April 10, 2011 -- The Gene Mische American Invitational last night began a new era without its founder, emerging as a competition that seems destined to remain a highlight of? U.S. show jumping.
With the death last December of Gene, once the guiding light of big-time show jumping in this country, there were questions about the Invitational's future. Unique for the absence of an entry fee and its location in a major league stadium (Raymond James, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the Invitational had experienced some financial problems for the last few years and Gene's departure raised concern.
But it seems now that the 39-year-old fixture is alive and well, drawing more than 7,800 enthusiastic spectators to a drama that showed why this class needs to continue.
A well-credentialed field of 30 (up from the smallest ever number of starters, 25 in 2010) was whittled to four for the jump-off by course designer Steve Stephens, who is rightly insistent on keeping up the standard of the class with his impressive layouts. He wants riders to "gulp" as they are about to tackle what he has in store for them.
While the route under the lights was being re-set for the tiebreaker, he said proudly, "I got the right players," and no one could argue with that. They were Kent Farrington, who has earned his share of accolades; the always gutsy Margie Engle; McLain Ward, a two-time winner and Canada's nine-time Olympian, 64-year-old Ian Millar, victorious with Big Ben in 1992--the only year when the Invitational was held outside Tampa, moving to a stadium in nearby St. Petersburg because of a schedule conflict. Each was riding a horse that had never been in the stadium before, something that can be a decisive element for a less-experienced mount.
Once the animals had proven their mettle in the initial barrage,? however, it seemed sure to be a speed duel with Kent, McLain and Margie on board, and the crowd eagerly settled in for a prime-time battle as Kent cantered back into the arena on the handsome dapple gray Uceko. Nothing was going to faze Kent; he had lost his right stirrup four fences from the end of the first-round course and kept right on going, in the same vein as the national equitation champion that he once was.
Kent laid down a blistering 36.64-second clocking with his 10-year-old Dutchbred, who had been sidelined most of last year with a collateral ligament problem.
"I knew I had to go quick," said Kent, who figured there was no point in being conservative, even though the class was Uceko's biggest test so far.
"I knew McLain was really going to give it a shot and I think his horse is a faster horse than mine, so if he was clear, I thought for sure he would get me," said Kent.
Ian decided just to go for a clear round and second place on Star Power, a solid performer who finished fault-free in 41.72 seconds. McLain, however, went for it as everyone expected, making a dramatic inside turn with Rothchild to the second fence, a 5-foot, 2-inch wall punctuated by three holes. But what he gained on the clock he lost at the next fence, an oxer that had been the lead element of a troublesome triple combination in the first round and now was the first half of a double that had a vertical one stride away.
A rail came down there, giving him four faults, and even with his time of 37.84 seconds McLain was not able to overtake Millar.
"I knew Kent was fast," said McLain, who at the same time was confident about Rothchild's speed and his ability to one-up the leader.
However, he explained, "I was really worried about the vertical at B. That was a short distance. I think maybe I worried about it too much. When I got to A, I really didn't put much leg (on) and I think my horse, with the wall being the second jump that can typically get a careful horse more careful, I think maybe just the combination of the wall and me easing off with the leg, the horse jumped up a little bit high and clipped the back rail. It's not the kind of rail you really fault a horse for, it's not from a lack of effort.
"And then I really thought at that point, `try and bring it home clean' so I eased off the gas pedal a touch because I knew 8 faults was for sure fourth, so you play the odds a little bit."
McLain said he was "thrilled" with Rothchild on his Invitational debut.
"I thought he jumped around the first round like it was a 1.30 meter course. I can't say I've had a horse handle the first round of the Invitational better than he did."
"This is a class we all grew up wanting to win and have on our resume. It's nice to know, looking at Ian, I probably have about 25 more chances," laughed the 35-year-old.
Margie also had a rail down after the wall, finishing in 38.30 seconds with her current star, Indigo, to just miss the podium with a slower 4-fault trip than McLain's round.
Kent, who won the style of riding award even without his stirrup as he scored his first Invitational victory, said he would consider Uceko as a possible Pan American Games ride this fall and will wait to see what develops before saying definitely that the horse is a candidate for next year's Olympics in London.I always identify Kent with his former national champion, Up Chiqui, and wondered how his old campaigner compares with the new kid on the block.
The Invitational course was beautiful as always, with loads of flower decorations and unusual fences, like the silver Alltech molecular structure obstacle from the World Equestrian Games and a new jump for presenting sponsors G&C in the colors of the Venezuelan flag.
I asked Steve if last night's course was very different from what he had built in 2010.
The course caused a lot of trouble, and some of the riders who had problems were surprising. Lauren Hough, who cut a swath through the Winter Equestrian Festival with Quick Study, was eliminated after two refusals at the 11th fence, an oxer of blue rails over a liverpool that also was the donnybrook of Candice King, who withdrew after Toronto refused there.
Great Britain's promising Gemma Paternoster didn't last that long, withdrawing following a crashing refusal at the fourth fence of red and white rails with Osiris.
Shane Sweetnam logged the first clear jumping round with Rolette, but had a time penalty for going over the 91-second time allowed to finish sixth. Schuyler Riley, the 2000 Invitational winner, had the same problem with Lapacco but was just a touch faster to wind up fifth.
Such problems are typical when faced with the Invitational challenge, one of the elements Ian cited when discussing why the class is so special and important.
Michael Morrissey, Gene's nephew and the competition manager, assured me that there will be 2012 Invitational, and Gustavo Mirabal of G&C told me he is ready to support the competition once again.
I asked Michael if he ever thought about moving the Invitational and he was adamant that it won't be considered.
"Tampa is its home," he said.
And the Tampa community remains ready to support this institution.
"We're very happy it is happening this year," said Eva Wolbers, a trainer at Carry On stables in Sarasota, about an hour's drive away.
"It's a lot of fun for everybody to get together. It's like a big reunion. Everybody comes from all around. It's just kind of cool to sit down and not be horse showing and relax and dress up."
An Invitational tradition permits spectators to walk the course, It's fun watching them swarm around the fences and listening to them marveling at the height and width of the jumps. That brings home what a test this class really is.
Ticketholders got more for their money this year with a variety of entertainment and incentives that livened up the event.
Michael was thrilled at the way the crowd got into the Invitational. Committee member Gina Johnson, an event co-coordinator with Carol Griffin, her partner in a medical imaging business and Liz Soroka, worked on that aspect and sponsorship, saying the equestrian grassroots connection was "of paramount importance."
There was a contest to see how many tickets riding groups could sell and the top three got to meet McLain, Beezie Madden and Margie Engle in person.
"We thought we'd have 25 kids for each rider," said Gina, who was Stadium Jumping Inc.'s vice president of business development under Gene Mische.
"Instead, there were 400 people wanting to meet the riders. McLain stood in front of the fence surrounded by 100 glowing pony clubbers. Their trainer turned her camera on them and said, `Kids, here's our Christmas card for next year.'"
Gina pointed out all those cards will be free publicity for the Invitational, and hopefully help sell more tickets in 2012.
Entertainment included a parade of breeds and demonstrations by a rider from the Arabian Nights equestrian dinner theater. Carol and Gina's godson, Hunter Sayet Priest, dressed in a superhero outfit, was "Captain Coursewalk," going around the course before the class on a Segway scooter as the announcer described the path the horses would take over the jumps.
Sections of spectators were designated for each rider, and asked to cheer. Those in the section assigned to the winning rider received $100 gift cards from the jewelry store Gold and Diamond Source.
It is one of many new sponsors, a strategy that will guard against the devastation that occurs when one big sponsor pulls out, as Budweiser did two years ago.
I asked Michael for his impressions of how this year's Invitational went.
Despite the importance of the Invitational, some riders tend to be more relaxed than usual beforehand because they are focusing only on this one event and not having to rush from ring to ring to watch their students or ride other horses.
So it was a good time to catch up on things with McLain near the stable area on Friday. I asked about Sapphire, his 2008 Invitational winner. She is out of action for the rest of the year after a check ligament problem, which as he pointed out, means his other horses have to step up to the plate.
Although Sapphire's difficulty was minor and she is back exercising under saddle, McLain thought it was better for her to stay on the sidelines and fully recover so he can bring her back in 2012. In the meantime, she will be bred, to Hickstead (a marriage made in heaven with Eric Lamaze's 2008 Olympic gold medal mount) and perhaps Gem Twist's clone. Her eggs will be harvested and the embryos carried by surrogates. That way, her genetics can be maximized with more foals and she will not have to go through the rigors of giving birth.
I'm still on a high from last night but now I have to switch gears and look ahead. After my Invitational photo gallery goes up this week, my next postcards will be coming from the Rolex Kentucky 4-star event at the end of the month. I'm looking forward to seeing a top-notch field that includes last year's winner, William Fox-Pitt (albeit on a different mount, but it's always a treat to watch him.)