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O.C. Leaps at Chance to Be Host

Show Jumping: Final rounds of Olympic trials begin Wednesday in San Juan Capistrano.

August 01, 2000|MELANIE NEFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the final rounds of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Show Jumping trials get underway Wednesday in San Juan Capistrano, it will be nothing short of a coup.

No Western state has hosted what is arguably the most unusual Olympic sport. And if that's not reason enough for Orange County's equestrian community to celebrate, the event comes as Californians--who earned four of the 11 finalist slots--are making a bid to play a larger role in the sport typically dominated by Easterners.

"The sport is very New York and Virginia based," said two-time Olympian Robert Ridland, an Irvine resident who is technical director for the trials. "It is the first time they have held the trials west of the Mississippi. In fact, it's basically the first time they've been west of New Jersey."

Southern California's moneyed horse set has planned a weekend-long extravaganza, including a concert by singer Jewel. The trials are expected draw upward of 15,000 spectators, who will see the field of 11 jumpers narrowed down to four and one alternate.

The trials will be held Wednesday and Friday at The Oaks/Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, a landmark for the region's equestrian community. The finals will be Sunday at Del Mar Horsepark. VIP tickets cost $250 per person and include champagne brunch and grandstand concert seating. More reasonably priced tickets--$10 to $50 per person--also are available.

The equestrian event stands apart from other Olympic competitions for many reasons, including that it's the only individual sport in which men and women compete against each other on equal footing. It's also the only event in which a human partners with an animal.

"It's not just you competing," said finalist Margie Goldstein-Engle of Wellington, Fla. "It's two distinct individuals, one of which you can't talk to. On any given day, [the horse] may not be feeling well, and it's very hard to know what's wrong, and for both of you to hit your peak at the same time is very difficult."

Made up of three parts, equestrian events include "Dressage," in which horses are put through a series of maneuvers including skips and pirouettes, and "Three-Day Eventing," which combines, dressage, cross-country and jumping.

In show jumping, horse and rider negotiate an obstacle course, and get penalty points for errors.

"You can't make up for a mistake," Ridland said. "You don't get bonus points for jumping an obstacle better than anyone else, you only get negative points for mistakes. That creates a nerve-racking situation."

To find out which teams can handle that pressure, course designer Richard Jeffrey has been working to create Olympic-style courses that will test the strength and weaknesses of each pair. At the same time he is hoping his courses will help prepare the finalists for Sydney.

"In a normal show, you're looking for an outright winner," said Jeffrey, an Englishman who has been designing courses around the world for 30 years. "But here, you're looking for consistency. I also don't want to make the courses too difficult and 'over jump' the horses before the Olympics."

Course designs are secret until the day of the event, and horses are never allowed in the arena until the time of competition. Riders, however, get a brief chance to walk the course before the start. They compute the number of strides they will ask the horse to take between jumps, and calculate takeoff and landing points.

Most riders say that for Olympic-caliber horses, the height of the jump isn't as difficult as the irregular distances that designers put in between.

"It's very hard to keep everything in your head while trying to control a horse," he said. "You can forget the course or forget the striding and miscalculate a jump."

The grace and elegance that symbolize the sport can often be deceiving.

In 1998, Goldstein-Engle missed the World Championship trials after falling from her horse during a meet. She suffered a broken nose and required 30 stitches to her face.

"It's a beautiful sport to watch when it's done right," Ridland said. "Yet there is a danger element." Like horse racing, the majority of top riders do not own their horses. With Olympic-caliber jumpers costing more than a million dollars, owners seek out the best riders to show off their investments, making experience and trust between the pair a crucial element in jumping successfully.

As a result, the edge in show jumping often goes to the older and more experienced rider.

Ridland, 49, who competed for the U.S. Show Jumping team in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, just missed this year's cut. He and others bid aggressively for the West Coast trials site, citing practicality, as well as the existence of the two world-class facilities.

"The horses and the riders needed to be here anyway, because the plane was going to be leaving out of LAX . . . to Sydney," he said. "It also made sense weather-wise, with Sydney being closer to our weather."

The past decade has seen a slow increase in the number of California show jumpers and Ridland hopes this is just the beginning of Southern Californians' emergence in this one-of-a-kind event.

"We're hoping this is just a springboard," Ridland said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The ART OF JUMPING

Beauty and grace combine with the elements of danger and surprise when rider and horse confront the obstacles that make up the final rounds of the U.S. Olympic Team Show Jumping Trials, being held Wednesday and Friday in San Juan Capistrano and Sunday in San Diego. The jumps involve optical illusions designed to put riders and their mounts to the ultimate test: Will a horse "balk" or disobey, refusing to jump? Or have rider and horse developed the sense of trust needed to take each other through the jumps at breakneck speed?

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