How would you feel, jumping off in the $100,000 Grand Prix of Devon against the spectacular Sapphire and McLain Ward, who have two team Olympic gold medals to their name and were just second in the Rolex FEI World Cup Final (Nev.)?
It’s a measure of their success that their competitors acknowledge that they set a high standard. “I was just happy to be in the same second as McLain and Sapphire! I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to them” said Hillary Dobbs, who finished just a fraction of a second slower than the pair for second place.
Dobbs had the daunting task of going first in the four-horse jump-off. She knew she’d have to go as fast as she could. Behind her in the order was Ward not only on Sapphire, but also on his up-and-coming star, Rothchild. And Allison Solem, a fast rider indeed, was set to go on the venerable Allison.
Dobbs laid down the trip to beat on Quincy B. “I had to take a shot right off the bat,” she said. She hustled Quincy B through all the turns and their quick footspeed helped bring them home clear in 42.56 seconds.
Sapphire’s big stride eats up the ground and she’s so rideable that Ward can turn on a dime. They made short work of the jump-off, leaving all the jumps in the cups and shaving just .05 seconds off Dobbs’ time. “She jumped the first round like an equitation horse. Then, in the last line of the jump-off, the eight strides to the last jump got a little tight for us. I had to really slow down. I also had to watch the clock [ticking away the seconds on the scoreboard hanging at the end of the ring] as I cantered to the last fence.
“Sapphire’s fast. She’s in the prime of her life and it’s hard to leave her in the barn,” Ward continued. “This is a very important show in our country and it means a lot to me to win this grand prix.”
Callan Solem made every effort to best Ward and Dobbs and was right on the pace, but Allison ticked the front rail of the last oxer and it tumbled to the ground. She stopped the timers in 42.88 seconds, just three-tenths of a second slower than Ward, to claim third place. “Like Hillary, I was just thrilled to be so close to Sapphire’s time,” Solem said. “I watched McLain go and saw that he had to slow down a lot in that last line. So, I jumped in and slowed down, but then I ended up too far away from the last jump and had it down.
“Allison is 17 now and she felt fresh and wonderful. She feels as good now as she did when she was 8. It’s an honor every class I get to jump on her.”
But the class wasn’t done. Ward wrapped up the jump-off on Rothchild, an 8-year-old gelding. He made it clear he was going to make every effort to best everyone, including himself. Rothchild has a big gallop and cleared the jumps with room to spare. But the front rail of the last fence came down for them, too. With 4 faults in 43.12 seconds, they took fourth.
Rothchild has a bit of a different style of jumping. He gets his body way up in the air and folds his legs in tight under his body. “Sapphire jumps like a hunter and he’s got a little bit of a funky style,” Ward said. “Last year, I told Kenny [Kraus] ‘I think I have a really good horse here,’ and he laughed and said ‘Have you seen his pictures?’ But he gets the job done,” Ward said.