Team USA arrived in San Juan Capistrano, California for the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of the United States of America on more than a hope and dream. The home team had what proved to be an infallible plan.
“At the end of the year last year, we said that we’re going to have to come out firing. Qualifying for the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona had to be a major priority because it’s one of the two ways left to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games,” said U.S. team chef d’equipe Robert Ridland.
In 2022, the FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ was a sore spot for Team USA after failing to qualifying for the Final. Despite their surefire #fomo watching the Final on FEI TV, Ridland was steadfast in his decision to field less experienced riders with the goal of developing the future team.
However, this year, the idea of being anywhere but Spain come September is not one Ridland cares to entertain. Especially with Paris on the line.
Calling upon America’s strongest riders, their teams and their owners, they logged their first division win in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. After that taste of victory, they went after the share of the American pie.
“We took our ‘A’ team at the beginning of the year and split it in half and sent the first half to Mexico. That was a really tough win because the home team was really strong and took us to a jump-off and Laura [Kraut] won it for us,” said Ridland.
“Coming here, with the other half of the ‘A’ team, basically all four riders that were on our silver-medal team in Tokyo were represented on either of these two teams. That was our plan and sometimes plans work and sometimes they don’t, but this time for us it did.”
Using the time tested strategy of divide-and-conquer, it was McLain Ward and Kraut who unloaded their horses at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park. Ward had his Tokyo partner in 14-year-old gelding Contagious, while Kraut stepped out with 10-year-old gelding Dorado after already winning with her Tokyo veteran, Baloutinue, in San Miguel.
The beauty of a Nations Cup is the result is shouldered by all four athletes, and Karl Cook and Lillie Keenan were prepared to rise to the occasion. Cook was in the irons of 13-year-old Kalinka van’t Zorgvliet, the mare he won his first two CSI5* Grand Prix with last season. Keenan has also had a string of CSI5* wins as of late, and on Sunday rode 13-year-old gelding Argan de Beliard, with whom she’s only been partnered one year.
Leopoldo Palacios (VEN) built a track to match the wealth of experience between them, in a lofty and complex course that saw the star-studded teams from Canada, Ireland and Mexico bring rails to the ground and rack up faults on their scorecards.
Team USA didn’t cross the timers unscathed, but had the cleanest effort over the two round course. They finished on 12 points after Keenan’s 4/4 dropped score, with Ward and Contagious the only pair in the field to post a 0/0. Ireland finished second on 17 points while Mexico settled for third on 33 points.
“I thought Leopoldo set a very challenging track. When I walked it, I have to say I was a bit surprised at how big it was, but it’s a 5* Nations Cup and there are huge consequences to this qualification and that’s the way it should be, and when we have group of riders here on form it suits us when it’s more difficult, and I think it worked in our favor,” said Ward.
Kraut and Dorado got better as they went along, tallying 4-faults in the first round but fine tuned their ride in the second test to leave the ring with nothing but air. As it was Dorado’s inaugural Nations Cup, Kraut is still on cloud nine.
“I was thrilled with him. I will tell you, in the first round, he definitely was impressed. I agree with McLain that the course was much more difficult than I was expecting, and it caught me off guard,” said Kraut.
“[Dorado] was a little bit shy from the first round, and he could have gotten smaller for the second round, or he could have grown. He grew and rode around beautifully, like he’d been doing it a long time.”
Like Dorado, ever member of the U.S. Team has stepped up this year. They now hold a considerable lead in the North and Central American & Caribbean division overall standings with 200 points. Mexico has logged 170 points and Canada is trailing with 150 points. With one stage left, Barcelona hangs in the balance of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Canada at Thunderbird Show Park in June.
“The U.S. riders, and their horses and supporters, both here and in Mexico, are really stepping up and delivering. Not only do we need to qualify, but we had a little bit of a lull post-Tokyo and I think it’s important that we get back into the habit of winning,” concluded Ward.