The USA pulled off a clean sweep of the medals in the individual final of the Reining at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy on Saturday night.
Shawn Flarida, 45, riding the seven-year-old Spooks Gotta Whiz, producing a score of 233.5 to put the result beyond doubt when last to go. And his team gold medal winning compatriots from earlier in the week, Andrea Fappani and Mandy McCutcheon, clinched silver and bronze. McCutcheon is the first woman to win an individual medal at a WEG.
The trio from the USA won have collectively earned $10 million in NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) stakes.
The reiners performed to NRHA pattern 10, entering the arena at a lope.
Flarida’s five golds include a double at Jerez (Spain) in 2002, team gold in Kentucky (USA) four years ago and team and individual gold again at Normandy 2014. There, he showed the cutting edge that has kept him at the top end of his chosen sport for many years.
And Spooks Gotta Whiz produced the perfect performance to do just that. Flarida said: “Andrea put so much pressure on me as far as he went in there and marked a 230 and set the world on fire – it was definitely a lot of pressure but at the same time it was a lot of fun, just knowing that I had that horse to do what he can do”.
The whistling and cheering rose to a crescendo as the action played itself out in front of a packed house in the Parc des Expositions in Caen. A total of 21 made the cut into the individual medal-decider and it was the USA’s Troy Heikes and Lil Gun Dunit who took the early lead when posting a score of 220.5. But Germany’s Ludwig Grischa raised the bar with a great run from the six-year-old Ruf Tuf Juice, and 226.00 would leave them out in front right into the closing stages.
Great Britain’s Josh Collins was first to go in the second group out, scoring 218.5 with the pint-sized Spook a Little. They didn’t quite nail their first stop, but the 24-year-old who works in the family jewellery business which includes amongst its distinguished clientele the British royal family, said: “this was our first WEG and I’m very happy”, promising to return to challenge for a medal at next year’s FEI European Reining Championships in Aachen, Germany.
It wasn’t until McCutcheon set off with Yellow Jersey that Grischa’s lead was seriously undermined. Family connections are everywhere in the sport of reining, and McCutcheon’s 10-year-old stallion is owned by her parents, Colleen and Tim McQuay. Tim was a member of the winning US team at the Games in Kentucky, and Mandy is married to another member of that winning side, the 2010 Individual champion Tom McCutcheon who also made it into the finale.
Her score of 227.00 put Mandy out in front until, second-last to go, Fappani set off with Custom Cash Advance who racked up a mark of 229.00.
Flarida was the only competitor to return to the ring after the last drag break, and the crowd went wild as he galloped through the entrance gate to his first halt and back up. They got even wilder as he put together four spins to the right, four and one-quarter spins to the left and then circles, fast and slow, at each end of the arena, with the lead-changes crucial to a strong score. The noise level was near-deafening as he brought the pattern to its conclusion with run downs and rollbacks before the final sliding stop. When the commentator confirmed his score of 233.5 the spectators nearly lifted the roof off the arena in a show of appreciation.
The field for the final featured seven NRHA Million Dollar Riders, including Europeans Bernard Fonck and Rudi Kronsteiner, and Tom McCutcheon and Jordan Larson from the USA. Mandy McCutcheon is the only woman to have achieved the Two Million Dollar Rider mark. Silver medalist Andrea Fappani is a Three Million Dollar Rider, and gold medalist Shawn Flarida is the only Five Million Dollar Rider in the history of the NRHA.
Talking about the sound level throughout the evening, Flarida said afterwards “my horse didn’t hear my verbal cues at all, he ran in there and he had to listen to my hands and my legs, it was a blast to show here, the crowd was really into it, it was really, really neat!”
He took the time to accept congratulations from the public as he walked around the arena with his horse after completing his gold-medal-winning run. “It’s one way for us competitors to give back and say thank you for them yelling and screaming their hearts out. They’re going to be hoarse tomorrow, and we do really appreciate it. It’s really fun to see the little kids when you ride by, they’re trying to touch the horses, and we enjoy doing it,” he explained.
He insisted his victory was no walk in the park. “There was a number of different guys that could have stepped up and won this,” he insisted.
“When you go in there and show, there is so much emotion and so many things going on, I didn’t really know what way it was scoring. I knew my horse was as good as he could be, he prepared exactly like he showed, and from a horseman’s standpoint when they warm up and they prep just like that, then it makes you really happy. Sometimes it doesn’t always go that good, but tonight it was just right.
“My game plan was don’t make any mistakes. For whatever reason that horse, he knows when showtime is. I don’t know how he knows, but he steps up and he does his job,” Flarida added.
McCutcheon was thrilled with her ride. “My horse walked in the ring and stepped up and that’s just a great show-horse when they do that. I couldn’t be happier. To be here tonight, I feel like I won! To be behind Shawn and Andrea is an amazing feeling!” she said.
Fappani joked that “this would have been my best performance ever if it wasn’t for this guy right here!” pointing at Flarida. Fappani has been competing with Custom Cash Advance for only a short period.
“I think this was just the fifth time I’ve shown him. We started with a 216 (score), not knowing each other just a few months ago, then 200, 224, 228 and now 229 so it has kept getting better and better. Coming into this Games the only thing that worried me a little bit was that I didn’t have as much time as I probably should have had with this horse. I purchased him just a few months ago, but I came here confident that the horse knew what he was doing and I just knew that I needed to give him the confidence myself to do his job, and that’s what I kept telling myself tonight. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” the silver medalist said.
McCutcheon reflected on the circumstances that have led her to Individual bronze. “I’ve been lucky to have the opportunities I’ve had for my whole career. The opportunities my parents have given me … I couldn’t be more thankful or appreciative to them, I wouldn’t be here without them and the same thing with Tom (her husband). He’s been asked a million times what’s it like to be watching me on the team, and he’s said, she’s followed me everywhere. And he doesn’t mind supporting me, so I really appreciate that,” she said.
Flarida spoke about the challenge of the night’s pattern. “That run-in stop is kind of the key to that pattern, it’s the hardest one, and when everyone’s yelling like that and those horses run in it’s pretty exciting. The three of our horses tonight, that’s where we did it,” he said.
Following the prize-giving ceremony he could be seen giving his gold medal away. Asked about that at the post-competition press conference, the newly-crowned champion revealed it wasn’t going too far.
“I gave it to my little boy right there,” he said, pointing to his son Sam. “He’s a real horse enthusiast and he told me we’d have to work hard for this tonight, so I thought it would be fitting if I handed it to him,” Flarida explained.
Summing up the competition was Team US Chèf d’Equipe, Jeff Petska said: “We came here with a hope, which translated into reality: winning both the team gold and the three individual medals. We had the horses and the riders capable of doing this, but anything – as we saw tonight – can happen in a reining. I am very proud of all the athletes and would also like to thank everyone behind us.”
Reining Individual Final:
GOLD – Spooks Gotta Whiz (Shawn Flarida) USA 233.5
SILVER – Custom Cash Advance (Andrea Fappani) USA 229.00
BRONZE – Yellow Jersey (Mandy McCutcheon) USA 227.00