(C) ESI Photography. Haley Gassel and Quite Dark 2.
Twenty-three-year-old Hayley Gassel of Lenoir City, Tennessee, riding her own Quite Dark 2, with the expert guidance of trainer David Jennings, executed her plan perfectly to win against a jump-off field of 18 riders, capturing her first Grand Prix career win in Thursday’s $25,000 SmartPak Grand Prix.
“When I started coming to [HITS Ocala] and doing the Junior Hunters, it was a dream of mine to ride in the Grand Prix,” said Gassel. “To actually win one here is totally mind boggling.”
The impressive group of jump-off riders included Aaron Vale with two rides along with Great American Million Winner Andre Thieme and multiple Grand Prix winners Marilyn Little and Tracey Fenney.
Florencio Hernandez of Mexico designed a first round course of fifteen jumping efforts for the field of thirty-six starters. Eighteen of the thirty-six jumped clear first rounds, setting up a mad dash for the cash in the jump-off. Ten jumped clear rounds in the jump-off and every possible option was tried to find the fastest route that could lead to the blue ribbon.
First to go clear in the jump-off was Aaron Vale of Williston, Florida riding Bonzini S, owned by Thinkslikeahorse. The young horse stepped up to the challenge as he galloped gamely down the first line to the combination in eight strides, rolled back tightly to the oxer, did six forward strides to another oxer and five to the tall vertical, with a split time of 21 seconds,
Vale rolled back to the matching red vertical and galloped home in ten really open strides to the final oxer. They finished with a clean round in 33.759, setting the Great American Time to Beat. Later, Vale would go even faster on Quidam’s Good Luck, owned by Troy Glaus, to finish second, and move Bonzini S to third.
Daniel Geitner of Aiken, South Carolina proved that Vale’s time was beatable by doing nine strides down the final line to finish in 33.329 on Kenwood, but crossed the timers with an unfortunate four faults, out of the top five.
Gassel and her huge-strided mount, Quite Dark 2, followed Geitner with their eyes on the prize. Their blazing fast time of 32.605 seconds topped the leaderboard for the eventual win.
“Our plan took a lot of guts; we changed our original plan after watching two or three [trips]. There was just no way to leave out a stride to the combination and still be able to jump out of it, so we did the eight there,” said Gassel. “David told me that the only way we could beat Aaron was to do the six to the five and finish out in nine instead of ten. We also did only seven in the rollback even though I had planned eight. Going to the final fence my helmet was sliding down over my eyes and I was just counting while I tried to flip it back into place.”
Andrea Torres Guerreiro and her Fifty Shades of Grey was the next to jump clear. They clocked in at 34.158 to ultimately finish fifth.
Marilyn Little of Frederick, Maryland, riding Clear Water, owned by Karen O’Connor, did seven to five and finished in ten strides. They were fast across the ground to stop the clock in 33.926 for a final fourth place finish.
Gassel has won other big classes on the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit this season, including top five finishes the $7,500 U-Dump Junior/Amateur-Owner Jumper Classic.
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