(C) ESI PHOTOGRAPHY. McLain Ward and Rothchild.
Thermal, CA (March 22, 2016): Two-time Olympic gold medalist, McLain Ward, and Sagamore Farms’ Rothchild rose to challenge a top-notch field of thirty-three riders, including Ocala’s 2015 Great American Million winner Charlie Jayne, to claim a prestigious victory by going double-clear on a challenging course in the first Jewel in the HITS Triple Crown of Show Jumping, the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix. This is Ward’s third HITS Million Grand Prix win, the first with his long-time partner Sapphire in Saugerties in 2010 and the second 2 years later on Antares F.
The 2016 HITS Desert Circuit was in its final week of the season as an electric crowd descended upon HITS Desert Horse Park to witness the grand finale of the winter show circuit. A large spectator crowd filled the grandstand. Complete with a sold-out VIP club and thousands viewing a live United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Network webcast, featured on HITS TV, competitors did not disappoint their fans as the showdown for an AIG $1 Million Grand Prix win unfolded.
“I try to be fair to everyone, and a Grand Prix of this magnitude should have a sense of achievement,” said course designer Alan Wade of Ireland in regards to his 17-effort course built for both the seasoned competitor and Million newcomer. “The distances for the most part are straight forward but whether you jumped clear or had a rail, I want riders to walk away feeling like they learned something or their horse learned something.”
“The course shows what a genius Alan is; it was straightforward in some areas and tricky in others,” said Ward after winning the class. “I think all riders would agree that [HITS President and CEO] Tom Struzzieri, the HITS team and their sponsors put on a phenomenal production. HITS always has new and innovative jump material every year, it keeps the sport interesting and keeps the horses’ and spectators’ interest levels up – I love coming out here to show at HITS Thermal; it was a great crowd today.”
Faults were spread evenly throughout the first round with both a tight time allowed of 87 seconds and a few navigational tests on course. A combination near the in-gate ending with a wide oxer followed by a left turn that came up quick to another oxer provided many faults as well as the last jump, the tall AIG liverpool heading toward the in-gate. Only three in the talented field would go clear to advance to the jump-off.
Eric Navet, riding out of Panileuse, California, narrowly missed a ticket to the jump-off with one heart-breaking time fault, ultimately placing his 87.076-second round in fourth. Germany’s Andre Thieme, a two-time Million Grand Prix winner, also felt the pressure of the clock, coming in just behind Navet in 87.817 with one time fault for the eventual fifth place.
The stands were anxious as the three-horse jump-off got underway, with McLain Ward and Rothchild, Charlie Jayne and Chill RZ, and Jonathan McCrea and Aristoteles V all jumping clear to advance to the final battle for the blue. As Ward, the eventual winner would say, the course “really proved just right,” with three making it to the jump-off.
First to return for the jump-off was 2015 Great American Million Grand Prix winner Charlie Jayne of Elgin, Illinois and the big-strided Chill RZ owned by Maura Thatcher and Alex Jayne. Jayne placed third in the 2015 AIG Million in Thermal, California, and with a 2015 Great American Million victory in Florida under his belt, he was looking to seal a Million win on the West coast. Jayne and Chill RZ soared through the course, jumping clear, but unable to leave out a stride in two of the option lines. They put down a quick, fault-free round in 39.829 to set the tone.
“I’ve been in the up position a few times before and I knew I needed to be quick with McLain following me; he’s a fast rider and has a faster horse,” said Jayne of his jump-off strategy. “Things didn’t go exactly according to plan; I was planning six strides from jump two to three, but I caught the angle and had a bit of a shift. I just had to put the pressure on being fast.”
Next in the order was Ward and Rothchild, eager for a “bit of revenge,” as McLain would later say after coming in second to Jayne in last year’s Great American Million in Ocala, Florida. He and “Bongo” took the challenge as the fiery chestnut zoomed through course at his naturally fast pace. They clocked in with a blazing, fault-free 37.648 to steal the lead from Jayne by nearly two full seconds, pushing him to second.
“I’ve made the mistake with [Rothchild] before where I hold back and try to ride more conservatively to back into the win,” said McLain of his jump-off ride. “I knew Charlie wasn’t as fast as he could be and a few of his stride options didn’t show up, so my plan was to ride a quick round without taking massive risks.”
With Ward topping the leaderboard, Jonathan McCrea, riding out of East Windsor, Connecticut, and Aristoteles V, owned by Candy Tribble and Windsor Show Stables, had one last chance to etch their spot in the placings as the final rider in the jump-off.
“I knew I had two very fast riders in front of me,” said McCrea. “Unfortunately, I made a mistake in the jump-off and it cost me, but overall my horse jumped very well.” McCrea was on his way to besting Ward’s time, until his horse spooked at a decorative obstacle on his way to the last line that cost him valuable seconds.
McCrea and Aristoteles V clocked in fault-free, but their time of 40.410 was not fast enough to edge out Jayne and Ward on the leaderboard, giving them a third place for their efforts.
“It was a great class, and we of course have the super sponsor AIG for four years in a row now which is extraordinary, and we thank them for that amazing support,” said HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri. “It was a great way for us to finish the Desert Circuit.”
All of the top three victors in the winner’s circle will travel to Ocala, Florida next week for the second jewel of the HITS Triple Crown of Show Jumping, the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix in Ocala, Florida on Sunday March 27 at 2pm.