“I’ve been second before, and I’ve gotten many ribbons in it over the years, but I hadn’t won this class before, and I’ve always loved this class,” said Jeffery Welles.
After tonight, April 10, he’ll be able to add winning the $200,000 Gene Mische American Invitational to his résumé, as Welles and Armani outran Mac Cone and Peter Leone to claim the top check in the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
Armani is back in action after an injury in 2008 took him out of contention for the Olympic team and out of action for a year. He started showing again last summer and won the $80,000 New Albany Classic (Ohio) in September. “It’s great to have him and to have him jumping,” Welles said. Welles and Armani finished out of the running for the U.S. team for the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games during the trials for team selection.
“Would it have been better if the trials had been later? Would he have been more ready? I don’t know,” said Welles. “I’m not looking back—I’m just enjoying this moment.”
Steve Stephens’ first-round course whittled a field of 25 to just three in the jump-off. Cone had the unenviable task of going first in the jump-off, and he made a valiant effort to set the pace, but Ole made it clear he wanted to call it a night, felling three rails. “He was a real handful when I was hacking him this afternoon before the class, and I think that mentally he took a lot of nervous energy out of himself,” Cone said. “And then, in the jump-off, it was like he just ran out of gas.”
Welles knew Cone had taken himself out of contention, but he also knew Leone would go for broke, so he couldn’t be conservative in the jump-off. “I didn’t want to be silly and go flat-out and have a rail down, so I just tried to be as smart as I could be,” Welles said.
Leone still had his work cut out to beat Welles’ clean jump-off round in 44.36 seconds. “I know how fast a horse Armani is and how fast a rider Jeffery is,” Leone said. “Even if he left a little bit on the field, he was still going to be tough to beat.” Leone guided Select around an efficient track and left all the rails in the cups, but the timers stopped just fractions of a second slower than Welles.
Leone wasn’t too worried—he’s only had the ride on Select for six weeks and this was their fourth grand prix class together. It’s been a while since Leone had a ride in the Invitational—his last start in the prestigious class was more than 10 years ago. “It all comes down to having a horse that can do it, and I haven’t had one,” Leone said simply.
The American Invitational is something special—the venue of the football stadium and the fans (more than 4,500 spectators showed up) give the class an electric atmosphere and make is a showcase event. This year, the class bore the name of its founder, Gene Mische, who was one of the biggest innovators of winter show circuits in Florida. Mische, who was ill last year, was at the Invitational this year to watch and present awards.
But rumors are circulating that the class might be on its last legs. The Invitational used to be the grand finale of the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), which for decades ran for a few months at the Wellington locale, then moved to the Tampa fairgrounds for three weeks. Riders earned the right to compete at the Invitational based on the amount of money they won throughout the three months of WEF, which was run by Stadium Jumping Inc.
When Equestrian Sport Productions took over the Wellington portion of the WEF as few years ago and extended the Wellington season to 11 weeks, attendance at the Tampa venue suffered. And qualification for the Invitational had to be changed—this year, only 25 riders started when the field is specified at 30.
The riders in this year’s Invitational voiced their support for continuing the class. “I really hope supporters and sponsors find a way to keep this class alive,” said Welles.
Cone, who competed in the first incarnation of the class in 1973, said that “to lose a venue like this would be quite sad. A venue like this is special and makes our sport better. I think Gene Mische has been a big part of how strong show jumping has become in the U.S. now.