Four events remain in the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League, setting an exciting stage for the race to the finish of this first season. With just two more events on the East Coast and two on the West, top athletes will be competing with the goal of qualifying for the Final in Gothenburg (SWE) on 23-26 March 2016. The new league was launched in the summer of 2015 to standardise the level of FEI World Cup™ competition in North America, with the luxury Swiss watchmaker Longines as title partner and supporting with data handling and timekeeping excellence. With the top four results counting towards final scores, athletes in the North American League have been going all out to make the cut for the Final.
After a brief break for the month of December, the competition will resume at Valle de Bravo (MEX) presented by Scappino on 23 January. The West Coast will then conclude with a final event at HITS Thermal Desert Circuit CSI3*-W on 13 February. Meanwhile, the final two events on the East Coast will be held at Wellington presented by Sovaro and the Live Oak International CSI3*-W on 7 February and 28 February.
“It’s been an interesting process all the way, from limiting the number of events to having organisers bid to host qualifiers in order to elevate the quality of the league,” FEI 1st Vice-President and Chair of the FEI Jumping Committee John Madden said. “The sponsors and the organisers have really embraced the idea of having a unified league, and the best North American riders have been able to focus on attempting to qualify for the Final.”
Warmer climates will be a common theme when the North American League resumes at the end of January, when over 60 athletes and 140 horses will head to Valle de Bravo. "Mexico is pleased to host a qualifier on the road to the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final,” said Ricardo Castañeda Chavez, spokesperson for the Valle de Bravo CSI4*-W competition. “The class is a proud addition to a show with a lot of tradition, the Triple Copa Scappino, featuring three different sports, showjumping, golf and sailing at the same time, at the same venue.”
Riders will be greeted by four arenas, fair weather and the hospitality of the Mexican fans in Valle de Bravo, an equestrian paradise nestled in the middle of a forest outside of Mexico City. “I’ll be at the Mexico and Thermal events,” said Karl Cook (USA), current leader in the West Coast standings. “I’ll be taking Tembla. She’s the one I’ve ridden so far in the qualifiers and she’s doing great, always getting better. It’s my first time to the horse show in Valle de Bravo. I’m excited to check out a new show. I hear it’s beautiful.”
Two weeks after the league’s stop in Mexico, Wellington will host the qualifier at Deeridge Farms, the 300-acre oasis of serenity and beauty set in the heart of Wellington, Florida. “I’m very excited for the show,” said Mason Phelps, Jr., spokesperson for Wellington. “The showgrounds are as pretty as they come, and the Grand Prix ring is grass with top notch footing in all arenas. It’s going to be as classy an event as possible.”
The show also provides variety during the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival, which will serve riders and horses well for international competition, according to Madden. “What’s different here in the US is that we also have outdoor events to qualify for indoor championships due to the nature of our sport in North America,” he said. “Everyone either moves to Thermal on the West Coast or Palm Beach on the East Coast, and Wellington is a different venue to where we compete for 12 weeks. It’s a breath of fresh air.
“One of our other qualifiers is in Ocala at Chester Weber’s farm, also a beautiful location. In preparing horses for major international competition, it’s very important to go to and be exposed to different venues. When riders go to Rotterdam, Dublin and Hickstead, they and their horses have to be ready to compete in a strange environment. Take Rio for example – no-one will have jumped in Rio until the Olympic Games.”
Veterans and rising stars alike continue to vie for top positions to qualify for March’s prestigious finale. Young talents Hardin Towell (USA) and Karl Cook (USA) lead their respective leagues with consistent performances, while Olympians Beezie Madden (USA) - who won the FEI World Cup™ in 2013 - and Will Simpson (USA) follow closely behind. “The new league has helped America to be on par with Europe,” said Towell. “Longines has done a very good job bringing the league together, with FEI TV for every single qualifier and more media attention to help inform the public about the sport. There’s also double the prize money than in prior years, which makes jumping a tough 1.60-meter course worth the effort.”
Although Towell is positioning his top mount Lucifer for the Final, he plans to ride a younger horse, New York, at Wellington. “Now that I feel pretty confident that I’ll make the Final, I’m trying to prepare more for it and to have my horses peak at the right time, especially now that it’s earlier in the season. The past year was my best year to date, and I feel more comfortable myself at this level.”
The West Coast leader Karl Cook also noted significant improvements to qualifiers in North America with the new league. “Fewer events was a smart plan,” he said. “It’s easier to fit into my show schedule, and the quality of the shows is better. With the support of Longines, the shows feel special in the way that they’re set up, which inspires me to do better.” Close behind Cook is the seasoned competitor Simpson. Paired with a younger, inexperienced mount The Dude, he’s hopeful that two more solid results in Mexico and Thermal will secure them a position to travel to Sweden.
“I’m aiming for the Final,” Simpson said. “The new league is great. It brings together the West Coast nicely with Canada and Mexico. I competed at the first one (on the West Coast) at Thunderbird. I had never been there before, and the league got me to some new places. I’ve been really happy with the quality and the standards of the events. The Dude isn’t ready for the Final right now, but by March he’ll be ready.”
And for Madden, juggling separate strings for an Olympic year, the league and the Final offer the opportunity to develop the depth of her team of horses. “I’m planning to compete at Wellington with a younger horse, Breitling LS,” she said. “He’s probably the one that I’ll take to the Final, if I qualify. I’m going to show him in a 2* at WEF then he’ll have a week off from showing before the qualifier. We’re designing his schedule around the qualifiers and the Final.
“The new league has had a great start. I like the fact that there are fewer events, because it makes each one more important with better competition.” A total of 14 riders will qualify for the Final from North America: seven from the United States’ East Coast, three from the United States’ West Coast, two from Canada, and two from Mexico.
“I think, in a lot of ways, the World Cup leagues have played a significant role in the development of the sport and its athletes, over the years and around the world,” John Madden said. “The better the league, the more valuable it is for preparing for the Olympic Games and other major Championships.”
The show organisers have played a crucial role in talent development by capping the entry fees for qualifiers. And with over $1.8 million in prize money in the North American League’s qualifiers, and over $3 million when including the additional classes for each leg of the series, it’s a clear and notable jump in significance.
“Longines and the FEI truly understand that it’s about the sport and about offering opportunities in an objective way for riders and horses to develop,” Madden said. “Qualifying for the World Cup Final is an accomplishment that every rider cherishes, and there’s a lot of money in the World Cup competition because the classes and the title are important.”
And with the crown jewel of Longines FEI World Cup™ Champion at the end of the league’s inaugural journey, the best has been saved for last. Great expectations continue to mount as the final four legs approach. The major question hangs in the air: will the veterans prevail or is it a year for the young guns? Eight rounds of technical courses hold the answer, bringing North American riders one step closer to Longines glory.
1. Jack (Hardin) Towell (USA) 50
2. Elizabeth (Beezie) Madden (USA) 45
3. Kent Farrington (USA) 43
4. Samuel Parot (CHI) 40
5. Laura Kraut (USA) 39
6. Quentin Judge (USA) 37
7. McLain Ward (USA) 36
8. Callan Solem (USA) 35
1. Karl Cook (USA) 33
2. Will Simpson (USA) 30
3. Rich Fellers (USA) 28
4. Ben Asselin (CAN) 23
5. Richard Spooner (USA) 23
6. Allyssa Hecht (USA) 22
7. Lisa Carlsen (CAN) 21
8. Eric Navet (FRA) 15
Full standings www.feiworldcup.org