Paige Johnson (USA) and Luke Skywalker 46 made a fast move to the top of the leaderboard in the first FEI sanctioned grand prix of the fall season at Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) in the $127,000 Suncast® Grand Prix FEI CSI 3*. Johnson bested the class of 31 international entries with a blazing time of 40.24 seconds in the jump-off to cap their night with a win. Ali Wolff (USA) followed in second place aboard Brianda completing their jump-off round in 42.02 seconds, while Sharn Wordley (NZL) piloted Casper to a third place finish with a time of 42.96 seconds.
Johnson went early in the first round, drawing fourth in the order of go, earning the first clean effort around a tough track set by Anthony D'Ambrosio (USA). Consulting with coach Kent Farrington throughout the night, Johnson commented that "Luke" jumped beautifully in the first round giving her confidence moving forward into the jump-off, where they would finish as only one of four double clear trips.
"I went in early in both rounds and wanted to stick with my plan. I just wanted to do the best I could and it worked out. I know him really well now. We got him when he was eight and now he's ten so we've grown up together and I trust him completely," she remarked. "Once we went clear I made sure to go over my plan with Brian Walker and Kent, who work together, and they talked before I went in. Kent called me and he had watched my first round. They both told me to do the seven in the last line and I just tried to execute. I have a great team around me."
In an electric moment that excited the crowd and lit the atmosphere in the George Morris Arena at TIEC, Johnson went for the very forward seven strides in the last line, proving to be a difficult feat to beat as she maintained her lead through the jump-off, which was contested by ten combinations.
"It was a long seven, but I always knew that I was going to do seven. I just didn't let up. I knew that if I wanted to win, I needed to do seven and sometimes you have to take a gamble and it's nice when the gamble works out. You have to trust your team, your horse, and your ability. At the end of the day, that's all you can ask for and hope it's your day or your night," she explained with a smile.
Luke Skywalker 46 (Lord Pezi x Shakira) has recently become Johnson's top mount and has shown strength in his ability to accumulate quick and careful rounds in his first year at the grand prix level. Johnson elaborated on the gelding's natural talent, "Everything about him is special. This is his first year doing grand prix and there have been some ups and downs, nothing crazy, but a couple of rails here and there. He's a very careful horse and when you have a horse like that you have to take your time with them because they can get scared easily."
Eager to improve on mistakes she felt had previously kept the duo out of the winner's circle, Johnson decided early in the night that she wanted to focus on correcting the small errors and capitalize on the opportunity to compete under the lights.
"Each jump-off we've had there's been a little bit of a mistake here or there and I went in wanting to fix those mistakes but also wanted to try to win the class," she noted. "All of the pieces came together tonight and I feel like we finally finished the puzzle."
The duo's next appearance will be at the National Horse Show in Lexington, KY, where they will look to tackle an indoor atmosphere before beginning preparations for the winter circuit in Wellington, FL, at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
"I think it will be a good test for him in Kentucky in the indoor there and then in Florida we'll have him do some of the big classes during the Saturday Night Lights series," she noted.
Bringing two new horses with her to TIEC, Johnson commented on the layout of the facility and felt that the experience for all of her horses during the week was beneficial before looking towards the 2016 season.
"The stabling here is just incredible. For the horses that is the most important thing. Having stalls with built in fans and rubber mats is amazing because you can't expect them to perform to the best of their ability if they're not comfortable. I just think it's fantastic," she explained. "The arenas are so nice and there are so many places to flat your horses. When people are jumping all the time it's hard to flat your horses and do it properly. I just think the layout of the space is really nice and Mark [Bellissimo] has done an incredible job."
Johnson's groom, Sergio Molinero, was awarded with the Groom's Initiative Award, which is presented to the winning duo's groom for each grand prix class hosted at TIEC. The Groom's Initiative Award has been implemented to honor those who continue to provide their dedicated services to top horse and rider combinations.
Source: Press release Tryon International Equestrian Centre.
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