Tampa, FL, March 30, 2003 -- Chris Kappler's riding style, as polished as his gleaming boots, gave him the precision to place Royal Kaliber exactly right in a demanding eight-horse jump-off to win the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational last night.
This is a class that can rattle any contender, human or equine, and we had plenty examples of that from some very big names. The Invitational is a tough premise -- the horses compete in Raymond James Stadium on only this one evening. You get a single shot under the lights, before a decent crowd (9,200 folks yesterday) in an atmosphere that's electric.
Invitational runner-up Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, an American-born woman who is now a German citizen, callled it "the best class in America" and compared it to the Olympics. Anne Kursinski, third on Eros, said it was "a tradition, like an Aachen."
Steve Stephens, the Invitational's permanent course designer, always builds a beautiful route that produces unexpected challenges for participants. Sometimes, since course designing is an inexact science, they're unexpected to Steve, too. A case in point was the 1995 layout. Chris won that one as well, aboard Seven Wonder. He was the lone clear in the first round; it didn't go to a jump-off.
Last night's Invitational had the most faults on its middle line that started with 6A, a black and white vertical set at 5-feet, 1 and 1/2 inches. It was one stride from B, a Swedish oxer 5-feet, 3-inches wide and 4-11 high, another very technical stride from C, a vertical standing 5-2.
There were 13 knockdowns there during the initial round, with nine of them coming at 6B. Meredith, who was riding Shutterfly, said a Swedish isn't seen much in Europe where she competes most of the year. A difficult distance meant horses had to hit all the elements perfectly. Interestingly, it didn't get any easier when they took down 6A in the jump-off and it became a double. Riders trying to make time took a sharp turn on the approach and wound up jumping the left, or high, side of the Swedish. Four competitors dropped rails there in the tie-breaker.
But not Chris. He was determined to do everything right.
"I've been second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth all circuit long," explained Chris, who was sick of it and wanted to end the Winter Equestrian Festival on a high note.
"This morning, I woke up and I was dying to win this class. I felt my horse was really in great form, and it all worked out nice," he added.
I asked whether his 1995 victory or this one was more formidable.
"The first one I think was harder," he said, "because Seven Wonder is a more difficult horse, a little trickier with his temperament, a more complicated, sophisticated ride. Royal is a really genuine, easy-going horse, and that makes up for a lot."
Chris went next-to-last in the tiebreaker, with no clean rounds on the board to that point. The best effort belonged to Meredith, but she had a knockdown at the second fence, a set of planks at a liverpool.
"I was pretty sure four faults wasn't going to win this class today. That would have been a big surprise," said Meredith, who nonetheless was "absolutely delighted" with Shutterfly, noting it was his first Invitational.
If Chris could leave everything standing, he only had to worry about Candice King, last to go. Royal Kaliber is not particularly speedy, so he couldn't blaze his way over the jumps.
"My plan was I wanted to go first, clean, and second, fast enough, to try and put some pressure on Candice to go faster," said Chris.
Candice had her own problems. Her mount, Gosse D'Orion, a son of Galoubet, is inexperienced and was not extremely fit.
"I knew he was capable, but I didn't know the whole scenario," said Candice, who wasn't sure how he would react to the atmosphere in the stadium.
As soon as she nudged him into a canter for the tie-breaker, she knew he had a problem.
"I ran out of horse a little bit," she said, and proceeded to drop the two most difficult fences, the planks and the Swedish oxer, winding up sixth.
But she was happy, recalling that "a year ago tonight, we almost lost him."
As she was riding from the warm-up area into the ring on another horse, she got a call from the night watch people back at the Flordia State Fairgrounds a few miles away that Gosse had gotten his hind leg stuck in the back of his stall and was lying on his side. They had to take apart the wall to extricate him, and he suffered muscle and bone bruises. So last night's performance was quite an interesting comeback.
Speaking of comebacks, Anne was ecstatic about Eros, who was out for eight months with a back injury. She thinks the rest has done her 16-year-old a lot of good. He definitely was ready for the Invitational.
"He really wants it," she said. "He's so intelligent." While he was acting up back in the warm-up area -- "he can't stand it, he's so excited" -- the minute Anne got on him, he calmed down and concentrated to get the job done.
Like Meredith, Anne had the planks down, but her time of 43.78 seconds was just a hair slower than Meredith's 42.40. For the record, Chris went in 43.92, but don't forget, he didn't have any faults.
So, I'm sure you're wondering about what happened to some of the others in the first round, which had 30 starters. Molly Ashe was without Kroon Gravin, her 2001 and 2002 winner, who was on the injured list. Nonethless, she still wanted to win three Invitationals in a row and earn a place in the record books. Her mount was the bay stallion Concerto, but she withdrew him after he knocked down 6B and refused 6C in the first round, after she also dropped the second fence. The same thing sank McLain Ward, except he had 1 and 2 down, then toppled 6B and refused 6C. McLain, who was the top U.S. qualifier for next month's World Cup finals in Las Vegas, then withdrew Viktor rather than doing his schooling in the ring.
Leslie Howard, winner of the 1984 Invitational, was clear in the first round on Priobert de Kalvarie and I thought she was headed for the winner's circle. But in the jump-off, she had the planks down, then did the 6B knockdown, 6C refusal thing before clearing both on the second try. She wound up with 30 faults because of time penalties.
"I got there too deep and he jumped high and landed shallow," said Leslie, who isn't dwelling on the incident and thinks it will have no effect on her World Cup preparation.
The Invitational really was some class, and it was nice to see Chris keep his cool and win when the going was tough.
Oh, I forgot to tell you about my favorite fence. It was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers oxer, flanked by lifelike wooden pirates, complete with parrot, eye patch and hooked hand. The Buccaneers, in case you don't know, play in Raymond James Stadium and won the Super Bowl this year, so I guess Steve felt a tribute was in order.
One of the best moments of the evening came between the first round and the jump-off, during the break when they did the installation for the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. Gem Twist, now 24, was led into the ring by his owner, Michael Golden, and breeder/trainer, Frank Chapot. Gem still looks great, very bouncy and happy, with his white coat glowing under the lights. This in all likelihood was his last public appearance. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and I had a tear in my eye, since I followed his career from the start at the local New Jersey shows, all the way through the Olympics, where he won two silver medals with Greg Best; to the World Equestrian Games in 1990, where he was best horse, and was there for other triumphs. Frank thinks he was the best show jumper ever, and while such things are a matter of opinion, I believe he's probably right.
Also honored, though, was another great one, Calypso. Lyps, who was on the 1984 Olympic gold medal team and a World Cup champion, was saluted posthumously, because he died in December after a wonderful 14-year retirement. But his owner/rider, Melanie Smith Taylor, came down from Memphis to be center-ring for his installation and raise her bouquet of flowers in triumph.
It all made me think how lucky I was to spend a lot of time watching and writing about these fabulous horses. I love my job.