April 7, 2013 -- So many show jumping competitions seem to blend into one another, especially during weeks-long back-to-back fixtures.
The Gene Mische American Invitational, however, is completely different. Being in an NFL facility, Raymond James Stadium, (which has hosted the Super Bowl) IS A key element contributing to a special experience for riders and fans alike.
Horse show judge Jimmy Lee, who has been to many Invitationals and attended the 41st last night, explained it this way to me:
"Just to walk into such an awesome place in the evening and the way they do the presentation, it"s a great course and a lot of people from the community come to watch -- they really make it an event," he pointed out.
"Sometimes we just have a wonderful horse show, but it"s just like the wonderful horse show the previous week, and the one we"re going to have next week. With these long circuits, it"s fun to say to someone, `What show were you champion at?"
`I was champion the fifth week."
`But what was the name of the show?""
Odds are, you won"t get an answer to that one.
There"s no such confusion with the Invitational; even riding in it without getting a ribbon is memorable. As Jimmy said, "It"s a production."
You just get one shot; there"s no schooling, no warm-up class. It becomes a real test of horsemanship.
This edition definitely was tough; only McLain Ward, on the hard-fighting Rothchild, and 18-year-old Reed Kessler, his 2012 Olympic teammate on Mika, made it from the starting field of 30 into the tie-breaker.
Steve Stephens, who has designed the Invitational since 1985 (with the exception of one year) put his usual amount of thought into the route he laid out. There were several new fences, including the American Invitational pedestal, raised up on a red X (Steve was inspired by The X-Factor TV show), as well as a vertical/liverpool/vertical triple combination near the end of the course that took a lot of prisoners.
Why is an arrangement like that so difficult here?
So now you understand the circumstances, and why, for McLain, winning his third Invitational since 1998 has special meaning.
"This class is an institution for this country, this sport. I really hope people in the industry rally behind this and keep it going," he said. "It almost died a few years ago. I"m so glad to see (organizer) Michael Morrissey and his group of people and sponsors who have really made great effort to revive it, because it"s very, very important to us as athletes.
"This is something unique and special and when I grew up, this was the most important class to win, this is what we coveted. I think that"s important for future young riders; my children, one day, I hope."
The show also is a great experience for spectators, who come out in droves to walk the course,
measuring the height of the fences against the top of their heads, spreading their arms in the middle of the oxers to see how wide they are.
The crowd of 8,500 was better than last year and comparable to the number who came to Wellington on Florida"s east coast last weekend for the $500,000 grand prix that ended the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival. They do look a bit lost in the cavernous facility, though as McLain pointed out, "In anything other than a 65,000-seat stadium, it would look packed. But I think the stadium also makes the atmosphere a bit."
He sees the Invitational"s potential for becoming a "destination event," such as Devon or the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas.
"That"s what this event should be aimed to be," he commented.
"WEF is so great, but it gets so monotonous by the end, when you use the same jumps every single week. It"s beautiful here," said Reed.
"They really put in that extra work to make it special, and it feels special from the moment you get here."
"There are so many things they do so, so well," McLain pointed out, noting that there are always different fences each year, and the organizers and Steve don"t simply rest on their laurels.
His most memorable Invitational win, achieved during a 2008 night of rain, was on Sapphire. There will never be another like the mare, who retired last year at Devon in an emotional ceremony.
"For me, every horse is in the shadow of Sapphire. I miss her very much," said McLain, but Rothchild has found a way into his heart.
"It was a little bit of a lucky chance that I got him," McLain said, recalling he had gone to Europe seeking a horse for a student, and tried Rothchild.
"Francois Mathy, who we buy all our horses from, said, `I think it"s a very careful horse.""
McLain had a different opinion.
"I didn"t like anything about him. All the way to the airport, I said, `No, no, no.""
It apparently fell on deaf ears.
"I called my father to say I was home and he said, `By the way, we bought the chestnut horse. Francois says you don"t know what you"re talking about."
Well, look at how it"s turned out. Rothchild is as competitive as his rider, and as he pins his ears back while he"s clearing a fence, you can tell he"s going for it.
"He"s an every day competitor. He can go in a speed class, he can jump the American Invitational, he can jump a Global Tour grand prix, he can jump Nations" Cups," said McLain.
"He"s very quietly amassed quite a record. In the end, he"s become a very good friend of mine. He gives me everything he has to give me."
Rothchild, who is owned by the Dolan family"s Sagamore Farm, also is "an unbelievable character. He"s the sweetest horse in the world to deal with," said McLain.
That"s when you"re in the barn.
At the same time, "he"s totally opinionated and it"s going to be his way. He does not like other horses. He makes up for lack of classic style with determination. He can kind of do everything, which is a rarity in today"s sport. You know, everything"s a specialist. This horse is really the blue collar worker, but the blue collar worker won one for the team today."
Despite the fact that only McLain and Reed were in the jump-off, this was no easy victory, and there were a few others who came close to making the tie breaker. Sharn Wordley, a U.S.-based New Zealander, nearly did qualify but scored a time fault with Eric Lamaze"s Olympic mount, Derly Chin de Muze, to wind up third.
And how did he get the ride on this horse?
Simple: "I got engaged to the owner (Ashley Fleischhacker)," he admitted, getting a laugh, as the beautiful blonde held the flowers he got during the awards ceremony.
Sharn had a mishap that put him over the 89-second time allowed.
"My horse drifted quite hard to the right at fence four and I rubbed my foot against the standards and I was kind of discombobulated and I kind of took a bit of time on that corner to get myself organized," said Sharn.
"I knew from then on it was going to be touch-and-go...I tried to catch up as best I could without jeopardizing having a rail. It was my first time doing the Invitational and I love it. It"s going to be a focus for me next year. It"s just so different...with so much atmosphere...it really is quite challenging."
McLain has gone from being one of the young guns to being the establishment, and they"re all coming after him.
Reed is having a great time as an 18-year-old; becoming the youngest equestrian to compete in the Games last summer, and now nearly winning the Invitational in only her second attempt.
She had the disadvantage of going first in the jump-off, and was faced with the always difficult task of splitting the difference between having a fast time and making sure the fences stayed up.
"McLain is so, so fast; Rothchild, especially," she said.
"So I tried to lay down a really competitive round...to go in my comfort zone with Mika to make sure I put in a clear round. I tried to put enough pressure on without making a mistake."
She accomplished that, but by leaving out one stride and making a smoother approach than Reed did to one fence, McLain was able to better her mark of 43.37 by more than a second by crossing the finish in 42.10.
"It"s so huge, it"s such a prestigious class. I love walking the course and listening to people like Katie (Prudent, her coach) and Leslie (Howard) talk about the different horses they"ve won it on and the years where they had this (jump) in the course," said Reed.
"It"s just such a historic class and has so many great stories behind it. It"s great to say I"ve been second in the Invitational once," she continued, then smiled.
"I hope I can add a win."
The top three all liked the course, and praised Steve.
"He had some very young and green riders in the class, as well as Olympic horses and riders, he had to find a balance and I thought it was a good balance test," said McLain. Two or three, but under five (in the jump-off) is the right number for this competition."
The first Invitational I attended was in 1984, the year of the Los Angeles Olympics. Leslie Howard won on Albany and I thought it was neat that as I walked toward the stadium entrance yesterday, she was the first person I saw. We reminisced a bit about that experience.
There"s always something different and intriguing at the Invitational, aside from the jumping. One area of the grounds is devoted to kids, with a petting zoo, horseless horse show and face painting. A Percheron was pulling what I call a Cinderella carriage (round and enclosed by artistic white metal strips).
During a break in the class, 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games U.S. dressage team member Katherine Bateson-Chandler performed a freestyle on Jane Clark"s Alcazar, not easy to do with jumps in the way and workmen pounding down divots all around her. But it was good practice for the horse, who will have to compete in a comparable setting (minus the jumps and workmen) if Katherine makes the squad for next summer"s WEG in France.
Before everyone left the post-show party, always a relaxed affair and a good way to wind down from an exciting evening, I checked in with Michael Morrissey, head of Stadium Jumping Inc., which runs the show presented by G&C Farm.
Michael was Gene Mische"s nephew, and devoted to him. Still is; he is keeping the Invitational going (and believe me, many people wondered if it could continue) in memory of Gene, the impresario who founded the Florida circuit.
Don"t forget to check out facebook.com/equisearch and facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos of the Invitational.
This was my last trip to Florida for the year. Like nearly everyone else, I"m heading north for the start of the regular season. I"ll be sending postcards daily from the Rolex Kentucky 4-star at the end of the month, so be sure to look for them.