September 8, 2014--They’ve been second and third in the money before, but today Todd Minikus (Loxahatchee, Fla.) and Quality Girl galloped triumphantly to a Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix win. With the weather on the side of spectator and exhibitor – clear, breezy and comfortable – Minikus was both ecstatic and thankful.
“As athletes we appreciate the opportunity and support from sponsors like Zoetis and management like HITS,” he said. “As a kid I only dreamt I would be jumping for $1 million dollars, but I get to do it three times a year thanks to Tom Struzzieri [HITS President and CEO].”
A childhood dream turned reality, Minikus was the second-to-last trip as million-dollar glory goaded 33 contenders. The first clear came early with Quentin Judge [Wellington, Florida] and HH Donnatella jumping for Double H Farm (fourth in the order).
“This is the biggest track I have ever jumped and my first time doing one of the HITS’ million-dollar classes,” said Judge. “Of course the goal is to win, but I am so happy with second – today was the experience of a lifetime.”
Judge and his 11-year old Belgian Warmblood mare proved Danny Foster’s [Milton, Ontario] track could be mastered. Yet, the twenty-seven who followed turned in faults--making a jump off nearly unreachable. Then Minikus and Quality Girl entered the ring. The 11-year old Oldenburg mare with her characteristic head toss and spooky side-step was ready for a two-woman duel and guaranteed a jump-off with a poised and focused Minikus in the tack.
“In anybody’s book, those jumps were big, but there shouldn’t be that many clear for $1 million. I think we gave the crowd what they wanted today,” said Minikus, who had the opportunity to watch Judge return first in the jump-off.
A light rub at the b-element of the short course’s double combination landed Judge with four faults and left the door open for Minikus. Never one to back down from a speed duel, Minikus hoped it would have come to that. “It would have been easier if he had gone clear – we could have battled it out on the clock,” he said.
Minikus returned and had every spectator gasping with each stride. He crossed the timers in 46.98 seconds – two seconds slower than Judge, but clear and $350,000 richer. “I came through the combination and felt her [Quality Girl] trying hard, so I changed my plan and went extra wide to the plank. Then she acted like we were home clear and I trusted her,” admitted Minikus. “They say if you get a good mare that fights hard for you, they are difficult to beat and both Quentin and I proved it true,” he added.
While second-place paid Judge $200,000, progress seemed more important for the young rider. “We got this mare a year and half ago and I had a really hard time with her for about the first year and three months,” he said with a laugh. “But we started hitting our stride over the last few weeks. She’s a great horse and proved what she’s capable of today.”
HITS Thermal regular Elizabeth Gingras [Edmonton, Alberta] jumped fault-free in the first round, but collected three time faults to finish third.
“It’s a thrill to even jump in a class like this let alone go clear,” she said. “I competed in the AIG Million in Thermal this winter and after each class walked away learning so much that I can apply to my rides and next million-dollar class. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
Gingras, who rides under the direction of Jill Henselwood piloted Zilversprings, owned by Brian Gingras, a mount that came to her in May.
Following Gingras, Charlie Jayne [Wellington, Florida] made a hurried journey from France as the U.S. alternate at the World Equestrian Games and jumped Chill R Z, owned by Alex Jayne and Maura Thatcher, to fourth. A heartbreak rail at the final fence of the first round landed the pair with four faults. Candice King [Wellington, Florida] jumped last in the first round aboard Kismet 50 for Bellissimo, LLC where a single rail settled her fifth.
A team-effort by Foster and HITS’ creative staff and jump builders presented a brag-worthy track with wide oxers, an applause-generating look and first-ever use of 3-D printing in show jumping competition. “Everything was beautifully made and exquisitely presented,” said Foster. “Most horses at this level jump what they look at, but some quick approaches and late combinations increased the pressure that visuals can present.”
Characterized as “The greatest sponsor in the world” by Struzzieri, Stuart Meikle of Zoetis was pleased with the jump design, result, crowds and day in general. “The riders put on an amazing show and the event as a whole was as exciting as ever. I look forward to the same class next year,” he said.
Struzzieri admitted the HITS Championship was a banner weekend, but also gave credit to this summer’s HITS Saugerties Series as one of the most successful in its 11-year history in the Hudson Valley. “With big class after big class, this weekend was a great way to finish a fantastic season,” he said. “Saugerties is home to HITS and we look forward to 2015. The entire HITS staff delivered this weekend.”