Canadian team. Laskin resigned from his post at Equestrian Canada via press release in November, citing contract issues and interference from Equestrian Canada’s leadership.
Months of speculation ensued on who would fill that vacancy. Ultimately, Laskin’s former anchor rider, Olympic individual gold medalist Eric Lamaze took over the reins.
The former teammates, now on opposing sides, went head to head for the first time in Xalapa.
Laskin comes into the team as they’re riding a high. Mexico earned the division series title when the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ series last took place in 2019, then captained by Belgium’s Stanny van Paesschen. He was looking to extend that record with a win, ramping up Mexico’s home field advantage with a veteran squad of Nicolas Pizarro (Pia Contra), Federico Fernandez (Romeo), Patricio Pasquel (Babel) and Manuel Gonzalez Dufrane (Hortensia van de Leeuwerk).
Canada fielded a three-member team with a mixed line up, featuring veteran Beth Underhill aboard Lamaze’s former team mount Chacco Kid, anchor rider Tiffany Foster with a green team mount in Hamilton, and rookie Jacqueline Steffens, who made her Canadian team debut with Freaky, a horse she rode to the top of the Major League Show Jumping Tour for Team Eye Candy last year.
The Americans, meanwhile, sent the greenest team on recent record. With Giavanna Rinaldi (Cosmona), Maria Costa (Valentino V Z), Tanner Korotkin (Volo’s Diamond) and Ailish Cunniffe (Vivaldi du Theil) in the stirrups, the entire team had only one senior Nations Cup appearance between them.
Which brings us to the drama on the field and a shocking elimination of the Americans in Round 1.
Rinaldi started the team with a solid four fault performance. But both Costa and Korotkin failed to complete the course, thus ending U.S.A’s bid in the first round. Cunniffe’s final clear was the American’s silver lining on the day.
With no drop score, Canada too was riding at a disadvantage and it showed after Round 1. Underhill led the team off with a clear, followed by an eight fault performance by Steffens and a four by Foster. Three clear efforts by Fernandez, Pasquel and Gonzalez Dufrane put Mexico in a commanding three-rail lead heading into Round 2 with a perfect “0” score.
The Canadians managed to close the gap with a 4-0-4 score in the second round, while Pizarro collected eight faults and Gonzalez Dufrane, four to put the Mexicans on a team total of 12. It was good enough for the win.
“I’m just very grateful to my fellow riders for giving me this amazing gift to win a Nations Cup in our hometown,” Fernandez said, “because that’s the best feeling ever.”
The North and Central America & Caribbean division of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ continues in Vancouver (CAN) on 5 June 2022 at Thunderbird Show Park.