March 22, 2009 -- What a run McLain Ward has had at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), and we're not just talking about last night's run to the finish line that won him the circuit's richest class, the $400,000 FTI Consulting Finale Grand Prix.
He and Sapphire competed in only three grands prix at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC), but they have been victorious in all of them. They're batting 1,000, worth a total of $225,000. Add to that what McLain took home from the FTI Rider Challenge Standings for consistency, along with his winnings on other horses here, and it comes out to a cool $320,000 for 11 weeks' work. No wonder he was able to buy a farm and a new house, even in the midst of an economic downturn.
He's not through yet, either. In two weeks, McLain and Sapphire will defend their 2008 title at the Budweiser American Invitational in Tampa. Then there's the World Cup finals, all part of the plan he devised about a week after being part of the gold medal team at the Olympics last year.
McLain and Sapphire have something special going.
"When I think about what she's done for me, my family and my team, I get a little emotional, because that horse is just getting better and better, and for sure, she's the horse of a lifetime," he said, after she won the Simba Run Perpetual Trophy for the second time in three years. (It goes to the horse who has earned the most prize money in classes held at 1.45 meters or above.) And McLain collected the Michael J. Snyder Memorial Challenge Cup for the sixth time in 11 years as the rider who has won the most money in jumper classes offering $25,000 or more during the WEF. Now he has some keepsakes to put on the mantel of that new house.
McLain and I talked some more about the remarkable Sapphire today.
The Finale went perfectly, from the way the afternoon/evening rain showers stopped nearly on cue after the first few riders competed, to the illustrious cast of characters in the 8-rider jump-off, culled from a starting field of 35.
Guillherme Jorge of Brazil designed the course, which included a triple combination, a double, water and a liverpool, all part of a test that was unforgiving of inaccuracy. It was just right for the richest grand prix payday in the U.S., as the class, coupled with the Challenge, put a total of $600,000 on the table. Can $1 million be far behind? Mark Bellissimo, who oversees the shows here as head of Wellington Equestrian Partners, thinks it may not be too long before the WEF reaches that landmark.
McLain was third from last to go in the jump-off, and didn't go crazy with speed. He's become the master of doing just enough to clinch a win.
Quick at the start, he left out a stride across the middle to a sailboat vertical that had not been in the first round.
"I stayed neat the rest of the way home, " said McLain, explaining he slowed up to a double that was the next-to-last challenge on the route "because I thought I was pretty fast and that was enough." He noted Sapphire "allows me to take chances, because she comes through over and over again."
Even so, he wasn't sure his time of 41.56 seconds was going to hold up. He still had to survive the efforts of Harvard University student Hillary Dobbs with Quincy B and Great Britain's veteran, Nick Skelton, on Nemo 119.
"Hillary's fast and she doesn't know better than to try to beat you. Nick is one of the best who's ever done this game," said McLain.
Hillary, last year's Hampton Classic winner, raced from the double to the final fence. Frankly, I thought she was going to beat McLain, but she took a pull before that big oxer with a 1.8-meter spread and Quincy dismantled it, leaving her with 4 faults in 44.12 seconds.
Though Nick was on a relatively inexperienced horse, he went for it. This is what you'd expect from a guy who broke his neck, retired from the sport briefly, then found he couldn't stay away. Despite his mileage, he came up a bit short, finishing second with a clear round in 42.55 seconds.
"I knew McLain would take a little bit of beating and I did the best I could," said Nick, noting the horse stumbled after the fifth fence, but not offering that as an excuse, noting it would have been hard to edge McLain anyway.
Guillherme understandably was breathing a sight of relief for the way things turned out as I talked to him before the victory ceremony. Let's face it, even the best laid plans can come a cropper, but happily, his didn't, and believe me, that wasn't just luck, it was expertise displayed before a big crowd that wasn't discouraged by the prospect of rain. I asked what he thought about the class.
I've admired his work since I watched him put together the thoughtful tests for the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas, and I'm not alone. Riders also praised his routes. When I caught up with Peter Charles of Great Britain today, he told me he doesn't like a tight time-allowed in the first round, calling a prominent designer known for that feature "a one-trick pony."
The clock, he said, should only be a real test in the jump-off. But as he noted about Guillherme, "Time is not an issue with this guy. The course was very fair, but tough. This guy showed last night he's a genuine classy course builder." And may I add he's a heck of a nice fellow, too, which doesn't hurt either.
Despite only being fifth in the class on Pavarotti after toppling the sailboat vertical, Todd Minikus managed to eke out an important triumph, winning the $100,000 first prize in the $200,000 FTI Challenge that rewarded excellence throughout the circuit.
It came at the right time for Todd.
"Today was a high-pressure situation." Call it a stomach churner.
"That's any big deal in sport , whether it's a playoff situation or something like that," said Todd. Like most of the top riders, he relies on horse sales, and they haven't been brisk lately, so a six-digit check came in handy.
Although entries overall have been down only about 10 percent here, there's no question that like Todd, people at the showgrounds have been feeling the effects of the recession. I stopped by an expensive jewelry shop and asked how their sales were.
"Slow," I was told, before being offered a deep discount on a pin studded with pink sapphires that I was admiring. Sorry, I don't have cash for something like that even in the best of times, but I empathized with the merchant. She had been smart, however, knowing that business likely would not be brisk, and only came down for three weeks, rather than the run of the festival.
Having so many greenbacks riding on last night was quite something, I thought. I asked Mark Bellisimo about the decision to offer that much, and here is what he told me.
FTI and its CEO, Dennis Shaughnessy--a real fan of the sport--should be complimented for their support of the sport. FTI, whose slogan is, "When the Game Changes" is an advisory firm that helps troubled companies, among others. So I guess it has plenty of business at this point.
The biggest loser last night was Lauren Hough, and she wasn't even in the class. Prior to the finale, Lauren was leading in the FTI Challenge. A decent placing, not necessarily a win, in the grand prix would have clinched the title for her. But she wound up scratching because her horse, Quick Study, had a slight suspensory problem behind.
"We could have used the money to pay the vet bills," Lauren's mother, Linda Hough, said wryly, sad but philosophical after a lifetime with horses and their injuries. Linda said the horse will have to rest for two months, which means that Lauren also will miss next month's World Cup finals in Las Vegas. Ouch!
McLain felt her pain.
"Lauren had a phenomenal circuit," he said.
"She was arguably the best all circuit. She made a very hard call today...a lesser horseman might have gone. I really think she should be complimented for her horsemanship and what she's done over this winter," he continued, explaining the finale "was so heavily weighted that by taking herself out, it took her out of the bonus situation. She certainly deserves an honorable mention."
Today, I must say, was kind of an anti-climax after last night. There were a lot of junior and amateur jumper classes. I took time to watch the Junior Jumper Classic, which was won by Jessica Springsteen on Vornado. She's always being pushed by Victoria Birdsall, whether they are in the equitation (they were 1-2 in the ASPCA Maclay last fall and the same in last weekend's George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation class) or in the jumpers.
Winning never gets old to Jessie, though, who bubbles with delight when she's talking about her riding.
Next week is the last for the WEF, and it's heavy on hunters without a show jumping grand prix. So it's farewell to the PBIEC (look at our gallery from this weekend) and hello to what's happening on Florida's other coast, in Tampa, where Stadium Jumping Inc. is holding its series. Come back to EquiSearch.com on April 5 to read about the granddaddy of them all, the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational.