Tampa, Fla., April 6, 2008 -- McLain Ward won his second Budweiser American Invitational the hard way in a downpour last night--taking a 50-minute break halfway through the first round, then returning to top a three-horse jump-off with the intrepid mare, Sapphire.
The reason for the unplanned intermission was the storm, which flattened fences at 9 p.m. in what looked like a mini-tornado, sending more than 9,000 spectators scurrying for cover at Raymond James Stadium. It raised the level of difficulty in the USA's most famous and challenging grand prix, putting a damper, literally, on a class that has been the highlight of every show season in this country since 1973.
On the other hand, it made things more interesting for those of us who stuck around until the end, because it certainly was no ordinary evening!
I took my jump-off photos under the very limited shelter of an umbrella, so I can testify from personal experience as to the nastiness of the evening. But McLain was all smiles as he headed to the awards presentation, where we had an impromptu conversation. He praised Sapphire for her spirit and determination despite the weather.
She is one of 10 horses on the short list for the Olympics in Hong Kong this August, where the weather could well replicate last night's, except for being a whole lot hotter.
"That's why they should pick her," he said of the Olympic team selectors. I thought he had a good point. As he put it, "she's a professional."
As I slogged off through the rain, I advised him, "Better get used to it if you want to go to Hong Kong." McLain replied that he obviously could cope with the rain, but that the fences in Hong Kong wouldn't blow down unless there was a typhoon.
"It's typhoon season then," I pointed out cheerfully.
Aside from ominous weather forecasts, the evening started with great promise. There was a brief shower when the 16th in the 30-horse order, Canada's Ian Millar on In Style, was competing, but it stopped so that the next six horses were able to run under perfect conditions for the $200,000 class. McLain, 23d to go in the original field of 30, was awaited with great anticipation since only two riders to that point--Richard Spooner, who had come from California with Cristallo, and Christine McCrea with Promised Land--were fault-free. With Richard the lead-off rider in the order, and Christine riding third, there had been a long, dry spell, again literally, and the crowd was itching for more perfect trips so they could enjoy an exciting tie-breaker.
Steve Stephens' course looked very difficult to some of the experts with whom I spoke, but less so to others as we walked the route before the class. Pepe Gamarra, who works with Steve, called it a "modern" course, with the emphasis on technique rather than power jumping.
I thought a 5-foot, 3-inch curved stone wall slightly uphill and four strides from a triple bar might cause problems. It had in 1995, when it was painted gray and Chris Kappler on Seven Wonder won without a jump-off. But Chris, who finished sixth this year on VDL Oranta, explained that in his year, the wall had been painted gray and was part of a combination that made an optical illusion, confusing many horses.
While the blocks on top were dislodged four times, the real problem was in the triple combination, 6ABC, the vertical-oxer-vertical test. Richard Spooner noted that "there was a little bit of a spook factor" with small walls set underneath the B element. "They left A airy, so the horses have a tendency, with the lights, to look through A. A lot of horses were kind of pausing at A and then had problems at B."
So back to McLain's initial trip, the crowd was with him when he made it through the triple and the next fence, a 5-foot, 6-inch-wide, 5-foot-high square oxer. But then everything broke loose, as fences fell while the wind swirled on the arena floor. The ground jury buzzed McLain to stop, and he exited the ring in a blast of rain and wind. The valuable trophies were unceremoniously hauled off the field in plastic bags, as officials were left to ponder their possibilities.
What to do, what to do? In 1996, the wind and rain were so bad before the Invitational started that it was postponed until the following night. But that plan of action would have been a tough option this time, since Stadium Jumping Inc., which puts on the Invitational, was involved with a hunter classic this afternoon in Naples, a three-hour drive south. Also, many of the riders had to be back in Wellington today (a three-hour drive east) as the CN Winter Equestrian Festival wrapped up with a series of young jumper classes.
The first thought that came into the mind of David Distler, the judge who was president of the ground jury, was the Spruce Meadows, Canada, Nations' Cup in 2005. The weather was so bad that there was no second round that day, and it was a controversy for quite some time.
Michael Morrissey, the Invitational's manager, went to the weather radar and saw "a window of opportunity" when the storm would slacken about 40 minutes after McLain's first attempt at the course. "Waiting it out" was the preferred option, and they took it.
Happily, it was the right decision, accompanied by the right music to fill the time such as "I Love a Rainy Night" (not!) and "Who'll Stop the Rain."
Coming back in the midst of a clean round was tough for McLain, though. While the ground jury let him take the first fence, the 4-8 Budweiser oxer as a warm-up, he had to start the part of the trip that counted with a 5-foot, 2-inch vertical over water.
Four horses had scratched because of the weather, including Canadians Mac Cone (Ole) and Eric Lamaze (Hickstead), who likely are half of that nation's Olympic team, and the U.S. Olympic short-listed Will Simpson and Nicole Shahinian Simpson.
Will wasn't taking any chances after getting a bye from selectors when his Carlsson vom Dach was injured in his stall during a storm before the last selection trial.
"It was his first class back after the trials and with the conditions and everything, it wasn't right for him," Will said. While Will was dying to try his luck, he thought better of it and his horse, explaining, "He has a lot of jumping ahead of him" as he heads for Europe and the Samsung Super League, the final part of the selection process.
Defending champ Beezie Madden on Authentic was last to go, and it looked like it was going to be a four-horse jump-off until she became the ninth competitor to drop the back rail of the 5-foot, 3-inch-wide Chinese oxer, the next-to-last jump on the 14-obstacle course. While Beezie thought Authentic may have slipped, she and her husband, John, also noted the dark colors of the rails could have made it difficult for the horses to see and draw an accurate bead on the obstacle.
After a very brief intermission to install Joe Fargis, Karen Golding and Marcia (Mousie) Williams in the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, the jump-off was held in a race against the storm's progress.
Richard dropped a rail at 6B, the former middle element of that triple combination.
"It was rider error. I was too long he tried really hard to leave it up, but some things just can't be done," Richard shrugged. He had a decent time of 41.76 and given the situation, seemed to have a shot at the $50,000 first prize.
He was looking even better after Christine went, hitting 6C and 12, the American Invitational fence, coming home in 48.21 seconds to add 2 time penalties to her 8-fault total.
McLain had the option of being very conservative, and he took it.
"It was a nice position to be in," he said, leaving everything standing with his careful approach and accumulating only a single time fault for his clocking of 47.21 seconds.
McLain, who also took the title in 1998 with Twist du Valon, regretted that the weather had prompted some good competitors to drop out.
"I would have liked to have won with Will and Eric in the class," he said.
What weighed in his decision to continue, he pointed out, was the fact that "I was halfway done. The horse already made a great effort, and I only had to do half the course."
His previous victory was in the last Invitational held in the old Tampa Stadium. He likes having one in each stadium, and noted, "It's nice for Sapphire." While she has contributed to a good number of Nations' Cup victories and has lots of second- and third-place finishes in major competitions, McLain commented, "I've always believed she's one of the best horses in the sport in this country...I'm very happy for her and also for myself and our owners that she gets some recognition for winning one of those classes."
Richard seemed subdued; naturally, he wanted to win. But he did graciously note, "I'm proud of my horse for being second in that big class."
Christine, however, had a big smile on her face. She's far less experienced than McLain or Richard, so finishing third in a class of this caliber was a big deal for her.
The Invitational traditionally is the climax of the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), but things were a little different this year, since Stadium Jumping no longer manages the WEF.
The WEF, which always ended before the three Tampa shows, continues through today. That meant entries in Tampa were down, and a cause for concern. The rumor running rampant was that this would be the last year for both the Tampa shows and the Invitational.
But Stadium Jumping founder Gene Mische, who is Michael Morrissey's uncle, scotched the rumors when I approached him about them. He maintains the shows will go on next year, and the Invitational as well.
I think you'll see a different way to qualify for the Invitational that may put more emphasis on the Tampa shows, and in talking with Gene and Michael, I learned that they are thinking about doing more with the hunters, as well as working to increase sponsorship and prize money.
This was, unbelievably, the 25th Invitational that I have covered (and I'm only 40, honest!) I have to say that while I have forgotten the details of so many competitions I reported over the years, the Invitationals remain landmarks in my mind, from Leslie Burr's triumph with Albany in 1984 to Greg Best's thrilling victory with Gem Twist the year after they won silver at the 1988 Olympics. Then there was Molly Ashe's amazing double with another very special mare, Kroon Gravin, and Beezie's tour de force with Authentic last year.
Just eight riders have won the Invitational more than once (Katie Monahan Prudent is the only person to do it three times) and it remains a special test. I'm glad it will continue as an icon of the U.S. show scene. It's really worth a trip to see the only American show jumping competition in a major stadium--just be sure to check the weather forecast before you come on down.
For more on the Invitational, view the photo gallery.
My next postcards on EquiSearch.com will come from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, April 25-27.