Thermal, Calif.—March 16
Nayal Nassar had some advice to give Ashlee Bond Clarke after today’s AIG $1 Million Grand Prix.
“It takes at least a week for it to sink in,” he said.
Nassar, winner of the Zoetis $1 Million last fall at HITS-On-The-Hudson (N.Y.), would know. And Clarke, winner of today’s Thermal, Calif., class with Chela LS, admitted that the full realization of her victory hadn’t quite settled—especially since the course was by far the biggest track she’s jumped yet on her mare.
“I was most concerned about the triple combination,” she said. “I got a light rub coming in, and she’s kind of unorthodox with her jumping sometimes, and she just jumped really hard at the end. After that, I kind of took a breath. I was like, ‘OK, unless I screw this up, we should jump clear over the rest.’ ”
Though Marina Azevedo’s 1.60-meter course proved formidable for the pairs, eight of the original 39 qualified for the jump-off. Faults for the first round were spread around the course, with a double of tall verticals coming down frequently. The triple combination of an oxer to vertical to oxer also felled some riders’ hopes of clear rounds. Two wide oxers, at fence 9 and fence 11, came down a few times each as well. John Perez's mount Utopia caught a rail from the second of the double verticals between her forelegs, stumbled hard and dropped Perez in front of her. He was assisted out of the ring.
“I thought the course was really technical and big but not unfair,” said Clarke, 28. “Marina had faults everywhere, which I think is the test of a great course. You had to ride every step, and your horse had to be on it.”
The star-studded group for the jump-off included Clarke, Nassar on Lordan, Kirsten Coe on Baronez, Rich Fellers on Flexible, Rodrigo Pessoa on Status, Richard Spooner on Cristallo, Todd Minikus on Quality Girl and Beezie Madden on Coral Reef Via Volo. Over the short course, the bogey fence was the AIG vertical, and riders who put too much angle in their approach had that one down.
In the end, only Coe, Nassar and Clarke jumped clear second rounds, with Clarke’s time of 41.16 seconds boosting her to first over Nassar and his 45.38 seconds. For her victory, Clarke took home a check for $350,000, while Nassar collected his own purse of $200,000.
“Ashlee and I were joking about going one/two earlier in the week,” said Nassar, who rides for Egypt but is based in California. “It’s crazy that it happened. It was a great class. We were both lucky enough to go at the end, and we both did what we had to do.”
Clarke and Little Valley Farm’s Chela LS, a 10-year-old who previously competed in grand prix classes with Mexico’s Simon Nizri, started their partnership last fall. But they had a rocky start to their competitive career.
“We started really good, but then at the end of last year, I crashed with her in a class and got knocked out,” said Clarke, of Hidden Hills, Calif. “Then my first grand prix back with her here, we won. I was literally crying as I left the ring because I was so nervous and scared. Then we had a night class here where she got so strong that I had to retire. After that, we got the bridle right and figured it out. It’s been great since.”
Both Coe and Clarke noted that adapting to their chestnut mares took a little time. Coe, who came from Royal Palm Beach, Fla., for the class, and the 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood (Skippy II—Rasputiny, Heartbreaker) owned by Ilan Ferder, Lovsta Stuteri and Tal Milstein have been competing together since 2011.
“She has a lot of scope to walk in there and jump a big track like that,” said Coe. “I only have mares and stallions. If you have a stallion, you have to learn to be a little tough. But with a mare, especially a chestnut mare, it’s all about learning to finesse. In the end, I think mares will always try hardest for you.”
“This is my first chestnut mare experience,” Clarke added. “That mare comes out every day and tries to jump clear every round. It’s like she’s mad at the jumps. If you have rails, it’s because of you.”
Nassar, who graduated from Stanford University (Calif.) in December, relied on a slightly unconventional preparation for his 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Lordanos—Lamona, Landor).
“Jumping here over and over throughout the circuit, I felt like he was getting less and less impressed,” said Nassar. “I just gave him last week off, and we didn’t even come to this half of the show grounds for the last 10 or 12 days. I was hoping the new jumps and crowd would impress him, and they did. He was unbelievable.”
The top three from today are all planning to fly east for next week’s Great American $1 Million Grand Prix in Ocala, Fla. Riders qualified for this class through their placings in HITS Thermal grand prix classes throughout the circuit, but other competitors were awarded wild card invitations by show management. Nine riders flew to California from the East Coast just for this grand prix.
Full results from the class available on the HITS website.