When Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet decided to spend the winter season in California instead of Spain, he no doubt did the cost analysis calculations.
How much he’d have to spend to fly four horses over and live aboard for several months. How much he’d have to win to make the trip worthwhile. The conversion rate on the U.S. dollar.
Suffice it to say, the Olympic medalist is trending ahead of projections.
In two weeks of FEI competition, Wathelet has claimed the lion’s share of the prize money and blue ribbons at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP) in Thermal. Week II of Desert Circuit, he won three of the four international classes on offer—that’s every class but the Grand Prix (in which he finished third).
This week, he won two more, including the Grand Prix.
Fourteen-year-old Clarity is his latest winner and the most recent addition to his string. Previously campaigned by his student Marie Valdar Longem, who is also competing in California, Wathelet took over the reins at the end of September and jumped straight into 5* competition with World Cup events in Oslo, Lyon, Madrid, and La Coruna to mixed results over the fall.
The 3* events of Desert Circuit Weeks II and III mark a step down in difficulty for the pair and their first steps up onto the podium.
Wathelet and Clarity earned their first ever podium placing with their third place finish in Week II’s Whittier Trust Grand Prix at DIHP. On Sunday, they logged their career first victory in the Gillibrand Sand CSI3* Grand Prix.
Four of the 24 starters to challenge Manuel Esparza’s first round course found a clear path to advance to the jump off: Mavis Spencer (USA) and Carissimo, Ali Ramsay (CAN) and Bonita VH Keizershof Z, Lorcan Gallagher (IRL) with Copycat, and Wathelet on Clarity. Ramsay, the reigning Canadian National Champion, set the time to beat with the only double clear in 42.59 seconds.
But her hold on the lead was short lived.
“I was the last one [to go in the jump off], a lucky place, so I could see and knew what I had to do,” said Wathelet. “I haven’t done that many jump-offs with that horse; it’s quite new for me. I knew it wasn’t the fastest one and I could take some risks. Maybe I took too many risks.”
Over three seconds worth of risks, it turned out. Wathelet and Clarity crossed the timers in 39.47, making their first victory a decisive one.
The Belgian rider is now four for four—he’s won at least one class with every horse he brought over the pond.
“Not much to say, except that I am for sure very happy. And the horses jumped great,” smiled Wathelet. But, he said, there’s still room for improvement.
“I didn’t ride so good with my second horse in the Grand Prix [Argentina de la Marchette]. She won [on Saturday]. Today, I had a good feeling [with her] compared to last week, but I didn’t ride well. And when something goes wrong, she gets quite nervous and then she can have a few fences down because she’s careful. It’s a fight if her mind doesn’t stay quiet. But that’s completely my fault. I’m more happy about her today than last week,” he continued.
He’ll likely get another crack at it. Week IV of Desert Circuit returns to DIHP Feb 1–5 and with it so will Wathelet.
“I hope the horses stay fit, good and fresh and that they still have some fun in the next weeks.“