It's all about horsepower, of course; finding it, conserving it, using it wisely. With a 12-week circuit at the Winter Equestrian Festival, success comes to those who don't try to contest every big class with the same one or two horses, and have a realistic plan for what they want to achieve.
"It's a great tour," said Irish Olympic individual bronze medalist Cian O'Connor, but at the same time, he warned, "It's a long season. Unless you have four or five grand prix horses, you can really overuse them."
That's why he changed his mind and decided not to compete his Ocala World Cup qualifier winner, Good Luck, in last night's $500,000 Rolex CSI 5-star Grand Prix.
And that's why you didn't see McLain Ward's mainstay, Rothchild, in the class, either.
Unlike Cian, however, McLain has a deep string, so he went with the dependable HH Carlos Z for what proved to be the toughest test of the circuit.
Course designer Steve Stephens, the longtime architect of the routes for the American Invitational, builds to the occasion. That means if there's a lot of money (or major prestige) at stake, those in the class really will have to work for it.
An unusual triple combination of oxers across the diagonal of the International Arena really was an eye-opener, though it caused little in the way of the problems that some of us expected when we saw it assembled.
As McLain would later point out, the only way to tackle it was by going forward; trouble comes when there are different types of fences in a triple; say, a vertical at the end that mandates "careful" after an oxer requiring scope, which means riders need a horse that they can adjust for the circumstances.
However, there were problems enough along the route, and it wasn't until the 14th rider in the field of 40, Georgina Bloomberg on Lilli, that a fault-free trip was recorded in the first round.
That must have inspired the competitor who followed her, the 2012 winner of the class, Colombia's Daniel Bluman. He also notched a clear with Conconcreto Sancha LS, a daughter of the great Chin-Chin.
But only one more rider, McLain, would figure out the puzzle, leaving a three-horse tiebreaker to top off the night for a packed crowd of about 6,500 that was vocal in its appreciation of what played out.
In the jump-off, Georgina toppled a plank in front of the grandstand at the end of the ring, where the lighting made the jump even more difficult. She had another rail before finishing in 44.39 seconds, a time that was quite beatable.
Daniel, a virtual unknown to the average equestrian fan when he won the class three years ago, really went for it, but even with a rail down, a speedy 41.64 seconds put pressure on McLain, last to go.
If he left all the rails in place, McLain was the winner, with or without a good time. But a knockdown meant he had to hustle. As Steve told me, "There were two ways to win this class," and McLain had to go for Plan B once he dislodged the same plank that had caused a problem for Georgina.
McLain had consulted with his buddy, Kent (more about him later), who wound up eighth with a rail in the first round aboard Voyeur. It's nice to see two such talented riders at the top of the game being both fierce rivals and caring pals.
"That plank was a bogey. It was very dark up there, with the crowd behind, it was hard to jump in the first round and even harder to jump in the second," said McLain.
"So our plan was to try to go fast and clear obviously, but fast, so that if you did have a fence down, you could make up the time."
That's just what McLain did, shifting into high gear to finish in 41.25 seconds.
"Luck was a little on my side," McLain smiled after logging his third victory in the class.
He noted luck was elsewhere in the Thermal and Ocala $1 million grands prix earlier this month, where he was disappointed to finish second both times. The rider joked that he told his infant daughter, Lilly Kristine, on the way back from Ocala, "It's community college," but with his victory last night worth $165,000 he commented, "Now it's back to Ivy League."
McLain has been through a lot over the years. One of the darker moments came in 2012, when he smashed his left knee on a jump cup during a class in January. There was concern he might not be able to compete in the Olympics later that year, though with good medical care and a major effort on his part, he did make it.
But when this class was run in 2012, he was so frustrated (since he couldn't compete) that he went back to his house behind the showgrounds to swim laps. He could, however, hear the announcer giving the play-by-play on Daniel's victory.
Last night, when he went in the ring, he thought, "I've got to get him back."
That was said with a grin; he actually has been very helpful to Daniel, acting as a mentor to the younger rider.
After the class, McLain talked about his plans going forward, which include the Longines FEI World Cup Final next month.
The morning/afternoon/evening feature was the $100,000 Suncast 1.50 Meter Championship Jumper Classic. The finale of the circuit-long series belonged to Kent Farrington, notching his fourth win. The class began in the morning, ran into the afternoon, recessed and then returned for a 16-horse jump-off at 6:30 p.m.
Kent was victorious aboard Waomi, a mare on which he started just last fall. She won three of the classes in the series for him; the fourth victory was on Willow.
All eyes were on the round of Darragh Kenny, the U.S.-based Irish rider who held the lead for the series that would be rewarded with a lease on a shiny Land Rover, situated center stage in the ring, below the Rolex clock for perfect sponsor juxtaposition.
However, Darragh's mount, Quiz, couldn't keep the rails up, and he walked out of the ring halfway through his round, seeing no point in continuing. But the pressure wasn't really on him in regard to the series title, as he'll tell you in this video.
It was unusual not to see the always competitive Darragh in the $500,000 class, but he's a little short on 1.60-meter horses for someone in his position. To begin with, one of his former rides, Prof de la Roque, has been sold and is being ridden by Nicholas Pizzaro of Mexico.
As for his 2014 World Equestrian Games mount, Imothep, Darragh said, "he was at venues like Ocala and Thermal for the HITS $1 millions. He's shown down here a lot, and he likes a bit of change. My other (1.60 meter) horse, Sans Souci, is just coming back, so it's a little bit much to jump him in the $500,000 down here."
On another note entirely, I've had email correspondence since 2009 with Greg Billings, a proud father from Texas who is dedicated to the riding career of his 18-year-old daughter, Madison.
He first contacted me when Madison was riding ponies and children's jumpers, because she was a fan of Germany's American-born star show jumper, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum.
Madison had been in Las Vegas to see Meredith win the 2009 World Cup Finals, and wanted an autographed photo from the rider. But how to get it? Greg had read my World Cup coverage on line and contacted me.
Since Meredith is a Rolex "testimonee" or ambassador, I reached out to Merrick Haydon, director of Revolution Sports + Entertainment marketing group, which has Rolex as a client. Merrick arranged for the photo to be sent to Madison, who immediately hung it on her bedroom wall, where it remains today.
Greg has kept me up-to-date on his daughter, most recently letting me know she was signed by Texas Christian University for its number 2-ranked riding program.
The school's hunt seat head coach, Logan Fiorentino, called her "bright, hardworking and committed to achieving her best, which are all qualities we look for in teammates at TCU."
Despite many emails back and forth, I had never met Greg or Madison, but we all were at WEF this weekend. (They have commuted here every week, and Madison gained more glory by winning a WEF amateur-owner jumper classic.) Greg gave me a call and we finally got together.
I was delighted to meet the lovely and personable Madison, but then I had an idea: how great would it be if Madison could meet her idol? I asked her and her dad to be at the ingate five minutes before the course walk, and I would see if I could get Madison together with Meredith.
It all worked out. Meredith, the circuit's Leading Lady Rider (how old-fashioned is that concept?) was incredibly gracious. She spent a few minutes chatting with a happy Madison (I also introduced her to George Morris into the bargain.) It was neat to see Madison's longtime dream become reality. Perhaps some day, having been inspired by Meredith, she, too, will become an Olympic rider.
It's been quite a busy few days here, shuttling between the dressage stadium and the International Arena over at show jumping. (In a cameo appearance at the dressage grounds, I did manage to see Laura Graves' winning freestyle yesterday afternoon, as she broke 80 percent with Verdades. Photos are posted at facebook.com/dressagetoday and facebook.com/practicalhorseman.)
It's incredible to have two such wonderful facilities within a half-mile of each other. There are people who complain about a variety of things involving WEF, but I remember what it was like before Mark Bellissimo and Equestrian Sport Productions stepped into the picture.
The last year before they took over, it was a mess. I'll never forget horses slipping and sliding on the grass grand prix field that was mostly sand by the end of the season. Prize money then for the circuit was $2.6 million; today it's $9 million, and Mark thanked Rolex for helping with the boost.
Oh well, the whiners probably would gripe if you gave them $1 million in cash and some of the bills were wrinkled.
We are lucky to have such a super circuit that brings in so many top foreign riders in both disciplines. If you've never visited, make plans to come down next year.
My last postcard for WEF 2015 will be sent tonight after the hunter derby.