By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

A veteran pairing won the featured Advanced division at the MARS Essex Horse Trials today, as Will Coleman and the dependable Obos O’Reilly took the title by a wide margin.

MARS Essex Horse Trials Advanced division winner Will Coleman with Obos O’Reilly. (Photo©2018 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Their beautiful trip around the formerly soggy course at Moorland Farm in Far Hills put a happy ending on a tumultuous few days for the division, being held at the event for the first time.

It drew 38 entries and an array of high-profile riders in addition to Will, who has been on the Olympic and FEI World Equestrian Games teams.

They included Olympic multi-medalist Phillip Dutton, Buck Davidson and Boyd Martin (who wound up winning the Preliminary Essex division yesterday). Those three, however, were among a total of 26 scratches in the Advanced ranks, with 18 bowing out after dressage, two retiring in stadium jumping and six overnight withdrawals.

A week of rain preceding the event, which was revived three years ago after a 19-year absence from the calendar, made things difficult despite impressive efforts by the organizers. The Advanced dressage and stadium jumping, which were supposed to be held Friday, were put off until Saturday, and the cross-country moved from Saturday to Sunday to allow the ground more time to dry.

There is no all-weather footing at Moorland, home of the Far Hills Race Meeting, so the grass surface for stadium jumping was not optimum, despite lots of divot-stomping and being rolled by heavy equipment. Some riders decided it was better to err on the side of caution than to take a chance with their horses. There were no fault-free trips in stadium among the 19 who did ride.

Although the footing was much improved this morning, course designer and event co-manager Morgan Rowsell felt it hadn’t tightened up enough. He decided to leave out nine jumping efforts on the last line, ending the course at the Buckeye Brush, a narrow obstacle after the Mars Sustainable Bay water jump.

“There was only one good question after that, so why force them to run through the deep going,” Morgan explained.

“Why not just play it safe,” added Morgan, noting the riders had expressed some concerns about the surface.

In the end, 11 horses started on cross-country. There were two falls on course, both at the airy Ditch Me Once oxer over a stream, six strides from the Von Stade road crossing, but those involved—human and equine—were able to walk away.

The course drew praise from those who did finish.

“I thought it rode great. It’s a shame we didn’t get to run all of it,” said Will, who complimented Morgan’s efforts. At the same time, he understood why some riders scratched as they were thinking ahead to future competitions, such as Phillip Dutton with Z, who is going to Aachen this summer.

Will Coleman cruised through the MARS Sustainability Bay water obstacle with Obos O’Reilly. Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

I chatted with Will about his time at Essex, an event he cited for its “character,” and the regard he has for Obos.

Missy Miller made a big leap from 30th place after dressage to finish second on Quinn. She trains with Phillip Dutton, and although he and so many others scratched, she saddled up for cross-country and rode beautifully, finishing on 59.8 penalties.

It was only the second time Missy and Quinn have done Advanced, so you can see why she had a big smile on her face.

Missy Miller and Quinn. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

Hometown favorite Meg Kepferle of Long Valley was thrilled with Anakin, who finished third on 61.5 penalties after placing 23d in dressage.

“I never thought I would get to this level, to be honest,” she said, after joyfully crossing the finish line.

“After all the rain and the chaos of the weekend, in the back of my mind I was going to scratch,” she recalled.

However, “It just kept working out,” she said, noting how good her show jumping phase was, with only one rail down on a very difficult course set by Chris Barnard.

Meg Kepferle and Anakin at the Von Stade road crossing on the Essex Advanced course. (Photo©2019 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Meg made her final decision about running today with some outside help.

“I’m lucky to have some good advisors who told me it’s going to be fine. It was really good.”

Juli Sebring, who finished last in dressage in 38th place, made up for it on cross-country with Welbourne, winding up seventh overall with 121.8 penalties.

She got socked with time penalties because she stopped after veering off into the wrong galloping lane after the first fence, but when she learned she wasn’t eliminated for that, she literally got back on track and came home with a big smile on her face.

“My horse rode amazingly well. The footing rode fine,” she said.

Essex and the classic car show that ran with it today at the venue benefitted from weekend weather as sunny as the week was rainy. Attendance for the weekend was approximately 5,000, as ticket holders took advantage of vendors and activities for children in addition to watching the competition.

Mark and Carolynne Corigliano of Peapack with their 1921 Rolls-Royce at the Essex Horse Trials’ classic car show, just as a younger “sibling” of their vehicle was entering the show on the left. (Photo©2019 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

The efforts of the energetic volunteers drew raves from exhibitors about how helpful and friendly they were. I asked Ruth Beesch, who events at a low level and keeps her horse in nearby Tewksbury, why she decided to volunteer at Essex as an “event ambassador” who explains the sport to sponsors.

“It’s a local event that’s already becoming a premier event,” she told me.

“If those of us who are locals and love eventing and love our horses and our horse community don’t come out and volunteer for something like this, there’s something wrong with us.”

Erik Duvander, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s eventing performance manager, was helping move jumps to secure the best footing on approaches to the fences for the Advanced stadium jumping on Saturday. A first time visitor to the event, he was enthusiastic about its potential and decided to pitch in.

Essex is definitely on the rise, despite the weather situation that affects any outdoor sport.

“We want to continue to grow the event and improve the event,” said Guy Torsillieri, who as the race meeting’s key player with Ron Kennedy, is the Essex event’s landlord.

“We had record rains. We never had it this wet, ever. We’re really good at making hard ground soft, but we’re not too good at making soft ground hard,” Guy observed.

Through the efforts of MARS Equestrian and other sponsors, he said that without losing the flavor of a smaller competition, “we’re positioned to make this an even better event.”

Will Coleman is presented with a check for $9,500 for winning the Advanced division at the MARS Essex Horse Trials. With him are Essex co-chairs Ralph Jones and Morgan Rowsell, Greg Staller, Kathleen MacDonnell of Marsh & McLennan Agency, Sue Webber of AIG, Bridgett McIntosh and Geoffrey Galant of MARS Equestrian, former NJ Gov. Christie Whitman and Guy Torsillieri. (Photo©2019 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

As Ralph Jones, who serves as the event’s co-chairman with Morgan noted, “We did the best we could. It was nice to have the armada of the Far Hills Race Meeting behind us to do some work on the course, because that showed the riders we would do everything we could for their safety during the competition, and that made a big difference to them, so I think we earned their respect.”

This is a copy of an article that originally appeared on Nancy Jaffer Equestrian Sports and is reproduced here with permission. ©2019 On The Rail LLC and Nancy Jaffer. All rights reserved.