For a moment, it appeared the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) world revolved around Helios. But as last year’s champions, we know team Eye Candy has their own golden gravitational pull.
On Saturday, MLSJ’s sweet sounding team pulled off their third win of the season in the Whittier Trust CSI5* MLSJ Team Competition 1.50m at Thermal, CA. On the grass at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP) was Amy Millar (CAN) with 12-year-old gelding Christiano, Paul O’Shea (IRL) in the irons of 11-year-old gelding Squirt Gun and Conor Swail aboard 10-year-old gelding Theo 160.
This week marks the ninth and penultimate leg of the tour, which translates to Eye Candy crunch time.
After finding little luck in the beginning of the season, their campaign got off the ground with a win at leg five in Traverse City. Yet with Helios on a record setting track, they needed a second win simply to narrow gap in the team standings; a feat Eye Candy accomplished at Monterrey II.
Saturday’s success not only satisfies their winning sweet tooth once again, but puts them in position to try and overtake the leading team in what’s shaping up to be an epic finale next week in the desert. The unique MLSJ format is a pressure cooker, though, and their biggest trial is ahead.
But this weekend? They’re celebrating.
Here’s how it went down:
Helios experienced a burnout
To the shock of fans and commentators alike, the team that has been dominating the league failed to make it above the cutline in the preliminary round. Simon McCarthy (IRL) was the Helios pathfinder with 11-year-old Gotcha, a mare he’s logged team wins with in Traverse City, Toronto and Monterrey I.
“He comes in as one of the strongest riders of the overall championships,” said sports analyst Steven Wilde while McCarthy was cruising through the course.
However, towards the end of the course a rollback to a seemingly benign vertical hit the grass, and four faults flashed across the scoreboard. This put the pressure on Karl Cook (USA) and Ashlee Bond (ISR) to go clear for a chance to stay above the cutline. They did, but hell hath no fury like Margie Goldstein-Engle (USA).
Margie Goldstein-Engle’s hero arc
“I’m building a little altar here at my rental house for Margie Engle for knocking out Helios,” Eye Candy team manager Erica Hatfield wrote in a colorfully candid Instagram post.
Engle isn’t part of Hatfield’s Eye Candy crew. She represents the Spy Coast Spies, but her round did both teams a favor.
Trailblazers and Eye Candy were the only two teams to sail through the first round with a clean zero on the scorecard. Lugano and Helios were sitting on four faults each, but Helios had a slower combined time and were hanging onto the razor’s edge of fourth position.
Spy Coast Spies were the last team to test the first round course. Rodrigo Lambre started off with 10-year-old gelding Huberth B, who had a rail in the A-element of the final double combination. Jordan Coyle and 15-year-old gelding Picador put down a clear round to keep a steady score. Engle sealed their fate with a speedy clear aboard 18-year-old stallion Royce, eclipsing the Helios and putting Spy Coast Spies safely above the cutline.
Thus the Spy Coast Spies, Eye Candy, Trailblazers and Lugano advanced onto the second round.
In Round Two, the universal strategy of success is speed, the goal being to make it into the Gold Medal Match, which guarantees at least a second place finish. And when speed is the priority?
*Conor Swail has entered the chat*
The world number five is notoriously hard to catch these days, so when there’s a need for a speedy, tenacious rider he’s a failsafe choice no matter which horse he’s piloting. According to Swail, Theo 160 has had mixed results this season, but this time he rose to the occasion.
“I’ve been using Theo and Gamble for all of these [MLSJ team classes]. Theo had a little dip in form, which is why maybe I missed a couple through the middle of the season, and I just felt that there was probably better options for our team,” said Swail.
“Thankfully, we got things organized and he’s back on track and he’s had a great run of form actually in the last six or eight weeks…he jumped two super rounds today.”
“Guess who’s back, back again…”
That’s right, Amy Millar. The Canadian rider won with Eye Candy back in Traverse City aboard Christiano and had no plans to sit out MLSJ Thermal when they have a final to win. The pair blazed through the timers to help put Eye Candy through to the Gold Medal Match.
“I’m really happy to be back and I’m really happy to be able to contribute. I really enjoy riding with these guys, we get along well and have great success together and [are] making Erica happy, which is important,” said Millar.
“We just need to keep it up for next week because I think we’re in the hunt now.”
Eye Candy VS. Lugano: Leave it to “Coach”
When Hatfield first recruited Paul O’Shea she gave him the alias “Coach” on social media to respect his desire for discretion. At first glance, the loud and flashy energy of team Eye Candy seems to clash with the introspective O’Shea. Yet his riding speaks for itself.
In a head to head against Lugano’s Natalie Dean (USA) and 11-year-old Cocolina, O’Shea lived up to his nickname. He masterfully executed the track in 42.65 seconds comfortably ahead of Dean’s 43.31 to secure the win for Eye Candy and a shot at the season title next week.
“We have a realistic chance now [going into the Final], and it’s just going to make it more exciting. So I think it’s good for the whole league and whoever is watching, it’s a lot closer now and who knows what will happen. But we will be doing our best,” said O’Shea.
“Coach” also had a coach to talk him through the plan for the Gold Medal Match, his fellow Irishman Conor Swail.
“We had the advantage of going last so we could see what happened to the rider before and I had good instructions on the way in about what to do. So that was that was a big help, a big advantage,” said O’Shea.
“Go quick enough, the horse is relatively fast. Just to make sure and have a good tidy round,” is what Swail told him.
But Swail won’t be at the in gate next week to offer up any advice for the Final. He’s headed to Geneva for the Rolex IJRC Top 10 Final. Instead, Jacqueline Steffens (CAN) will take his place. Eye Candy fans need not worry, Steffens had the fastest time overall in last year’s Team Final. So the expectations are high.
Raising the bar
Speaking of high expectations, there is Hatfield, who has been a major driving force behind her team. Between all of the fanfare there is no mistaking that she wants her champions to keep their reign another year.
“Erica is really happy that the competition is so strong this year, I can say that for sure. Obviously, she wants to win and we want to win. But it really does make her happy that Helios and all of these other teams are bringing such strong players to the field and elevating the level of competition here,” Millar explained.
“So she wants the competition elevated and then she wants us to elevate above that.”
With only three points separating Eye Candy from the Helios they are on the rise again just in time.
“A chick like me is absolutely FUELED by anger. But right now I don’t know any such emotion,” an elated Hatfield wrote to Instagram.
With double points at stake next week, Eye Candy, Helios and the Spy Coast Spies are all in the running for the Team Championship, the desert’s most intense show jumping showdown to date.