September 12, 2010 -- The final seconds of the history-making Pfizer Animal Health $1 million grand prix could only be described as suspenseful--or at least as suspenseful as a two-horse jump-off can be if one of the contenders is supermare Sapphire with McLain Ward in the saddle.
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In my opinion, although I know anything can happen in show jumping, a Sapphire victory practically was a foregone conclusion. She is a horse who keeps rising to new heights while cutting a swath through the record books. The USA's first $1 million grand prix, presented by HITS, gave her the opportunity to do it again in a style that fans have to hope will continue through the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Only McLain and Charlie Jayne with another fleet mare, Athena, qualified for the jump-off from a field of 43, but McLain was feeling pressure before the tie-breaker.
"I was actually nervous. There was a lot of money on the line," explained McLain, referring to the $350,000 first prize.
Charlie's mare, galloping full tilt and turning tight to gain ground, dropped a rail at the second element of the double, three fences from the end of the course. Her 45.20-second 4-fault trip had McLain examining his strategy.
"When I went in the ring, my thought was that I was going to go fast to give myself two chances to win the class," McLain said.
"If I had a fence down, I would try to be faster than him,'' he added.
McLain came close, nearly knocking some blocks off the top of an aqueduct wall halfway through the eight-fence route as he cut in a little too tight to the jump. You could feel the tension in the crowd, which filled most of the grandstand and spread out under tents and along the grass at the expansive HITS-on-the-Hudson Catskills facility.
Everything stayed in place, however, as McLain proceeded. He played it smart, taking back a little after the next-to-last jump to make sure he was careful at the final obstacle, a violet-and-white oxer facing the VIP tent. In the end, he won it both ways; McLain was clear and his time of 44.78 seconds beat Charlie's mark.
"I had a lucky rub on the wall for sure...but I've never won a really good class without having one lucky rub. That's a little bit the sport, and it went my way," McLain said.
I asked the two-time Olympic team gold medalist with Sapphire how this course compared with others he had jumped.
"This was a Calgary Masters grand prix, or a second-third day of the World Cup finals type track," he told me, noting that there were many "careful" spots when a rail could easily tumble.
It had, he said, "Big scope, you needed a lot of bravery, I thought it was very, very difficult."
The victory put McLain, who won the $250,000 FTI Grand Prix at the Hampton Classic last week, well over the $1 million mark in earnings for the year. As for Sapphire, she has collected in the neighborhood of $4 million in her career, and at age 15, she's still going strong. A year ago, she won the $1 million (Canadian) CN Grand Prix at the Spruce Meadows show in Calgary, Canada, so she has taken the measure of North America's two toughest (and most lucrative) classes in a 12-month span.
Charlie was gracious about his loss; after all, as he noted, second place was worth $200,000. He said that against McLain, he had no choice but to go for broke.
"I figured I'd take every shot I could without doing something stupid. I couldn't have asked for much better placing."
Before the class, I talked with course designer Steve Stephens (who co-designed the 2008 Olympic route) about the colorful test he laid out in spacious arena.
Afterwards, he said with a smile, "I'm tired. I rode every one of those horses."
Canadian Jill Henselwood, the top qualifier for the class, cited the beauty of the fences, which made the horses perk up. The seventh jump I recognized immediately; it was the red Japanese garden from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Steve worked with Bertalan de Nemethy, the retired U.S. show jumping coach who designed the courses for those special Games. There was a giant Statue of Liberty, a tribute from the very patriotic Steve, and a curvy wall I had seen at the American Invitational, where he is the regular designer.
Riders at HITS shows across the country had to qualify for the big class, and there was a wide variation in experience. The difficulty level was beyond some of them, with seven eliminations or withdrawals. Charlie, 33rd to go, drew an enormous cheer from spectators when he finally completed the feat that had eluded everyone else. Six rides later, Canadian John Pearce seemed to have done it with Chianto, but his clocking of 106.507 was just over the time allowed of 106, leaving him with a single time penalty and third place. John sacrificed a spot in the tiebreaker (which McLain had predicted would include three riders) by an understandably careful approach to the water jump, which came after a very difficult triple combination (the middle element was a Swedish oxer!).
McLain, third to last in the order, showed off Sapphire's class and assured a jump-off, much to everyone's relief. Fame involves big responsibility, and that is part of the burden he carries over every fence. He's also been an advisor to Tom Struzzieri, the creator and mastermind of the transcontinental HITS empire, so I asked him what this class means to the sport.
This show was all McLain. He won its $30,000 and $50,000 grands prix earlier in the week on Rothchild, who showed his stablemate that he, too, is a consistent winner.
Threatening clouds politely held back rain showers until after the class, when umbrellas went up for the post-show John Fogerty concert in an adjacent arena. That type of timing makes me believe that Tom--who is incredibly competent at everything else--also can control the weather.
The $1 million class was an experiment, born out of a failed bid to host the WEG selection trials at his Ocala showgrounds, where he had planned to offer $750,000 in prize money. The $1 million class was his way of turning a negative into a positive.
So now that he has once again been a horse show pioneer, would he ever offer another $1 million class?
"We'll regroup and see," he said.
"We sure would love to do it again if everything falls the right way. I'm hoping this says new things about the sport in the future...we're hoping the world will say the U.S. can do it as well as they can, right here in Saugerties."
Tom and I talked in a little more detail about the meaning of this class.
This was Sapphire's last competition before the WEG. McLain is encouraged; "Sapphire felt lighter than Hampton Classic." he commented.
She'll have "two nice schools" before she ships to Kentucky, and then it's time to hope.
"I think I have one of the best, if not the best horse. I think if she and I do our job, we're going to be right there in the end. And if the FEI doesn't screw it up (a reference to his controversial elimination at the World Cup Finals) I think we'll be in the hunt," said McLain.
"We'll do our best. First and foremost we've got to tackle the team competition, that's the most important... I obviously would like an individual title in the sport and I certainly hope that Sapphire gets one before her career is done."
This was my last class before the WEG, too. Look for my postcards as the world championships get under way in less than two weeks (yikes!) at the Kentucky Horse Park. We've been in the countdown phase for so long, it's hard to believe we're actually going to launch.