It was a wild and woolly ride over the jumping course for 18 competitors in last weekend's $10,000 Holiday Grand Prix at Coto de Caza. Braving gale-force winds that earlier in the day had demolished the VIP tents and turned decorated Christmas trees on the course into tumbleweeds, Rich Fellers placed first and second aboard two horses.
For a time, it looked as though the grand prix, which culminated the three-day Orange County Horse Shows Assn. season championship, would be called off. "As quickly as we set the jumps up for the morning classes, the wind blew them right down," said Mike Braun of Laguna Beach, OCHSA show committee chairman.
The panel met three times before the 2 p.m. grand prix and each time decided that the event was a go. Eight of the entries had already packed up and gone home, but a phone call persuaded them to come back.
Sudden gusts of wind caused some horses to buck between jumps, costing them precious seconds on the timed course. Among them was Braun's horse, Fast Company. An odds-on favorite, the Dutch warmblood gelding cleared the course without jumping faults but incurred one time penalty under rider Doug Browne.
Just three entries went clean (without jumping faults or time penalties) on the first round: El Mirasol and Bailey's Irish Cream, both ridden by Fellers, and The Grandstander, ridden by Gretchen Long.
They returned for a jump-off against the clock on a modified course. Because all three went clean again, the event was decided on the basis of time.
El Mirasol's 30.7 seconds and Bailey's Irish Cream's 33.04 earned Fellers the top two placings--and $4,300 of the total purse. The Grandstander's time of 35.3 put Long in third place ($1,400). The remainder of the $10,000 purse was divided among finishers in fourth through 10th place.
Proceeds from the event, held jointly by OCHSA and the WestMed Gold Club, will benefit the speech and hearing department of United Western Medical Centers. A Sunday brunch held in the Coto de Caza clubhouse just before the grand prix netted $7,000 for the cause.
Some local favorites were among the top placings in the class. Bailey's Irish Cream, an 8-year-old Irish warmblood owned by Fellers and Brett Macardican, two months ago won the $50,000 grand prix at The Oaks in San Juan Capistrano. The Grandstander, a bay gelding owned by the Stone Ridge Riding Club in Laguna Beach, was a seasoned grand prix mount under Betsy Breen, who was sidelined by a serious injury last summer.
El Mirasol, a 16.3-hand thoroughbred, is relatively young for a grand prix horse at 5 years old. Owned by Fellers and Red Hawk Industries, he proved himself a handy jumper and made the course look easy both times around.
Actually, the course presented solid tests for horses and riders. The first round required 15 jumping efforts and included several verticals and spreads, a double and triple combination, a wall and a liverpool. For the jump-off, the course was shortened to six fences with no combinations. Fences on both rounds were 3-feet-9 to 4-feet-6 in height.
"The course did its job. It rode the way I expected it to," said course designer Tom Dendiu of Modesto. "It was not a severe test, but a good test for a young horse with talent. The problems came up quickly, so the rider had to be alert and thinking all the way around the course."
The real bugaboo turned out to be the fifth obstacle, a relatively straightforward-looking vertical. Less solidly composed than the other jumps and positioned next to the out-gate, it posed a psychological problem for the horses--and a challenge for riders who had to coax some of them over it.
"That fence is not as inviting as the others because it's airy," said Mark Mullen, a Huntington Beach trainer, as he walked the course with one of his riders before the event. "A horse might get a little sulky here when he sees the out-gate, so the rider is going to have to drive him over the fence. If there are any problems on course, it's going to be here."
The first horse on course proved him right, becoming distracted on the approach to the obstacle and knocking down a rail. Several others followed suit, with Carol Dean taking a tumble when The Executive suddenly put on his brakes in front of the fence. The 16.2-hand thoroughbred gelding, owned by Dean, was a winner this season at the Orange County Fair and at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center spring show.
A fall of horse or rider eliminates them from the running. Dean, however, completed the course handily on her other mount, Full Deck. A powerful jumper, the 17.2-hand thoroughbred gelding has been a champion in modified classes and scaled a 6-feet-6 jump in the Sycamore puissance in San Juan Capistrano this season.
The only other fall on course came when The Stylist, a thoroughbred gelding, refused at the double combination and unseated his owner and rider, Tim Sweat. Neither Sweat nor Dean was injured.
"Overall, the course rode well," said internationally renowned trainer Victor Hugo-Vidal of Huntington Beach. "The course designer obviously took the weather into account and came up with a course that was safe but still challenged the riders. That's what this game is all about."
Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training, covers equestrian sports for The Times. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.