April 9, 2008

McLain Ward and Sapphire, winners of the 2008 $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational.
© Randi Muster

After a nearly hour long break because of inclement weather, McLain Ward of Brewster, New York, and his veteran mount Sapphire returned to the ring to complete their first round course. Their clear trip in the first round and one time fault in the jump-off gave them the win in the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational, CSI 3* on Saturday night. Richard Spooner and Cristallo finished second, while Christine McCrea and Promised Land were third.

The course was designed by 2008 Olympic course designer Steve Stephens of Palmetto, FL. It featured 14 numbered obstacles, including a triple combination, an aqueduct jump, an optical illusion wall, and a liverpool. Fence 6b of the combination and fence 13, a surprisingly difficult oxer set after a short left hand rollback turn, came down the most at nine times. The fastest four-faulter from the first round was Lauren Hough on Quick Study, who finished the first round in 93.90 seconds out of the 99 second time allowed.

Californian Richard Spooner and Cristallo, a 10-year-old Holsteiner gelding, were the first horse and rider on course. They put in a calm, clear round to start the class with a bang. Two horses later, Christine McCrea of East Windsor, CT, and Promised Land, her 14-year-old Holsteiner gelding, put in another great clear round.

It would take another 20 horses and almost two hours before the great crowd at Raymond James Stadium would see an additional clear round. There were heartbreaking four-fault rides from Danielle Torano, Michael Morrissey, Hough, and Ian Millar in between.

With rain and storms threatening and people nervously checking radar screens all evening, everyone's worst nightmare came true when the 23rd horse was on course at 9 p.m. Riding through the rain, McLain Ward (USA) and Sapphire jumped through the triple combination at fence 6 and were clear over fence 7 when the winds hit. Nearly simultaneously, almost every jump on course blew over. Ward and Sapphire did not bat an eye, but the tone sounded for him to stop. He exited the arena and the class was put on hold until 9:50.

"I think it did come on pretty fast," Ward said about the storm. "When I cantered in the ring, I had no thought that I wasn't (going to finish). It was just remarkable how the horse dealt with it."

Ward came back on course nearly an hour later. He said, "I was halfway done, so I had to take that into consideration. She had already made a great effort not to go back and try and complete it." He was allowed to use jump number 1 as practice, and then he resumed the course at jump 8. Sapphire jumped with ease in the rain and finished their first round course with no faults. Ward commented, "She was spectacular. The question that was asked when I had to come back in the first round was remarkably difficult."

After the rain delay, there were four scratches: Mac Cone (and his horse Ole) and Eric Lamaze (and Hickstead) of Canada, as well as Nicole Simpson (SRF Dragonfly) and William Simpson (Carlsson vom Dach) of the United States. Ward could not speak for the riders, but he did try to explain why they would not return. "Everybody has got to make a decision that not only suits their horse but the rest of the year. The Olympics are coming," he pointed out. "This is how we make our living, so you have to use a little sense. There are situations where you should scratch, and they felt it was for them, their horse, and their situation."

Only three riders elected to come back after Ward. Ward explained how he made the decision to continue, "We thought about it, and the ground jury looked at the footing. There was a discussion where the riders wanted to look at the footing. I was back at the barn because I would be first and I had to stay focused. John Madden was going to come up and look at it, and I had all the confidence in the world in (his) decision. Obviously, he truly felt it was fine because Beezie went."

The next to return after Ward was two-time American Invitational winner Chris Kappler and VDL Oranta. They were close to having a clear round, but they had a rail at jump 12. Their first round time placed them in sixth place after the class finished. Margie Engle and Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold had eight faults in their first round and finished just out of the top 12.

Last in the ring was crowd favorite Beezie Madden on Authentic, who won this class in 2005 and 2007. Coming down the last line of the course, Authentic just toed the front rail of jump 13, which came down for four faults to the cries of the hardy crowd, who had remained in the stadium to see the end of the class.

The course was set for the jump-off, and Spooner and Cristallo were once again the first pair to attempt. Spooner had good speed and made the inside cut to 6b-c, but Cristallo could not quite make the oxer. The rail fell, and Spooner finished up quickly in 41.76 seconds with four faults. Spooner explained, "It was rider error. I turned too tight there, and I was too long. He tried really hard to leave it up but some things just can't be done."

"I had a good time. I'm proud of my horse and being second in this big class means a lot to me. He's paid for the trip," Spooner smiled.

McCrea and Promised Land took the outside turn to the one stride at 6b-c, but it was not enough when they had a rail at the "c" element. They had another rail at the vertical at fence 12, which was the highest jump on the course. They also accumulated two time faults. They finished with 10 total faults in 48.21 seconds.

McCrea said, "My horse is a heavier mover. He's not super quick and fast. I sort of felt like I got a bit stuck in the turns, but all in all it wasn't that bad. I just knocked them down."

Tonight's third place for McCrea counts as one of her biggest individual achievements. "My horse was great, and I'm thrilled with him. My parents are thrilled. This was his fourth time doing this class. He's always been pretty good in this class. This is way up there, and it means a lot to me. I just missed getting to go to Europe, so having a ribbon in this big class is nice. It makes me feel good."

Ward and Sapphire, a 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare, were the last to go and had the luxury of only needing to produce a slow, clear round. That is exactly what Ward did. He made the outside turn to the one stride and continued through the rest with no jumping faults. His time of 47.21 seconds did give him one time fault, but it was enough for victory.

Ward won his first American Invitational in 1998, back when the class was held in the old Tampa Stadium.