Canada's Ian Millar was the proud winner of Saturday night's $50,000 Wellington Equestrian Realty Grand Prix CSI 2* aboard Ariel and Susan Grange's Dixson during week two of the 2015 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF). In a five-horse jump-off, Millar and Dixson topped the class by two one-hundredths of a second over Brianne Goutal (USA) and Remarkable Farms LP's Zernike K.
Course designer Luc Musette (BEL) set a challenging track for the 45 starters in Saturday night's class under the lights of the International Arena at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC). Only five entries were able to advance to the jump-off, but all went on to clear the short course. The top four were separated by just fractions of a second.
Paige Johnson (USA) and Salamander Farm's Dakota set the pace in the jump-off at 40.99 seconds to finish fourth. Cian O'Connor (IRL) and Adena Spring's Quidam's Cherie upped the time in 40.27 seconds to place third. Millar and Dixson followed with the winning round in 40.10 seconds. Ljubov Kochetova (RUS) and Veyron jumped into fifth place in 42.40 seconds, and Goutal wrapped up the night with a time of 40.12 seconds aboard Zernike K.
A ten-time Olympic veteran for Canada and one of the sport's most illustrious stars, Ian Millar had a fantastic 2014 season with Dixson, including a big win in the $1.5 Million CP International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows and a trip to France for the Canadian show jumping team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Millar explained that the 12-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding (Vigo d'Arsouilles x Olisco) never missed a beat coming back into competition after a short rest at the end of the season.
"He had been off since the third week of September, and I didn't start him until December again because he lives with Mrs. Grange," Millar noted. "He had a nice break and when I got going with him, his conditioning came right back because they use a treadmill with him. Even though he's let down, his fitness is taken care of."
"It is so interesting with these horses how they remember; they don't forget a thing," Millar stated. "A good, trained horse really holds it. You get on and it was like I had ridden him the day before, so you pick up where you left off and you go again. That is quite exciting."
Dixson is related to Millar's great mount Big Ben and has always been special to the rider for that reason alone, but has proven his own talent in recent years. "The greatest horse I ever had was Big Ben, and this horse is related to Big Ben on the mother line," Millar detailed. "I felt very strongly about him when I saw him. I could see the weaknesses, but I was absolutely drawn to him."
Following the class, Millar spoke about the course, stating, "Luc is one of my favorites because he is so subtle. He takes course design to an art form. That first course was extremely interesting. A course designer like that will find weaknesses in a horse and rider. There's no way around it - a rider's flaws are going to come out and a horse's flaws are going to come out."
"The jump-off could have had a little more imagination in it for my liking," Millar admitted. "It was just one track as fast as you could go. There weren't really any options. You could take a stride out to the liverpool, but it was pretty much a straight run and gun. It's good that it turned out that it was only five of us. It gets too crazy at that point. You would rather slow it down and get more of a jumping contest."
Although the time to catch was very fast, Brianne Goutal was just off the winning mark for her second place finish with Zernike K and was very happy with her mount's performance. "He's amazing," she smiled. "He is just a really classical little guy with great style. He tries really hard. He has been a little up and down. He was a little bit inconsistent last year, but all summer long and fall up until now, he has been very consistent. He is wonderful, and he really gives it his best shot each time. I felt he was super smooth tonight. He did everything I was asking, going and coming back really nicely, which is what I was having trouble with before. I am thrilled with how he went."
Cian O'Connor also had a great night with his mount, Quidam's Cherie, and was happy take home the third place prize. "She is a nice mare. She placed third in the grand prix of Nations Cup week last year. She jumped really well. I only gave her one 1.40m class the first week and she jumped the WEF (Challenge Cup) well this week and went double clear tonight, so I was very pleased with her," O'Connor stated. "It wasn't even one fifth of a second between the top three. It was a very competitive class."
The top riders all thanked sponsors Wellington Equestrian Realty for their support of the week's competition. Wellington Equestrian Realty representatives Craig Martin and Matt Varney both spoke to the fantastic competition of the night and their continued support. "It was truly an honor to watch Ian go," Martin stated. "I have grown up watching him. He is a complete technician when it comes to this sport. I thought Brianne was nearly going to catch him at the end there, but it was a great class."
"We have been involved in some exciting grand prixs since we have been in town, which has been five years now," Varney added. "For a legend like Ian to win our grand prix is an honor, and we really do mean that. It is so much fun to have three riders like this at the top of their game early in the season and good luck to them in the weeks to come."
Millar and Goutal each spoke to the great turnout for this year's competition and the wonderful crowd that was at PBIEC to cheer them on Saturday night. "I think traditionally the busiest time for the facility is somewhere in the middle weeks, and it is up over last year," Millar stated. "Whether that is a reflection of the economy, or our sport is getting more popular, or this particular venue is drawing more and more I don't know. It is probably a combination of all of them because this venue is unrecognizable compared to what it was a decade ago."
Goutal agreed, adding, "It is amazing the crowd that is drawn here. It makes a big difference for us. It keeps the atmosphere up and the energy high. Three years ago, forget five years ago, we didn't have anybody in the stands and now it is packed full on Saturday nights. It is amazing. Everything is a steady growth of only good things, I feel."
For her consistent performances this week, Paige Johnson (USA) was presented with the Leading Lady Rider award from Martha Jolicoeur of Illustrated Properties in memory of Dale Lawler.
3. QUIDAM'S CHERIE: 2005 Oldenburg mare by Quidam's Rubin x Lifestyle
5. VEYRON: 2006 Oldenburg stallion by Conterno Grande x Heartbreaker
12. NAVALO DE POHETON: 2001 Selle Francais gelding by Cumano x Double Espoir
Source: Press release from Lauren Fisher and Maddy Stover for Jennifer Wood Media, Inc.
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