Ending a successful circuit with two wins in one day, Richard Spooner blazes past his competition for the top spots.
“This is the biggest money class I’ve ever won—hopefully I can win a couple more,” Richard Spooner joked after taking the $200,000 Invitational Grand Prix of the Desert March 16, ending the seven-week HITS Desert Circuit in Thermal, Calif.
Dubbed by the announcer as the “master of faster,” Spooner lived up to his nickname when he and Cristallo left the jumps up and galloped to a blazing finish of 43.24 seconds, almost 4 seconds faster than second-placed Keri Potter.
“I thought Guilherme did a phenomenal job,” Spooner remarked. “He’s one of the best course designers, if not the best, in the world, and we’re lucky to have him.”
After watching Guillermo Obligado, Potter and Eddie Macken finish with clear rounds, Spooner had little worries that Cristallo would turn in the same results.
“I knew where my trouble spots would be going in—my horse likes to cut the corners, especially since I lean left, so I really was working on sitting up to keep him straight,” said Spooner.
He galloped the course with ease, including the spooky liverpool and the troublesome triple combination, and advanced to the jump-off, with Canadian Jill Henselwood on Special Ed and Will Simpson on El Campeon’s Tosca following behind him.
While Potter turned in a clear jump-off round, her conservative time of 47.71 seconds gave Spooner a chance to show off Cristallo’s speed. “He’s got an enormous stride, so it’s easy for him to gallop a course and shave time,” Spooner said.
Both Obligado and Macken pulled rails after a tight rollback. So Spooner allowed extra time to complete the narrow turn and gave Cristallo room to gallop to the last combination.
But Spooner was quick to point out, “You have to be careful. You never want to put the hammer down. His yellow line between green and red is about as fat as a hair.”
Following behind Spooner, Henselwood pulled a rail at the first fence but made up time to finish third in 44.10 seconds.
Simpson—fresh from the USEF Olympic Selection Trials in Wellington, Fla., where he secured a place on the long list with Carlsson Vom Dach—was Spooner’s biggest threat. “Will Simpson is noted to be a fast rider, and Tosca is a lightning-fast horse,” Spooner said.
As the final contender, Simpson galloped to the first jump and pulled a rail immediately to the crowd’s dismay. Halfway through the course Tosca ticked another rail at a single vertical to finish fifth.
“There was no guarantee after my round I was going to claim victory,” Spooner said modestly. “You have Jill with her Pan Am [gold-medal] horse and Will, who just qualified for the Olympic [short list], so I knew what I was up against.”
Spooner, who’s shown many horses throughout the circuit, faced a tough decision to choose the right one for the class. “I’ve had Cristallo since he was 5, so I know him well and know where we’ll have difficulties. But when he’s doing his job, he makes it look easy,” he said of the 10-year-old Holsteiner (Caretino—Cambrina), owned by Show Jumping Syndications International.
Many of Spooner’s fellow competitors in the grand prix started their day in the $10,000 PCHA Jimmy Williams Jumper Classic, Spooner included. Aboard Apache, a Selle Français-Thoroughbred (Mescalaro—Escada) bred by Lu Thomas, Spooner took the top spot over Rich Fellers on Cruiser and Mandy Porter on Louvre. “Yeah, two in one day, it’s nice,” he chuckled.
“It was nice to get it done,” Spooner said. “I’ve won a few $150,000 classes, but this was my first $200,000.”
With more than 100 grand prix wins to his name, including six during the 2008 HITS Thermal circuit, Spooner looks forward to competing on the East Coast during the spring, namely the $500,000 Charlotte Jumper Classic (N.C.) in April, one of the highest-paying classes to date.
Reuniting For A Win
In a field of 35 competitors, John French not only tackled a difficult hunter course but also handled other elements as well to win the $10,000 ASG Software Solutions/ USHJA International Hunter Derby.
“The competition was strong, even with the wind, the lights, and the horses showing past their feeding time,” French said.
Blustering winds only added to the spook factor on John Manning’s course late Friday night, and many seasoned horses began the class with refusals. Riders encountered tough bending lines, daunting oxers and numerous options.
French had five mounts in the class, including Sovereign Farms’ Obelix, Emily Woodall’s Type Cast, Ashley Pryde’s Wesley, Lindsay Corley’s Nottingham and Alison Baileys’ Tache Rouge. His last two rides, Nottingham and Tache Rouge, would prove to be his best trips of the class.
During a beautiful trip on Nottingham, French’s score was marred by a rail down through an outside combination. Commentators Michael Endicott and Morley Abbey dubbed the line “heartbreak alley,” as many horses knocked rails in the same place throughout the night.
“I would say that was my strongest horse for the win, and it was disappointing because the rail just barely fell,” he said. “Nottingham used to be a jumper, and the four-foot was so easy for him. I thought it was going to be his class.”
As the final entry on Tache Rouge, French felt pressure to top his earlier scores. Colorful commentary didn’t help his nerves, either.
“Yeah, I heard they were betting money on me to score a 90 or above,” he said laughing.
Although French used to show Tache Rouge, a Selle Français (Narcos II—Okera), in the green divisions, the horse now only competes with Baileys in the amateur-owner division. While Baileys showed her horse in the same class earlier in the circuit, French jumped at the chance when she offered him the ride for the derby.
“The last time she did him in the class, it was under the lights and he was a little spooky,” French explained. “I told her to let me do this one, and it was fun to get back on him again.”
The course included coops, natural obstacles, and bending lines. French rode to forward distances and chose the more difficult options. “The inside turn to finish, with a four-foot oxer, was one of the more difficult places, mainly because this horse has really only been doing the 3’6″,” he said.
Even with the mounted pressure from spectators and commentators wagering bets, French’s precise round was rewarded with an average of 90, putting him at the top of the class.
After winning the hunter derby earlier in the circuit with Swoon, Jenny Karazissis returned to the second round poised for a repeat title. Even with inside turns and a forward pace, Karazissis’ bonus points couldn’t help her land the coveted blue ribbon, and she ended up fourth with Aragon.
After scoring an 86.5 in the first round with Clockwork, junior Lucy Davis rode to another stellar round for an 87.5, putting the pressure on French in the second round.
“Lucy Davis rode a great round, and I didn’t want to take too many risks. I knew I wanted to get the same score as her, or even a little less, because I would still be in the lead,” French said.
Even though he gained bonus points for taking difficult options with his other horses, French opted for a more conservative ride in his final trip on Tache Rouge. French was most apprehensive about the liverpool option, due to a tight turn that followed to a trot fence.
“You didn’t know how they were going to jump the liverpoool, and if they jumped it really big you had to really re-adjust for the next jump,” he said.
Tache Rouge didn’t seem to mind the handier course, and while French received a lower second-round average than Davis, the 85.75 was enough to secure him the win. “There’s always nerves, especially going last, and there were spots where perhaps I could have been handier,” he reflected.
French was pleased with the number of entries and the overall progress of the class from the beginning of the circuit. “A lot of horses and riders were having difficulty the first time this class happened, but I think both have gotten more used to it,” he said.
“The class goes back to how the hunters used to be, and I think it’s really nice how many people went in it,” he added. “I think it’s sparked a lot of interest, and people like the whole concept and idea.”