Strong Irish presence as Florida winter festival gets underway

The recent cold snap afflicting the US has lifted just in time for the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) which begins today at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida. 

A few days ago, parts of Alaska were warmer than Florida, but temperatures have recovered (though accompanied by rain this week) and it looks like the area will escape another cold front heading for the States.

The WEF runs from this week right through to the first day of April and is popular with Irish riders, many of whom have bases in the Wellington area. The three-month long festival will include four weeks at five-star level, and two weeks of four-star events. It also includes the nations cup meeting starting at the end of February. The most lucrative event will be the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix on the penultimate day of the festival.

“There’s a lot of jumping to be done,” says Cork rider Shane Sweetnam, for whom the WEF is a regular part of the calendar. “I have a good group of horses, so they’ll be rotating, and they’ll all be getting a shot at some big classes.”

Among his star performers is Chaqui Z, who was outstanding at the European Championships in Gothenburg last August, when Ireland won gold. One of his developing rides is Don’t Touch Du Bois, which he competed last year. The mare is now nine years old and Sweetnam says she will be introduced to grand prix level this term. Also in his string is Main Road, who made the jump-off for the grand prix at Dublin Horse Show last August, and Indra Van De Oude Heihoef, another grand prix placer in 2017.

“They’ll all have a part to play in the whole circuit,” said Sweetnam.

Though not based in the US, Cian O’Connor is another Irish rider who competes at the Wellington venue for the first quarter of the year. He has brought Clenur, Underfire du Lozon, Donjo and It’s Me for the festival, while his Karlswood operation will also be handling horses for American rider Lillie Keenan and Canadian Nicole Walker, who are clients of Meath-based O’Connor.

Last year, O’Connor and Sweetnam jumped on the Irish team which won the aforementioned nations cup in Wellington. It was one of two winter-season coups for the Irish team. Just weeks before, they had traveled north to another Florida fixture at Ocala and triumphed in the nations cup there also.

Michael Blake, the current development manager, had taken charge for those contests, just ahead of the appointment of Rodrigo Pessoa as Irish manager. Pessoa himself will be competing in Florida during the WEF.

The highlight of the first week of the festival will be Sunday’s $75,000 grand prix.

European action this weekend includes a five-star Swiss meeting in Basel, where Denis Lynch and Bertram Allen will provide the Irish interest. Lynch, incidentally, may also make an appearance in Florida, where the Rushy Marsh Farm operation, whose horses he competes worldwide, is based. Allen, though not competing in Florida, will have an interest in affairs as well, as he is joint owner of It’s Me, which O’Connor has brought to the festival.

Also in Europe this weekend, Conor Drain will take in the two-star Dutch affair at Drachten.

Ireland’s highest-ranked dressage rider Judy Reynolds, up to 17th in the world standings, has again been nominated for the Sportswoman of the Year title by the German regional newspaper Dorstener Zeitung, which is obviously glad to have the Kildare rider based in its catchment area. The voting closed on Sunday, and, up to yesterday, the publication had yet to announce the results.

Lastly, it’s back to Sweetnam for his thoughts on the 2018 picture, including Dublin in August and the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in North Carolina in September.

“A lot can happen between now and then,” he said. “You never know who’s in form at the time.”

The fact that the WEG offers a chance to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is getting too much emphasis, he believes. “That shouldn’t be the focus. The first step has to be the championships. What matters is trying to win a medal and, if we do that, we’ll be qualified for the Olympics.”

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