Two-time Olympic team and 2015 Pan American Games individual gold medalist McLain Ward (USA) jumped to a thrilling victory on Saturday night in the $380,000 Fidelity Investments® Grand Prix CSI 5* at the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival. Ward and his longtime mount Rothchild raced to the top of an eight-horse jump-off in front of a packed house at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER) and Comanche 28 finished second, and Mark Bluman (COL) and Califa LS placed third.
Bob Ellis (GBR) set the track for 44 starters in Saturday's feature class under the lights of PBIEC's International Arena. Eight entries advanced to the jump-off, where the top three were the only combinations to jump double clear.
Second to go over the short course, Bluman set the pace with a clear round in 53.51 seconds aboard Stransky's Mission Farms' Califa LS. Ward and Sagamore Farm's Rothchild were next to clear the jump-off in a blazing time of 48.96 seconds. Michaels-Beerbaum and Artemis Equestrian Farm's Comanche 28 settled for second place in a time of 50.05 seconds. Eduardo Menezes (BRA) and Quintol clocked the fastest four-fault round in 49.74 seconds to finish fourth.
Rothchild, a 15-year-old Belgian Sport Horse gelding (Artos x Elegant de l'Ile) also known as Bongo, was his usual quirky self throughout the night. Bongo gave Ward some trouble in the schooling ring before the jump-off, leaving his rider a little unsure of how things were going to go, but after throwing a few more antics as they entered the ring for the short course, he set off on a mission.
"Bongo and I were having a rough night in the schooling area," Ward detailed. "It is a pretty lively atmosphere back there and this is his eighth year jumping grand prixs here, so he knows it and he anticipates it. The warm-up was pretty rough, and he was pretty excited to the point where I was not sure that it was going to go very well. We barely warmed up, but sometimes that works out. You have no choice, and you do the best you can. He's tough in the warm-up, but it is that spirit that probably makes him do physically much more than he should have done in his career, so you have to take the good with the bad."
Ward now has another top mount in HH Azur that has taken some of Rothchild's workload, but the spirited little chestnut continues to win in his own right. While Azur is Ward's hopeful mount for this year's Olympic Games, Rothchild will continue to compete in top competitions.
"Azur is taking a lot of the pressure," Ward admitted. "But he has been pretty remarkable the last couple of years, what he has stepped up and done, and he does it with 100% heart and try. It is always wonderful to have a horse with that kind of heart and spirit. We have been grooming Azur for the last year towards Rio. That is certainly the horse that is first on our list for that event. Most of what we do with her is working backwards from that. To have a horse like Rothchild that can compete at this 5* level, and win along with it, has allowed us to make good choices with Azur leading into Rio."
A special Groom's Award was also presented Saturday night to Sean Kissane as the groom of Rothchild. Along with Kissane, Ward and Rothchild have a strong support system that includes longtime manager Lee McKeever.
"Lee has helped keep everything together for 30 years for me," Ward acknowledged. "His life, after his two kids, is his horses. We have had this horse since he was turning seven, and he is part of the family, and it has been a remarkable journey, as everybody knows. We care a lot for him."
Second place finisher, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, was happy with her night on a newer mount in Comanche 28. The 10-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Coupe de Couer x Baloubet du Rouet) was competing in his second 5* ever and performed well through the very fast jump-off.
"I think it was a difficult jump-off," Michaels-Beerbaum noted. "It was a very twisty, turny course that suited a horse like Rothchild better than it did my horse Comanche. He is new to this going fast, and turns, and things like that. I was relatively pleased with how he went. I saw McLain's jump-off, and it was a super round and super ride. The horse jumped fabulous, and on a day like that, I would say he is almost unbeatable."
"I was pleased with Comanche. We are new at this game together," she continued. "He is game, and positive and wants to do his job, and he is having fun doing it, so I was really pleased. The seven strides to that last fence were slow for my big mover whereas McLain had a faster seven on a smaller mover. I'm not sure there were six strides there."
Michaels-Beerbaum spoke about the night's course, stating, "Bob Ellis is one of the best course designers in the world. We have him in Europe a lot obviously being English. He has a trademark of having rollback turns to jumps that you do not see very often with other course designers. George Morris explained to me that that was 'old English' style. It is not very easy to ride to be honest. You are constantly galloping and then rolling back on a jump. It tests your control and it is hard to make the time allowed, but the course itself was a very good course. He had eight clear in a very good field of horses and riders. I think McLain, Mark, and I were very satisfied."
For Mark Bluman, the night's third place finish was a dream come true, placing among the likes of Ward and Michaels-Beerbaum.
"It is an unbelievable feeling that finally I am sitting right next to the people that I have been looking at from the beginning since I was seven years old and here I am," Bluman said in the press conference. "It is just a very exciting moment, and I am thrilled. I literally can not believe I am sitting here right now."
"I have been here for seven years and honestly this is the fist year I have some horses to jump in the Saturday night classes," Bluman continued. "It is my second 5* show of my life, and to be here with these geniuses right next to me, I have no words for what happened tonight. I still can't believe it."
Bluman's mount, Califa LS, is a 13-year-old La Silla stallion (Carthago x Lux Z) that the rider has been partnered with since the end of last year's winter circuit.
"We actually co-owned him with Ilan Ferder until yesterday when we bought the other half," Bluman revealed. "He is a very useful horse. He is brave, and he does his job, and he is taking me places that I have never been before. I am really grateful to him."
Another special award was presented to Georgina Bloomberg as the Leading Lady Grand Prix Rider for her success in week five. Martha Jolicoeur of Douglas Elliman Real Estate sponsors the award in memory of Dale Lawler.
Source: Press release from Equestrian Sport Productions News // Picture © Sportfot.
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