As the last to go, and having already seen his lead with Johnny B Good slip away, John Pearce called on his steadfast partner Chianto to come through for him in the clutch. Chianto responded by giving his all and trusting Pearce through tight turns and sharp angles, completing the jump-off with the fastest time of all.
"He's an old horse with a lot of experience - he just knows," Pearce said of the 18-year-old Chianto, his partner at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, KY, where they finished eighth. "When I start turning, he starts looking. He knows his job."
McElvain Energy, Inc., a Denver-based oil and gas exploration and production company, sponsored the Grand Prix. Guy McElvain, president and CEO of McElvain Energy, Inc., was on hand along with his wife Sharon to watch the class and cheer on their daughter Chenoa, who competed aboard Coco Colette and WildThing 2. The family runs Rancho Corazon, a top breeding operation for Holsteiner sport horses located in Lemitar, NM.
The $30,000 McElvain Energy Grand Prix kicked off with stick horse races for children over a course of small jumps. After the class, competitors and their family members had a chance to socialize and relax as the Colorado Horse Park hosted a Western-themed party featuring an authentic chuckwagon supper, live music, and even a mechanical bull. Turnout at the Grand Prix was high as spectators gathered to watch the action.
Guilherme Jorge's first round course resulted in seven clears from 20 starters. While it was not excessively technical, it did pose several questions. The course began with a triple bar oxer going away from the in-gate and followed quickly by a bend to the next jump, requiring that horses be attentive and powerful right from the start.
A triple combination, consisting of two one-strides and followed by six strides out to an oxer, and an oxer-oxer two-stride double combination also posed a challenge. The final oxer, a liverpool off a rollback turn at the end of the arena, tested riders' judgment and horses' scope at the very end of the demanding course.
The jump-off gave riders plenty of space to chart a course that suited their horses while allowing them to shave seconds off their time. It began with the first three fences of the original course, and riders could pick up a forward gallop from fences 1 to 2. They had to bring their horses back to turn right to fence 3 and left to 5bc, the last two jumps of the first round's triple combination. Both turns presented opportunities to save ground if riders were willing to take a risk and tackle the fences at an angle.
The double combination was followed by a bending line leading into two verticals, fences 14 and 15, with a very tight rollback that tested horses' agility. From fence 15, riders had a long gallop down the arena to fence 9b, the final oxer.
Pearce, of Bermuda Dunes, CA, was the first to jump off with Johnny B Good, his partner for the win in Thursday's $15,000 Open Welcome Stake at Summer in the Rockies III. Johnny B Good, owned by Forest View Farm, was also second to his stablemate Chianto in last week's $25,000 Littleton Equine Medical Center/Platinum Performance Grand Prix. Pearce guided him through a flowing but deceptively quick jump-off in 43.875 seconds, throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the field.
Paul Rohrbach on Camerino and Bjorn Ikast on Colorado were next to go, but both pairs finished with eight jumping faults. Megan Jordan of Oregon City, OR, and Top Shelf, $15,000 Open Welcome Stake winners at Summer in the Rockies II, were first to pose a serious threat to Pearce and Johnny B Good. Spectators held their breath as the pair raced around the short course and through the timers, but they fell just short with their time of 44.197 seconds.
Armando Hassey and Eminem did their best to challenge Pearce's leading time, making a neat 180 degree turn after fence 15 and then galloping to the last. But they, too, just missed Pearce's mark with a time of 44.997 seconds.
With two riders - Jordan on Atlantis and Pearce on Chianto - left to jump, Jordan was the only one left who could take down Pearce. She entered the arena with Atlantis on a mission to give Pearce a run for his money, and she did just that by taking advantage of the opportunities to gallop and negotiating tight turns, including a turn to the inside of an oxer that Pearce had gone around on his way from fence 15 to the last. The crowd urged her on to the final fence and erupted into cheers when the new leading time of 41.201 seconds flashed on the scoreboard.
"I saw about 27 different distances on the way to the last," Jordan said. "I could hear my friend screaming in the background and I had to think, 'No, be calm,' because I love to run and sometimes I overdo it. Atlantis jumped that a billion feet high. That horse is coming along - it's exciting seeing him start to cut loose."
Pearce, now relegated to second with Johnny B Good, was nevertheless confident that he could count on Chianto to reclaim the top position. When asked if he had any doubt that Chianto would come through, he said, "No, none."
"I thought I might've had it with Johnny, but then Megan came in and knocked two seconds off!" he said. "But I knew what I could do in the turn to the double. I won because I really sliced going into the double. I jumped in on an angle and out on an angle."
Their ground-saving trip showcased Pearce's canny riding and Chianto's incredible adjustability as they fluidly navigated inside turns and galloped forward with ease. They sped through the timers in 39.610 seconds and the crowd went wild.
"The jump-off was exciting for the crowd - they just loved it," Pearce said. "They were right into it, and that's what I love to see. I like to see a lot of horses in the jump-off. I think it makes for a really fun competition - real sport. In the end, the sport is all about the jump-off. You're looking death in the eye. You're going that fast and you're running over big jumps. You have to be accurate and your horse has to be good."
Course designer Jorge agreed that the class played out perfectly.
"For us course designers, it's always very nice when you have a jump-off that has the leaders change so much," he said. "It's very exciting. We had a good crowd here today, as usual. Having John Pearce with Chianto as the last, you're guaranteed a fast finish."
"Our goal is to get the best horse/rider combination in the top," he continued. "They need to be careful, scopey and fast. They need to run and turn, so we try to test everything and spread those tests around the course. They had a big option on how to take the last verticals, and of course then a fast gallop to the last. The crowd always loves that."
Pearce said the great footing in the Kathy and Brad Coors Family Grand Prix Arena contributed to the horses' outstanding performances.
"The footing was excellent today," he commented. "They had the footing really, really good. That's why the horses jumped really well, and Guilherme (Jorge) did a nice job. The first round wasn't overly technical - it was a nice course and had questions to answer, but it wasn't ridiculous. The time allowed was dead on. It was a really great class."
Jordan joked that she has to go home and practice her courses so she can beat Pearce. She is competing at Summer in the Rockies for the first time this year.
"John is better in his tight turns than I am," she said. "If I had to pick something I'm weakest at, it is a rollback turn, I think because I've ridden very careful horses but not as scopey as Atlantis. John and that horse have done this many times. He makes you run for it and I love that. If you're going to enter a grand prix, you should lay it down. If you don't do it, you never learn how."
"I'm thrilled, absolutely thrilled," she added. "I thought the course was really fair. All week I've felt like this course designer has built things that make horses better. I think that's an amazing feat. I'm super excited with both of my horses. I wish I was staying in Colorado, but I will have to plan to be here longer next time!"