Conversations With Course Designers: Anthony D’Ambrosio

By Jackie McFarland

I had the privilege and the honor to spend time with course designer Anthony D’Ambrosio. The art and science of course design is not only well-illustrated through his work but equally as well explained by him. Beginning with the warm-ups on Wednesday, each day of competition from the course perspective is covered below.

Warm-Up Wednesday
While fifty-five horses jumped around the warm-up course on Wednesday, including FEI World Cup and Las Vegas Grand Prix competitors and their mounts, I spoke with Anthony about the warm-up choices and the upcoming World Cup courses.

“The warm-up is about getting the horses comfortable with the ring. Allowing them into the corners,” he explained, which coincides with what most of our West Coast riders said they were planning to do [see their interviews here]. “We kept it simple, no more than nine efforts at 1.30-1.35m (4’3”- 4’5”) in height with 1.40-1.45m (4’7” – 4’9”) spread. We put in a tight corner jump and one double.”

Naturally I asked him about what’s to come. He shared that all the courses were not only ready to go but he was pleased to have had the opportunity to lay out each one using 2×4’s the Friday before the event commenced. “Due to the unique shape of this arena, the chance to see how the course fits is a luxury.” Upon seeing the courses in the arena, Anthony said he did make one change, and from this point forward it will only be fine-tuning as the competition begins.

Track & Field Thursday
Walking the Table C course with Anthony D’Ambrosio on Thursday it was clear he set a course of many colors. The jumps were vibrant and the options he offered riders created a field with numerous tracks.

Jump one was a sizeable Rolex triple bar with an option six or seven bending line to fence two. Tight turn to fence three to a bending line in six to a ‘heavy’ pole jump made up of red and white poles to look like the Swiss flag in honor of Beat Mandli, the 2007 World Cup winner. Only two riders, class winner Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Steve Guerdat, took the inside turn to fence five. This turn required adding a step in the long three strides from fence five to six, riding it in four. Worked well for Meredith. “My horse is a good adder,” she noted. Another tight rollback to the double also had an option to go inside or around an island of trees. This is where Rich Fellers and Flexible, who had to go first, almost parted company. Seemed one turned faster than the other, however they quickly worked it out, made the turn, hopped the in to the double and made it out in two strides without touching a pole. Still setting a solid time to beat at 58.50, the pair ended up fourth in a class of 44 entries.

Next efforts included a natural skinny vertical with a turn to a long four-stride line to an oxer, vertical, vertical combination. The second element was the four seconds added for many riders as that came up fast resulting in a downed rail. Finishing with a line in seven or eight to the final pin-striped liverpool oxer, the widest jump on the course.

Ultimately the class winner, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum riding her partner Shutterfly, stopped the clock in 56.48. She chose the best track for her horse, which included tight turns and adding strides. “I thought it was a brilliant course,” said. “It presented a lot of options. I was surprised only one other rider (Steve Guerdat) did it the way I did.”

On the other hand, second place winner Christina Liebherr aboard LB No Mercy took all wide turns, no inside tracks and left strides out in a time of 57.47. Next fastest time also stuck to his plan, McLain Ward riding Sapphire took his own unique track around the field, coming in third at 57.73. A very interesting class indeed.

Follow Friday

When walking with Anthony on Friday evening, he said, “It’s a demanding yet fair course.” He built it with a hope of getting eight to ten clear rounds and having a great jump off.

With 14 obstacles set, interesting questions asked included fence three the triple bar, 1.90m (6’3”) wide, 1.55m (5’1”) high at the back rail. The triple combination was the eighth obstacle, vertical-vertical-oxer, with a quick turn to 1.60m (5’3”) Las Vegas vertical in a steady five or potentially a forward four strides. Fence eleven was an airy wide oxer that caught a few horses, however the two jumps providing the most difficulty were the Las Vegas vertical at nine and the plank on flat cups at 12. As the plank was the first jump in a tough four or five stride line to a double right towards the in-gate. “Number nine came up quickly after the triple combination, and rode in a short distance toward the in-gate,” explained second place finisher McLain Ward at a press conference after the award presentation. “Planks are always tough, seemed some of the riders were riding the distance in the line after the jump before clearing it.”

Mission accomplished – seventeen riders had just one rail, mostly at the jumps mentioned above. However thirteen of forty-two riders rode fault free. In an exciting jump-off, that demanded tidy turns and a long gallop to the final oxer, six went double clear.

Friday followed Thursday for Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER). She mastered Anthony D’Ambrosio’s first round course as well as the jump-off. McLain Ward (USA) came in a very close second, losing by only a second. And capturing third was Albert Zoer (NED) on Oki Doki, who was just under a second slower than McLain. Beezie Madden (USA) and Danny Boy were just tenths of a second behind Zoer for fourth and Richard Spooner (USA) aboard Cristallo was only hundredths of a second slower than Beezie for fifth. The only other double clear was Helena Lundback (SWE) on Madick picking up the sixth award.

“I had a super turn from two to three that was very fast,” Michaels-Beerbaum said of her jump-off ride. She added, “Shutterfly is a very fast horse. He’s a racehorse type.”

Ward added, “I went as fast as I could go. There wasn’t one place I could go faster. My hat is off to Meredith.”

Super Saturday
A day of rest for the World Cup horses, the Saturday course was built for the Las Vegas Grand Prix immediately followed by some of our nation’s best riders dropping britches for jeans, chaps and cowboy boots in a reining competition.

Anthony’s course proved to be challenging in both scope and timing. The large liverpool at the end of the bending line from three to four was the first real challenge on course. It was followed by a tough roll-back to the Las Vegas vertical at fence five, in a forward bending six strides to the next test, the triple combination. The wide sunburst oxer in the middle of the vertical-oxer-vertical triple proved to be the biggest challenge, nearly a third of the riders had it down. Exceeding the 84-second time allowed ended up as the only fault for two American riders, young East Coaster Michelle Spadone and West Coaster Jill Humphrey.

Five jumped clean in the first round. Truly an international line-up, young American Laura Teodori went eleventh of 21 and was first clean, followed by HRH Prince Abdullah Al-Saud from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Norwegian Geir Gulliksen, American Rich Fellers riding Kilkenny Rindo and Dutch Gerco Schroder rounded out those returning for the jump-off.

When the course was reset, it included the already difficult roll back from the liverpool to the tall Las Vegas vertical direct to the ‘B’ and ‘C’ of the triple, now a double. Only Rich and Prince Abdullah went double clean. Rich rode the inexperienced but talented Rindo beautifully for the win. The horse just began his Grand Prix career last November.

When asked at a press conference about the course, he said, “I thought it was a great course. It had a lot of variety, which makes it interesting for the crowd and challenging for the riders. Anthony is one of my favorite course designers.” As for Sunday when Fellers will be back aboard Flexible, he said, “I think it’s going to be very, very tough. Big and technical.”

Spectacular Sunday
Sunday is run in a format unique to the World Cup. Theplacings from the first two rounds are converted into World Cup penalty points to determine the overall ranking. With two rounds, the faults accumulated in the first round are added to the penalty points to determine who returns for the second round. A jump-off follows only if there is a tie after the two rounds are complete. The 22 riders with the lowest score, along with any with clean rounds who chose to ride again, moved on to the next round—which is also scored by adding faults incurred to the rider’s penalty points.

Round I
We had the added honor of walking the course with assistant to Anthony, Leopoldo Palacios, a world-renowned course designer in his own right. The jumps were taller and wider than previous days and the questions asked a touch more technical. Both rounds had twelve obstacles, including challenging triple and a double combinations configured differently in each course. The second effort in Round One was a triple bar at a width of 2.0m (6’7”). The last jump in Round One was a 1.62m (5’4”) tall vertical plank on flat cups. Twelve of 29 went clean in this round, eleven had four faults and five dropped two rails. Unfortunately two of those five eight-faulters were Richard Spooner and Rich Fellers.

Round II
It started off immediately with a line from a vertical at one with a flowing six strides to an oxer at two. Around the corner to a skinny vertical at three that was the first jump in a bending line of five strides to a big and wide (1.60m – 5’3”) vertical-oxer double combination. The super wide triple bar from Round One was moved to a new location as fence five in a blind turn bending line to a liverpool vertical standing at 1.60m (5’3”). The seventh element, the Rolex triple combination built with two big oxers and a vertical, took its toll as a multitude rails were dropped while negotiating the challenge, however no rest after this test as the big wall at eight came up quickly in a bending six. The last large oxer seemed to come up long off the corner and even more rails came down there then in the triple. This course caused three riders to withdraw, and challenged American riders Christine McCrea, Hillary Dobbs and Rich Fellers who ended up with 19, 20 and 22 faults respectively. Mandy Porter and Beezie Madden both had twelve and Richard Spooner finished with eight faults, along with the awesome Marcus Ehning. Six of the 23 rides jumped without a fault, including Steve Guerdat (SUI), Ben Maher (GBR), Ludger Beerbaum (GER), Christina Liebherr (SUI), Albert Zoer (NED), McLain Ward (USA) and of course Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER) who kept her perfect score of zero penalty points for the win.

Results Reflect Design
The tremendously close results of the top three riders, all jumping each round clean with only time separating their scores, speaks highly for the course designer. This competition is about testing the best riders abilities over multiple days asking a variety of difficult questions including timing, scope, rideability, accuracy and precision. Doug Meine, Executive Vice President of Rolex, expressed it from the sponsor perspective, which speaks for the event overall “FEI and Rolex share a passion for precision and excellence.” Anthony D’Ambrosio, our 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup Final course architect, designed for just that – passionate perfection.