WELLINGTON, Fla.--A young, relatively inexperienced U.S. team stepped up to the plate with class in $150,000 Nations Cup CSIO4* at the World Equestrian Festival on March 5 to win with just 1 fault over a very strong, experienced Irish team that finished second on 4 faults and Brazil, third with 14 faults.
On paper, before the class, Ireland would have been the overwhelming favorite, with Canada and Great Britain also fielding strong teams.
But the team of Lilly Keenan, 24 of New York, N.Y., Bliss Heers, 33 of Las Vegas, Nev., Brian Moggre, 20 of Flower Mound, Texas, and Jessica Springsteen, 29 of Colts Neck, N.J., led by Chef d'Equipe Robert Ridland, certainly weren't intimidated by the veterans they faced.
Ridland has made choosing at least one young, inexperience rider to join veterans on Nations Cup teams a staple of his leadership, and it has worked extraordinarily well, resulting in collecting numerous Nations Cup wins while raising the level of top riders eligible to ride on teams.
"I'm still on top of the world," said Ridland the morning after the young team's win. "The kids were amazing. They beat a real veteran Irish team. That could be the team the Irish send to the Olympics."
One of the cardinal rules for riders on Nations Cup teams is "Do not have a time fault."
In the first round, in the order in which they went, Keenan on Fasther was clean, Heers on Antidote De Mars also clean, Moggre with Balou De Reventon had 4 faults, and Springsteen riding Don Juan Van Donkhoeve had 1 time fault.
IRELAND held the lead after the first round of competition as all four team members, Shane Sweetnam, Bertram Allen, Michael Duffy, and Cian O’Connor, jumped fault-free rounds.
Israel was third on 4 faults followed by Brazil, 8 faults. Canada and Great Britain, 12 each, and Mexico and Columbia, 20 faults each..
In an adjusted format, the opening round was held at 4:30 pm while the second round was held under the lights in the International Arena at 7:30 pm, over a course designed by Steve Stephens and Nick Granat.
After the first round, each team dropped their highest score, with all eight teams from the opening phase qualifying to return for the second round under the lights.
It looked like Springsteen's 1 fault would relegate the U.S. team to second if three of the Irish riders jumped clean again.
That's why a time fault is a killer in Nations Cup classes, as, without that time fault the U.S. would have been tied with Ireland, had all the Irish riders been clean.
But as it turned out, in the second round, after three of the four had jumped, Keenan had 4 faults but Heers and Moggre were both clean, while Allen and Duffy each had 4 faults for Ireland, so all Springsteen had to do was jump without a rail down for the win.
"I told her that this time she could have a time fault, she could even have 2, and we'd still win," said Ridland. "I just said `Leave all the jumps up,'"
Springsteen did just that - she left all the jumps up,, without a time fault, for the win.
Bliss was one of just six to post double clear rounds.
Bliss isn't as familiar to U.S. spectators as the other three; Moggre, who won the Maclay Championship at The National in 2019 and then later at the same show won the Grand Prix to start a great young career, and Kennan and Springsteen who, although still young, have been consistent winners both nationally and internationally.
"Bliss has ridden extensively in Europe," said Ridland. "I believe she trained with Otto Becker, but don't quote me on that, as I'm not sure. Michael Matz has been helping her here. That's quite a bit of veteran experience to have in your camp. That horse jumps a lot of clean rounds, so her double clear wasn't a surprise."
"It was a real team effort," said Ridland. "What an evening. We knew going in that we had some tough teams to beat. It's so gratifying to see such young talent come through."
Kudos to Steve for putting up such a good course," said Ridland.
“Every time that I get to jump for Team USA, it’s my favorite competition,” said Keenan “It’s something we all look forward to every year. It’s the aim, right? We plan out the year, and the high point is the chance that we get to jump for Team USA. To be able to bring home a win on home soil is thrilling. It’s what we set out to do; we had a plan. I had fantastic teammates, our Chef d’Equipe, our manager Lizzie Chesson; they do an unparalleled job, and we are ridiculously lucky. We’re grateful to rise to the occasion. We’re a very young team and each of us have something that’s a first. For my horse, it’s the first time he’s ever jumped a Nations Cup. I have jumped them with other horses, but never with him. It’s really telling for the future of Team USA. We have a really young team, but we are a force to be reckoned with.”
It was Moggre's second career Nations Cup.
“This week is actually my fourth week showing the horse,” said Moggre. “Every week we’re just getting to know each other better. He’s amazing. He has more experience in this atmosphere than I do, so it’s nice to rely on him for that. I just really wanted to use this as an opportunity to get to know this horse in this format. Hopefully we will continue to be put on teams like this. I’m just really grateful for the horse. Ann Thompson who owns him is incredible. It’s been a really great time getting to know him.”
Heers was making her debut for the American team.
“I feel incredibly blessed,” said Heers. “My teammates are incredible, and I’m happy for the opportunity. My horse is incredible. I know going in, whatever I ask, he does, and he tries his heart out. After the first round, it was exciting to say the least. Then to go into the second round under the lights and have to repeat the same thing, it doesn’t seem like much but then again, scores start coming in and I relied on him. He feels the pressure and always rises to the occasion. I can count on him every time.”
“I think you always feel more pressure when you’re representing your country,” said Springsteen. “It was the first Nations Cup in a long time, and we all were so excited this whole week. It was a really fun team.”
The win marked the ninth in the 20 years of the Nations Cup at WEF for the United States show jumping team, including their third consecutive victory.
“We knew coming in that we had a very young team,” said Ridland. “When your second and third riders in the order combined have one Nations Cup, it’s not much experience in the heart of the order. It was really nice and exciting. We were up against some real teams."
The Irish Team of Shane Sweetnam (0,0), Bertram Allen (0,4), Michael Duffy (0,4), and Cian O’Connor (0,0) held on for a second place finish on a total of four faults.
Brazil was third with Rodrigo Lambre (16,8), Luiz Francisco De Azevedo (0,0), Yuri Mansur (8,5), and Rodrigo Pessoa (0,1) with a score of 14 faults total.
In addition to Heers, Sweetnam, O’Connor, and De Azevedo, an additional two riders had double clear rounds including Ashlee Bond for Israel, and Amy Millar for Canada.
The format was new to all riders with the first round held in the daylight while the second, in the traditional Nations Cup setting at WEF, under the lights.
“It can give you time to overthink everything,” said Springsteen of the adjusted format. “I had a time fault in the first round, so I saw where I could make up a little bit of time. It was nice. I’ve never done this Nations Cup here before, so I was super excited. It was a great night.”
For Moggre, the extra experience of jumping on a Nations Cup team is one the young rider relishes, and he spoke highly of the handiwork of Steve Stephens, course designer, and enjoyed the new format.
“I think the course really asked a lot of the right questions for this type of class, and I think that’s important,” said Moggre. “It was really interesting how the first round went during the day and the second round went at night because that’s a change of atmosphere. Some horses struggle with that and some horses strive with it. I think that it was a really interesting way to do the Nations Cup this year, but as the first one we had, I think it was a great experience. I myself had a great time, and I think I can speak on behalf of my teammates.”
Rounding out the Nations Cup team results were Israel in fourth, Canada in fifth, Great Britain placed sixth, Colombia was seventh, and Mexico finished eighth.