McLain Ward and Sapphire © John Kassel
Unlike Saturday, the weather for the FTI Grand Prix was beautiful. Expectations were high, but the first clean round did not come until the thirteenth rider, Judy Garofalo Torres riding Higher Ground Farm's Oliver. Torres had to wait a long time to see if anyone in the field of 33 could challenge her fault-free performance. One by one the best riders and horses in the country were beaten by the Conrad Homfeld-designed course as rails continued to fall.
"I was kind of surprised," said Torres of the lack of clean rounds. "My horse did so well. I did think there would be a few more clears. I was getting pretty excited at the end."
The possibility of no jump-off was finally erased by the day's last rider, McLain Ward, and his 14-year-old, Belgian warmblood mare. The audience collectively held its breath as Sapphire negotiated the fences without fault creating a battle of the sexes for the jump-off; Ward on his mare and Torres on her 19-year-old stallion.
Torres went first in the tiebreaker and rode conservatively leaving all the rails up, but in a beatable time of 56.88 seconds. Ward made it look easy rolling around the Grand Prix turf flawlessly posting a winning time of 50.81. Third place went to Darragh Kenny of Ireland and Obelix, owned by Trade Winds Farm, the fastest of the nine four-fault rounds.
"The course was quite difficult," said Ward. "Over the last few years the standard of this horse show has gone up again. Shannette (Cohen) has taken the show to another level. On course, the water line was spooky and caused a lot of trouble and the last line was a little mushy which might be why a lot of rails went down, but the footing held up great."
Since Ward was the last to go in the first round and there were only two in the jump-off, there was not too much time in between rounds, making it a little tough for Ward and Sapphire.
"She was running out of gas at the end of the jump-off and so was I, but she knows the game and was able to get it done," said Ward. "Either she keeps getting better or I have stopped getting in the way. Hopefully she stays healthy."
This is the seventh win for Sapphire in 2009 (and the 118th career win for Ward), an amazing statistic for any horse, but especially for a 14-year-old mare. "This year we picked the FTI events, they have been very good to us," joked Ward referring to his FTI victory in the $400,000 Grand Prix in Wellington in March.
Ward's win, coming in the heels of his triumph in Friday's $50,000 Spy Coast Farm Grand Prix Qualifier, made him just the third rider, following Joe Fargis in 2005 and Hillary Dobbs in 2008, to sweep the Hampton Classic's two lead events. For good measure, Ward also won the $30,000 Fendi Cup on Goldika on the day in between, giving him Grand Prix wins on three consecutive days.
Even though Torres did not make it to the winner's circle, she was not too disappointed "I have had him for ten years," said Torres referring to her 19-year-old. "I wanted this class to be the class of the year, the main event for him. Coming in second to McLain is very, very exciting. I'll take it."