Harrisburg, Pa.—Oct. 17
The wall inside the ring at the Farm Show Arena, where the names of previous winners of the Grand Prix de Penn National are painted, has been haunting Leslie Howard for decades now. For as long as the 59-year-old rider has been coming to the Pennsylvania National, the Grand Prix de Penn National has eluded her.
Tonight she got to scratch that accomplishment off her bucket list as she topped a four-horse jump off aboard Gentille van Spieveld.
“Finally I get to make the wall,” she said. “Every year I’m hacking around in the morning, and I look at the wall and go…” she trailed off with a shake of her head.
The Olympic medalist has been coming to the show since her junior years and first contested the prix in 1979 with Chase The Clouds.
Gentille, a 9-year-old Belgian Warmblood (Heartbreaker—Tequila van Spieveld, Capital), might not be the most obvious choice as a horse to get Howard her first win in this class. She paired up with the horse at the end of last year, and they’ve progressively moved him up.
This is his first indoor competition and also his first grand prix win.
“He’s done nothing but do exactly what I’ve asked him to do, and I’m very excited about him,” said Howard. “I have nothing but really good hopes for him.
“He’s been creeping up there,” she continued. “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of confidence in him and belief in the horse because he’s so scopey, but he’s just like a big puppy dog. He’s so big and cumbersome, and now he’s getting quicker and more coordinated.
“He really wants to do the right thing and when he doesn’t it’s just because he’s like oh?—like the turn after the second fence in the jump off was so him—like ‘Oh ohh, OK we have to turn! I got it!’ ” she imitated, her voice changing to an Eeyore-esque sound before shifting to an overeager tone, “and then after that he was like, ‘oh OK! we’ve got to turn!’ ”
The track built by Michel Vaillancourt proved to be a difficult test with nearly half the 20 horse field dropping multiple rails. One was eliminated, Maggie Jayne and Splendor, and Michael Hughes elected to retire MacArthur after incurring multiple rails.
Peter Lutz was the pathfinder for the evening with Robin de Ponthual, turning in the first clear round. Laura Chapot followed that up with a clear of her own with Quointreau un Prince, and Canadian rider Jonathan Millar aboard Star Power tried to make it three in a row to progress to the jump-off and jumped clear, but he stopped the clock a second too late, picking up a time penalty.
Young Canadian Jordan MacPherson also contested the jump-off, slipping into second with Adeline with the only other double clear performance of the night. Chapot tipped a rail to finish third, and Lutz had 8 faults to receive the white ribbon.
“I’ve just been bringing her along slowly in the high amateurs in Florida and moving her up to the national grand prixes throughout the summer, and she’s been amazing,” said MacPherson. “She’s a very special horse. Since the first time I sat on her she’s been absolutely incredible.”
This was also the 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood’s first indoor show.
“She kept surprising me at every turn,” she said. “I thought we had a good chance, but she was really amazing.”
The start field was missing some notable names this year, as many of the United States’ top riders have elected to go west, where there are World Cup qualifiers. The Longines FEI World Cup Qualifier at the Del Mar International (Calif.) ran the same night. Unlike previous years, the Pennsylvania National did not host a qualifier this year due to changes in the Fédération Equestre Internationale schedule.