Tampa, Fla., April 5, 2009 -- Do-overs are extremely rare in show jumping, but seven riders wound up with an unexpected second chance to get it right last night at the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational.
All the 4-faulters were invited back to tackle a taxing course for another try in an unusual jump-off, after no one in the field of 34 managed to go clean in the initial round. According to announcer Peter Doubleday, a master keeper of statistics for the discipline, this was only the ninth time a grand prix jump-off of 4-faulters had taken place in this country, and it had never happened in the Invitational.
Repeated anticipation and letdowns were the order of the rollercoaster evening, as horse after horse failed to master designer Steve Stephens' route in Raymond James Stadium--scene of football's Super Bowl earlier this year. It's an appropriate setting; after all, the Invitational is this country's super bowl of show jumping.
Fans were on the riders' side, cheering when they made it through the minefield of the triple, 6ABC, an oxer-oxer-vertical combination, where more than half the competitors faulted. Fence 14, the final obstacle, was the spoiler for Mary Shirley on RMW New Day, the 18th to go. Mary had the crowd pumped up on hope until the front pole at the signature Budweiser oxer came down. Adding insult to injury, she also earned a time fault, one of 14 riders who ran over the 94-second time-allowed.
Margie Engle scratched Hidden Creek's Coraya Z after it became evident that this course was tougher than it may have looked. The mare is only in her first year at grand prix, and Margie considered this too much of a challenge. It was a wise decision.
I had a running dialogue with Steve as the class went on and no clear rounds emerged. Could this be one of those evenings when there was only a single perfect trip and disappointed spectators would have to leave without seeing a tie-breaker against the clock? I remembered that rather anti-climactic scenario well from the 1995 and 1999 Invitationals, and I was sure Steve wouldn't want it repeated.
"Are you nervous yet?" I asked, when only a few horses remained in the warm-up ring.
"Nope," he said. "If no one goes clear, I have a jump-off."
I laughed, because it hadn't occurred to me that this famous event would be decided in favor of someone who had a rail down in the first round, but that's exactly what happened.
Among the 4-faulters was the defending champ, McLain Ward, who came into town three-for-three in grands prix this year with the amazing Sapphire. There was a collective groan around the stadium as Sapphire ended her winning streak by uncharacteristically toppling rails over a broken wall at fence 11, a 5-foot, 2-inch oxer.
A bigger trouble-spot was fence 13B, the second part of a vertical/oxer double-liverpool where 11 riders had trouble as they headed for the finish line. The double was a short two-stride, either a long five strides or a short six from the final fence, which stood 4-11 with a 5-6 spread. Some of those seeking the long five to number 14 started pushing before they came out of the combination, and they simply couldn't get away with that. Riders who had trouble there included three of the eventual finalists; Todd Minikus with Pavarotti, two-time Invitational winner Chris Kappler on VDL Oranta, and James Billington of Great Britain, riding Midnight Lady. Others who made the jump-off were Cara Raether (Ublesco), Charlie Jayne (Urbanus), newcomer Jenna Thompson of Canada on Zeke and of course, McLain.
Todd, third to go in the jump-off, produced the first clean trip of the evening with his enthusiastic blaze-faced liver chestnut. It was a solid jump-off performance, but the 46.55-second time was eminently beatable and Todd knew it. In the end, it would only be good enough for second place.
Ublesco had a rail at the second fence in a faster time of 46.42, leaving the door open for Chris. He produced what Todd, who has a colorful turn of phrase, called "a snazzy turn," after the remains of the triple, 6A and B, to the red, white and blue American Invitational fence, which was not in the first round. His time was a solid 43.95 seconds, but with McLain coming last, Chris' third Invitational victory was far from a sure thing.
McLain did beat his time, coming home in 43.20 seconds, but his all-or-nothing approach to 6AB had both down, and he finished fifth with eight faults behind Charlie Jayne, whose 5-fault score included a knockdown and a time penalty. James was sixth with 8 and Jenna seventh with 10 penalties.
Chris, who you will remember was the 2004 Olympic team gold medalist and individual silver medalist, had talked with me before the class, when he had guessed after sizing up the course that only three would go clean. "Will you be one of them?" I asked, and he gave me an enigmatic smile that meant "I hope so."
While Oranta was second in 2006, this turned out to be the first big victory for the statuesque gray mare, and Chris was understandably elated, hoping she will follow in the hoofprints of his other Invitational winners, Seven Wonder in 1995 (when there was no jump-off) and Royal Kaliber in 2003.
When I asked Steve to analyze his course before the gates opened and spectators flooded the field for their traditional walk around the beautifully produced fences, he told me, "It's not tricky; it's straightforward, nothing crazy."
So he was shaking his head about the outcome.
At the after-party, where the class was replayed on a giant screen as riders grabbed some beer and gourmet goodies while analyzing the evening, I had a chance to catch up to two upcoming foreign competitors who had intrigued me during the circuit, and did better than many of the veterans in the Invitational.
Henri Kovacs of Hungary, 18, the youngest rider in the class, finished a credible 12th with 8 faults on Katie Prudent's horse, Sassicaia II. He is the rider for Katie's stable, due to a major effort by his mother, a tale that reminded me of how Greg Best came to ride for Frank Chapot because of the efforts by his mother, Maxine.
Katie said Henri's mom "called me every other week for two years" begging her to give the boy lessons. Finally, Katie gave in.
"Send him," she acquiesced, and she was glad she did. The four-time junior champion of Hungary is quite a rider and has qualified for this summer's European championships in England. The Invitational was a big goal and he wasted no time in replying when I asked what he thought of the experience.
"I loved it from the first time I went into the stadium and saw the people and the course," he said.
James, the son of longtime British team member Geoff Billington, used to work for his father's teammate, Michael Whitaker, who suggested the young man hook up with Beezie and John Madden.
That's what he's done for the last year, but his visa is up now and he is heading home, sad to say goodbye to the Jacobs' family's Midnight Lady, but wiser for the experience of working with her and the Maddens.
"It was a fantastic experience," he said, adding he learned so much not just from having Beezie coach him, but also from watching her ride.
You'll hear lots more from both Henri and James, I guarantee it. Too bad they're not on our side!
The future of the Invitational was as much of a question for some as to who would win it, since Budweiser's parent company, Anheuser Busch, was purchased last year by Belgian brewer InBev. Budweiser has cut back its grand prix sponsorship for 2009 and the word is it will bow out entirely in 2010.
Aside from the likes of the finalists and a few others, much of the field for the class was described as "weak" or "moderate," depending on who you asked. Many big names were missing, including past winners Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil and Ian Millar of Canada. There were several reasons for that: some riders had injured horses, while timing was an issue for others who were focusing on the country's richest grand prix, the $450,000 fixture in Charlotte, N.C., next weekend, or the Rolex/FEI World Cup finals in less than two weeks. This is the first year that qualifying took place only at the three-week Tampa Equestrian Festival, rather than during the Winter Equestrian Festival as well, and after 12 weeks of the latter, a few people may well have been burned out. Qualifying conditions need to be examined, which I'm sure will happen after organizers get a chance to breathe following a long winter/early spring season in Florida.
I asked Gene Mische, the father of the Invitational, what he sees on the horizon for his 37-year-old baby.
Next up for me is the World Cup finals in Las Vegas, where the show jumping begins April 16. We'll have extensive coverage on EquiSearch.com, so don't miss it; just remember that Vegas is on Pacific Coast time and the first two legs of the Cup are at night (as is the dressage freestyle) so take that into consideration when you look for my postcards.
In the meantime, check out the Invitational gallery, where you can see more photos of Chris, as well as shots of Henri Kovacs, James Billington and all the goings-on here.