March 1, 2009 -- I think I saw a wistful look on Hunter Harrison's face as he congratulated McLain Ward for winning the $150,000 CN Grand Prix on Sapphire today at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival.
Hunter is the president of CN, the railway company that owned this weekend at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. CN presented Friday's Nations' Cup (see my previous postcard) as well as today's $150,000 CN Grand Prix. And Hunter used to own Sapphire, when he was in partnership with McLain.
Although that arrangement broke up in 2006, the men are still friendly. They were very cordial with each other during the victory ceremony and press conference, though I'm sure Hunter wouldn't have minded having that $45,000 first prize money going home with him instead of McLain.
Instead, all he could do was watch, cheer and applaud as the much-decorated Sapphire decisively won her first start of the season with a clocking of 46.37 seconds, topping a six-horse jump-off after a starting field of 47 had been winnowed out.
"The jump-off was made for her (Sapphire) with two long gallops. I was hollering," said Hunter.
"I actually heard him," McLain said with a smile. "I know the tone."
The jump-off wasn't Sapphire's biggest-ever hustle, considering that she was coming off a rest.
"I thought I left a little room," said McLain, "but it was our day."
Christine McCrea finished second with Promised Land in 47.05 seconds. When I asked whether she could have beaten McLain, if she had another chance at the tiebreaker, she just laughed.
While McLain called Sapphire "a touch rusty," understandable since she hasn't shown since Syracuse in November, it looked to me as if she hadn't lost a step and he said she came into form in the jump-off.
"She's an amazing horse. She doesn't very often let me down, as long as I don't let her down," he said.
It's incredible to hear that McLain bought her simply on the strength of a phone call from a Belgian horse dealer with whom he works.
"I always believed in her. She's a champion in her mind," he said.
The two have logged so much time with each other over the last seven years, bringing home two Olympic team gold medals and a World Equestrian Games team silver, that they have the mileage to make things work even after a long intermission.
The course by Frank Rothenberger of Germany was "right on the money," according to McLain, who thought six clean trips was the magic number.
In discussing the route, he mentioned the 5ABC triple combination, a triple bar one stride from an oxer, followed by a tight two strides to a vertical. It stumped a lot of people in the class, but not McLain. He's seen it before.
"It's a very popular triple with this course designer," said McLain, recalling that he used it in the 2006 WEG in Aachen.
Christine didn't find the triple as easy as McLain did. It "definitely was quite difficult for my horse. It came up really fast. A to B was a little bit long. B to C was quite short for a big horse, so it was hard to get out of the way of C."
But she noted, "My horse felt really on today. The weather today really helped." Though the bursts of wind, which took down a couple of fences at one point, may have distracted others, it elevated Promised Land.
"When everything is calm and quiet, he doesn't rise to the occasion," she said, but today, "he was acting young and spooking."
McLain was effusive in his praise of Hunter and all he does for the sport through CN. Then Hunter talked about how he agreed to let McLain buy Sapphire when their partnership broke up at the beginning of 2006, a few months before the WEG.
"I wanted to see McLain do well and the country do well," said Hunter.
"To make sure the rumor mill doesn't start, we parted with a good handshake," McLain interjected. He explained the two called it quits because, "We were going in different directions. It happens in life sometimes."
Hunter still admires the mare and her rider.
"Sapphire just keeps getting better and better. After I saw the first round, I said, 'She's ready to win.' McLain's been very, very smart about managing her," Hunter said.
"He's picked his spots with her and he's gotten everything out of the horse I think anybody could get."
McLain's big goal for 2009 is the World Cup finals in Las Vegas next month, where he's been a player but never a winner. This year will be different, he vowed: "It's not going to slip away."
I've been writing recently about another "older woman" chestnut mare, Brentina, who is retiring next month, so I wondered about Sapphire's future.
Okay, enough about show jumping. As I told you before, I've been doing double-duty here. The Palm Beach Dressage Derby wrapped up today, so I have to fill you in on what happened there since I sent my last postcard on Friday.
The Derby, just down the road in Loxahatchee, was a great opportunity to see horses on the rise. One of them was the FEI Prix St. Georges winner, Dea II, ridden by Katherine Bateson-Chandler to a jaw-dropping 70.088 percent. Katherine trained in Britain last year with Olympian Carl Hester, and got Dea from him. I wondered how she chose the chestnut mare, who has a real presence.
Dea didn't do as well in the Intermediare I because poor Katherine went off course with the new test and was embarrassed. I mentioned that Anky van Grunsven, the Olympic gold medalist, did the same thing not once, but twice, in the Grand Prix during the Exquis Dressage World Masters in January.
"I'm in good company," Katherine said cheerfully.
Another horse I saw and liked very much was Ayscha, shown in the same class by Shannon Dueck. Shannon, who rode previously for Canada, is also an American citizen and after living in the States for 12 years now hopes to ride for the U.S. team someday.
An Oldenburg mare by Weltit II, she was found in Germany 18 months ago by Shannon, who says she is definitely not for sale now, even though she originally bought her to turn her over.
"She passaged for a 9 right off the bat," said Shannon, when she first tried that movement, convincing her that the mare should be taken off the market.
Bogner B, ridden by Courtney King-Dye, is worthy of mention too. He was ridden as a young horse by German Olympic medalist Ulla Salzgeber. Courtney's shooting for a berth in the national championship with this chestnut Oldenburg, "an absolute blast to work with" who won the I-1 freestyle today with a score of 70.1 percent. But after that, she will work on finishing him to Grand Prix so he can be ridden by the owners, the Fuquas, who also own Collecting Gaits Farm--the sponsor of the national championships.
The Grand Prix for the freestyle went to Mikala Gunderson, a Dane who was thrilled to take her first CDI with Leonberg, marked at 68.426 percent. This stallion was bursting with energy (a groom kept a lid on him by leading him in for the awards ceremony), and I wondered what's next for him, but Mikala isn't rushing their partnership.
Mikala had to settle for second with 71.1 percent in the Grand Prix Freestyle, which was topped with 71.45 percent by Tuny Page and Wild One. Tuny's devotion to her horse is paying off, as this talented boy keeps upping his game.
The Grand Prix Special went to Lauren Sammis with Sagacious HF, who many in the know believe has the potential to be one of the world's great dressage horses.
He certainly is marvelous to watch, but he was again very sticky with one piaffe in the Special, as he was in the Grand Prix. His score was 66.702 percent even with the mishap; it would have been much higher had that not happened. Remember, though, he's still new to this level, and Lauren is a determined gal with good guidance from Ashley Holzer, so I'm sure it will work itself out.
That's a wrap on this busy weekend. Don't forget to come back this week to look at the gallery, which will feature more photos of both jumping and dressage. Also, got an update today from Todd Minikus about his mother, Maxine Perry, 67, who is recovering in the hospital after a horrendous moped accident Friday that caused Todd to miss being on the U.S. Nations' Cup team when he rushed to her side.
I'll be back in three weeks to tell you about the WEF finale, a $400,000 grand prix that is the USA's richest.