April 2, 2006, Tampa, Fla. -- Wow--What a jump-off!
More than 11,000 fans certainly got their money's worth last night from a classic confrontation, as Brazil's Rodrigo Pessoa and his longtime partner, Baloubet du Rouet, dominated a challenging course and top-drawer international competition to win the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational.
This was Rodrigo's first visit to Raymond James Stadium for the USA's richest and most prestigious grand prix, but he acted as if he owned the place.
With all the authority of a former world champion and three-time World Cup winner, Rodrigo galloped along a carefully calculated route in the four-horse tie-breaker to best Chris Kappler on VDL Oranta, the only American to go clean in the first round. The results were a replay of the 2004 Olympic standings, though of course Chris, the Games silver medalist, was on a far less-experienced mount than he rode in Athens.
Another masterful Olympic veteran, Jaime Guerra of Mexico riding the borrowed RMW Lorenz, had a rail down as the lead-off rider in the tie-breaker, while Chris's gray mare slipped on her trip but left the rails up in 42.90 seconds. That wasn't good enough for the American's third Invitational win, though, as Baloubet logged one less stride than Oranta between the first and second fences to come confidently through the finish in 40.65 seconds.
Going last, Great Britain's Nick Skelton knew exactly what he had to do, but couldn't get it done on Arko III, taking chances and dropping two rails in his quest to best Rodrigo, winding up fourth.
Nick wasn't surprised at the outcome.
"When that horse jumps around like that, it's nearly impossible to beat him," he said of Baloubet. But you've got to try to win, don't you? So you go flat out, and that's it."
"The other horse is an old, experienced, great champion. You have to be more than on your game to beat that," he acknowledged.
But Rodrigo knew better than to count on victory under the unusual circumstances of the Invitational, in which none of the horses have schooled in the stadium.
"I took quite a bit of risk. You never have it in the bag until the last horse through," he said.
"In a situation where you come for a class that's not really part of a show...and the atmosphere is kind of special and with the lights, a lot of things can distract them (the horses) and end in a bad result. I'm delighted."
Course designer Steve Stephens told me before the class that he was looking for seven or eight in the jump-off, or at least more than he had in 2005, when only two made it into the final round. The bogey fence then was a viaduct that was so airy more than one horse tried to go under it. This time, he put white fence panels beneath the wavy topline, and the jump proved to be no problem, falling only twice.
Although Steve was pleased that every jump came down at least once, there was a troublesome obstacle this time too, 11A, the first part of an oxer-vertical double four fences from the end of the route. The oxer was built on a liverpool, but the reflection from the water didn't seem to be the problem. The fact that it was a big, square fence, 4-feet, 11 and 1/2 inches high with a 5-6 spread, and so near the end of the course meant that many horses were tiring as they approached it. It came down 17 times, with the front rail falling as riders got too close, or the back rail toppling when riders stood off a little for safety.
"Just that jump by itself would have been a big jump," observed Lauren Hough, who cleared it but had the seventh fence, a 4-7 by 4-9 oxer, down to finish 12th on Clasiko.
Beezie Madden, last year's winner on Authentic, also had a rail at number seven to wind up sixth.
"He got a little tired. It looked like he slipped," said Beezie, who thought her horse jumped well otherwise.
Authentic and McLain Ward's mount, Sapphire--who finished seventh after a knockdown at 11A--both were excused from the World Equestrian Games selection trials and will be heading to Europe to prepare for the WEG in Aachen, Germany, this summer.
Another victim of the back rail at 11A was the 2004 winner of the Invitational, Norman Dello Joio with Glasgow, the last horse to go as the leading qualifier for the class of 30.
Rodrigo, undestandably, liked the way the jumps were set. "I felt the whole course was well-built and was not crazy big, just a great course," he commented.
Despite getting less riders than he anticipated in what he said was the only all-male jump-off he could recall, Steve was pleased too.
"Tonight was a real international jump-off. I couldn't be happier with what I just saw," he said.
The class was a fitting finale to the Winter Equestrian Festival, which began in January at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club in Wellington. Rodrigo wasn't a huge star there, but he was building to this spectacular finish with his regal chestnut gelding, at 17 the oldest horse ever to win the Invitational. The experience of Rodrigo and his father, Nelson, another equestrian legend, means they know exactly how to prepare a horse for the big moments. And Baloubet's next target is the WEG, so watch out there!
Rodrigo is only the fourth foreigner to triumph in the class, and the first in a decade, since Canada's Harold Chopping did it in 1996. The victory was worth $60,000, money that should soon be resting safely in his bank account, unlike the purses from the two grands prix he won at the Las Vegas World Invitational in October. He's hired a lawyer to take that case on behalf of himself and other riders whose checks from the problematical show bounced.
Aside from the Invitational, things were a lot quieter during the three weeks of the WEF in Tampa than they are on Florida's east coast in Wellington.
The competitions are all held at the Florida State Fairgrounds just outside the city. The facility lacks the glitz of Wellington, but there are plenty of warm-up rings, a covered arena for the big jumpers and a nice spectator pavilion between the hunter and jumper rings, with Kiki Umla presiding as the "gatekeeper," just as she does at the Jockey Club in Wellington.
I like the relaxed feel of the Tampa shows. That was reflected in a party I went to at the campgrounds here on Thursday night, given by public relations guru Mason Phelps and Kim Tudor, who handles sponsors for the WEF.
Both Mason and Kim are living here in recreational vehicles provided by Broward RV. These are not "campers" that you would take on a fishing trip, but real home-away-from-home vehicles. Kim gave me a tour of hers and others--one came equipped with a fireplace, Corian counters in the kitchen and a fancy dishwasher. They all have beautifully furnished bedrooms and living rooms for luxury living on the go. There are some big pricetags, too, as you might expect, including one I saw for $150,000.
The party was an informal barbeque in keeping with the surroundings, but it was, as Mason so correctly noted, an "A-list" crowd. Jane Clark flew over from Wellington in her private plane (only about a 20-minute flight). Guess she was having trouble believing Mason actually was living in a camper and wanted to see it for herself. She brought judge Leo Conroy and his wife, Samantha, with her. U.S. show jumping coach George Morris came by, swearing he had never visited "camperland" before -- or at least, that he could remember. Rodrigo showed up, along with Nick, Mark Leone, Laura Kraut and Jimmy Torano (who lives with his wife, Danielle, in a sleek RV bus a few spots down from Kim's camper). Others in attendance were Gene Mische, head of Stadium Jumping; judge/steward David Distler, trainers Don Stewart and Susie Humes and many more who shared the ribs, chicken, potato salad and cornbread of a down-home feast.
This month, we have a real treat for you on Equisearch. Our new blogger, Maria Schaub, will be giving you the inside scoop from an exhibitor's viewpoint. Maria is a very mature 17-year-old from New Jersey who heads the Bates USA Equitation standings and won the big Ronnie Mutch equitation championship in Wellington last month. Last night at the Invitational, she was presented with the Fitch Sportsmanship trophy ("I had no idea," a surprised Maria said).
She is hard-working, talented and sweet--a delight to be around. Take it from me, the photographer who nearly blinded her shooting many, many flash photos the other day so you can see pix of her with friends and fans.
I know you'll enjoy her as much as I do when you read what she has written. Check EquiSearch later in April for Maria's blog.
Speaking of writing, I'll be sending you another postcard at the end of the month, when I cover the Rolex Kentucky 4-star three-day event. It's always exciting, so don't miss my EquiSearch reports from Lexington.