Tampa, Florida, April 4, 2004--The Budweiser American Invitational is one of those events you just have to attend some day, and this year's edition proved once again why it is a must-see.
We could well have watched what might be the Olympic team, or most of it, anyway, artfully winnowed from a starting field of 35 by an awe-inspiring course. The route, put together by Steve Stephens and his assistant, Pepe Gamarra, was designed as a test to show competitors where their weak points were before next month's Olympic Trials in California. I would think that some of the more unrealistic Olympic aspirants had a reality check and may opt to do something else after being taught a hard lesson in the country's toughest grand prix.
Norman Dello Joio, former World Cup champion and 1992 Olympic individual bronze medalist, showed his mastery of equestrian finesse with a world-class performance on Glasgow to win the class before a crowd of nearly 9,800.
The fans who came to Raymond James stadium for the finale of the Winter Equestrian Festival understand the sport, and really appreciated the fact that until the 26th rider to go, no one had produced a perfect trip. The most persnickety fence on the course was the 10th, a lethal set of wavy blue planks over a liverpool that also caused trouble in its original setting at the World Equestrian Games in Spain two years ago. Since the best riders went last, it wasn't surprising that 12 of the first 20 had trouble with the planks, not to mention a few other obstacles along the way.
Before the class, when I asked Steve the location of the expected trouble spots, he said, "everywhere."
So the initial clear, achieved by 2000 Olympic veteran Lauren Hough on Clasiko, was greeted with wild cheers. Lauren was so happy she hugged her horse. Norman came right after and duplicated her effort. Anne Kursinski on her 1996 Olympic team silver medal mount Eros, at 18 the oldest horse in the class, had no jumping faults but 1 time fault that left her in sixth place.
"Pilot error," Anne told me with a grin, saying how pleased she was with Eros' performance. Alison Firestone, coming into her own with Casanova, also qualified for the jump-off. We all expected a clean round from Chris Kappler and Royal Kaliber, and we got it. The final clear was Beezie Madden and Authentic, only a 9-year-old but a big winner in Europe that she has brought along the last three years.
In the jump-off, Clasiko had a rail down, but when it was Norman's turn, he never let up on the twisting route to come home nearly five seconds faster than Lauren, and clean, to boot.
"It was really difficult," he said, but it didn't look that way when he rode it. I remember that Glasgow just wasn't quite polished enough to make the team in the 2000 Olympic trials, but it will be a different story this time around, I'll bet.
Okay, back to the jump-off. Alison also dropped a fence, so we all held our breaths when Chris trotted into the ring. He had to be the favorite to win this class for the second year in a row, but it went wrong as he tried to line up his Dutch stallion on the first fence to get the right angle to the second obstacle so he could be quick. That first fence went down as we all gasped, because Chris is everyone's number one choice for the Olympic team. That distracted him and a second rail dropped too, putting him fifth.
Last to go, Beezie gave it a shot, producing the only other perfect jump-off round, but her time of 43.99 seconds couldn't touch Norman's mark of 41.84. Alison was third, Lauren fourth and Chris fifth.
Norman first won the Invitational in 1978 with Allegro, and he recalled what it meant to him then.
"I was star-struck and awe-struck," he said. "My horse hung a leg really badly over the first jump and it scared him into jumping good and I felt like I won by accident."
This win, however, was no accident. Norman is a master planner who won the National Horse Show grand prix last fall, then showed lightly at the festival to be in peak form for the Invitational and the trials.
You can see why everyone wants to win this one. It's not just the money--$200,000 with $60,000 to the winner--though that aspect is terrific. It's the fact that this event is always one for the record books, and people remember who won year after year. Form demonstrated in the Invitational usually denotes a champion, which is why everyone was saying the jump-off group could provide the nucleus for the Olympic team. Of course, it wasn't an Olympic selection trial. But since the Nations' Cup in Athens will be held at night under lights on the grass, the Invitational offered an opportunity to test those conditions that will not be duplicated at the trials.
Another thing that makes the Invitational special is the electricity. No, not the lights; the excitement that builds from the moment the crowd starts arriving at the giant stadium. Unlike the case at most other grands prix, ticketholders are allowed to walk the course at the Invitational, and that's part of the magic, involving them as they gaze with wonder at the massive fences and wonder out loud how a 1,000-pound-plus horse can leap them. You want to be part of that crowd, believe me, so put the Invitational on your calendar for next year.
Meanwhile, with all the focus on the Olympic trials, the show jumping World Cup finals in Milan later this month is having to take a back seat, as far as the Americans are concerned. At least five of those qualified won't be going to Italy, leaving their places for lower-ranked riders to fill.
The most prominent dropouts are Chris and Beezie. Chris obviously has fine-tuned his program with Royal Kaliber for only the Olympics, while his other top mount, Primeur, at age 10 is not quite ready to be high in the standings at a championship, he believes.
Chris noted that over the years, he has placed everywhere in the Cup finals but first, second or third, and he sees no reason for flying to Italy just to participate. "The next time I go," he told me, "I want to be in the top three."
Beezie has three horses, Judgement and DeSilvio as well as Authentic, but none to spare for the Cup. All will be going to the Olympic trials with the rider, who now stands number one in the U.S. rankings. Flying them back and forth to Italy and then to California would be far too much, she explained, when I asked about her strategy to skip the Cup.
There will be some European holdouts from the Cup, too. Chefs d'equipe there have more power than their American counterparts, and can order riders not to take part if they feel it will hurt their Olympic chances.
The foregoing is the reason why Las Vegas Events will only hold the World Cup at the Thomas & Mack Center during years in which there is no Olympics or World Equestrian Games. They want the best, and next year, they should get it. In fact, not only will they have the top show jumpers, but they are also awaiting international equestrian federation (FEI) approval to hold the World Cup dressage finals at the same time. It would be the first occasion on which both were staged together.
Whoops, I digressed. Anyway, that's it from here for both the 2004 Winter Equestrian Festival and me. I'm heading north, and so are the riders after a great circuit. It's going to be a busy year. Don't worry, I'll be sending lots more postcards to keep you in touch with what's happening as I travel around the country--and the world.