Ocala, Fla.—March 24
Just after the thud of the rail echoed through the stadium, an excited “Whoop!” of joy followed.
“Oops, was I too loud?” Andre Thieme said sheepishly in the press conference of his in-gate celebration. He can be forgiven—that rail thudding meant he just won $350,000. “It’s a big difference between first and second, so I was maybe a little too loud, but I was very excited,” Thieme admitted.
Thieme was all smiles and jokes after riding Contanga 3 to the top of the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix. This was the second million-dollar title he’s won, having claimed the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS-on-the-Hudson in 2011 with Aragon Rouet. The week before, Thieme had shipped Contanga out to California to contest the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on March 16, where they finished out of the money.
“I planned my whole trip around the two million classes. In California last week I wasn’t that lucky, so I was really hoping that it worked out this time. There was a pressure: I’m in the minus a lot [financially] for my trip going home. So, it’s perfect that I won,” Thieme said.
He might be German, but there's not much stern reserve in Thieme's demeanor. He was downright jovial after the win, joking and beaming a huge smile. He might hail from abroad, but Thieme has competed at HITS Ocala for many years, so the large crowd that braved the chilly night to watch the class greeted his win warmly.
When he won three years ago in New York, Thieme stated that he was going to use the money to build a house. It’s a good thing he won again, because the house still isn’t finished. “I started building that house, but it looks like I need the money for the same reason because the house got a lot more expensive than I thought,” Thieme said, smiling. “It still needs work. It’s a very nice house—right on the lake.”
That house is in Germany; Thieme spends the winters competing in Florida—both at HITS Ocala and the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival. He jumps throughout Europe in the summer.
The rail that made Thieme’s night dashed the hopes of Ashlee Bond Clarke, who was the last to jump off and had the opportunity for unprecedented back-to-back wins in HITS million-dollar classes. She and Chela LS, who won the AIG $1 Million at HITS Desert Circuit (Calif.) on March 16, jumped clean in Round 1 at Ocala and we the last to jump off.
But things unraveled quickly for Clarke as Chela LS dropped an early rail, then had another. Clarke, who had gotten the crowd on their feet with her exuberant joy after her clean Round 1, pulled Chela LS up and waved at the judges. On her Twitter feed after the class, she said, “Tried my best, wasn’t our day,” and, “I try to put her first and think about the future not just the moment.” She ended up fifth.
In fact, Thieme ended up being the only clear round out of five in the jump-off. Kent Farrington led off the order and he put it all on the line with Willow. He left a stride out in one line and paid for it with the front rail at the oxer coming out.
“I’ll have to watch the video, which I don’t really want to do,” Farrington joked. “I went first and I’m here to win. I ride my round and my plan. He’s a naturally fast horse. If I had to do it over again, I think I’d do it the same. He has a naturally big stride and it was my plan to do six [strides] there. I don’t know why we had it down; it was just Andre’s night to win.”
In the end, Farrington’s time was more than 8 seconds faster than anyone else’s; he got a $200,000 payday for second place.
Candice King jumped off next on Kismet 50 and ran into trouble early when the big chestnut mare stopped at the bicycle vertical. The horses had jumped that fence in Round 1, but this time they jumped it going the other way. The stop seemed to rattle King and Kismet and they finished with 25 faults for fourth—still a healthy payday with $100,000 in prize money.
Kirsten Coe—like Clarke, Thieme, King and Farrington—had just shipped into Ocala from Thermal, where they’d all jumped in the million-dollar class out in California. She’d been third in the Thermal AIG $! Million Grand Prix and looked to be going for the careful clear round, but Baronez clipped the back rail at the same oxer Farrington had down. Coe ended up in third—the same place she’d been in Thermal. “It’s really a dream. It’s amazing to have these million-dollar classes; it’s a step forward for our sport,” she said. “To have a horse jump clean in million-dollar classes two weeks in a row is something special.”
Thieme jumped next, and had to make a tough decision. There wasn’t a clean round on the board, but he had Clarke on a fast horse in the line-up behind him. “I came all the way up to the in-gate to watch Kent because I knew he was going to be the fastest in the jump-off. I knew he’d take all the risks. I saw him have the rail down, and then I heard the second and third people have rails. So, I realized that if I went clean, I’d be in the lead,” he said.
“Knowing that Ashlee was behind me and I saw her last week in the jump-off and she’s fast, I figured I definitely needed to put some pressure on. I had to try and go d a little bit fast and I think it worked out perfectly. I think I was fast enough to put pressure on her. I think she knew in the jump-off she had to go a touch more to catch me, so it worked out well for me,” said Thieme.
Thieme plans to fly home to Germany, but Contanga will spend a few weeks vacationing in Florida. Thieme’s next big goal is the German Championships.
A field of 52 started the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix, and 13 of those ended thier night early with either elimination or retiring on course. One of those was Californian Richard Spooner and his veteran Cristallo, who came to grief in the triple when Cristallo bellied a rail at B then stopped at the C element. Spooner regrouped and jumped a few fences but then raised his hand and cantered out of the ring.
Kelley Robinson was the only rider to earn an E by coming out of the saddle. She didn't quite get Enzo back in time to fit the tight five strides in from the triple combination to an oxer and Enzo plowed through the jump, popping her off over his shoulder. Other riders, like the 2013 Saugerties Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix (N.Y.) winners Nayel Nassar on Lordan and Ocala's star Tracy Fenney on MTM Timon pulled up after multiple rails.
There was no doubt the course was stiff, with tricky distances in the lines. "Walking the course I thought it was bigger than last week in California, but we also had a bigger field," Thieme said. "It was a very tricky course, a very careful course, but also very fair. We had all the time to get to every jump so I think he should be very pleased. It worked pretty perfect I think."
Problem spots included the tough vertical-oxer-vertical triple combination, which was followed in a tight five strides by a wide oxer. Riders also had to jump a triple bar and decide on a long four or short five strides to a version of the infamous Spruce Meadows vertical. The course ended with a narrow oxer to a tight one-stride of verticals. It was a big test for many of the horses, and some big-name riders like McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Rodrigo Pessoa and Lauren Hough finished out of the money with multiple rails.
Want to know more about Thieme and Contanga 3? Check out the April 7 print issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, which will also include stories about some fascinating HITS Ocala circuit champions, including a junior hunter rider who got her start in 4-H and braids her own tails.