Sapphire knows how to earn her keep. By winning the $400,000 FTI Consulting Finale Grand Prix, she and McLain Ward pocketed their biggest paycheck this year. The victory on March 21 at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., came on the heels of two other huge wins during the winter circuit: the $150,000 CN Open Grand Prix on March 1 and the $200,000 CN World Cup Grand Prix CSI-W on March 7.
On Sapphire alone, Ward earned more than $320,000 in March, and he joked that it would help pay the mortgage on his family’s new farm. “I was thinking yesterday that I could use a little money tonight!” he said with a laugh.
“We own part of Sapphire, and we own a lot of our top horses. We’re horse dealers by profession, but I show jump because it’s what I really love in life. It costs us a lot of money to do that. It’s wonderful that we have competitions like this and that the prize money is getting strong. It helps us do this sport. The vision of people like Mr. Shaughnessy [of FTI] and CN’s Hunter Harrison can take this sport to the next level.”
Ward and Sapphire, who is owned by Ward and Tom Grossman of Blue Chip Bloodstock, are no strangers to the winner’s circle, and they were part of the U.S.-gold medal team at last year’s Olympic Games in Hong Kong. Ward acknowledged the winning streak he and his venerable partner have been on but gave all the credit to Sapphire.
“She’s really come into the prime of her career,” he said. “When I think about what she’s done for me and my family and my team, I get a little emotional because that horse just gets better and better. For sure, she’s a horse of a lifetime.”
As Fast As He Could
Guilherme Jorge’s first-round course narrowed the field to eight for the jump-off. Shane Sweetnam, an Irish rider based in Florida, on Spy Coast Farm’s Amaretto D’Arco was the first to return. They finished with 8 faults in 44.92 seconds. Pablo Barrios of Venezuela and Lagran were next in and set the time to beat in 43.64 seconds with a second clear trip.
No one could match Barrios’ time and leave all the rails up until Ward and Sapphire cantered into the ring. Sapphire has been unbeatable in jump-offs this year, and this time was no different. She and Ward made it look easy as they cruised around, leaving out strides and lowering the winning time to 41.56 seconds.
It came to the last to go, British rider Nick Skelton on Nemo 119, a 10-year-old Holsteiner gelding by Cambridge, for anyone to really challenge Ward’s lead.
Despite Nemo’s lack of experience in fast jump-offs, Skelton left all the rails in the cups and made a concerted effort to catch the time. But the timers stopped at 42.55 seconds—not fast enough but enough for second place.
“I knew McLain was going to take a little bit of beating,” Skelton said. “I did the best I could given the lack of experience on the horse’s part. He stumbled a little bit after the fence by the gate, but I still think it would have been hard to beat McLain anyway. I was going as fast as I could.”
Skelton was still pleased with his Nemo’s performance, especially since he’s only had the ride for five months and started showing the horse in the speed classes at the Royal Winter Fair (Ont.) in November.
“I’m really delighted with the way he’s come on,” Skelton said. “This is the biggest class he’s shown in. A few weeks ago, he was very unlucky and had one down in [the $200,000 CN World Cup Grand Prix CSI-W]. He had one silly fence down, but he jumped really well.”
Ward said that he and Skelton were the only two riders to do six, not seven, strides down the first line in the jump-off. He believed that was one of the keys to his win.
“Sapphire allows me to take chances because she comes through over and over again,” Ward said. “Nick Skelton is one of the best that’s ever done this game. I felt strong, but until I saw [his time] come up on the board, I wasn’t sure.”
A Nice Bonus
Todd Minikus actually had the fastest time of the night on Pavarotti (41.20 seconds), but a rail left them in fifth. While Minikus was disappointed with not taking the top prize, he was consoled with the fact that he still won $100,000 through the FTI Rider Challenge. Ward jumped up to finish second in the standings for another check of $50,000. Beezie Madden won $30,000 with third place, and Charlie Jayne finished fourth for $20,000.
Coming into the final grand prix for the standings, Minikus sat in fourth place but was 249 points behind the leader, Lauren Hough. Rodrigo Pessoa was second, but his 13th place in the grand prix dropped him out of the top four.
Both Minikus and Ward said they had churning stomachs during the day just thinking of what lay ahead in the evening. “It for sure is something that crosses your mind during the day,” Minikus affirmed. “I think today was a high pressure situation, and it was a lot of money up for grabs. Anybody that says their stomach doesn’t get a little tight is pulling your leg.”
FTI standings leader Hough, who was probably the most consistent and successful grand prix rider this season, had to make the difficult decision to pull out of the grand prix. Her top mount, Quick Study, had a minor injury that she did not want to exacerbate by showing in the grand prix.
“It’s really unfortunate about Lauren’s luck,” said Ward. “She was arguably the best all circuit. I had a nice run with Sapphire, but you really have to take your hat off to what she did. She made a very hard call. The horse was borderline, and a lesser horseman might have gone. I really think she should be complimented for her horsemanship and for what she’s done over this winter. This class is so heavily weighted that by taking yourself out, it really took her out of the bonus situation. She certainly deserves an honorable mention.”