The luck belonged to the Irish during the 2016 $225,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon CSI4*. Kevin Babington and Mark Q repeated their 2011 victory in the Dixon Oval, beating Danielle Torano and McLain Ward in a three-horse jump-off for the lion's share of the prize money.
A crowd of 9,000 spectators turned out for the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair's highlight event, watching as the best in the country competed over the technical CSI4* course built by Kelvin Bywater. Only three were able to master the first round, and it was Babington and Mark Q that were the pathfinders. Returning at the top of the tiebreaker, they once again left all the rails intact to set the pace to beat at 38.43 seconds.
"I thought to myself, whatever I do McLain is going to figure out a better plan anyway," joked Babington. "The leave-out to the double was risky for me, but I knew I could be fast across the ring. At that stage I thought had already sort of lost it, but it's always nice to win a class.!"
The second to return was Danielle Torano aboard Callas III. With a slightly more conservative path on the young 9-year-old mount, the amateur rider and mother of two cleared the track in 39.49 seconds to take over second place behind Babington. At the end of the night, Torano was honored with the Richard E. McDevitt Style Award for the rider who exemplified the best style of riding."Callas III is a chestnut mare, so that should tell you a little bit," laughed Torano. "She was pretty up in the schooling area before the first round, which rattled me for a minute. I decided there was nothing I could do, so I just went with it. To come in the ring and look at all the people - she's never seen anything like that. As I went to the first jump she felt super focused, and she was amazing in the first round. I messed up a little bit in the jump-off, but she's super careful."
The crowd roared when the final rider of the night entered the Dixon Oval. Olympian McLain Ward on his Pan American Gold medalist-mount, Rothchild, seemed like a sure bet. Coming off a streak of eight international victories, Ward seemed unstoppable. And he was. Until the last fence.
As the crowd let out a yell at the penultimate vertical, Rothchild lost his focus on the homestretch to the final oxer and ducked out at the fence, much to the shock of all who watched. The error left Ward to pick up the third place prize while Babington led the lap of honor.
"What makes Rothchild great is that he's sensitive, he's sharp; he's a little fireball," explained Ward. "The place erupted and I think that rattled him slightly, but that's brilliant. That's what we need in the sport. I wouldn't want it any different. I need to deal with it better; he needs to deal with it better. That's what makes this place so special."
Winning an international event five years later with the same mount takes a special horse, and for Babington, Mark Q is his favorite mount of all time.
"Carling King made me and is the horse of a lifetime," said Babington. "Mark Q is my favorite horse that I've ever had. He's stepped up to the plate so often, and he's kept me in the sport and kept me jumping big classes, even when he shouldn't have. I'd enter him in the HITS Million class, and he'd jump around and maybe pull one down, but on the day you can put him anywhere, indoors, outdoors. He's not a superstar but he gives it 100 percent. Now, at 14, he's jumping better than he has ever jumped."
Babington added, "He just feels more elastic in his body for some reason. He's more focused. He was a very difficult horse at the beginning; a very quirky horse. He's still erratic and it's still very hard to get his lead changes in the ring. But he's trying to be careful. I don't have to protect him as much as I used. He's just in a happy place at the moment."
With the addition of an international ranking through the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the Devon Horse Show has continued to try and improve the standards at the world-class event.
"I've always been a great fan of Devon," noted Ward. "The team here has made it first class. I think becoming FEI 4*, increasing the prize money; I hope it continues to grow. I don't think this group here will rest on their laurels. I think the goal will be to go to 5* and have even more money. I think the people will come. I think the riders will start to come."
The Devon Horse Show is a special event for everyone involved, and consistently draws one of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds in the world. "Devon is very special to me because I live 30 minutes from here," noted Babington. "All the students are here tonight, people I helped 20 years ago are here tonight, so it's definitely very special. It's a fantastic venue and the footing is fantastic. Where else can you have such a crowd behind you than Devon? I tell all the other riders around, if you haven't been to Devon it's a show you have to come to!"
Show Manager Peter Doubleday concluded, "We basically tried to do everything that the riders had requested. We doubled the prize money. We went FEI. We truly believe that it'll be a work in progress. I know with our group we can be very patient. We want to continue our FEI affiliation and to make it even bigger and better. This event to me and all these other riders will tell you that this is truly, truly the best show jumping audience in North America. We have a great product here and we're heading in the right direction."
Source: Press release from Phelps Media Group // Picture © The Book, LLC
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