Final Postcard from Spruce Meadows

Rodrigo Pessoa and Gandini Lianos triumph in the world's richest grand prix.
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Rodrigo Pessoa and Gandini Lianos triumph in the world's richest grand prix.

Calgary, Alberta, CANADA, September 9 -- History was made today--show jumping got its first $1 million grand prix. Okay, it was Canadian money, so it really amounted to about $640,000 in American dollars, but it's the word "million" that counts.

The Nortel Networks International class at the Spruce Meadows Masters certainly offered $1 million worth of excitement in any currency, with Olympic course designer Leopoldo Palacios doing his darnedest to challenge the riders. When I tell you there were 45 starters and only one double-clear, you'll understand what I mean.

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And that double clear belonged to--Rodrigo Pessoa, who won the same class last year on Gandini Lianos. Are you surprised? The World Champion from Brazil may have lost big-time in the Sydney Olympics, but he's still one of the greats, no doubt about it. Though the whole course was testing, the middle line in the first round emerged as a textbook case of "oh my gosh!" Rodrigo called it "super tough," so you can imagine! Riders had five strides to go from a difficult vertical-oxer double to a water jump that must have seemed to stretch as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. After that, they had an option of five or six strides to get to the next double, a pair of verticals. Competitors had to be careful in the first double, then go flat-out to clear the water, and adjust quickly to hit the second double correctly. Thirteen horses had a toe in the water, including the USA's Oh Star, with Todd Minikus up. He was one of only three to go clean in the second round, where the top 12 (eight of whom had 4 faults in the first round) came back to jump again.

The others besides Minikus to manage a faultless trip in the second test over a different (but shorter) course were Pessoa on Gandini Lianos, of course, and the world's number-one-ranked rider, Ludger Beerbaum of Germany on Gladdys S. Ludger's combined times score for both rounds was slightly faster than Todd's, putting the former Olympic champion second.

Still, Todd was elated to be the bronze medalist in such high-caliber company. "It's been kind of a fairy-tale situation, where you buy a young horse and run around and shoot your mouth off and tell everybody you think you've got a world-class horse and it actually turns out to be true," Todd said with a grin. His chestnut stallion, he was proud to say, "jumped outrageous."

And Oh Star had enough energy left to rear two or three times during the presentation, while Gandini Lianos quietly munched the turf he had conquered and then enjoyed some carrots. But he's a gelding.

Todd wasn't the only American to distinguish himself in the prix. Aside from Rodrigo, all the perfect trips in the first round were turned in by U.S. riders--the unflappable Beezie Madden on Judgement, Michael Matz's former mount; Lauren Hough on Clasiko, continuing her comeback from that bone-rattling fall on Saturday; and Alison Firestone on Casanova.

They wound up fourth, fifth and 12th respectively, while Laura Kraut and Anthem, who had rails in both rounds, finished seventh. Quite a showing for the USA, which took the lion's share of the big classes here.

I asked Rodrigo if he had a choice, whether he would prefer to win the Olympic gold, or the Nortel, from which he took home $325,000.

"The standards we were put to here, they are Olympic standards, so it's really phenomenal to be able to win here," he said. "The Olympics are still a thing apart, so it's difficult to compare. But here it's really amazing to win not once, but twice, and back-to-back is really special."

So he didn't really answer my question; I guess he wants to win both. He did say he wished he had a $325,000 paycheck every week.

On a sad note, Rodrigo, his voice breaking, dedicated his win to Gerardo Tazzer, a fellow international rider from Mexico, who was kidnapped last month.

"Hopefully, those nasty people will return him to his family," he said.

But you can't leave Spruce Meadows on a down note. As I write this, I look out the window and see them taking away the jumps; the legendary "Dutch bicycle" that caused riders so many problems this weekend; the British guard houses that colorfully flanked the first fence in the Nortel's second round; the wooden statues of bears and rams that added so much to the atmosphere in the ring, along with masses of Dutch flowers and masses of spectators.

This is a one-of-a-kind place with a one-of-a-kind show that demonstrates the potential for horse sports and makes you feel proud to be associated with them. This was a VERY big deal. And I have it from Linda Southern-Heathcott, Spruce Meadows' vice president, that it's in the contract for Nortel to increase the purse next year. She wouldn't say by how much, but I'll bet Rodrigo's already planning how to make it three in a row at the Masters.