Sunday, April 8, 2012

American Invitational

With friends Stephanie Yee and Terri Koubek
Trophy table
Bike jump

The press conference

The first Saturday of April has always meant one thing for
me: the American Invitational, held in the Raymond James stadium in Tampa.
Celebrating its 40th year, the Invitational is open to only the best show jumpers in the world. One must be invited to attend, based upon set criteria. I have attended roughly 2 dozen of these events, including the inaugural event, held in the old Tampa stadium, in 1973. Back then, every
seat in the house was filled, and the horses were stabled under the stands in makeshift stalls.
I watched legendary rider Rodney Jenkens and Idle Dice win that year. You should have heard the stadium erupt in cheers! That year, it was called the $15,000 American Invitational. Over the years, the name changed from the Anheauser-Busch AI to the Michelob American Invitational, then the Budweiser American Invitational and finally, in 2010, it became known as the
Gene Mische American Inivitational. Mishe passed away later that year, but was proud of his contributions to the sport and industry, with the American Invitational as his proudest accomplishment.
I will always remember that first trip…we had just moved to Florida and my mother had sold our sporty Baracuda for a red AMC Matador station wagon, which caused great embarrassment to my brother and I. It had been in an accident (oh, darn!), so it was in the shop (where it would be stolen by joyriders, only to be found, unfortunately, safe and sound, the next day…even punks had better taste!), so we traveled to the Invitational in style…a rental Monte Carlo! Compared to the station wagon, it was so luxurious: what a way for a 10 year old to travel to the “big city” to see my first “fancy” horseshow! Back then, the seats were filled to capacity, and it saddens me today that the attendance numbers top out at less than 10,000.
Over the years, I saw memorable performances by Melanie Smith and Calypso, Lisa Jaquin and For the Moment, Greg Best and Gem Twist and Ian Miller and Big Ben, to name just a few. From the course walk and standing next to the Shamu standards, to the South Creek Fox Hounds putting on an exhibition, the Parade of Breeds and finally, the actual competition itself, it
has always been exciting, a day to mark on the calendar, with edge of the seat excitement, as it comes down to just a few tenths of a second to determine who will ride off with the big payout!
This year was no different. Thirty two horses and riders contested for the $200,000 in prize money. I don’t recall so many countries being represented: USA, Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, Ireland, England, Germany, Australia and France. There were crowd favorites, such as Michelle Michaels Beerbaum (Ger), and Katie Prudent, Margie Engle, and Beezie Madden and several
up and coming riders too, including 17 year old Reed Kessler, who is at the head of the long list of riders for the Olympics.
The Invitational started as it always does, with the Parade of Tampa Equestrian Series Champions. The riders were introduced, followed by a Parade of Breeds exhibit. I have to sidetrack here. There was an Appaloosa, which I am sure probably shows as a Quarter Horse as well. He certainly carries himself like the Quarter Horse people seem to like, which means that his head is below the withers and his hind quarters appear to be doing a slow trot while the front end attempts to canter. The horse looked absolutely miserable, the ride looked uncomfortable and it looked downright abusive. I hear that the Quarter Horse industry is trying to change this, yet this "look" still is getting rewarded in the showring. How do you even train a horse to move this way, short of making them outright crippled on purpose? And do they move like this when they are racing across a field, or are they forbidden to be turned out..or too crippled to move naturally? I don't see any difference between this and the folks in the Tennessee Walker industry who feel they must sore their horses legs. It is appalling.
Also, I must mention the Morgan and the Saddlebred horses. We thought the Saddlebred was the Morgan and vice versa until we read otherwise in the program. Really? If you want to breed a horse that looks like a Saddlebred, then why not just breed Saddlebreds? The show type Morgans look nothing like their predecessor, the Lippit line of Justin Morgan fame.
Other than that, the breeds being represented were gorgeous and obviously fine examples of their breeds. The Warmblood did lovely tempi changes across the diagonal and the Akhel-Teke was stunning with his golden coat.
Next to perform was Tommie Turvey performed his daredevil tandem riding, and the Show Jumping Hall of Fame inducted its newest members: President and CEO of the USET Foundation and former AHSA President Jane Forbes Clark, grand prix rider Hap Hansen and President and CEO of Langer Equestrian Group, Larry Langer.
Finally, it was time to get down to business. We didn’t have to wait long for the night’s first clean ride. Charlie Jayne, on Athena, were the 3rd pair to start the course, and left all rails up for the evenings first clear round. After that, it would be 11 more rides before we saw last
years winning team Kent Farrington and Uceko put in the next clear round. Kessler, riding Mika, had a disappointing 4 faults. Always a favorite, Margie Engle had a difficult ride on the stallion Royce and retired him on course, demonstrating the horsewoman that she is. The bicycle jump would prove to be the undoing of 13 teams over the course of the evening. The top rail sat shallow in the cups and horses that were rushed through it were guaranteed to knock it down. The
big oxer combination that followed on the outside line would also claim a few more victims. Steve Stephen’s demanding course also included a skinny horseshoe vertical, which caused a few problems, a colanade wall, and a vertical-oxer-vertical combination, which proved to be an issue with a few. Notably absent was the famous Shamu jump and a liverpool! Ten more rides would go by before Beezie Madden proved that she was a contender. Riding Simon, she made it look effortless. The stands went wild, as we realized we were in for an exciting jumpoff. Molly Ashe-Crawley immediately followed, and with Carissmo, she sent the crowd into another frenzie with a clear round. With just 6 riders left, one more went clean. Mario Deslauriers, formerly of Canada and now riding for the U.S., galloped Cella to the 5th clear round.
While the course was changed for the jump off, we were treated to an exhibition by world class dressage rider……huh? Tommie Turvey? While trying to figure out who they had managed to snag for this demonstration, I was completely caught off guard when Tommie came in riding his paint Poker Joe. As they halted to demonstrate the salute, the saddle slid under Poker Joe and Tommie found himself starring up at Poker Joe’s belly. Silliness ensued, with Poker Joe lying on his back, all four feet straight up in the air and Tommie sitting on his belly. The slap stick routine elicited loud applause from the audience, as many I am sure, myself included, were enormously impressed at this horse’s training. It culminated with Poker Joe chasing Tommie across the course, all in good fun. I have been to Arabian Nights and Equitana’s Mane Event. This is by
far, the best horse act I have seen, and I look forward to seeing them again!
Finally, it was time for the jump off. The course was shortened and began with an oxer, followed by a left turn to the colonnade wall. The vertical-oxer combination, which had claimed its fair share of riders in the first round, was up next, followed by a right turn to the horseshoe vertical. A turn to the right, over the American Invitational jump, which was reversed from the first round, and the horses then beared left, around several jumps to jump another vertical. Then a sharp rollback, which proved to establish the winners, to an oxer with a right turn over the final oxer.
Jacobs was first to enter, but with 17 faults, he would have to settle for 5th and a check for $12,000.
Farrington entered next, hoping to become the 3rd rider to ever win back to back Invitationals. The lovely gray Uceko (2001 KWPN g., Celano x Koriander) set a blistering speed, but a rail down at the final fence put him in first place only temporarily, but that would not last. He would have to settle for 4th place, a check for $20,000 and the award for Style Rider award, which he also won last year.
Madden was next to gallop across the start line, and set the bar with 0 faults and a time of
46.31. Simon’s (1999 KWPN g., Mr Blue x Poludox) pace was conservative. After the round, she commented that she “would have been more aggressive had there been fast trips already. I think I was pretty good until the black and white double. He jumped a little high, got a little zig-zaggy and he was a little wide to the last line, so I did one more stride.”
The pressure was on Ashe-Cawley, who proved that she was up to the challenge. Carissimo (1999 Hol. g., Calando I x Silvester) set a good pace, and shaved time off at the rollback, and a clear round put her in the lead with a time of 45.81.
Would that be good enough for Ashe-Cawley to win her 3rd Invitational?
The big gray Cella (2002 BWP mare, Cento x Chin Chin) entered the stadium and Deslauriers set the speed from the first jump. They had a sharp roll back and left a stride out on the approach to the last fence, shaving 1.31 seconds off of Ashe-Cawley’s time, for a win with 44.5 seconds!
The award ceremony was held immediately after, with presentation of the top 12 finishers and a victory gallop circle.
Deslauriers credited his tight turn after fence 6 and a good track, as well as “everything went right” to his win. He was full of praise of the Steve Stephens course, citing the bicycle jump and the 3rd element of the triple as causing the most problems. He felt the footing was super, and the atmosphere was encouraging the horses to jump up. This was the first major class for Cella in 3 weeks, who had been suffering from a tooth issue. “She’s incredible! To walk in here and do this like this, it’s such a great horse. I actually met the first fence on a good lick and the jump-off
kind of fell into place. I was turning the corners and the distance was showing up. I know she’s fast, she’s a very big horse, but she’s quick enough and leaving the stride out to the last fence was actually just nice to her, so I thought she jumped fantastic.” He credited a great indoor season, including Paris, Harrisburg and Geneva. Cella is owned by Clark-Forbes, and this gives her her first Invitational win.
Ashe-Cawley, who took time off for the birth of her daughter, said it felt good to be back, after her absence. She said it was good to know “it’s still there” and that the ride “felt good.” Asked what her next step was, she laughed as she said it would be to “try and find a way to keep him.”
With the Invitational now in the past, riders, owners and trainers will now be focusing even more for London. Who will be representing the United States? Team USA will be defending their 8 year title, having won gold in Athens in 2004 and Hong Kong in 2008. Will there be a third team win?
Equestrian eyes will be focused on London, rooting for our Olympians, whomever they will be!

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