March 6, 2011 -- Although dark clouds rolled in above the arena at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center this afternoon, the rain held off and it turned out to be Lauren Hough who stormed around the jumps on the aptly named Quick Study to win the $150,000 Wellington Equestrian Realty Grand Prix.
A 12-horse tiebreaker included plenty of international firepower, including Great Britain's Nick Skelton on the steel gray stunner, Carlos 273; Beezie Madden with the fleet Coral Reef Via Volo and Brazil's Rodrigo Pessoa on Let's Fly, another horse who lives up to the promise of his name.
Rodrigo, who has been world champion, Olympic champion and World Cup champion, was the definite favorite because he was on a streak here, winning three classes over the last two days. I caught up with him before the grand prix to ask what he thought of his amazing series of victories.
He turned out to be prescient, because he knows the game better than anyone. A rail at the fifth of eight jump-off fences ended his streak, putting him eighth. That fence was the initial element of a very influential triple combination, 12ABC, a study in difficulty that caused big problems as the next-to-last obstacle in the first round.
" You don't very often see a one (stride) to a one (stride) vertical/ oxer/oxer,'' Lauren observed about the biggest challenge on the route designed by Steve Stephens.
"I wouldn't say the course was too super-technical, except for that last line. You didn't want to come in too fast, but you didn't want to come in too slow," she continued.
"You really had to meet A quite well and jump B strong enough so C wasn't too far away. If you came in too slow and were already struggling at B, you weren't going to get over C. That proved to be quite a challenge for some," said Lauren.
The list included McLain Ward, the hero of the winning U.S. Nations' Cup team Friday, as Sapphire dropped an uncharacteristic rail at C in the first round and didn't make the jump-off. It went worse for Eiren Bruheim of Norway; Ward's teammate, Mario Deslauriers, and Brianne Goutal, the country's most decorated equitation rider when she was a junior.
All three had falls at C, with Eiren getting the worst of it that ended in a trip to the hospital, though I heard she was all right after a check-up.
For the jump-off, the C element was dropped and riders just had to cope with A and B. Lauren, going fourth to last, was trying to beat Nick's time of 40.61 seconds. She did it, slicing just enough to finish in 40.18 and claim the $45,000 first prize.
She explained her winning strategy.
In retrospect, Nick decided he "lost it going to the last." He explained, "I had a really good shot going forward, then three strides out he jumped over the tractor wheels (tracks) where they had been for the drag...? (and) lost a stride there."
Third went to Amy Millar, daughter of Canadian show jumping legend Ian Millar on the dependable 6-year-old snowy coated Costa Rica Z, her go-to horse. Amy, who had a baby last May, was able to get back in the swing of things right away with her mount when she resumed showing, she said.
"I went earlier in the jump-off and with that many in it...I knew I couldn't go crazy fast," she said, finishing in a conservative 44.40 seconds.
The grand prix was the finale of quite a week of jumping; how they pack so many money classes into five days is quite amazing.
Last night's $35,000 Hermes Puissance was great fun, won by Pablo Barrios of Venezuela, who is becoming quite a specialist in this high jump contest. As usual, it was a small field; only seven entered and just one was from the U.S. Pablo thinks Americans don't like the class, and I guess he's right, because he said it's a staple of the European circuit, while this class and the one at Washington are the only two I know of in this country.The faux brick wall went up to 7-feet, 3-inches, which is an imposing sight. At that point, it was down to Pablo on G&C Quivola, a French-bred youngster, and his horse's stablemate, G&C Tropi Gold, ridden by another Venezuelan, Gustavo Arroyo.
Pablo cleared it, even though he lost his right stirrup. Think of how difficult it is to jump 3 feet without a stirrup; now reconsider Pablo's feat. But if you ever want to try a wall that big, he says the secret is taking it on an angle, not going straight ahead. Gustavo didn't follow his advice, however, and had it down.
I was surprised that Pablo didn't ride Sinatra, who won the Dublin puissance for him last year, so he explained his thinking.
The only American in the puissance was the indomitable Aaron Vale, who was out in the third round when Charmer dropped a rail while the wall stood at 6-6. You have to admire Aaron's pluck. Shortly before, he had been part of the winning Farm Vet squad in the debut of the PRO Derbycross, a new event for the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival.
It's a hybrid team contest, with each ensemble consisting of three eventers, a show jumper and a polo player. Portable eventing jumps of various sizes were laid out in the big ring by Olympic eventing gold medalist David O'Connor. I'm not sure I understood the whole formula, but there were chances to rebound from problems. For instance, Buck Davidson, captain of the Farm Vet team, had a refusal but then had 10 seconds cut off his time by jumping a stately "joker" fence at the end of his run.
Buck is very involved with PRO, the Professional Riders Organization, which put on the class. He was joined in the winning effort by his father, two-time world champion Bruce Davidson; eventer Will Faudree and polo player Kris Kampsen, who hadn't jumped since he was a kid.
Buck and I talked about the concept, which I think may well become popular.
Well, I could go on and on about the WEF, but I have to sleep sometime. If you ever get the chance, come down here and see it for yourself. There's nothing else like it in the world.
I'll be back with you next week for the World Dressage Masters and more from the Winter Equestrian Festival.