April 8, 2012--Quick: who won February's biggest show jumping grand prix? January's? I'll bet you can't answer that; they all sort of morph together. But there was a time when there were so few grands prix that each had a distinct personality and the names of winners came easily.
Part of the $200,000 Gene Mische American Invitational's appeal is that, after 40 years, it continues to stand out because it retains its unique identity. People are inclined to remember who won the only grand prix that is held in a National Football League stadium.
They still talk about the back-to-back winners Michele McEvoy (now Grubb) on Sundancer, 1974-1975 and Molly Ashe (now Cawley) on Kroon Gravin 2001-2002, or the three-time winners, Katie Monahan (now Prudent) and Chris Kappler.? So many of the greats have been crowned in this competition, from Idle Dice, Rodney Jenkins' top ride, to Gem Twist with Greg Best up and Canada's Ian Millar on Big Ben (the only time it wasn't held in a stadium in Tampa; it went to an arena in neighboring St. Petersburg that year). Other names on the trophy are Calypso (Melanie Smith), For the Moment (Lisa Jacquin) and Authentic (Beezie Madden). Perhaps you've heard of them?
I've covered the Invitational since 1984, when it was held in the old Tampa stadium, and I was in awe of what I saw. I still am. Last night's renewal of this classic was fun and exhilarating, an evening to remember.
Now the engravers will add the names of Cella and Mario Deslauriers to the Invitational's big silver trophy.? Are they going to be considered among the greats, when future fans go down the roster of Invitational stars? Perhaps, though it's too soon to tell. But their victory certainly made for a memorable evening.
The setting is always such a big part of the excitement. The jumps, perennially designed and laid out by Steve Stephens, give this class a special look, the way they are placed on the emerald expanse of a grass field. (Horses love to jump on turf, especially footing that is as good as it was last night.)
A grass surface is something that is seen infrequently in the modern sport, with its proclivity for all-weather footing. There's a sense of occasion, since none of the horses have schooled in the gigantic Raymond James Stadium, making for a challenge that not every competitor is able to meet. The addition of extras such as a parade of breeds and the engaging act of stunt rider Tommie Turvey (more on that later) makes this a real show, not just another day at the equestrian office, so to speak.
The line-up of 32 starters showed a trend. There were veterans, including Mario, Beezie, Molly, Laura Kraut, Meredith Michaels Beerbaum and Margie Engle, but also a good representation of the next generation, which has been making its presence felt these days. Nick Dello Joio is the son of Norman Dello Joio, a two-time Invitational winner who said he is getting some new horses that could give him more rides in big classes (he has to keep up with his boy). Also among the younger set? in the class were Catherine Pasmore and Katie Dinan (coached by 1998 and 2008 winner McLain Ward, still sidelined with a broken knee, but walking almost sound and now able to ride over low jumps). And then there's the adorable Reed Kessler, the 17-year-old who won the Olympic selection trials with Cylana last month.
Reed was making her Invitational debut with Mika, on whom she is ranked fifth for the Olympic long list.? Before she signed autographs on the field in the pre-game hoopla, we talked about the class, where she wound up 14th, and life since she was catapulted to fame by the trials.
The Invitational standard was such that only five came through for the jump-off. That group surprisingly was missing Margie, who withdrew after a runout on Royce at the narrow horse shoe fence, and Laura on Cedric, her 2008 Olympic gold medal horse who may well be her ride in London for this summer's Games.
Laura faulted at fence 5, the giant bicycle on flat cups, that Steve said was his version of planks for this class. Laura had plenty of company; 12 others dashed dreams there. (Steve expects to sell a bunch of those jumps for people to practice over at home.)
It was far from the only problem enroute, however. Following the bike, which obviously needed to be ridden carefully, participants had to gear up for a vertical/oxer double that claimed six victims. The last part of the triple combination (oxer/vertical/oxer) required power that wasn't always available near the end of the 13-obstacle course.
For the tiebreaker, my money was on last year's winner, Kent Farrington with Uceko. And he was clear until the final fence, a 4-11 high, 6-foot wide oxer that Steve said was "as big as I've ever built in the Invitational."? A dropped rail put him fourth. Prior to his run, Charlie Jayne ran into trouble with Athena, who had four rails and a time penalty to finish fifth.
Beezie got a rousing cheer for her clear trip with Simon, one of her newer mounts, but her conservative clocking of 46.31 seconds would keep her third. She noted that if there had been fast, fault-free rides ahead of her, she would have gone more quickly, and were there the option of doing it again, she'd know where to make up time.
Molly bettered Beezie's mark on Carissimo, a new ride, who came home fault-free in 45.81 seconds. It was great to see Molly back after a 10-year absence in the class that she owned for two years. The mother of two likes being back on the map again, and is just hoping that she can keep the ride on the long-legged bay Holsteiner, who belongs to a dealer and is for sale.
Mario had the advantage of going last with Cella, which everyone feels is his best horse. Leaving out a stride to that final fence brought him his first Invitational victory in 44.5 seconds, after a dozen or so years of trying. Cella, purchased out of Belgium by Jane Clark, is by Cento out of a Chin Chin mare.
With that pedigree "she's all scope," Mario said. She needed it, and she used it.
Looking at Cella's photo, you may be wondering about the black nose net she always wears that spoils her looks. But Mario won't go in the ring without it. She came with the net (useful for screening out bugs, that bother some horses more than others) and since she's going well, he doesn't want to change a thing, bugs or no bugs.
You may remember that Mario was a Canadian (his original claim to fame came in 1984, when he was the youngest person? (19) ever to win a World Cup finals. He's been an American for several years now and is sixth on the long list for the Olympic team with Urico, another of Jane's horses. But Cella is ranked in a tie for 35th because she couldn't make last month's selection trials due to a medical problem. I'll let Mario tell you about it.
The show jumping wasn't the only attraction for fans. They are able to walk the course after the riders are finished scouting, looking in wonder at the giant fences and getting a true idea of their enormous size. The program also included a parade of breeds, fun and educational, including several exotic choices, an Akhal-Teke with his trademark coat that glistens as if it were metallic, and a spotted gypsy vanner with white "feathers" of long hair down his legs.
"Equine Extremist" Tommie Turvey also was amazing. While I appreciated the way he did Roman riding (with a foot on each horse) over a flaming jump, it was his second act that really made me understand his talent.
He had his adorable horse lie on the ground, on his back, as he sat on his barrel and played with his hooves. The horse was just like a cooperative (large) dog going through his tricks, sitting on the turf as his rider slid down his back, and standing neatly on a box. And of course, there was the obligatory bow (which the horse used to good advantage for nibbling grass).
The Invitational is named in honor and memory of its founder. Gene Mische died in 2010 and his nephew, Michael Morrissey, who always worked with him, now leads the charge. There were questions after Gene's passing as to whether the Invitational could continue, but Michael is determined it will. Although the crowd of more than 7,000 is a drop in the bucket in that 70,000-seat stadium, it's better than last year's total of 5,300. A big effort is being made to attract more people to this show jumping icon.
Michael and I talked about it at the victory party, where Mario celebrated his triumph with a beer, his wife, Lisa (Tarnopol), and children Lucy and Jack, while the evening's action dominated the room as it streamed on a big screen.
I have a fun group of gallery photos that will go up early this week, so be sure to check back. And my next postcards will be coming from Rolex Kentucky, starting April 26 as I switch gears to eventing.