THE OREGONAN — APRIL 23, 2012 — Wilsonville equestrian Rich Fellers, 52, and his 16-year-old Irish Sporthorse, Flexible, were the oldest pair to enter the World Cup finals for show jumping last week in the Netherlands. On Sunday, Fellers became the first United States rider to win the event in 25 years, earning $150,000 in prize money and securing the biggest victory of his decorated career. See video.
J.R. Swan, co-owner of the Wilsonville facility where Fellers trains, was in tears after the win. In the sport of show jumping, he said, “This is the Super Bowl. This is the Stanley Cup. This is the World Series.”
The Rolex FEI World Cup win also catapulted Fellers and Flexible into the spotlight just in time for the Olympic season.
Last month after finishing in a tie for third at the U.S. Olympic Trials, the pair were named to the long list for the U.S. show jumping team. The list will be pared down to four horse and rider combinations and one alternate to compete in London this summer, chosen after four observation events in the coming months.
Competing in the Olympics would be a first for Fellers, who began riding at age 10.
The World Cup does not factor into the Olympic selection process, but the local duo’s performance will be hard to ignore. “It will leave a real positive thought in the selector’s mind,” Fellers said. “It’s a big boost.”
Fellers has competed with Flexible in the past five World Cup events and snagged a second place finish in 2008. This year’s competition consisted of 37 horse and rider combinations. The finish came down to a jump-off – a rarity because of the unique scoring system – between Fellers and Steve Guerdat, of Switzerland, who rode Nino des Buissonnets.
Fellers, who jumped second, counted the strides and analyzed the final run of the Swiss pair. “He was very, very fast…and definitely put the pressure on,” Fellers said. “I just told myself, ‘I’m going to win this.'” Minutes later, Flexible ran the same course taking one less stride between a turn. As a result, the American pair finished seven-tenths of a second faster.
Swan touted Fellers’ work ethic – “he’s out there riding all day, every day” – and love for his animals. “This is a local guy who is at the upper echelon of our sport… and he has made it there just by taking good horses and making them great.”
Fellers has competed with Flexible for eight seasons. He said the horse’s small size compared to other show jumpers makes him a crowd favorite. “He’s more of a fighter with a lot of heart than he is just a powerful athlete,” Fellers said.
Back in his Northwest home on Monday, Fellers rested after a night of little sleep and a long international flight. Texts and calls continued to flood his cell phone.
Flexible will stay in Europe until tomorrow, then he will be flown to California and kept at a farm until his next competition.
Neither the horse nor equestrian have much time to rest on their laurels. Next week, Fellers and Flexible will vie for an Olympic bid at their first U.S. Equestrian Federation observation event in Del Mar, Calif.
Then, they’ll travel to Alberta, Canada, for their second attempt in June. The Olympic selectors and coach will evaluate the performances at all four U.S. events before making their final decision.