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October 13, 2009

Sapphire Finds Her Just Reward In The CN At The Spruce Meadows Masters

McLain Ward had set his sights on winning North America’s richest grand prix with his star mare, and he succeeded.

It was just the blink of an eye—but it was enough.

And in the .02 seconds that separated Sapphire and McLain Ward from Eric Lamaze and Hickstead in the jump-off for the $928,501 CN International, that blink meant a lot, literally and figuratively.

In dollars, it was the difference between $301,763 and $185,700. Each of the two ticks of the clock cost Lamaze $58,031 apiece. In prestige, however, winning the CN is almost incalculable because over the course of the event’s 29-year history only the world’s best riders have hoisted the impressive globe-shaped CN Trophy overhead during the awards ceremony. 

Now, Ward, 34, adds his name to the coveted list.

This year he traveled to the Calgary, Alta., venue meaning business. Being a non-championship year—in between the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games—the Spruce Meadows Masters, Sept. 9-13, was the world’s show jumping destination event.

Consequently, the CN drew a star-studded field, including multiple Olympic team and individual gold medalists, World Cup and European champions, and eight of the top 10 riders on the FEI Rolex Rankings.

So it was no surprise that with nearly $1 million at stake, a jump-off ensued in the two-round CN International with Lamaze, the world’s second-ranked rider and reigning individual Olympic champion, going head-to-head with Ward, the fifth-ranked rider and Olympic team gold medalist.

The result: a heart-stopping tie-breaker before an all-time record crowd of 73,736 show jumping fans basking in the late summer sun and watching world-class show jumping.

Ward, who went first in the jump-off, angled the fences and shaved the turns with the 14-year-old Belgian Warmblood (by Darco) but figured that Lamaze might beat him.

“I was trying to take all the risks because it was just the two of us,” said Ward, who stopped the clock in 37.76 seconds. “Obviously, Eric’s a brilliant rider, if not the best in the world. I think he’s got the best horse in the world, and he’s a very fast horse. Sapphire’s gotten faster, but I wouldn’t say she’s the fastest in the world.”

Ward believed he’d left his victory in doubt when he added a stride at one point on course.

“I thought I could do eight strides from the [Dutch] Bicycle to the gold [Hong Kong] oxer, but it didn’t show itself, and I did nine,” he said. “I thought it was a little bit slow. I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, I might maybe left the door open a touch there.’ ”

Then Lamaze, 41, Schomberg, Ont., and Hickstead entered the ring with the home crowd roaring. Hickstead’s lofty jumps, combined with his quick turns and big gallops, kept the crowd involved the entire way around. And when he cleared the nemesis Dutch bicycle fence, whose delicate top rail cost him a $450,000 bonus last year (and now sits chainsawed in half in the Spruce Meadows pub), the electric atmosphere doubled in amps.

As Lamaze and Hickstead launched over the final fence, the black CN planks, the crowd went wild. With thunderous applause, it took just a moment for all eyes to turn to the clock tower scoreboard where the ranking read: 2.

 “I think I went as fast as he can go,” said Lamaze of their 37.78-second jump-off. “It’s just that competitive.

“McLain was quite fast,” he added. “I was watching from the clock tower, and I just tried everything I could. We came up just a little short. Congratulations to McLain on a great ride. To be second in this competition feels pretty good anyway.”

Ward also credited Lamaze for a great run. “But he was nice enough to take a pull [on the reins],” said Ward, “and I’ll take it.”

The Big Guns

You bring your biggest guns to the Spruce Meadows Masters, said Ward during an interview earlier in the week, but even if you have your automatic weapon set aside for the CN it doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed.

In fact, it took a lot of talent, guts and a bit of luck to jump a clear in the first round of this year’s CN, and just 10 of the 45 starters managed to combine all of those attributes. Two more jumped clear with 1 time fault to qualify for the second round and give course designer Leopoldo Palacios his “perfect dozen.”

Other than Ward, Brewster, N.Y., no other U.S. riders qualified for Round 2.

Beezie Madden and Danny Boy, a 9-year-old Belgian Warmblood (by Clinton), dropped one rail over the first-round course to finish 16th. They were the only pair that suffered directly from the breezy conditions when the Canadian planks blew down in front of them as they approached fence 9. After the jump was reset, they continued but dropped the B element of the triple combination at fence 11.

“It actually could have been an advantage for me,” said Madden when asked about the time-out. “I have a young horse, and he had a little chance to settle down and regain his thoughts. It was a hard spot to start again, I have to say. The planks and then the green oxer and triple combination line, but I don’t think it was a huge deal. I can’t say if it hurt or if it helped.”

It was obvious that a spill from Checkmate the previous day in the BMO Nations Cup did hurt Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s performance in the CN. The world’s third-ranked rider and reigning FEI World Cup champion from Germany never got into sync with her top mount Shutterfly and placed 41st with an uncharacteristic 24 faults.

Lauren Hough, Wellington, Fla., had a double-clear performance in the BMO Nations Cup and led the U.S. to second place but couldn’t duplicate the effort and picked up 8 faults for 21st place.

Likewise, team member Richard Spooner, Agua Dulce, Calif., and Cristallo had 8 faults for 23rd place.

New Jersey-based Hillary Dobbs and Quincy B were 26th with 12 faults, and team rider Ashlee Bond, Santa Monica, Calif., and Cadett 7 were right behind with their own score of a dozen.

“I thought Round 1 was an excellent course,” said Ward. “It wasn’t brutal, but it was enough. It was obviously just right to get 12 [clears] plus time faults. [Course designer Palacios] has done that a few times, which I think is quite remarkable. You couldn’t make a mistake, but it wasn’t really stressing the horses.

“The horses really needed to be careful today,” added Ward. “And the time allowed was short enough. With the time in the first round deciding the order of go for the second round, it plays a lot with the strategy so everyone tries to go as fast as they can.”

Lamaze almost didn’t have to strategize for Round 2 after the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Hamlet—Ekstein) bounced a rail in the first round.

“I heard that; I think the whole crowd heard that,” said Lamaze, laughing. “He sort of jumped it as a vertical and then realized there was a back rail. It was a skinny oxer, and he fell out of the air. I was lucky to be a part of that second round from the way he hit that. Sometimes you have a light rub and it falls, and sometimes you sit on one like that, and it’s sometimes meant to be your day; that’s how I look at it anyway.”

An Olympic Rematch

With 10 first-round clears, most everyone expected a jump-off, but some began to wonder as the faults accrued rapidly in the second round.

The toughest spot on Palacios’ second-round course was the CN Train double of oxers at 10AB, which dropped regularly. In fact, Ward had a scare at the B element when Sapphire rapped the back rail, but it fell back into place.

“I thought the second round was very big. The distance to the double of verticals, which were very airy, was quite difficult. Then that’s as big a double of oxers as I’ve seen,” said Ward. “I was also quite lucky at B in the double oxers. Like Eric said, you need a little bit of luck on your side. I’ve never seen a horse win a grand prix like this without one hard rub. It happens. We all need that luck our way.”

Great Britain’s prodigy, Ben Maher, 26, aboard Robin Hood W, placed third with 1 time fault in the second round.

“My horse jumped fantastic today. We didn’t make the time allowed, and I was a bit disappointed with that. But when I saw the jump-off, I was quite glad I wasn’t in it,” Maher said with a smile. “I’ve only been to Spruce Meadows once before, and I might be wrong, but this is one of the best jump-offs I’ve seen anywhere. They are two of the best horses and riders that are or have been, and I’m happy with my third.”

Maher also expressed his satisfaction with Robin Hood, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Animo—Irene), who made his international debut last year at Spruce Meadows.

“This horse has come a long way in a year. I can’t hope for any more, really,” said Maher, who also competed on the seventh-placed British Nations Cup team. “He may go to Qatar for the finals of the Global Champions Tour, but he’s going to have a long rest, and we’ll aim for the [WEG] next year.”

Palacios was pleased with his courses but, as in years past, had hoped his winner would be decided on jumping and not speed.

“For many years I only have one clean, but this year they jump big,” he said. “I am not brave enough to make them bigger. I don’t know what I can invent to stop these guys. They are super, and the horses are the best. They had a fantastic day. And like Ben says, these are the two best in the world at the top of the class.”

Dutch Domination

It was a day mixed with drama and dramatic show jumping during  the $322,623 BMO Nations Cup on Sept. 12. But in the end the tough prevailed, and the Dutch were the toughest of the day.

Despite their lead-off pair leaving the course in a horse ambulance, the Dutch riders didn’t bow down to the pressure of only having three riders’ scores count.

All remaining riders—Albert Zoer/ Okidoki, Marc Houtzager/Opium VS and Harrie Smolders/Exquis Walnut De Muze— jumped two clear rounds apiece before 67,879 spectators on a clear Calgary day.

“We were just three riders left for both rounds, so we knew we had to do a very good job,” said Zoer. “And I think the pressure was good for us, and all three horses jumped really great. So then we knew we were still in the race, and we keep fighting.”

The Dutch took top billing with 1 time fault, incurred by anchor rider Houtzager after Opium spent some time bucking in exuberance on course. It didn’t matter, however, as their closest competition was the United States with 12 faults, and Mexico was third with 14 faults.

The victory was sweet redemption for the Dutch team, whose same riders had dropped out of gold-medal contention at the Alltech FEI European Show Jumping Championships (England) two weeks earlier (Sept. 18, p. 14) when Houtzager dropped two rails in the second round leaving them fourth.

“In the second round here I knew I could make time faults, but I didn’t know I had 12 in hand,” said Houtzager smiling. “They didn’t tell me!”

During the first round, Palacios’ 12-fence course caused tremendous troubles as it rode trickier than it walked. Unfortunately, Angelique Hoorn, the first Dutch rider on course, was eliminated when her horse, Blauwendraad’s O’Brien, strained his superficial flexor tendon in the combination at 5AB.

Earlier in the week, the same injury claimed Fresh Direct Corlato, who was to start on the British team with Tim Stockdale. The loss of Corlato was huge, as the gray mare was the highest-placed British horse at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. Ultimately, Britain’s three-member team tied with Ireland in seventh place and didn’t qualify for the second round.

Blauwendraad’s O’Brien and Fresh Direct Corlato were stabilized at the Spruce Meadows veterinary facility and scheduled to return to Europe on Monday with the other team horses on the chartered airplane.

Four horses after Hoorn’s accident, Italian rider Juan Carlos Garcia and Hamilton De Perhet crashed through the oxer at fence 7. Both left the ring under their own power.

Then, Michaels-Beerbaum and the bouncy Checkmate, the anchors for the German team, had a clear round until the final oxer when Checkmate hesitated and swam through, bouncing Michaels-Beerbaum off of his neck onto the ground upon landing.

After a delay, she walked out of the ring accompanied by her husband, Markus, but she declined to return for Round 2. Because she’d crossed the timers before falling off, her score of 5 faults counted.

While the Dutch were unstoppable through the competition, the remaining placings were up for grabs. And the United States, the defending champions, took advantage.

After a shaky start in the first round when Madden and Danny Boy jumped to 12 faults and Bond with Cadett 7 scored 8, it was Quick Study and Hough and Spooner with Cristallo who saved the day with clear performances. With 8 total faults, the United States stood fourth and qualified for Round 2.

Germany held second with 5 faults, with a strong Mexican team, led by Chef d’Equipe Norman Dello Joio, standing third with 6 faults. Switzerland and Canada eked into the second round with 9 faults apiece.

The Dutch continued their domination in the second round, and the United States rallied to join them.

Madden rode a touch more aggressively in Round 2, and Danny Boy reacted with a well-jumped clear round.

“I was a little disappointed with him in the first round, but he was a little star struck with the atmosphere,” explained Madden. “He bucked up for the second round really well, though.”

Bond showed renewed mettle, but Cadett still dropped two rails and was the second round drop score.

Hough followed with a second clear round, one of five double clears of the day, while Spooner and Cristallo pulled 5B. But the team’s total of 12 faults moved them up to second when the Mexicans and Germans faltered. 

“I put Beezie first, and I didn’t know, being that [Danny Boy’s] a green horse, what he would do,” said Chef d’Equipe George Morris. “So my strategy, whether he jumped clear or had a few down, which he did, was to put her first to set the pace.

“Ashlee’s horse, uncharacteristically, had 8 and 8. That took the wind out of my sails,” admitted Morris. “Lauren’s horse was brilliant; Richard’s horse was brilliant. It was a very nice strategy, but it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. moved up for second, which was far better than other teams, such as Germany and Italy. Without Michaels-Beerbaum, all three German scores counted in Round 2, and they fell to sixth, while Italy didn’t qualify for Round 2 and placed ninth of the 10 teams after the loss of Garcia.

 The three Dutch riders’ fortitude impressed Chef d’Equipe Rob Ehrens, who doesn’t remember many of his four-member teams that have finished a Nations Cup with perfect jumping.

“This is really amazing seeing what they did today. These three are great riders,” he concluded.

 
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