Jos Verlooy, who is 18, and Domino, who is 11, came of age together in Belgium, sharing a bond that allows them to communicate without speaking. The connection is apparent to those watching them here in Los Angeles, as Verlooy trots Domino, his show jumper, into an arena that is a labyrinth of 13 enormous obstacles, some taller than many people, others wider than most cars. The bay gelding pricks his ears as Verlooy steers him to a fence more than 5 feet high. The horse explodes into the air, tucking his front legs tightly against his chest and clearing with inches to spare. It is so quiet that the microphones pick up the creak of Verlooy’s leather saddle, Domino’s loud breathing as he gallops, the thuds as he lands. At jump No. 3, Domino faces a monstrous triple bar—as wide as an Escalade—arcing his neck and hanging in the air like Michael Jordan. Five jumps later he is at the "power line," a tricky set of obstacles that demands a horse to respond instantly to the rider’s cues or crash. A couple of riders barely escape disaster.
Verlooy tugs on the reins. Domino pauses briefly to collect his 1,200 pounds of bone and muscle, coiling to spring. Everything about this ride has been so smooth—no irritated bucks, no tug-of-war for control—that even the waiters at the VIP seats stop to watch. The sold-out crowd senses this duo will deliver what they have been waiting for: a flawless round. But first the pair must master jump No. 10, a lightly balanced fence set distractingly close to the out gate. One horse after another peeks at the exit, loses concentration, and sends the top rail flying.
As the crowd holds its breath, Verlooy and Domino clear easily and are on to the triple combination. The three massive jumps are set one to two strides apart; imagine leaping your height from a standstill. Yet it is no problem for Domino, who heads to the last fence at a dead run. As he vaults No. 13, the crowd erupts. The teenaged Verlooy pumps his fist in the air. He has qualified for the all-important jump-off at the Longines Los Angeles Masters five-star Grand Prix—and a share of its $475,000 prize.
Show jumping is that rare sport in which men face off against women and teenagers are as common as middle-aged competitors. It takes place throughout the world, from its birthplace in Great Britain to obscure places like the tiny island of Grenada, which proudly issued a postage stamp in its honor. In Europe it is phenomenally popular, the No. 2 spectator sport behind soccer, with tens of thousands converging for revered competitions like the one in Aachen, Germany.
(Continues on next page...)