March 31, 2002 -- For awhile, I thought last night's $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational was going to be over early -- very early.
Molly Ashe was first to jump with Kroon Gravin, and she went clear. The question was, could anyone else do it? Watching the talented mare cross the finish line, I had a feeling her performance wasn't going to kick off a series of perfect trips.
A pre-competition walk of the course convinced me it would be very, very tough. Gene Mische, the inventor of the Invitational, said before the class that he figured there would be eight clear. My guess was two clear. I was closer to the right number.
After Molly's performance, sixteen more riders tried Steve Stephens' route in Raymond James Stadium and failed to leave everything looking the way it did when they entered the arena. I was starting to feel that maybe Molly would be the only one to conquer the 17 imposing fences, and we'd have to go home without a jump-off. After all, that's happened before at the Invitational. It's an extra-tough test for so many reasons. Horses aren't used to competing under the lights, and on top of that, they don't even set hoof in the place before the class.
It wasn't until Laura Kraut put in a determined effort with Anthem that the crowd of 9,000 got to cheer for another clear. Then, two horses later in the 19th slot, Gaby Salick turned in a beautiful round with the gorgeous gray stallion, Sandstone Laurin.
With some of the best in the class yet to come, everyone figured there would be a couple more clear. Norman Dello Joio and Glasgow, that classic pair, seemed like a sure thing until they encountered the 4-foot, 10-inch Budweiser oxer that stretched a whopping 5 feet, 9 inches. Wide oxers like that one were in abundance, and they really challenged the horses, as Laura observed.
Every one of the other riders I expected to make the tiebreaker -- McLain Ward on Viktor, 2001 Invitational runner-up Chris Kappler on Royal Kaliber and Todd Minikus with Oh Star -- had problems.
Oh Star was wild, leaping in the parade before the competition, then doing the same thing as he headed toward the jumps. He seemed to lack his usual concentration, faulting at the Budweiser and the last part of the triple combination.
But McLain and Chris succumbed to the most deadly part of the course, 4A and B, a double coming off a corner. It was a set of delicately balanced planks painted like the American flag, one long stride from an oxer that, at 5 feet, 6 inches across, just seemed to go on and on forever. Twenty-two of the 30 starters had trouble there.
"I was a little surprised," said Steve. "It seemed to me that the horses backed off of it instead of going forward. They sort of gawked at it a little bit. The riders had to come in careful over the plank, but when they landed, 4B was a scopey distance and they had a hard time getting to the back rail."
I originally felt Molly was at a disadvantage going first, but she rode the double the way she thought she would when she walked it, being sure to give Kroon Gravin enough oomph to make it through, though not so much that she upset the planks.
That's where McLain had his knockdown. Still, he was fast enough to finish fourth and clinch American Grand Prix Association Horse of the Year honors for Viktor and Rider of the Year for himself.
Those were nice consolation prizes, but he would have liked to be in the jump-off.
"I made a mistake. I over-rode the combination because I saw so many horses crash through it," McLain said as he unwound afterwards at the party along the stadium concourse.
"I wish I had gone earlier; I wouldn't have ridden it that strong."
The upshot was an all-female jump-off, with Molly returning to work the same kind of magic a second time on her generous bay mare.
The defending champ's time of 45.376 seconds seemed a little cautious, and Laura thought her horse, a Dutchbred like Kroon Gravin, could beat the clock. She was right; her time was 45.185. But she lost her chance at the second fence when Anthem slid and a rail came down.
"He kept slipping and slipping, and I was just holding him up," she said. "I just think he didn't have his focus."
Though Gaby had the winning time, 44.915 seconds, the footing caused some trouble for her too, and Laurin dropped two rails as she acknowledged she might have gone too fast.
Despite their problems, it was an Invitational personal best for Laura and Gaby, who in turn both were thrilled to see Molly win. Kroon Gravin had been sidelined since July after suffering ovarian problems, and jumped in her first grand prix only last weekend.
"I was so happy for her because she's had a long time away from the ring," said Laura. She noted that Kroon Gravin also was slipping and got in deep to the same jump that Anthem toppled. But luck was riding with Molly, who qualified for the Invitational only by virtue of being the 2001 titleist, since she had won no money on the Florida circuit.
"I hope everybody realizes what a real feat of horsemanship it was for Molly to win this class again," Gaby said.
"Molly has really intelligently geared her whole year in Florida toward this class, participating in it and winning it, and I think that's just a major accomplishment. That took a lot of good planning, good training and organization on Molly's part."
Becoming only the second person in history to win two Invitationals in a row (Michele McEvoy Grubb did it in 1974 and 1975 with Sundancer) was Molly's way of making a statement.
"I really wanted her to do it. I came in with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because I felt everyone had forgotten about her," Molly said.
"It's been a long eight months, scary and not fun. It started at the World Cup finals last year and just progressively continued getting worse: discomfort, shifting, colicking, tying up."
However, an implant of medicine has helped, Molly said, and last night Kroon Gravin certainly looked like her old self. Riding the mare, Molly noted, "is a pleasure and a privilege and a thrill."
Now that Molly has, as she put it, "dusted the cobwebs off my boots," she is hoping to repeat her Devon grand prix victory in May. But the World Equestrian Games in September is out, she's not even going in the selection trials. Molly worries that if she makes the WEG's final four individual phase, where each competitor rides the others' horses, having so many different people on Kroon Gravin's back would blow her mind. As always, Molly is putting her horse's welfare above all else.
The three women who finished at the head of the class for the Invitational were happy they scored one for the girls for a change.
"The boys have been kicking our butts," Laura said with a smile, her good humor no doubt reflecting the fact that altogether, the ladies earned a total of $130,000 for the evening's work.
She and Gaby are planning a European tour together, along with Francie Steinwedell-Carvin and Joe Fargis. And now they're thinking of taking Molly.
"That's a good idea," mused Laura when I suggested it.
Award-winning equestrian writer Nancy Jaffer travels the globe following horse sports. She has covered six Olympics, and in addition to the disciplines held at the Games, the New Jersey resident writes about everything from endurance and hunters to equitation and driving. Jaffer, whose work has been published all over the world, is the secretary of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. Her column appears regularly on EquiSearch.