April 6, 2014—A move across Florida from Tampa to Miami offered a new identity for an iconic show jumping competition, as the 42-year-old $200,000 American Invitational made its debut at Sun Life Stadium last night.
But there was a familiar face on the winner's podium, when Beezie Madden —victorious in 2005 and 2007 with Authentic, topped a five-horse jump-off aboard the15.2-hand Coral Reef Via Volo, known around the barn as "Shrimp" due to her size.
"I always kind of miss Authentic when we come here, because he loved this class," said Beezie. Via Volo, she said, "was a good stand-in tonight for him."
The mare had been "a bit star-struck" in (the) Tampa stadium last year, "so I was glad she reacted well tonight," continued Beezie, whose plan for the jump-off involved being smooth and efficient to "give the others something to catch."
Beezie, who heads for the World Cup finals in France this month to defend her 2013 title, definitely is on a roll.
Last weekend, she rode Cortes C to win the finale of the Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge series at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, as it wrapped up its 12-week run in Wellington, a little more than an hour north of the Sun Life facility. She originally planned to be on Cortes last night, but thought better of it while mulling the idea a few days after his finale victory.
"He had a fantastic circuit. We felt like it was a little greedy to bring him here...so we decided to go with Via," she replied when I asked about the change.
The fastest round in the five-horse tiebreaker at Sun Life belonged to Lauren Hough, also aboard another petite mare, Ohlala, clocked in 34.44 seconds. But she dropped a rail at the last fence, which would put her third and make Beezie's time of 35.91 seconds fault-free the best effort.
The only other fault-free trip in the jump-off belonged to Germany's always formidable Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, a native of California, who decelerated partway through the route with Atlanta. She had the slowest time, 38.02 seconds, in the final round.
Meredith explained that Atlanta, who is only nine years old, was a new mount for her at the end of last year and had jumped her first grand prix in Wellington. The Invitational was her first time on grass and second under the lights, as well as being the first jump-off Meredith had done with the chestnut.
After the first part of the tie-breaker, she revealed, " I couldn't believe I was going as fast with her as I was, so then I got all nervous and started pulling on reins, thinking, `I better slow down now, to make sure I go clean.' It was a bit messy, to be honest, I was just really pleased because the horse never gave up."
Meredith added proudly "She showed a lot of courage here tonight; ability I always knew she had, but heart and all the things you need for a great horse."
Rodrigo Pessoa, the Invitational's 2006 winner with Baloubet du Rouet, dropped two rails in the tiebreaker on Citizenguard Cadjanine to finish fifth. But the biggest heartbreaker of the class was the tile that slid from the Invitational wall as Margie Engle sought to win the competition of her dreams in her hometown of Miami on Royce. She finished fourth.
While Madden sailed over the jumps with Coral Reef Ranch's Belgian-bred mare, the Invitational, presented by G&C Farm, proved once again to be a challenge that makes past winners memorable for surmounting it.
The course, laid out by the 2008 Olympic team of Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens, the Invitational's regular designer (who was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame during the evening), was dotted with three double combinations, but no triples. It proved to be too much for five of the 29 starters, who either retired or were eliminated, but it also foiled the attempts of several past victors to add to their Invitational credentials.
McLain Ward, who would have been the first rider to win four Invitationals had he enjoyed success with defending champion Rothchild, was foiled with a rail at the first fence. Kent Farrington, the 2011 winner on Uceko, experienced an uncharacteristic stop with Blue Angel and bowed out after accumulating 12 faults.
Molly Ashe-Cawley, one of only two riders able to win back-to-back Invitationals (2001 and 2002 with Kroon Gravin), retired after having some rails with Carissimo, second in the Invitational two years ago.
When I walked into Sun Life for the first time, the bright orange seats gave the feeling of being inside a giant citrus fruit; I just hoped no one was going to squeeze it! Although the stadium has a capacity of 75,000-plus in its football configuration, it offered a cozier feel than the Invitational's previous home at Raymond James Stadium on Florida's west coast because a VIP tent -- an innovation for the class -- stretched along one side of the facility, blocking the view of empty seats there.
The crowd, estimated by organizers at 5,800, was less than attended in Tampa last year, though the Invitational's move was announced only two months ago -- scant time to promote the switch.
But it was time enough to try new things. The $25,000 Hollow Brook Farm Junior/Amateur-Owner Classic ran before the Invitational, the only instance of holding another event on the evening of the big class.
Wonderchild Tori Colvin managed a fault-free fast trip with Don Juan, despite a few slips on the grass, adding a new competition to her already impressive junior record. The only other flawless round in the class, which limited the jump-off to six riders, belonged to Nicole Bellissimo and VDL Dogan, while Emanuel Andrade of Venezuela finished third on Natif des Roches -- clocking the fastest trip but dropping a rail.
Competition manager Michael Morrissey, nephew of the Invitational's founder, the late Gene Mische, made the decision to move from Tampa with the thought that sponsorship and fan enthusiasm might be greater in a larger and more prosperous metropolitan area. The fact that it is an easy commute from Wellington, where many riders are based, was also a plus.
In Tampa, the Invitational (which does not carry an entry fee) was a big money-loser. There always had been speculation since Gene's death in 2010 that each year of the Invitational would be its last.
The first time I attended the Invitational was 1984, when Leslie Howard (then Leslie Burr) won in the old Tampa Stadium with Albany before going on to ride with the gold medal Olympic team that year. I haven't missed an Invitational since, but I always have a special feeling for my introduction to the class three decades ago.
So when I saw Leslie on the sidelines (she had scratched Utah before the final class list was prepared because he didn't feel right), I asked what she thought about the new venue.
Her enthusiasm for the facility and concerns about the ground were matched by other riders. As the night went on, the grass footing proved to be less than perfect. Although it was watered heavily before the class, and the fans had to forego the annual tradition of a public course walk to save the ground, the surface was questionable.
When I asked McLain how it was, he replied, "not great." Indeed, as I walked out for the victory ceremony, I saw holes where hooves had sunk in, and I had to be careful as I tiptoed through the tulips not to get my feet caught in any of the declivities.
I had been told the grass was planted 3 and 1/2 weeks ago, but a footing expert with whom I spoke said it should have had a minimum of eight weeks to take root convincingly.
Great Britain's Ben Maher, who won more major grands prix than any other rider at the 2014 WEF, decided after the parade of competitors against showing Jane Clark's Cella (who was the 2012 winner with Mario Deslauriers aboard.)
He gave me his thoughts on the subject.
Speaking of Brits, I was happy to see the outspoken Olympic gold medal dressage rider Carl Hester, at Clark's table. He's one of the most quotable people I know, so I asked for his opinion of the Invitational, which he had never seen.
Beezie understandably was enthusiastic about the new venue, and felt the footing situation would improve next year.
Any doubts about whether the move would be permanent were erased by the announcement, repeated several times, that the 2015 Invitational would be coming back to Miami next April 4.
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My next stop is Rolex Kentucky as the month draws to a close. Don't forget to look for my postcards from there.