September 11, 2011 -- Andre Thieme and Duncan McFarlane were not listed in the HITS show program among the "Who's Who" of riders profiled for the featured $1 million Pfizer Animal Health Grand Prix.
But it turned out they were the ones to watch in the feature, the only competitors in a field of 46 who solved the perplexing puzzle that was Steve Stephens' whopper of a course, to finish first and second respectively.
"It was almost the Olympics of Saugerties," Steve joked; or maybe just half-joked.
McFarlane, a California-based New Zealander who was 22d in the jumping order, became the first to post a clear round. He and the stallion Mr. Whoopy received resounding cheers as they made it through the most difficult line of the huge arena's demanding 13-obstacle floor plan. It was a vertical/oxer (11AB), oxer/vertical (12AB) duo of double combinations, five or six strides apart, depending on how it was ridden.
As the class went on, I chatted with Steve and his wife, Debbie, guessing who might join Duncan in the tiebreaker. I mentioned Andre, even though I didn't know his horse, Aragon Rouet, because I had seen him finish third with Antares F in the Grand Prix of Devon last year and was impressed by his skill.
Debbie didn't consider that a possibility, especially with Margie Engle (Indigo), Todd Minikus (Pavarotti) and last year's winner, McLain Ward (who took over the ride on Antares F) still to come.
But all of them faulted somewhere within the confines of the doubles. Getting to the last oxer with enough power required compacting the horse; those who drove their mounts wound up having the vertical down after a short one-stride. That's what happened to McLain, as the crowd--who had been expecting a third person in the jump-off--groaned in sympathy. He had to be satisfied with a $120,000 prize after logging the fastest 4-fault round with a knockdown at 12B.
McLain believed the back rail of 12A was a problem.
"I think I worried about it too much and just kind of over-extended myself, my body. I made a mistake, my horse landed on his head a little bit before (12)B, and it was very hard for him to get his balance back and jump it. I can't blame him...it was a little mistake and it cost us."
On the other hand, as McLain pointed out, "to be third and win over $100,000 is not a bad day's work."
Andre, as I expected, rode with precision, putting in six strides between the doubles; most of the other riders, including Duncan and McLain, rode it in five strides.
In the jump-off, Mr. Whoopy rattled 11B and had a knockdown at 12A.
When Duncan walked the course before the first round, he said, "I didn't give the jump-off a lot of thought; I'm superstitious. I didn't ride him very well in the jump-off."
Andre, who flew his horse over earlier this month from his home in Germany, aimed at a clear round, rather than at Duncan's clocking of 46.791 seconds. It was chancy, since three elements of the "quadruple" remained in the tie-breaker. But his strategy paid off with a clear round in 48.142.
Since he was a dark horse, I asked whether he thought he could win.
When he bought his mount four years ago, he was difficult, a bit spooky and strong, but with a big jump.
"I spent a lot of time with that horse. About 1 1/2 years ago, I decided `I'm going to sell him now, because it didn't really work out.' He must have got me on that one, because since that day, he started to go better," Andre said.
"I spent even more time with him, because I thought, `Maybe that's the key' and yeah, now we are almost friends, I think," he said with a smile, noting "this was not the first grand prix he won this year."
After paying taxes and the cost of his trip, Andre will invest the remainder of his $350,000 first prize in a house. Smart guy.
Todd Minikus, fourth on his own Pavarotti, toppled 11B.
"Pavarotti was jumping so well I took B of that combination for granted...that was a rider's rail," said Todd, chuckling that "I'm sure my owner will lecture me later on when I brush my teeth."
Like the other riders, he was understandably enthusiastic about the $1 million class, calling it "an awesome event."
Steve wanted the course to measure up to the prize money and the occasion. He loved the fact that the crowd was really into it, empathizing with the riders every step of the way.
The Pfizer grand prix is no longer the world's richest because of the U.S. dollar's decline. The $1 million CN International at Spruce Meadows Canada, won today by Olympic individual gold medalist Eric Lamaze on Hickstead, actually has a slightly bigger purse because the Canadian dollar is worth approximately $1.07 U.S.
But this was the richest day in horse show history because it also included the debut of the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix. Having two such competitions within hours of each other drew a crowd that practically filled the grandstands, and it's a good bet they weren't there just for the post-competition concert by The Temptations.
Speaking with trainer Mark Leone, I asked him what this concept of HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri will do for the sport.
The hunter prix was a must-do for the 75 riders who qualified. Trainer Andre Dignelli recounted driving home from the Hampton Classic last weekend and pondering the fact that his student, Samantha Schaefer, didn't have a horse to ride in the big class.
"I thought, 'Let me call Lyn Pedersen,'" he recalled, as he considered her chestnut gelding, Mahalo.
"That horse could win this class; he's a beautiful horse and a beautiful mover," Andre said, and his prediction came true.
Mahalo was second after the 75 qualifiers went yesterday, behind leader Jenny Karazissis of California on Sin City. But in today's round of the top 25, Sin City broke into the trot and didn't make the top four for the final round.
Mahalo stood second for the final round, where the leader was Californian Nick Haness on Cruise. He finished second.
Samantha said she "didn't hold it back" in her last round, knowing she could be no worse than fourth. Her outstanding trip did the trick, and she was at the head of the long row of ribbon winners. They pinned all 25 who rode today. I'm sure you know the color of ribbons that go with first through sixth, but how about 14th? Or 23d? I have never seen electric green or orange ribbons before.
Mahalo won an impressive $150,000, so I asked Sam about that. By the way, she's 17, another on the roster of teen whiz kids who have been claiming hunter derbies and classics this summer.
Mahalo impressed many more people than just the judges.
"My phone was blowing up while I was standing on line" during the prize-giving, said Andre, explaining all the calls were from folks looking to buy the horse.
When the 2011 $1 million class was in the early planning stages, Tom didn't realize that it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11. After it was called to his attention, he made sure a commemoration would be part of the day, with ceremonies involving local police, firemen and other first responders. West Point cadets also took part in a lovely tribute that spoke to the importance of the sad anniversary.
Meanwhile, 125 miles south of here, the national dressage championships wrapped up in Gladstone, N.J. The outcome of the Grand Prix and Intermediare I competition was as expected, with Steffen Peters sweeping both, the former on Ravel and the latter with Weltino's Magic.
In the I-1, the selection trials for the Pan American Games, the results revealed what technical advisor Anne Gribbons called "the dream team," the strongest dressage squad the country has ever fielded, in small tour or Grand Prix.
Steffen; Heather Blitz (Paragon), who was second in all three classes; Cesar Parra (Grandioso) and Marissa Festerling (Big Tyme) are the team that will head to Mexico for the Games next month.
It's been a busy four days. I still need to work more on cloning myself, but I was glad that I could at least hit the highlights of two big competitions for you.
Look for galleries this week. I have lots of fun photos.
Next for me is Dressage at Devon; the postcard will be up October 2nd.