It wasn’t that the Olympic veteran for Canada was lacking confidence in her ride on Count Me In, an 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Count Grannus x Sherlock Holmes) that she has patiently brought up the levels for the past five years. But “Count Me,” whose owners Sandy Lupton and Rob Caswell were in the audience watching their horse, had never jumped a CSI5* before, and the starting order was dotted with more experienced horses. And Underhill rode first over the shortened course in a jumpoff group of seven.
“I knew I’d probably left the door open and there were fast riders coming behind, but when it held up—I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Underhill said.
Underhill and a crowd of her supporters nervously watched from the rail as each rider tried to beat her clear round time. But Margie Engle and Royce failed to jump clear. Ali Wolff and Casall were faster, but picked up a heartbreaking four faults at the final fence. Scott Keach of Australia went clear in the jumpoff, albeit with a slower time with his Olympic partner Fedor. American Andy Kocher and Kahlua also went clean, but finished just one-tenth of a time penalty behind Keach and Fedor. Rowan Willis was last to go but tipped a vertical aboard Blue Movie, setting off an instant celebration at the ingate with Underhill at the center.
Keach finished in 2nd place, and Kocher was 3rd. Willis placed 4th, Wolff was 5th, and Margie Engle with Royce, and Mattias Tromp with Chicago Hof Eversem Z filled out the jump-off group.
The Slope Factor
International course designer Guillherme Jorge created a carefully planned track for the 37 entries to tackle. The main arena was built over the existing racetrack in front of Balmoral’s original grandstand, and Jorge took the slope of the ground into account when it came to measuring the lines and widths of the fences.
A triple combination along the far side of the arena was the undoing of many pairs. A vertical, one stride to an oxer, two strides to a second oxer was a question of width, even though they were not the widest fences on course.
“What is very important to say about this ring is that it has a big slope,” Jorge explained. “So the triple combination, even though it had two spreads, was riding downhill. We don’t see so many of this type of combination. It is a special combination for a special class like this. I was very careful with the distance.”
Jorge built fence number 11 at 1.70m wide, because it jumped bigger on an uphill ride. Reflexively, the final fence on course, a 1.80m wide Purina oxer, was going downhill, so it jumped a little easier.
With riders from a dozen countries in the order, a strong group of Olympic veterans and several who are eyeing the World Equestrian Games next month in Tryon, NC, the class served as a fitting preparation. The U.S.'s Beezie Madden rode a textbook round aboard her top mount Darry Lou. The US Equestrian reserve team member for the World Equestrian Games was kept out of the jumpoff when she picked up four faults at the final fence.
Keach was hoping that his 2nd place result would be a positive sign for WEG selectors, who were set to announce their team pick on Monday, August 20.
“The footing here is very, very good; it’s settled,” Keach said. He picked up an FEI win with Fedor earlier in the week at Balmoral. “And having Guillherme build this was, I think, very good preparation. For me, it’s this and Saugerties in three weeks, and I’ll hopefully to be ready to go to WEG but I can’t think of a better preparation.”
For Underhill, the day was a special turning point in a long journey that she has been on with Count Me In.
“This year we’ve been gradually building, and for him to have this two weeks where he won last week and he won this week, it feels so special because it’s really been a team effort,” Underhill said. “The owners never put any pressure on me. They gave me free rein to develop the horse the way I thought he needed to be, and this makes it really very special.
“When I walked the course today I thought, ok, it’s big and there’s width and it’s going to be a test, but he can jump this,” she added. “I went in quietly confident that if I gave him the ride he needed, he felt ready. I felt that we built him throughout the year to be ready for this weekend.”
New Life for a Chicago Landmark
It was a big day for HITS Chicago as well; Horse Shows In the Sun’s newest property, known as Balmoral Park, opened its doors just over one year ago. The venue is unique—when HITS acquired Balmoral Park it was a racetrack that had been in operation since the 1920s, and was shuttered in 2015. Rather than erase that history, HITS embraced the racing bones of the facility. Its enclosed grandstand is intact, with vendors occupying former saddling paddocks. The old finish line post is repurposed in the grand prix arena. And the original scoreboard, while fraying with paint, stands sentry beyond the far rail of the arena.
Moreover, the class marked the first CSI5*-rated grand prix held not only at Balmoral Park, but the first for the Chicago area, ever. Historically, the U.S. suffers from a drought of top-level show jumping during the summer months when the sport is at full speed in Europe, but judging from the enthusiasm of the organizers and crowd at Balmoral, that’s a trend they’re investing in changing.
“I’m just proud to be a part of this,” said show manager Pat Boyle. “To have a five-star event here is amazing. It’s a lot of work, it’s a new facility, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been doing horse shows in the Chicago area for 35 years, and thanks to Tom [Struzzieri, the founder of HITS] and HITS building this place and having this endeavor, it gives us a chance to have the biggest show jumping in Chicago.”