The Longines FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona this autumn will be held without the participation of a U.S. show jumping team. When has that happened previously?
“Never,” said coach Robert Ridland, the U.S. chef d’equipe for the discipline. “It’s the first time. But we didn’t miss it (qualifying) because we didn’t try.”
The USA did go for it, but things went irretrievably wrong during the initial North American Nations Cup qualifier in Coapexpan, Mexico on March 20. Two members of the USA’s team ‒three of whom had never competed on a senior squad ‒ were eliminated in the first round. That left the U.S. with no drop score and unable to go on to the second round. Mexico finished first and Canada second, getting points toward the Final. Third-place points were not awarded, however, because only two members of the U.S. team, rather than the required three, had completed the first round.
“Those things happen,” Robert observed. “It’s the sport. We had a young team there”
The quest to make the Finals was over fast. “That’s the end of the year. You can’t make up a 100-point difference in the standings,” he pointed out.
Meanwhile, the only Nations Cup in the U.S. that would have counted as a qualifier for the Barcelona final was cancelled due to an EHV outbreak in California. Even so, and with just one other qualifier, at Langley, British Columbia, which was held this month, Ridland said it was mathematically impossible for the U.S. to qualify for the final after the Mexican mishap. The winning team gets 120 points, the second-place team 100, and third receives 90. Only the top two in North America qualify for Barcelona.
Several factors led up to having such an inexperienced U.S. team in Mexico. That competition took place during the height of the Winter Equestrian Festival in the U.S, “which meant the top riders were in short supply, since they were busy in Florida.” And under quarantine requirements involving the section of Mexico where the show was located in the state of Veracruz (they are different across the country) riders who competed there couldn’t go to Europe for 40 days after the qualifier, even after serving a one-week quarantine.
“That restricts, right off the bat, the majority of our horses who would even be eligible to go down there. They made their date conflicting with the Florida circuit. So anybody else who would be ready, willing and able to do that, what ‒ are they going to give up half of the Florida circuit?” Ridland asked.
“As long as the FEI wants to allow a League Nations Cup to happen during Florida, where all our horses are, that’s the result they’re going to get. On top of that, they allow it to be in a part of the country that has these very restrictive quarantine rules coming back. Your options are limited, no matter how much you want to go to Barcelona, I can’t change government regulations. It’s a similar situation for the Canadian riders, because they tend to go to Florida, too.”
Canada’s three-member team in Mexico, however, included two Olympic veterans, Beth Underhill and Tiffany Foster, while Jacqueline Steffens, the Canadian making her first team appearance, bounced back from an 8-fault first round trip to go clear in the second round. Canada managed to earn 100 points as it ended with 20 penalties to finish second behind Mexico, fielding a first-string team, with 12 penalties.
The Global Champions Tour had been able to run its Mexican competition April 28-May 1 with top riders because it was held in Mexico City, for which the quarantine was not as restrictive as in Coapexpan. This meant GCT riders could go from Mexico to the next leg of the series in Miami Beach or back to Europe after quarantine without a problem.
“The restrictions on coming back from Mexico aren’t uniform across the whole country,” Robert explained. He doesn’t know if the qualifier will be in the same spot next year. While the hosts are gracious, he noted “it’s a hardship for the teams outside of Mexico to compete there” due to the quarantine situation and conflict with WEF.
He said the FEI “should be scratching their heads” and saying, “why did we allow them to have their qualifier during the Florida circuit and in a part of the country that has such restrictive quarantine regulations?”
The U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport, Will Connell, said, “everything is on the table,” explaining the quarantine and the rules are being looked at. He agreed that “going to where the event is in Mexico is challenging. The FEI have been meeting to try and help with the quarantine situation,” he mentioned, adding the Mexican Equestrian Federation is reviewing where else its Nations Cup might be held.
“The other thing that can be reviewed are the rules, so you don’t have a situation where the basic [result] of the League is over after the first event. The rules for the Nations Cup series are decided by the FEI Board and not the General Assembly, so they can look at those rules in pretty quick time, if they decide to, which obviously we hope they do.
“I don’t think we can use it as an excuse. We had two people eliminated in the first round, which was very unfortunate. Canada had similar challenges. These things happen. But it’s unfortunate that it was a combination of the fact that our Nations Cup had to be cancelled and the rules mean you get no points if you don’t complete the first round, meant for all intents and purposes…it didn’t matter what happened at Langley, we couldn’t qualify for Barcelona. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? The FEI has been very helpful in trying to make the quarantine rules easier.
“The [U.S.] jumping team have had a very good 10 years since London. It’s a shame we’re not going to Barcelona, but it’s not the end of the world.”
For his part, Robert said, “I’m proud of sending these young teams and giving them this kind of experience. But it goes with the territory that you’re going to have some off-days when you’re giving experience to your next generation. In a normal scenario, if they had what [scores] you might expect, we would end up being third and we would come home with 90 points. All that would mean is we would go to Langley if the only thing we’d have to do is beat the Canadians.”
While “it was a very doable situation,” the U.S., with one rider eliminated at the water obstacle, finished fifth in British Columbia behind Canada in fourth. And with zero points from Mexico, it didn’t matter anyway.
“When we started the year, our goals were the same as they always have been. We always try to qualify for Barcelona, we take the strongest team (to qualifiers) that’s available,” said Robert.
“I try to populate it with promising young combinations. That’s what we’ve done, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the results you want every time.”
He added, “Barcelona is important and it’s certainly going to be important next year, because it’s a last-chance qualifier for the  Olympic Games.”
Ireland, he noted, got to the Tokyo Games by winning in Barcelona. That competition is an opportunity for countries that haven’t qualified for the Olympics via the World Championships (to be held this summer in Denmark) or regional competitions, such as the Pan American Games and European Championships.