September 8, 2013 -- What a dilemma you face if you're a course designer who needs to lay out a crowd-pleasing route for 39 riders, ranging from Olympians to neophytes, that is worthy of a $1 million purse, but not so big and complicated that the less-experienced competitors will get hurt.
The man in the hot seat today at the wrap-up of the HITS fall show series was Olaf Petersen Jr., who has been there before. He also handled the floorplan for the class last year, when the challenge was daunting to many, and some competitors took a tumble. He toned things down slightly for the Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix this time, and it worked out. There were no falls, only four riders did not finish the course and he wound up with a jump-off (albeit a small one).
I talked with Olaf before the class and put the question to him about how he handles such a situation.
Here is what he said:
As it turned out, he didn't get the four or five people he thought might qualify for the jump-off. Riders found the course was a lot tougher than they thought it would be. The crowd went wild when Egypt's Nayel Nassar, number 25 on the order of go, was totally fault-free, and they got a chance to whoop and holler again a few minutes later when the USA's Todd Minikus, number 33 on the list, made the tie-breaker with Quality Girl.
If you're from the East, Nayel, age 22, may have flown under your radar. He's been a winner at Spruce Meadows, at Show Park in California (where he won the World Cup qualifier last weekend) and at Thunderbird in British Columbia, but he's not yet a household name.
He was born in Chicago of Egyptian parents who work in interior design, and grew up in Kuwait, where he attended a private school. His English is flawless, as you'll hear when you listen to his soundbyte. A senior majoring in economics at Stanford University, he actually has been to Egypt only a few times, but he's hoping to represent the country next year at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Lordan, a 9-year-old, isn't even his best horse, but Nayel believes in him.
Asked for his reaction, what he said to himself after jumping clean in the jump-off, he reported, "I can't believe it. It was really surreal. He jumped unbelievable and I knew I had to put the pressure on who was behind me."
Todd is always tough, but Quality Girl pulled a shoe and a good part of her right front hoof before the second fence in the first round. An adept farrier managed to get the shoe back on, but from the moment Todd entered the ring for the tiebreaker, she obviously wasn't happy. She reared a few times before he got going, and had a fence down early-on, clinching the win for Nayel. Todd continued on course briefly, dropped another rail, and called it a day.
"I hate to make an excuse, but she was even a little tender when I was warming up for the jump-off, but that's sport and that's how it goes," he commented.
It hardly could be called a total loss; he earned $200,000 for his placing.
Looking on the bright side, Todd noted, "It says something about the footing here that a horse can pull a shoe like that and then jump that course clear.
Nayel collected $350,000, so his gamble on airfare round trip to California for himself and his horse paid off big time.
We talked about Lordan, his ride and the money.
Third went to New Zealand's Sharn Wordley, who took over Eric Lamaze's Olympic ride, Derly Chin de Muze. Third on the order of go, he followed two riders who had a rail and time faults for exceeding the 83-second time allowed. He was fault free, but logged one time penalty. After three rounds, the course designer can adjust the time allowed if he feels it's necessary. But Olaf didn't, so Sharn wasn't able to qualify for the jump-off.
Olaf's thinking was that a tight time was needed to put pressure on the riders; he might have gotten a whole bunch of clears if he had eased the time, he thought. The scenario was exactly the same as it was for last weekend's $250,000 FTI Consulting Grand Prix at the Hampton Classic, where that class's designer, Guilherme Jorge, also declined to ease the TA and had a few nail-biting moments before he came up with a five-horse jump-off.
As it was, 24 riders had time penalties. That's well over half the class. But except for Sharn, none of those competitors could manage clean jumping rounds.
As Olaf took his seat next to Sharn at the press conference, he said in mock fear, "Don't kill me!" but Sharn had accepted his lot--and the $120,000 that went with it.
Everyone was hoping McLain Ward would be able to pull off a three-peat, after having won the class twice before, but he was on the low-profile Czardas 30 and even McLain's expertise couldn't avoid three knockdowns and four time penalties. Olaf had thought Margie Engle might have a good shot at winning, but noted she was suffering from a sprained ankle. Whether that was a factor or not, she had a rail and didn't get her shot at the big prize.
The Zoetis was preceded by the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix, and wouldn't you know, it was won by a jumper rider. Jimmy Torano didn't have a lot of luck in the Zoetis, but he and La Bonita won $150,000 in the hunter class. Held over three days, it wound up today with two rounds; the first with 25 entries, the second devoted to placing the top four.
Jimmy was third coming into today's opener with La Bonita, who arrived in the U.S. in June, is only five and in just her second horse show. In the second round, he overtook the leader, Hope Glynn on King's Peak, who came from California to compete.
Sure, it was an expensive trip, but as Hope noted, it was worth it to show off a horse she believed so the folks in the East could see what her mount is about.
Jimmy's final total was 533.50, while Hope's was 526.25. Last year's winner, Patricia Griffith on Sienna (521.5), moved up from fourth to third.
"She's my Sapphire," said Patricia of the mare, noting she hadn't ridden the horse since last year here, but it was as if they had never been apart.
In fourth place was 14-year-old (14, do you believe it?) Hunter Holloway who rose from 10th place with Lyons Creek Bellini (508).
Hunter, a high school sophomore, is trained by her mother, Brandie Holloway (who rode in the class last year), as well as Mike McCormack and Don Stewart.
Jimmy couldn't stop talking about La Bonita, who is, indeed, the pretty one living up to her name.
"This mare they found in Germany is a special, special horse," he said, while noted it was a roll of the dice to enter such an untested animal.
"I always like doing the hunters. It's like anything, a good horse is a good horse. What she did today, in my opinion, is unheard of. She actually could be a jumper also. She doesn't rub the jumps. For the little bit that I've ridden her, she doesn't want to let you down."
The mare wasn't affected by the ambience, but Jimmy said it affected him.
"Your heart's pounding. Jumping for $500,000 is unbelievable," he noted.
La Bonita is owned by 21-year-old Kathryn Haefner, who competes in amateur classes, but not on this horse. She doesn't think she'll ever be able to ride her, actually, and the mare will probably be sold (someone was waiting to try her after the class). Kathryn doesn't make those decisions, she noted. The trainer at her Buffalo, N.Y., stable is Stewart Moran and he's looking at the big picture with Kathryn's father, Robert.
Kathryn intends to keep riding as a hobby, not a profession. After all, she's majoring in aerospace and electrical engineering at the University of Miami. But there's no doubt she's passionate about the sport, as you can tell from her description of how she felt about the class.
HITS and its amazing mastermind, Tom Struzzieri, have done a big job with this big money weekend, which also included a $250,000 Hunter Prix over lower fences. In 2014, there will be a $250,000 amateur/junior jumper class to raise the total.
"Every year, Tom takes it to the next level. It's unbelievable what's happening here," said Jimmy.
Next up for me is the Plantation Field CIC two weeks from today. Please check back then for my postcard.