Giving birth four months ago and having her horse nearly die one-and-a-half years ago from a terrible staph infection did not stop Ashlee Bond from returning to a familiar place: the winners circle at HITS Coachella (formerly known as HITS Thermal—more on the name change later.)
Those two life events set the stage for an overwhelming moment when the charismatic Californian finished first among four jump-off pairs, out of a field of 23, in the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Thermal on Saturday, February 11.
By the 3 pm start, the temperature had cooled slightly to 76 degrees. Scattered clouds painted shadows on the three mountain ranges that surround the Coachella Valley, some of them tipped with snow.
After the class, Ashlee said she had no thought of winning it at the outset. She and her miraculously recovered 13-year old mare Chela LS are just returning to form after their respective hiatuses. They drew the first to go slot and laid down a clear effort over Brazilian designer Marina Azevedo’s track of 13 efforts. Even though she was slightly over the time allowed, Ashlee trotted toward the Longines tower exit gate with a huge smile and a massive hug for her horse.
By the third round, however, Azevedo expanded the time allowed, putting Ashlee back in the hunt. California-based Australian competitor Lane Clarke and his top horse of one year, Balu U, were the next to manage a clear round. The Baloubet du Rouet son looks laid back and like he’s not going very fast but, at 18 hands, he covers some ground and they finished within the new 79-second time allowed.
Karl Cook and Tembla won the first Western Sub-League qualifier, in Langley, British Columbia, back in August, and put themselves in position to win the last by registering a smooth, confident round. They were followed in the clean round category by Audrey Coulter, who brought her “amazingly dependable” mount Alex out to Thermal specifically to shore up her World Cup Finals points.
Three more pairs left all the jumps up, but had minor time faults. The most heartbreaking was that of Mexican rider Daniel Pedraza and the For Pleasure stallion Arc de Triomphe. Relatively new to the crowd, the pair made new fans with a beautiful round except for a tenth-of-a-second time fault that had the whole crowd sighing in sympathy. Double dastardly as the pair had the same issue during the Thursday warm-up class, when they also finished fifth.
Canadians Lisa Carlsen, an Olympian, and young rider Ali Ramsay, were the two others to incur time faults on clean rounds. Ali and Hermelien vd Hooghoeve were the winners of Thursday’s $36,500 Desert Welcome Stake but had to settle for sixth on Saturday. Carlsen and Parette were seventh.
As for trouble spots on course for those who dropped one or more rails, Azevedo said “I tried to be nice” while conforming to the rules governing World Cup qualifier classes. “I’m delighted the riders learned a little bit when they jumped my course.” For those, like Audrey Coulter, Karl Cook and German Christian Heineking, who are definitely prepping for Omaha, the course offered a solid challenge in height and width of the fences, but the tracks in the big outdoor ring are much more expansive than what they’ll see at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.
Missing from the course was Longines’ trademark troublesome triple made of blue and white standards and poles. That got waylaid, along with the Longines clock pedestal, en route from the previous qualifier in Guadalajara, Mexico, two weeks ago. But a triple by any other color— in this case black and white rails—was just as treacherous in California. Eight athletes had a rail over at least one element of this next-to-last piece of the first round. Otherwise, the rails were fairly evenly distributed and the course seemed a suitable challenge for the field.
Returning first in the seven-effort jump-off, Ashlee again chose a conservative path in keeping with her and Chela’s recent return to competition. They were clear in 41.9 seconds. Lane followed, showing off the results of his recent emphasis on picking up big Balu’s pace. His 40.10 time would have beat Ashlee, but two rails left them third. Karl and Tembla angled the first fence and seemed set on a smooth but speedy track for the win. The first three fences came up right on stride, but a rail at the fourth turned the emphasis to time without much ground left to make it up, and the final fence fell, too.
Riding last in the jump-off, Audrey and Alex had a totally uncharacteristic big miss at fence three, the imposing FEI/North American League oxer going into the crowd. They swam through it, but recovered gracefully and were clear the rest of the route for a second place finish, plus 17 World Cup points that lock up Audrey’s place in Omaha.
Horse shows have a long history in the Coachella Valley. Exhibitors of a certain vintage grew up competing at the Indio Date Festival, back when its jewel attraction was a multi-breed, all discipline competition. Hunter and jumper exhibitors rode in their normal classes, then filled the stands to watch dazzling Arabian costume classes and camel and ostrich races.
The East Coast-based Horse Shows In The Sun management company first came west 25 years ago, staging shows at the Date Festival’s homebase, the Polo Grounds in nearby Indio. Ten years ago, HITS finished construction on its full-service show venue in Thermal, where its ever-expanding circuit has been attracting competitors from throughout the country, Canada, Mexico and beyond.
The World Cup qualifier class has evolved considerably, too. Early in the venue’s hosting, HITS built a big tent over a small arena to simulate the Finals’ indoor setting. That lasted a few years, then the class moved to the big outdoor arena, but using only half of its space and held at night, under lights—all to best identify and prepare the athletes who’d move on to the final stage and its indoor environs. For the past two years, it’s been an afternoon class using all of the ring.
For a few years, all of the West Coast World Cup qualifiers were held indoors. Today’s Finals-focused competitors lament that the region now only has three qualifiers held in an indoor setting, but they also seem to understand that there need to be more of them to make those logistics work for organizers. In fact, the Western Sub League closes with a question mark about who the region’s third Finals berth will go to. Karl Cook retains his spot as the top American in this league and Jenni McAllister holds onto second even though her top horse, LEGIS Touch The Sun, wasn’t quite ready to contest Saturday’s class after a minor hoof bruise in the fall. Jamie Barge’s ninth place finish with Luebbo looks to put her next in line, but that’s with a big gap in points and it’s unclear if she would go anyway.
Now, about that name change we mentioned earlier, from Thermal to Coachella. Adopting the “HITS Coachella” moniker this year is a “celebratory change,” says HITS chief Tom Struzzieri. “’Coachella’ represents the flavor of the area and lifestyle of the Desert Circuit itself. We, as well as our clients, love all that the Coachella Valley has to offer: from the weather, to the luxury amenities and the entertainment at local golf courses, casinos and spas.”
We think Coachella is a much prettier name and a better reflection of the desert venue’s unique beauty. And if it helps connect our sport to the hipness factor of the Coachella Valley Music Festival that descends on the area in April, all the better!