Report from the 2018 Winter Equestrian Festival

Week five of the WEF in Wellington, Florida, had an awesome array of jumper action, but some of the world’s best riders couldn’t get things to go their way in the $384,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix.

What do Kent Farrington, McLain Ward, Ben Maher and Eric Lamaze have in common, besides being show jumping Olympic medalists? They were among the 38 riders in a 40-horse field who didn’t make the jump-off in this weekend’s 5-star $384,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix at the Winter Equestrian Festival.

The competition under the lights was the highlight of a week packed with show jumping action and big money prizes. With each unsuccessful attempt at the 13-obstacle Fidelity course, the pressure rose as the crowd around the main arena at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center watched the rails fall and groaned sympathetically with every mishap. Despite the level of tension at the venue, course designer Kelvin Bywater of Great Britain–who had been hoping for a six- or eight-horse jump-off– commented, “I was probably the most nervous person on the showgrounds.”

It wasn’t unexpected that there were no clear rounds in the first half of the class, since most of the biggest names were in the second half. World Cup veteran Peter Lutz, fourth to go on the very genuine Selle Francais, Robin de Ponthual, however, offered the hope of a penalty-free trip. As it happened, he wound up with only a single fault for exceeding the very tight 73-second time allowed. The next 16 starters didn’t fare as well.

Beat Mandli finished second in the $384,000 Fidelity Investments 5-star grand prix with Dsarie. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

When the top group started going after the break for dragging the ring, everyone heaved a sigh of relief as Swiss rider Beat Mandli on Dsarie, first to ride in that section, put in the only round thus far free of time and jumping faults. But then rider after rider faulted, until Irish Olympic individual bronze medalist Cian O’Connor, fourth from the end on a relatively new mount, Clenur, had just a single time fault and was faster than Peter.

The question of whether there would be a jump-off against the clock got down to the final rider, Daniel Bluman, the winner of WEF’s Feb. 3 $205,000 NetJets grand prix on Sancha LS. This time he was aboard the powerhouse Ladriano Z, and his perfect trip assured a tiebreaker, even if it did involve only two horses.

Beat completed his tie-breaker round in 40.47 seconds, but left room for Daniel to beat him.

Daniel Bluman and Ladriano Z on their way to winning the $324,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

“I had the luck on my side because I had to go after him, so I got to see exactly what he did,” said Daniel, who took advice from Kent Farrington. The world number one rider (who wound up 39th after an uncharacteristic 19-fault round from Gazelle) suggested, “Just do the same thing he did and pick a place where you think you can be faster.”

That was from fence one to two, where Daniel did one less stride. He notes Ladriano at nearly 18 hands isn’t the fastest horse in the world, but with only two horses in the jump-off he had a better shot than if there were six. He kicked on after the last fence and finished in a time of 39.43 to triumph. He almost appeared a bit stunned to have clinched victory, pointing out Beat and Cian had long been his idols.

Daniel Bluman of Israel has the winner’s spot on the podium beside two of his idols, Beat Mandli of Switzerland, left, and Ireland’s Cian O’Connor. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

Daniel discussed the difficulty of the competition in this video;

  • The course designer, noting it was a “class field,” observed, “There were so many who were just unlucky to have a rail down. It was class jumping all the way. I was probably riding half the rounds with them, to be honest. I set what I thought was a fair course for the amazing quality of riders you have here. At this level, there’s no second chances.”
  • Dsarie has a habit of bucking and hopping when she has finished her rounds. “I let her do it, because I don’t see why (I should) take it away from her,” Beat said. “She loves doing it.”
  • Daniel Bluman first grabbed headlines six years ago, in the same arena where he won last night. At that time, the 22-year-old shocked the veterans to take the WEF finale, the $500,000 FTI Consulting Grand Prix, and put himself firmly on the international show jumping map. He was riding for Colombia then, and last year switched his nationality to Israel, paying tribute to his roots.
  • How close is close? Third-place Cian O’Conor exceeded the time allowed by a mere 0.04 seconds; fourth-place Peter Lutz was 0.28 too slow. Each had a single time penalty, but Cian got third place because he was faster.
  • McLain Ward won two grands prix at WEF 5 on the amazing Bellefleur PS Z, a gray who points her knees to the skies and clears everything by more than a foot. “Her jumping style is ridiculous,” McLain said with a delighted smile. She took the $35,000 Bainbridge 1.45-meter classic on Friday and today she won the 59-entry $70,000 Hollow Creek 1.50 meter classic.
McLain Ward had a stellar week at WEF with the high-flying Bellefleur PS Z. Photo© 2018 by Nancy Jaffer
  • “We always thought she was incredibly careful and game,” said McLain, who thinks Bellefleur might be a replacement for his go-to grand prix horse, HH Carlos Z, who retired in October. Don’t try to buy her though—she belongs to McLain’s godmother, Susan Heller, and his daughter, Lilly.
  • Victories by McLain this week also included the $132,000 Equinimity WEF Challenge Cup 5 on HH Azur, the mare who took him to his Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final victory in Omaha last year. But “Annie,” as she is known, had a rail at the Hermes oxer in the big class last night to finish ninth. McLain said Kelvin’s twisting course didn’t suit his star and the fluid way she likes to go. His preference? Alan Wade’s designing style—natch, since he did the routes in Omaha.
  • Interestingly, the Hollow Creek class had a 17-horse jump-off and there were 19 in the first round with time faults. Kelvin was happy for a big tiebreaker, since it was a class for horses moving up the levels and they needed all the experience they could get, in his view.
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