Tampa, Fla., April 4, 2005 -- As I walked the course for the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational, along with several thousand other fans who enjoyed that tradition, I stopped dead, completely awestruck, in front of the fifth obstacle.
As it happened, I was not the only one who did that during the course of the evening. So many horses had the same reaction to this light bridge, resting on pedestals surrounded by mini-liverpools, that the viaduct could only be called a true bogey fence. Its odd shape, airiness and the way the lights in Raymond James Stadium played off it caused trouble for nine riders, nearly one-third of the 30-member field vying for the most coveted show jumping trophy of the year on April 2.
And it wasn't the only problem on a course that designer Steve Stephens had warned me earlier in the day would be less technical than his 2004 effort. This route, with no triple but three doubles, had the emphasis on power jumping rather than related distances. Steve figured beforehand only eight horses would be able to handle it without faults. He was off by 75 percent.
As the crowd of nearly 12,000 (one of the best in years, incidentally) sat riveted by the country's most prestigious grand prix competition, the viaduct became the villain of the evening. It dashed the hopes of some key contenders, including Britain's Ellen Whitaker (niece of the famous Michael Whitaker) as her AK Locarno squeaked to a halt twice there, ending in elimination.
"He's normally very bold," she told me afterward, still puzzled by his reaction as he tried to go "under the fence."
It was a disappointing way to end her first Invitational.
"I've heard so much about it," Ellen said, not surprised that she had problems with the challenge. "I was half expecting something like this."
That's the Invitational for you. Riders, who don't pay an entry fee, qualify either by having a distinction like being on the Olympic team or because they're the previous winner, but mostly by money won during the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) to produce a field that's the best of the best for the WEF's climax. Difficulties pop up even in years when there isn't a major stumbling block like the viaduct in the Invitational. Don't forget, these horses are in the stadium for the first time during the parade of competitors. They haven't jumped on that turf until they take the initial fence, and there is plenty to distract them, including the roar of one of the sport's biggest audiences.
Frankly, I was very surprised when the first three horses to jump aced the viaduct, though they had difficulty elsewhere. But two of them--Kate Levy's Lagretto and Alison Firestone's Casanova, were very experienced. Last year's winner, Norman Dello Joio, is fazed by little, even though he was on Quriel rather than Glasgow, so he, too, cleared the viaduct. All three, however, had difficulty with the second element of the final double, 10B, a pair of oxers which came down the most times, 12, although its effects weren't as dramatic as those of the viaduct.
Then Nona Garson entered the ring on Languster, only to end her ride early with two refusals at the viaduct. Candice King, next on Verelst Camillo, had one refusal there but finally made it over. Canada's Mac Cone (who rode in the very first Invitational 33 years ago, by the way) was eliminated for two refusals at what Steve quickly renamed, "the bridge over troubled waters." When the next two horses soared over the viaduct, the crowd cheered wildly, but then Todd Minikus had a bad fall there off Flier, landing on his neck.
"All I could think of was Christopher Reeve," he told his pal Jimmy Torano later, referring to the riding accident that left the actor paralyzed for the rest of his life. Todd was okay, happily.
And so it went for the balance of the evening, with the viaduct taking its toll.
I remembered the fence from 1995, when it was painted as gray stone, rather than its current fake brick motif, and served as part of a bogey double. That was the Invitational that had only one clear round, belonging to Chris Kappler on Seven Wonder, and it seemed as if he were on his way to another when he aced the viaduct and 10B with Primeur. But at the next-to-last of the 14 fences, a funky wall with standards topped by brass cupolas, Primeur balked several strides away, finally convinced by Chris to jump but scoring a knockdown as he did. Together with time faults, that was only good enough for seventh place.
I was starting to wonder if this would be another Invitational without a jump-off (or maybe without even a clean round) when five horses later, Jeff Welles on Armani--a dark bay appearing in his first Invitational--proved he was up to the challenge. The only other horse who would do that was, not surprisingly, the mount of Olympic medalist Beezie Madden, Authentic. As it happens, he is by Guidam, the same sire as Armani.
So the spectators weren't deprived of a jump-off, and I have to say, my money was on Beezie for the first two-horse tiebreaker in Invitational history.
As Jeff said, "I didn't know what to expect from Armani. He's never shown in a situation like this. I didn't think he was spooky--he's not a spooky horse, but he can get a little bit tense. He just really kept his cool and jumped fantastic."
In the jump-off, with the course shortened to nine fences, Armani was really motoring until he had a rail at 10A, the third jump from the finish line and the only part of that last double left in for the tiebreaker.
"I was very happy with the ride and the way he went," Jeff said. "He just went down and had the front rail on that oxer. Sometimes he'll have a tendency to cut down on the back rail of an oxer, so I rode the jump strong, and that made him a little bit flat." Armani had a good time of 43.29 with 4 faults, making for a formidable challenge to Beezie.
Beezie and her husband, trainer John Madden, decided to roll the dice and go for a clean round. It was obvious Authentic wasn't in a race as he picked his way along carefully, so we all held our breath, wondering if he could finish without faults. This fabulous horse, who thrilled us in the Olympics before getting tired on the day of the individual competition, proved he was back in form. He produced a perfect round in 46.35 seconds, just under the time allowed of 47 seconds.
Strategy is what John Madden loves, and when I caught up with him at the post-Invitational party, he told me what he was thinking as he and Beezie plotted the jump-off.
Explaining why they decided to ditch an attempt at speed, John said, "I'd rather have confidence in the quality of the horse and that he'll go clean because (and here he grinned at me) he's not such a bad horse. Beezie's very accurate and scientific. There's very few horses I'd take that gamble with, but he's one."
John's still kicking himself, though, for not starting Authentic a little earlier on the circuit so he could qualify for the World Cup finals in Las Vegas later this month. Beezie was number nine on the East Coast list, and only eight are going (though I still wonder if maybe someone will drop out, which would give her a chance.)
So that's one strategy with which John wasn't happy. "I missed by a couple of points, but I didn't miss that much," he shrugged.
Understandably, Beezie wasn't fretting about the World Cup Saturday, noting the plan is to give the 10-year-old Authentic a well-deserved rest. She was just happy to have finally topped the Invitational and gotten her name in the record books (as well as earning $16,000 more than she did as the runner-up last year.
"It was kind of his time," she said. "I haven't won it before and every year I'd come in saying, 'I want to win this class this year.' Last year I was close, and this year I did it."
Interestingly, she noted Authentic had no problems with the viaduct because he had jumped a similar fence at the Athens Olympics.
"It sounds funny to say he had experience at the Olympic Games to show here, but he did," Beezie chuckled.
And what of some of the other key players? Laura Kraut, the No. 1 money winner of the WEF leading up to the Invitational, lost a stirrup when Miss Independent leaped out of 7B, the red and black Japanese fence from the 1984 Olympics. She was so busy trying to get it back that she flubbed her approach to number eight, a yellow and green vertical, having a knockdown there, and then dropped 10B to wind up tenth.
Ramiro Quintana, the Argentine who made his mark during the WEF with the veteran Hurricane by winning a grand prix and being a pillar of the third-place team in the Nations' Cup, was on his way to a clear when he toppled a rail at the last fence. He wound up third and won the style award for good measure.
McLain Ward was fourth on Sapphire with a knockdown and one time penalty, saying, "she jumped unbelievable." Next up is the World Cup, his goal for this year, and he assured me, "She's ready to win."
Well, I'll be on hand to see that, or whatever else happens in Las Vegas April 21-24. So be sure to come back to EquiSearch then for my daily postcards on all the action at the World Cup Final, the most important show jumping competition of 2005.
Visit Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.