Rich Fellers and Flexible are the new Rolex FEI Jumping World Cup championsâ??the culmination of a story 13 years in the making. In 1999 Flexible’s sire, Cruising, came in second to Rodrigo Pessoa’s legendary Baloubet de Rouet at the World Cup Finals in Gothenberg, Sweden.
In 2008, Fellers and Flexible finished second to Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly in the same venue. Four years, one cancelled flight and six clear rounds later things finally got squared, Sunday, April 22 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. It was the first time in 25 years a U.S. rider has won show jumping’s World Cup.
“I just thought I have to do it this time. You don’t get too many chances!,” Fellers said. The duo had competed together in the past five World Cups, and at 16, Flexible was the oldest horse in the race this time out.
While Fellers, 52, easily has a decade or more of high performance riding ahead of him, it’s unusual for horses to be jumping at the 5* level at 16, let alone 17. “He feels more like a 12-year-old,” Fellers said of the Irish Sport Horse stallion, who he says “has gotten better and better over the years.” On the decisive final night of World Cup, “waiting for the jump-off, he was neighing in the warm-up ring” as he waited for his sixth and final tour through the Indoor Brabant, where after a grueling three days competition over it had come down to two contenders: the pair from Sherwood, OR, and Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat and the 11-year-old gelding Nino des Buissonnets.
Guerdat had to settle for second, and though they went into day three in first place, fellow Swiss rider Pius Schwizer and Carlina had a rail down in the second round in Friday’s A-B final and finished third. The next best performing U.S. pair was Richard Spooner and Cristallo, who came in 16th. A total of 24 starters lit out on Louis Konickx’s strenuous course, trying for a shot at $831,000 in World Cup Final prize moneyâ??$89,000 of it for the series winners, a team that includes owners Harry and Mollie Chapman, Fellers’ wife Shelley and the couple’s teen children, Chris and Savannah (who send plenty of love to both dad and pony on the road!)
“I kept thinking as the competition progressed, ‘Flexible is 16 now and it would be so cool for him to win this with Rich!’,” Shelley Fellers, reached at home in Oregon, said. “He is a once in a lifetime horse, and Rich works harder than anyone I know. We joke about how driven he is. Their winning of the World Cup gives me hope that you can achieve your dreams if you really work at it, even without all the advantages.”
LEAP OF FAITH
It’s something of a miracle that the diminutive Flexibleâ??16 hands (in shoes!)â??made it to the World Cup Finals at all, much less won as senior statesman. Fellers purchased the horse for the Chapmans in 2003, from Ireland’s Eddie Doyle. The following year he suffered a blocked artery in his right front leg. That setback was immediately followed by a torn scapula. Both were career-threatening injuries. The horse was treated (his care a model of equine health management) and Flexible overcame the odds to return to the top of the sport. By 2008 he proved himself “second best” in the world.
More recently, Fellers had to contend with a cancelled flight to the Netherlands from Seattle. Instead, Fellers drove the horse 19-hours to Los Angeles to make it to the show on time. “That’s the humbling aspect of our sport,” said Rebekah Swan, who along with her husband J.R. purchased Whip ‘N’ Spur Farm in Wilsonville, OR, from the Chapmans in 2008, and trains with Fellers, who operates Rich Fellers Stables out of the 40-horse facility. “Things change all the time. You have to roll with the punches.”
Like a true champion, Flexible managed to put whatever jet lag may have resulted from the inconvenient flight plan and punched out a commanding lead from day one of the 2012 World Cup contest, winning the Thursday speed class on April 19.
He fell to eighth on the second day of competition, April 20, when he had a rail and landed eighth for the day, but was tied for second overall with Guerdat. “I can’t say enough about him. He never stops surprising me, how much fight he has in him, how hard he tries to leave the rails up. The feeling over the big, wide oxers with him is amazing,” Fellers said.
THE FINAL TWO ROUNDS
The 12-fence Round A test stopped all but the strongest contenders in their tracks, and the home crowd was unable to conceal its delight when Dutchman Maikel van der Vleuten produced the first clear score, twelfth to enter the ring, on VDL Groep Verdi. (They had a rail in the Round B and finished seventh.)
Even with the time allowed increased from 65 to 68 seconds, it was tight, and it took strong riding, courage and exacting concentration to return a clean sheet. Sweden’s Rolf-Goran Bengtsson proved why he is No. 1 on the Rolex World Jumper Rankings as the next to go clear.
The triple combination quickly became the bogey, as it had on Friday night’s Round 2, but this time it was positioned at the very end of the course. A triple pointing toward home is a set-up that can easily unnerve horses, and this proved no exception.
Philipp Weishaupt (GER) and Monte Bellini, Friday night’s winners, lost hope here, sputtering at the last effort where a rail was left in the dirt.
There were only four riders left to go when the next clear round was recorded. France’s Kevin Staut and the grey mare Silvana HDC gave everything they had and left the course intact. Guerdat and Nino des Buissonnets and Fellers and Flexible did likewise.
Leading with zero faults going into the final day, Schwizer and Carlina were the last to enter the ring. They carried a single point into the evening’s second phase after running afoul of the clock in Round A, creating a three-way tie with Guerdat and Fellers while Staut stalked the pack in fourth position with three points.
By Round B, Staut’s chances disintegrated with two fences down. The distances were ultra-testing and the 1.62m vertical at fence seven asked a serious question while the double, three from home, claimed a large number of victims.
Guerdat’s gelding was on fire and Fellers’ stallion likewise so, to the delight of the packed stadium, it came down to a thrilling duel between two teams, battling each other and the clock. Konickx left them with just six fences and seven jumping efforts to decide the winner, and Guerdat set the target with one more fabulous clear, crossing the line in 26.61 seconds.
Fellers watched the Swiss rider go. “I hopped off and watched Steve through the curtains – I thought it was seven (strides) from the triple bar (second-last on the jump-off course) to the Rolex vertical (last fence) but he did eight. I know Flexible very well and he’s quick across the ground. I don’t know Steve’s horse but I just trusted that I could do eight to the last and be faster and be lucky.” And so he was, breaking the beam in 25.97 secondsâ??.64 seconds faster than the runner-up.
Guerdat said afterwards, “my horse is very fast and I thought without taking too much risk it would be enough, but afterwards I realized I lost time turning back to the triple bar. I can only blame myself and I’ll have to do better next time.”
Fellers sang the praise of course designer Louis Konickx. “He did a world-class job from the first day until the end. I think the week was quite safe, I don’t think any horses lost their heart or their courage, but at the same time it was very difficult and top level jumping.” Asked how it felt to be the first American rider to take the coveted FEI World Cup Jumping title in 25 years, he said, “we were dueâ??that’s a long time with all the red coats that come to this final!”
He talked about his wonder-horse, whose resilience is something of a phenomenon. “He was, as a younger horse, extremely excitable. He’s very quick and twitchy. He’s kind of a wild character, but he’s gradually mellowed as he’s matured. He’s like a pet, I love him and he loves me, we have a great relationship and we know each other very well,” he explained. Flexible now has “a week, or maybe nine or 10 days” before he returns to the US to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Del Mar, California. Not much time to rest on his laurels, but somehow it seems that this relatively old horse and his 52-year-old rider, are on an upward trajectory that seems destined to take them to London this summer.
The win by Fellers and Flexible brings the tally of U.S. FEI World Cup Jumping victories to eight in the 34-year history of the series felt by many to define the greatest horses of the era. In an Olympics year, the World Cup Championship is at the very least a nice chunk of change and a great confidence booster.
“I think this will have some effect on the selectors, regardless” of the fact that it wasn’t an official selection trial, Fellers said shortly after the finish. “They can’t blank this out of their minds. That was a championship performance by a championship-caliber horse. I do still have to do the trials. That’s the way it’s all written up, and it has to all be very proper and legal in the United States. He has to do the trials. So he will jump some more big tracks before London, guaranteed.”
Fellers and Flexible plan to compete at the USEF Olympic Selection Trial for the U.S. show jumping at the Del Mar National Horse Show Hunter-Jumper Week, May 1-6 in Del Mar, CA. “That would be quite an honor to be on the U.S. team in London,” Fellers said. “I hope it works out.”
World Cup Final results, click here.
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