SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif.--The U.S. Jumping Team won the Oaks International Grand Prix in front of a packed house at Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park at the San Juan Capistrano International on Sunday, May 14.
It was a critical victory, as the team is now one step closer to qualifying for the Jumping Nations Cup Final in Barcelona this September.
The team of Lillie Keenan, Karl Cook, Laura Kraut and McLain Ward completed the two-round competition on a total of 12 faults ahead of Ireland, who finished on 17, and Mexico was third on a team total of 33.
The U.S. had already won the class when Ward went last in the class, but, as the only rider who could win the $50,000 bonus for going clean in both rounds in the Nations Cup, Ward on Contagious competed despite the team having already won, and he indeed did go clean to claim the bonus.
That bonus goes to Ward and/or Contagious' owner as the USET is paying the expenses for the team in this critical endeavor to qualify for the Olympics.
“AT THE END of the year last year, we said that we’re going to have to come out firing," said chef d'equipe Robert Ridland. "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. We took our ‘A’ team at the beginning of the year and split it in half and sent the first half to Mexico and that was a really tough win because the home team was really strong and took us to a jump-off and Laura won it for us. 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.”
Keenan of New York, N.Y., not only rode first for the team on Argan de Beliard but was also the first to tackle the course set by Leopoldo Palacios of Venezuela, as the U.S. team drew first in the team order.
Keenan was clean over the fences but had four faults at the open water.
Cook of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.), on Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet had the back rail of the second-to-last fence for four faults.
Kraut of Royal Palm Beach, Fla., on a newer mount, Dorado 212, opted for the forward five-stride option to the last combination and dropped the top plank rail to finish with four faults.
As the last in the team order, Ward on Contagious had the first clear of the afternoon to the team forward to the second round on a total score of eight.
“I thought Leopoldo set a very challenging track," said Ward. "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.”
The United States had a comfortable lead heading into the second round, with more than a rail in hand over Canada.
But Ireland launched a tremendous rally in the second round.
Neither Andrew Bourns on Sea Topblue, David Blake on Claude, nor Conor Swail on Nadal Hero touched a pole, finishing the round with just a single fault added to the first round score of 16 for a total of 17.
That put a greater amount of pressure on the home nation, but Kraut was clear for the U.S. to secure the victory on 16 faults before Ward went to try for the bonus for two clear rounds, and went clean to give the team a total of 12 faults.
Ireland finished second with Mexico third and Canada fourth.
“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,” said Ward.
Kraut was the only rider to have also competed in Mexico.
In that event, she rode her Tokyo Olympic Games mount, Baloutinue, while in San Juan Capistrano, she brought forward 10-year-old Dorado for his Nations Cup debut.
"I was thrilled with him," Kraut said. "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. 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."
With the victory, the United States increased its lead in the North and Central America and Caribbean division; the U.S.has 200 points for two wins. Mexico is second with 170 points for a second and a thirdplace finiah, and Canada is third with a third and a fourth,
The division concludes in Vancouver, Canada on June 4, where the U.S. basically just has to have three riders on the team complete the course to qualify for Barcelona.
The top team of the teams not already qualified for the Olympics qualifies at Barcelona.
Following Barcelona, there is one more chance to qualify for Paris at the Pan Am Games.
"We're on a pretty good roll," said Ridland. "We had an off year last year when we finished 11th in the World Championships and missed qualifying for Paris. We're going to Canada to try to win. Ian Miller (Captain Canada) told me they are out to win. They don't want to get beaten on home turf."
Ridland said he and the team were particularly proud to win on home turf in the first Nations Cup held in California.
"They've never seen a competition like this in California before,"he said." It was an incredibly enthusiast crowd."