Devon, Pa., Sept. 19, 2005 -- What was promising to be a large and competitive jump-off disappeared three horses from the end of the $75,000 Lincoln American Gold Cup's first round yesterday, when the unheralded Shandor turned in the first--and as it turned out, the only--clean round of the day.
Let me explain: Steve Stephens' course at the Devon show grounds was so testing that eight horses came one fence short of mastering it during the afternoon. The only competitor able to leave all the jumps standing was Patty Stovel, who expertly guided Shandor to that perfect trip.
After waiting for the first fault-free round and expecting several more would follow during the first half of the 33-entry class, the crowd had switched gears and was figuring during the second half of the fixture that the 4-faulters would wind up battling it out in a tiebreaker. It promised to be a good match. The group included Margie Engle with Olympic veteran Hidden Creek's Perin and 2000 Gold Cup winner Schuyler Riley on Opus Sept.
And then Patty wound up ruling the day with her very careful round on the 10-year-old bay gelding she has brought along since last year. Watching her move painstakingly around the Dixon Oval, I figured she'd have time penalties. It turned out that her clocking of 79.81 seconds was well within the 83-second time allowed, but more than two seconds slower than the slowest of the 4-faulters.
The size of the fences played in her favor, since the odds were that she wouldn't have won a jump-off.
"He is not ever going to be that speedy," she conceded, "but I think he has Olympic scope and he's that kind of a horse. I think he'll be a perfect age and have just enough experience."
Patty knows all about top-level horses. She used to ride Mont Cenis, the impressive black gelding on whom she was the highest-placed American at the 1994 World Equestrian Games. He is a pet who lives with her, but Patty herself is far from retired.
She's 47 now, but she can still dream. And those of us who underestimated her as we watched the class were very much mistaken.
"Patty's been around. She's not new to the business," observed Steve. "I don't feel I had a fluke winner today, by no means."
When Patty and Shandor first got together, "he had a very difficult start," she recalled.
"He was really strong, he had a tremendous amount of jump, but was really difficult to ride." However, when Canadian legend Ian Millar tried him out as a possible purchase, she watched him jump and "I was just awed," she said.
Patty rushed to the phone to organize a syndicate (her ex-husband, Ken, is one of the partners), outbid Millar and got Shandor for herself. She and her protégé turned a corner in April when she tried him in a hackamore.
"As soon as I took the bit out of his mouth...he was a totally different horse," she said.
Now, the Hanoverian by Sandro is "so happy," and he showed it in his biggest test to date, clearing the triple combination that dashed the hopes of 15 riders, as well as the problematic double-vertical standing 5-feet, 1-inch tall and 5-feet, 4 inches tall respectively that caught 19 horses on the other side of the arena.
"I was really nervous about the vertical-vertical. That's the one thing that's hard for him because he's a little slow with his front end," said Patty. She thought Shandor actually may have touched the second fence, the highest on the course, but the yellow and gray striped rails stayed up.
Margie, who wound up third with Perin, explained why the double was so difficult.
"Leading up to it, you had a lot of lines with a forward stride. The triple bar (the fence on the curve before the double) was not tall, but it was quite wide. You had to stretch over that, but it flattened your horse out." While Margie thought Perin was well set-up in the double, she noted, "I almost felt like he got too comfortable, and a little nonchalant," which was her undoing with tall fence 12B, the next-to-last obstacle on course.
"If it had been one hole lower, you would have had a bunch clean," Patty theorized.
In fact, it was only the fifth time in the Cup's 36-year history that it was won without a jump-off. But truthfully, the field was missing some key players. Laura Kraut, Jeffery Welles, Lauren Hough and McLain Ward were in Spain, where they finished tied for second in the Samsung Nations' Cup final to take the series title for the U.S. in a resounding triumph of chef d'equipe George Morris' first season in the post. Aaron Vale was on that trip as well.
Also among the missing yesterday was Beezie Madden, who has had a long season marked last weekend by a victory in the world's richest grand prix, the CN International at Spruce Meadows. Georgina Bloomberg, who is often a contender, scratched after breaking her left collarbone in a crash the previous day during an amateur-owner jumper class. (She had enough points to win the A/O championship anyway.)
Still, there were some impressive names in the Cup. One of them, Alison Firestone, finished second on Intrepide du Valon in 71.13 seconds. She was the fastest of the 4-faulters, after having the middle of the problematical triple down. Alison was more than two seconds head of Margie's clocking.
"It was really exciting for me today that she stepped up to the challenge," Alison said of the bright chestnut mare, who she began riding in December 2004.
Steve was on the spot with his course, especially since those televising it would have liked a jump-off, but he certainly wasn't apologizing for what happened on a brilliantly sunny almost-autumn afternoon.
"I don't think I would tell you I was planning for a no-clear or one clear, but when it does work this way, when it's the American Invitational or the Gold Cup, it is really a premier event. There are certain events that have a real title that deserve a real course," he maintained.
"If this happens at Spruce Meadows, everyone thinks you're the greatest course designer in the world. I don't feel bad that the results are what they are. We just get so used to a jump-off and that's what we think show jumping is about, but it's not always about the jump-off. You have to accomplish the test."
OLN will televise the Lincoln American Gold Cup on September 25 from 6-7 p.m. EST and September 26 from 3-4 p.m. EST.