September 9, 2012 -- It's been a long, dry summer for McLain Ward with his number one partner, Antares F. They left the Olympics without a medal and last weekend, a rail down at the final fence in the $250,000 FTI Grand Prix at the Hampton Classic ended the rider's quest not only for first place prize money, but also for the $200,000 Taylor Harris Triple Crown bonus.
His luck finally changed today, however, as he claimed the $350,000 first prize in the $1 million Pfizer Animal Health Grand Prix at the HITS show in Saugerties, N.Y. It certainly was cause for celebration; McLain invited anyone who was going to be in the vicinity of his Brewster,N.Y., home to drop by.
"The drinks are on me," he chuckled.
The class has only been held for three years, and McLain has won it twice. In 2010, he took top honors with his wonderful Sapphire, now retired. Antares is a different type of a ride, but this afternoon, he certainly proved he's no slouch.
The imposing course was designed by Olaf Petersen Jr., not to be confused with his father, who has laid out two Olympic routes (1988 and 2004). The floor plan was beautiful, with exquisite fences, from the red and black Chinese Dragon to the pink, pleated Asian Fans and the orange Tulip Wall. Heck, even the course map was beautiful, done in color with the name of each obstacle listed.
But it was all about being challenging. The test didn't quite create mayhem, yet it went well over the heads of many in the field of 38. Five riders fell off, three wisely retired and one who got in trouble but managed to stay on was eliminated for two refusals. There were time faults galore and 11 double-digit scores.
Most of those competing qualified at HITS shows, but they did not necessarily have experience at this level. Few do. Was it any coincidence that the runner-up, Canadian Jill Henselwood's interesting mount, George, like Antares, had made it through the London Olympics last month? Only one other rider, Jonathan McCrea with Colorado, got into the jump-off.
Going first against the clock can be a disadvantage, but McLain felt with a small group in contention, "it kind of allowed me to do my plan and put a little stress on these two. He's a very quick horse."
The challenge really was who could come in second after McLain put in a clear, fast trip.
"I figured I could leave a jump out and still wouldn't be fast enough," quipped Jonathan, who dropped two rails. Jill had the last shot at trying to snatch the winner's share from McLain, though she didn't really expect to pull it off.
"I know how fast he is, and I know my horse jumps too high and actually is a little too inexperienced in jump-offs, period," said the always ebullient Jill, "but I still had to try. I set off as fast as I thought I could, and I think by the second jump, I was already too slow, but I didn't stop trying until I faulted (at the fifth of eight jumps). And then I knew Jonathan had a little bad luck, so I just settled down and prayed I didn't touch that last jump." She didn't, and had a nice payday too; $200,000.
I spoke with Olaf about his course, and the several options he provided in it. Not all the riders took advantage of that; they could have tailored their trips better for their horses in several instances, though some perhaps were worrying about the 84 second time-allowed when they should have been worrying about whether their horses could clear the fences.
Here's what Olaf had to say:
Tom Struzzieri, the master of HITS, will be rethinking the way riders qualify for the Million in the wake of the problematic rides.
"It was great sport today, maybe a little too challenging for some of the riders," he said.
"That I thought was unfortunate...my goal is to grow the sport, because it grows my business at the same time and grows everybody's business. That was the only thing that I'm disappointed in; that so many riders had a bad experience today."
But everyone loved the footing. Work earlier this year on the drainage system paid off when a torrential Saturday night storm did its thing. By this morning, you couldn't tell there had been a deluge; riders praised the springy surface.
The Million is a major landmark in show jumping, but it's not alone. In March, Tom plans to hold another at his Thermal, Calif., facility. And today, the CN International grand prix at Spruce Meadows in Canada also offered $1 million. Can you imagine two such big money classes on the same day? The schedule conflict is a shame for the riders who would like to participate in both.
McLain, who also is a Spruce Meadows veteran, and I talked about that and other things.
By the way, the CN actually is worth more than the HITS competition, because $1 million Canadian dollars weighs in at $1, 022,106 U.S. dollars. That class went to a dark horse, 19-year-old Olivier Philippaerts of Belgium, son of lontime international rider Ludo Philippaerts, who was third. Second went to McLain's Olympic teammate Beezie Madden on Simon.
The Million may have been today's highlight, but it wasn't the only feature. The morning started with the new HITS $250,000 3-foot Hunter Prix, won by Chiara Parlagreco on The Impressionist. The $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix, which debuted last year, was dominated at the top end by Andre Dignelli's Heritage Farm. Andre's associate, trainer Patricia Griffith, rode Sienna to edge one of her students, Lillie Keenan, on 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals winner C Coast Z, her "go-to" horse for the big classes. Patricia's score was 549.75; Lillie, one of her star students, was only 2.75 points behind that on her handsome gray. But there was nothing awkward about it. Lillie obviously was as happy with the way things turned out as if she had won herself.
"Patricia started teaching me when I was seven years old...to be competing against my trainer is a big deal. If I had won she'd be just as excited. We're rooting for each other," said Lillie.
Another Heritage rider, Matthew Mattell, was among the four who participated in a final round after the top 25 went in the morning, but a rail down put him fourth with Pioneer on 403 points. Amanda Steege. who had been 23d after yesterday's initial round, recouped admirably to finish third on Balou (538).
I said to Andre that it seemed Heritage pretty much owned the class. Here's what he told me:
"We're excited about offering this level of money and hoping that we can continue to raise the bar and see if others can match it," said Tom. "We're trying to make this week a finals horse show, where people put this on their calender early in the year."
It's on my calendar for 2013, but now I'm focusing on this autumn. I'm going to switch gears at the end of the month and head for Dressage at Devon. (Not to be confused with what the dressage folks call "Spring Devon" that is dominated by the hunters and jumpers.) Look for my next postcard on September 30.