January 11, 2015--Week one of the 2015 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) concluded on Sunday with the $30,000 WEF 1 Grand Prix held at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, FL. In a 22-horse jump-off with some of the fastest riders in the world, USA's Todd Minikus came out on top aboard Carl Brem's Cordonos. Ireland's Conor Swail and Grafton finished second and USA's Mclain Ward and HH Ashley were third.
Course designer Eric Hasbrouck's final track for week one competition yielded 22 out of 55 entries in the $30,000 WEF 1 Grand Prix. In the jump-off, nine entries were able to clear the short course without fault in a race against the clock.
Marie Hecart (FRA) and Rogelio Pellerano's Quatour de B Neville set the pace, first to jump clear over the short course in 35.83 seconds, to eventually finish seventh. Liza Finzness (USA) and Shiver took the eighth place honors in 36.94 seconds. Alise Oken (USA) and Hi Hopes Farm LLC's Teirra upped the pace next to finish fourth in 33.75 seconds. Daniel Zetterman (SWE) and Gyllebo Farm LLC's Zhivago were clear in 34.82 seconds to finish sixth.
Conor Swail and Ariel and Susan Grange's Grafton followed to take the lead in 32.67 seconds, but were soon pushed into second place. Eirin Bruheim (NOR) and Nordic Lights Farm LLC's NLF Favorite also jumped clear and finished ninth in 43.57 seconds. The winning round followed with Todd Minikus and Cordonos blazing through the timers in 32.22 seconds. McLain Ward and Double H Farm's HH Ashley jumped into third place in the next clear round with a time of 33.04 seconds. The final clear came from Ireland's Shane Sweetnam and Bijzonder, owned by Sweet Oak Farm and Paul Tracy, with the fifth place time of 34.30 seconds.
Todd Minikus first rode class winner, Cordonos, for the first time a couple of days before competing in the Trump Invitational Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, one week ago. The 14-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Lordanos x Tin Rocco) had just arrived in Florida and jumped quite well, then went on to a nice four fault round in Thursday's Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup Round 1 to begin the WEF circuit. Although they are just getting to know each other, the pair was perfectly in sync for Sunday's winning jump-off round.
"Today we knew each other a little better, and it all worked out," Minikus declared following his win. "It ended up being an extremely fast class. Conor is obviously blistering fast. I didn't see him go, but I knew what to expect. I didn't really know how to manage the jump-off. I was stuck right in the middle of 22 horses. I kind of tapped him with my stick behind my leg and he jumped into the bridle a little bit. I thought, 'Ok, seems like he's ready.' I hate trying to ride for fourth place anyway."
"The times were almost the same," Minikus said of where he beat Swail. "I don't have any idea. Conor's horse probably jumped a little higher or something. It seems like the times were very close."
Commenting on the the course, Minikus noted. "It is the first grand prix of the circuit and some of the top horses are coming here in a few weeks. These are young horses or horses you're trying to get familiar with. There were enough clean, but it's hard to build this first week. It's only supposed to be 1.45m. Eric did a good job. The reality is that everybody is confident enough to move on to next week. I don't think there were any horses that got into trouble."
Minikus has big plans for the season as the current leader in the North American East Coast League for the FEI World Cup Finals. He also has his sights set on the Pan American Games later in the year. He has some top horses to show this winter, including superstar mount Quality Girl, and looks forward to what may come with Cordonos as well.
"I don't know a lot about the horse to be honest," Minikus noted. "I don't know what he's done, but he has been a good sport in every class so far. He comes back over here and we run his legs off, and he jumps great. I guess we'll keep feeding him Purina and see what happens!"
For second place finisher, Conor Swail, Sunday's class was a great start to the circuit for his mount Grafton, a nine-year-old Selle Francais stallion (Calvaro x Vondeen). Swail previously owned the horse himself in partnership with Barry O'Connor, and then Ariel and Susan Grange purchased the horse so that he could continue to show it.
"He did a little bit here last year. I was injured for six months, but Darren Dlin rode him here and did a nice job with him," Swail detailed. "I started riding him a little bit in Spruce Meadows in the 1.45m, 1.50m classes. He was green, but impressive. He did a bit in Europe and jumped some speed classes in Dublin. He jumped three days clear."
"I'm sort of building him up as one of my better horses in the near future," Swail continued. "Today he jumped a nice round. He's hard to get underneath the time allowed in the first round. He jumps quite high and hangs in the air a bit. In the jump-off, I started off in a good rhythm and I got a great shot back to the vertical. I went inside to the double and Todd was saying it was the same for him that for whatever reason, they didn't turn great away from there. When I came out, I knew it was going to be very close. For me, I knew I had nothing left apart from one less step across the gallop. It was one of those jump-offs where you couldn't touch the reins. Every time you saw anything, you just took it. It was great; I'm delighted with the horse."
Swail is happy to be back in the ring at WEF after an achilles tendon injury sidelined him last winter. He got back to riding in May and had a successful summer of competition and is feeling great with the start of another season.
"When I first started riding again I felt very loose in the saddle and I wasn't strong. My eyes were working well and I knew everything to do, but the body wasn't working well," he explained. "It wasn't doing exactly what I wanted it to do, but in the last few months I have gotten very close to where I was before, so I'm excited for WEF this year. I'm looking forward to it. I have some nice horses and great owners in Sue and Ariel Grange and her family. I'm hoping for a good 12 weeks here."
Along with top prizes for the grand prix, a special award was presented to the Leading Lady Grand Prix Rider of week one competition, an award presented by Martha Jolicoeur of Illustrated Properties in memory of Dale Lawler. Marie Hecart of France had a fantastic start to the circuit including her seventh place finish in the day's grand prix with Quatour de B Neville to earn the honor.