McLain Ward emerged victorious in the weekend’s $200,000 Gene Mische American Invitational in a cliff-hanging jump-off at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Ward joined small and elite group of riders to have captured three American Invitational victories.
He piloted Rothchild to a double-clear effort during a two-horse jump-off. They sped through the finish line in 42.10 seconds after completing a clear short course, while Reed Kessler and Mika captured the second place prize. New Zealand’s Sharn Wordley and Derly Chin de Muze were the third place finishers, taking the honors with only one time fault added to their otherwise fautless first round effort.
2008 Olympic course designer Steve Stephens of Palmetto, Florida, designed an arduous track of 14 numbered obstacles. The course featured an oxer-vertical double combination, a scopey vertical-oxer-vertical combination, a unique, suspended American Invitational wall, an orange skinny, a liverpool and a daunting brownstone final oxer. The most difficult obstacle proved to be the triple combination’s liverpool, resulting in 13 rails on the ground.
“Obviously Steve and the entire Stadium Jumping team have so many things that they do so well. The fences here for 30 years have been on the cutting edge and just spectacular. That’s a very easy thing over time to let up on, and they never have,” Ward said. “They had four or five new fences in the course tonight, and that really is a testament to the effort and what this is – this class.”
Ward continued, “I thought this course was good. I didn’t think it was unfair. Steve had some very young and green riders in the class, as well as Olympic horses and Olympic riders, so he had to find the balance. I thought it was a good balanced test. The triple was a good test in the middle. I think two or three, but under 5 is always a good number in the jump-off for this competition.”
Lauren Hough and Quick Study were one of the horse and rider combinations to fall victim to the problematic triple combination. Hough completed the course in the fast four-fault time of 85.48 seconds. She held strong as the fastest four-fault pair, but Kirsten Coe and Baronez blazed around the field, overtaking Hough’s time as she finished with a time of 85.24 seconds. Both horse and rider combinations found fault at the second part of the triple combination, the oxer-liverpool. Coe eventually took the fourth place honors, while Hough finished in fifth. Other four-fault riders included Laura Kraut and Cedric, Todd Minikus and Uraguay, Darragh Kerins and E Muze YEK, and Jordan Coyne and Lazaro.
Eighteen-year-old Olympian Reed Kessler and her own Mika were the fourth on the course, and the first to post a clear effort as she showed their mastership of the opening track. The crowd erupted in applause as she made it through the triple combination, and easily soared over the final daunting brownstone oxer.
“Mika is great. He’s kind of been a little bit in Cylana’s shadow – he just hasn’t had his big Olympic moment yet, but he shined tonight,” Kessler said. “They’re totally different. She’s like the coolest customer ever, and he’s a little more of a like my special little boy that I’ve had for four years. We have a really close partnership.”
Ten rounds later, McLain Ward guaranteed a jump-off for the 41st edition of the American Invitational. Ward guided Rothchild through the finish in 84.91 seconds, without incurring any jumping faults. With a jump-off eminent, the stakes were high as riders continued to navigate the first round course within the tight time allowed of 89 seconds. Sharn Wordley almost added his name to the list for the jump-off; however, a single time fault on top of his clear jumping effort sealed his fate in the third position.
“Derly is a relatively new horse for me to ride, and I was just sort of taking it slowly during the winter, trying to create a partnership,” Wordley said.
Derly Chin de Muze was the London 2012 Olympic ride for Canada’s Eric Lamaze. Wordley has been riding the 10-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (For Pleasure x Nabab de Reve) for only a month.
“Right from the beginning I’d planned to do one big class in Wellington and the Invitational. So I’ve just been slowly building her up for this class really,” Wordley said. “I knew I was probably going to be pretty close on the time. After fence four, my horse drifted quite hard to the right, away from the stands, and I rubbed my foot against the standard – I was a little discombobulated.”
Wordley described further, “I kind of took a bit of time on that corner to get myself organized, and I knew from then on it was going to be touch and go whether I got the time or not. I tried to catch up as best I could without sort of jeopardizing having a rail. I was really happy with her. She jumped fantastic. This is my first time doing the Invitational, and I love it. It’s going to be a focus for me next year too. I think it’s a great class.”
Kessler and Ward went head-to-head in the jump-off as the 2012 Olympic teammates competed for the coveted title of champion. This was the smallest jump-off field in the history of the American Invitational.
It was Kessler who entered the ring as the first to return, and hopes were high as she took each fence with a careful approach. Kessler focused on laying down a tidy and clean round for Ward to chase, but her time of 43.37 seconds would prove too conservative against the past winner, leaving the door open for Ward to take the lead should he leave the rails in their cups.
“She never makes it easy,” Ward laughed. “Reed put a good pressure round on Rothchild. I had to be on the ball. It worked out our way. I’m sure she’ll win this class many times, and she’ll be doing it long after I’ve hung it up.”
It had been five years since Ward had taken the victory at the 2008 American Invitational with his beloved Sapphire. Aboard Rothchild, Ward was able to mirror his win and move him through the course with a firm pace.
“For me every horse is in the shadow of Sapphire really – I miss her very much. But he’s been a great horse for me. I’ve had him since he was seven. He’s an everyday competitor-speed class, American Invitational, GCT Grand Prix, Nations Cup. He’s very quietly amassed quite a record,” Ward said.
“When I grew up, this was the most important class to win. This is what we coveted. I think these are the kind of classes that our country, not only the athletes and the sponsors, but also the Federation really need to rally behind. It’s like when they grandfather a building. This should be very important because it’s special to us,” Ward said.
Horse Name Rider Name JF1 TF1 AF1 Time 1 JF2 TF2 AF2 Time 2
1 16 Rothchild McLain Ward 0 0 0 84.910 0 0 0 42.100
2 6 Mika Reed Kessler 0 0 0 87.500 0 0 0 43.370
3 21 Derly Chin de Muze Sharn Wordley 0 1 1 90.350
4 23 Baronez Kirsten Coe 4 0 4 85.240
5 18 Quick Study Lauren Hough 4 0 4 85.480
6 22 Cedric Laura Kraut 4 0 4 85.560
7 24 Uraguay Todd Minikus 4 0 4 85.840
8 2 Lazaro Jordan Coyne 4 0 4 85.930
9 8 E Muze Yek Darragh Kerins 4 0 4 88.640
10 4 Kismet 50 Candice King 4 1 5 89.910
11 26 Vindicat W Jessica Springsteen 4 1 5 91.190
12 7 Flaming Star Charlie Jacobs 8 0 8 84.070