One of the smallest horses is already making one of the biggest impressions at the 2023 Winter Equestrian Festival.
Catoki, ridden by McLain Ward, won on the first Sunday grand prix of the Wellington, Florida, series, the $75,000 Prestige Italia Grand Prix that wrapped up WEF Premiere Week on Jan. 8, with a nearly 4-second margin of victory in the jump-off. The combination stopped the timers at 29.00, ahead of Australia’s Matt Williams and Meadowvale Cruise (32.95), to repeat their 2022 win in the class.
Anyone surprised by the 15.2-hand gelding’s success over 1.45- and 1.50-meter courses might be even more surprised to know that’s not the top end of his range. The gelding also has two puissance wins to his name. Ward credits his success to a combination of carefulness, a huge heart and “tons of blood.”
Ward joked that it looks like he’s riding a “pony jumper” on Catoki, but there is nothing diminutive about the gelding’s speed and power—assets that are only harnessed in the show ring, since the 14-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Catoki—Coca Cola, Caretello B), who Ward owns with Marilla Van Beuren and Bob Russell, is never ridden outside of competition.
“I never ride him. I never sit on him. Nobody rides him,” Ward said. “He goes in the field, and he comes to the horse show. And that’s it. He’s an adrenaline junkie, so he keeps himself pretty fit just with his energy level. And it seems to be a good program for him.”
Catoki showed up on Ward’s radar as a prospective client horse originally, before he joined his string at the end of 2019.
“I had known about him for a while,” he said. “He’d won a grand prix in Lake Placid (New York), and I actually presented him to a client, [but] he was too much blood for that particular client. I ended up circling back to him a year or so later when we were in the market for a real, winning-type horse like that. He kind of fit the bill, so we were able to acquire him, and he’s been winning ever since.”
Given Catoki’s personality, Ward doesn’t rush to the warm-up ring with him.
“I don’t get on too early, because he just gets excited,” Ward said. “So we just try to keep everything calm and mellow. He knows his job. You just can’t do very much. You just jump three or four jumps maximum.”
Once in the ring, Ward is faced with the challenge of keeping his foot off the gas.
“I have to watch that I don’t go too fast, to be honest,” he said. “That’s my biggest factor. If I lose a class, it’s normally because I try to go too fast.”
Watch their winning jump-off round from Sunday’s $75,000 Prestige Italia Grand Prix, courtesy of Wellington International:
Catoki has more than just speed in his tool set. He won the puissance class in a three-way tie at Washington International (Maryland) in October—for the second year running—with Jordan Coyle (Eristov) and Daniel Coyle (Oak Grove’s Carlyle) by clearing the wall at 6’10”. Catoki’s performance required a minimum of encouragement from McLain.
“I ride him in the puissance with no spur, and he pulls me to it; he runs away with me to it,” he said.
Initially success in the puissance with Catoki came as a surprise.
“It was a shocker,” McLain said. “We did it [Washington International] the year before honestly because he’s very brave, and I’d heard he’d won a six-bar once. So we said, ‘Let’s see what he’ll do,’ and he won it, so we came back the next year, and he won it again.”
Catoki debuted at WEF 2023 on Jan. 5 in the $35,000 Adequan WEF Challenge Cup Premiere Round, finishing as runner-up after adding an unintended stride in the jump-off.
“I hadn’t shown him in the outdoors yet, and I have to watch that I don’t start adding too early, because he can do more strides than most of the horses and still be faster,” Ward said, “but normally the factor is not to go too fast.”
For Ward, Catoki is one of a kind.
“He’s a unique soul, but he’s a great competitor, and he’s very good at what he does.”