February 14, 2016-- It was the toughest challenge yet--and not coincidentally, the biggest prize money so far--at the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival. Saturday night's $380,000 Fidelity Investments 5-star grand prix drew big show jumping names from 12 countries and a capacity crowd to watch them go under the lights.
The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center rocked like a giant party, from the International Club to the Wellington Club, the Gallery and the jam-packed bridge arched above the International Arena. The weather was beautiful, the horses were flying over the fences and it seemed like the whole place was just into loving the sport and the moment.
While everyone else was socializing and kicking back, however, it was time for the riders to get down to business. They faced a real challenge. It wasn't enough to jump British designer Bob Ellis' 13-obstacle course without tipping a rail. The tight time allowed of 80 seconds put extra stress on the 43 competitors, and kept four riders who otherwise were fault-free out of the 8-horse jump-off because they had logged a single time penalty.
There were some surprises. Todd Minikus, who already had won two grands prix at WEF this season, didn't even make it over the first fence, as Quality Girl skidded to a stop and he fell off. I thought Californian Richard Spooner, the Master of Faster, would be a cinch to make the jump-off, but it wasn't Cristallo's night, so Richard and his longtime partner retired.
Eight managed to qualify for the jump-off, and what a group it was. Califa LS, a 13-year-old stallion by Carthago under the guidance of Mark Bluman of Colombia, scored the first fault-free round in the tiebreaker and the rider was ecstatic, joyfully waving an arm in the air, as he had in the first round, celebrating the biggest night of his equestrian life.
The others who came after him, including Beezie Madden, Georgina Bloomberg and Brazil's Eduardo Menezes, each dropped a rail while shooting for his time of 53.511.
Then McLain Ward and Rothchild entered the ring, took a look around and did what they do best. They flew, the fences no impediment to their breathtaking speed that netted them a clocking of 48.962 seconds. I don't think I breathed during their round, which Rothchild ended with a buck, as he often does.
McLain avoided an inside cut on the course that others had been making, feeling the fastest option for him was going the long way.
"I kind of thought about that right from the beginning, because Rothchild has good foot speed, but you have to watch him on a slice once in a while; he'll buck out from time to time," McLain explained. He also contended the cut would have put him on a funny angle for the second-to-last fence.
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, no slouch in the speed department, gave it a real shot on Comanche 28, an Oldenburg by Coupe de Coeur. After clearing the final fence, the imposing Hermes oxer over a liverpool, she crouched low in a racing stance and tried to make up ground. But she and the horse have not been together that long and couldn't do better than crossing the finish in 50.052 seconds. It was respectable, but only good enough for second. There were just three clears in the tiebreaker, testimony to the difficulty of the route.
As I walked toward the awards ceremony, I crossed paths with the course designer, and Bob was kind enough to answer a question or two about his route. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he had to say.
McLain noted that he and Bongo, as Rothchild, a 15-year-old son of Artos, is known, had a rough time in the schooling area (though you would never have known it by watching him in the ring.)
"It's a pretty lively atmosphere back there. This is his eighth year jumping grand prixs here so he anticipates it. He was pretty excited, to the point where I wasn't sure that it was going to go very well,"said McLain, who never rides Bongo in awards ceremonies because he tends to blow up under those circumstances.
Meredith said she thought the course suited Rothchild more than her 10-year-old horse.
"My only chance was to try the inside (cut)," she said.
But hope was faint.
"I saw McLain's jump-off, it was a super round," Meredith said.
"The horse jumped fabulous. On a day like that, I would say he's almost unbeatable."
She pointed out it was only her horse's second 5-star jump-off, but noted, "he was game, he was positive and he wants to do his job and is having fun doing it."
Meredith wasn't pleased with a previous jump-off on that horse, so she decided the best thing would be to play it conservative.
"He's a little behind as far as experience is concerned," she pointed out.
"Bob Ellis is one of the best course designers of the world," Meredith commented.
"He has sort of a trademark of having rollback turns that we don't see very often with other course designers." George Morris told her that was "old English style."
"It's not very easy to ride, hard to make the time allowed, but the course itself was a brilliant course," she emphasized.
After the class, Mark was as unabashedly joyful as anyone I'd seen at a grand prix in a while. He stated he was thrilled and awed to be sitting in the press conference next to two of his equestrian idols--he called them geniuses.
"It's just that very exciting moment," he enthused, noting it was only the second 5-star show of his life.
"I have no words."
McLain got a welcome bonus for his victory, a Rolex watch. How many times, I wondered, have I seen him receive one of these watches?
So I asked him. Click on this video to find out what he answered.
The atmosphere at the showgrounds today was completely different, a real contrast to yesterday's buzz. It was warm and lovely, as the sun struck the palm trees in typical Florida style, so unlike the terrible weather that plagued the shows last month.
Activities today included the weekly parade of champions in the International Arena, which also hosted a leadline class of cuties. Ponies were dressed up in engaging outfits; one had an ear bonnet with a horn, which qualified him as a mini-unicorn. Another was decked with hearts for Valentine’s Day.
There weren't as many spectators as yesterday, of course. Some people still probably were recovering from their gala Saturday --the Gallery had a long line of people waiting to get in and dance when I left last night.
But there was a good class today, the $86,000 Suncast 1.50 meter championship that drew 67 starters, 18 of whom were fault-free in the first round, a contrast to how things went in the Fidelity class.
An amazing performance by Jessica Springsteen brought her the victory on Davendy S. Speed and the 1.50 meter classes are that mare's thing. Coupled with her rider's skill, her ability was enough to do the trick.
"I was so determined to win today," said Jessie, who noted it had been a while since she picked up a first-place ribbon, though she came close earlier last week.
"Today I was like, `I'm going for it,'" she said. But wisely, Jessie didn't throw caution to the winds.
"When the fences are higher you can't go as crazy fast. I went as fast as I could everywhere...without losing my head."
Her mark of 37.715 seconds stood as horse after horse tried to beat it and failed. Too many riders could not make it work to take a cut to the next-to-last jump, a vertical, and they ended up running by the fence. Canada's Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze came closest to Jessie on Rosanna du Park in 37.85 seconds.
Jessie, who has been showing in Europe, trains there with Edwina Tops-Alexander, wife of Jan Tops, the brains of the Global Champions Tour. But since Edwina doesn't come to Florida, she has been working here with British Olympic gold medalist Ben Maher.
"It's been great. He's so relaxed and he gives you so much confidence," she said.
Unlike many of her compatriots, her plans for this year aren't based around the Olympics. The horse that would have been her top choice, Vindicat W, who clinched team gold for the Brits in 2012, is out with an injury since last year. She has an exciting new horse, Cynar, but hasn't been with him long.
"With the Olympics it's all about timing and having the right horse at the right time," she explained.
"Anything's possible, but right now, I'm just kind of focusing on getting all my horses going well and getting back into the groove of doing the bigger grands prix, which I haven't been able to do for awhile."
She compared showing in Florida to Europe, because of the international flavor and the big classes. Jessie plans to go to Mexico after the Miami Beach show that follows the WEF, and of course will be spending a lot of time in Europe again. But she's enjoying herself at WEF. Before she went off to watch her boyfriend play polo, we did a little video. So to hear more from Jessie, click on this video.
It's been a busy two weeks in Florida. I'm headed back to the cold up north, but not for long. At the end of February, I'll be at Chester Weber's show in Ocala, where I'll be covering driving again (it's been awhile) as well as show jumping. Be sure to check back Feb. 28 to see my postcards, and don't forget to look at facebook.com/dressagetoday and facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos.