Wellington, Fla., Feb. 1, 2006 -- The largest opening Sunday crowd in the 34-year history of the Winter Equestrian Festival brought week one, the Nutrena/Western Hay Classic, to a close and watched Leslie Howard of Westport, Conn., post her second major win in four days as she galloped to victory in the $50,000 Farr XTN Grand Prix of Palm Beach on January 29.
The crowd of 8,476 show jumping fans were treated to the second largest starting field in the long history of the Grand Prix of Palm Beach. Canada's Michel Vaillancourt designed the track for the class of 61 starters.
Of the 61 starters, only four completed the first round course fault free. One competitor was clean with a single time fault, while another 17 competitors finished with a single knockdown, many coming at the final fence on the long and technical route that included 17 jumping efforts.
Riding out of the 14th spot in the order, California's Megan Lamaze and Stoney Hill's Ollandaise were the first horse and rider combination to master the course. They were followed two horses later by Georgina Bloomberg of New York City, who produced the second clear go aboard Lancelot, owned by the Gotham Enterprises. Three horses later, Olympic team gold medalist Beezie Madden qualified Play On, owned by Allan Shore Jr. for the tiebreaker.
It was not until 39 more competitors had gone that the final piece to the jump-off puzzle was added. Youp and Howard, winners of the $25,000 WEF Challenge Series Round One on January 26, produced the fourth and final clean round.
In the tiebreaker against the clock, Megan Lamaze returned first and was eliminated after coming unseated over the third fence in the jump-off. Bloomberg and Lancelot then pulled two rails in the speed phase, coming home with eight faults and clocking in at 43.13 seconds. Madden and Play On also had two knockdowns, but posted a quicker time than Bloomberg, taking over the top spot with only Howard left to go.
Howard not only produced a second clean effort of the day, but she did it in 38.01 seconds for the win.
Howard, now a three-time winner of the Grand Prix of Palm Beach, said that Youp has been a work in progress.
"I got him as a five year old, and he's 11 now," she said. "I always thought he had the scope to do this, but he was a late bloomer. It wasn't until July or August of last year that he grew into the horse that I hoped he could be and this year, obviously, he's come out gangbusters."
Week two of the 2006 Winter Equestrian Festival, the Gold Coast Jumper Classic, presented by Carlisle, kicks off today. Check EquiSearch February 6 for Nancy Jaffer's coverage of the week's main event, the $60,000 Wellington Cup, presented by Carlisle.