With a first-place prize of $350,000 on the line, Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum rose to the occasion, piloting Bella Donna to a paycheck she will not soon forget as winner of the first-ever AIG Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix, presented by Lamborghini Newport Beach. The best of only two clear rounds, Michaels-Beerbaum and the 10-year-old mare that she co-owns with EOS Sport capitalized on a successful season at HITS Desert Horse Park with the sweetest win of them all.
"California is my home and it was great to come here and ride for this kind of prize," said Michaels-Beerbaum, who was named the Platinum Performance Leading Rider at the conclusion of the HITS Desert Circuit earlier today. "Money like this is more often given away in Europe and it is bringing the American standard to a whole new level. It's a tremendous step and the future of the sport is becoming more and more exciting in this country."
And the money, it seems, is attracting riders from all corners of the world to American soil for top-notch competition. With three countries represented in the top three, nine different nations made it into the top-twenty money this afternoon.
There were 40 competitors vying for a slice of the million dollar pie. After 32 had completed the first-round course without a single clear, it appeared that no one would crack the code that was Olympic gold medalist Conrad Homfeld's track and a jump-off of four-faulters became a real possibility. Spectators looked on in anticipation as John Pearce of Bermuda Dunes, California rode in on Chianto, owned by Forest View Farm Allison Moore, and cracked the code to a triumphant clear round.
Five trips later, Duncan McFarlane of San Ramon, California was clear riding for his native New Zealand. Unfortunately, a single time fault barred him and Simone Coxe's Mr. Whoopy from the jump-off landing him in third overall. With only three more challenges to Pearce, Michaels-Beerbaum entered on her bay mare and guaranteed a two-horse test with a flawless effort over Homfeld's 14-obstacle track, which featured 17 jumping efforts at heights up to 1.60m.
In the jump-off, Pearce was clear until a slight rub at the second-to-last fence led a rail down for four faults. "I knew Meredith was behind me, so I was trying to use as much speed as I could over obstacles this size while still being careful," said Pearce. All Michaels-Beerbaum and Bella Donna had to do was go clear, and go clear she did. Despite picking up three time faults, victory was hers. Pearce posted a time of 53.70 seconds, while Michaels-Beerbaum rode in 56.70 seconds with a 54-second time allowed.
"The course was brilliant and a very good test for $1 million," said Michaels-Beerbaum. "There weren't any bad pictures out there today – some rails came down, but overall it was very good competition."
In fourth, Karl Cook of Woodside, California was clear with three time faults in the first round aboard Signe Ostby's Jonkheer Z. Capping the top five was the fastest of the four-fault rounds – Peter Wylde of Lake Worth, Florida and The Wannahave Group's Sandor De La Pomme.
Despite the superb Desert Circuit performances of her other mounts, Malou and Unbelievable 5, Michaels-Beerbaum stuck to her plan and had her 2012 Olympic mount, Bella Donna, accompany her into the ring as her AIG Thermal Million ride. "I have the most experience with Bella and when I walked the course this morning I was 100% positive that I made the right decision," she said. "I trained Bella Donna with her last owner and said that if she ever wanted to sell the horse I wanted to be the first in her mind and I was. It took me a long time to get her ridable, but she qualified for the World Cup Final as a nine-year old and that just shows how good she is."
Pearce piloted a relatively older, yet wildly successful, horse to second-place honors, riding the 17-year-old Chianto. "I can't even count how many grand prix he has won for me and I am just so proud of how far he has come," he said. Pearce and Chianto are regular million-dollar competitors and were third in the first Pfizer Million in Saugerties, New York in 2010.
While the sizable paychecks are nice, Duncan McFarlane admits that high-stakes classes are keeping his sport alive. "It really gives the owners a real desire to invest in these horses and keep the business thriving," he said. McFarlane was second in the 2011 Pfizer Million in Saugerties and admits that his next goal is to head east again in September for the fourth-annual event, now under the title Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix. Zoetis was formerly known as Pfizer Animal Health.
AIG, title sponsor of the AIG Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix was represented by Vice President David Hubbard, who is based in Los Angeles and made a day of it at HITS Thermal. "This was such a thrilling event – it's the best show I've seen," he said. "The crowd was electric and it was all because these riders were so impressive."
Hubbard gave the unofficial nod after the class that AIG is interested in returning to be a part of the million-dollar event next year. "Our goal is to provide safety and security to this lifestyle with our products and services, and this event is a great opportunity to accomplish that."
HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri acknowledged the pivotal role that AIG played in making today's event a success. "AIG embraced this class from the beginning and recognized how impactful it is in the sport and we are very excited to continue this relationship," he said. "Coupled with great sponsors, I could not have been happier with the results. While we were very happy to welcome some East Coast competitors, it's nice to see people who have worked hard showing here all season go home with the big checks."
The AIG Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix put the final exclamation point on the 2013 HITS Desert Circuit and as the sea of spectators headed home and prize money checks went to the bank, thoughts turned ahead to the Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS-on-the-Hudson on September 8th, where riders will again converge in Saugerties, New York to rewrite show jumping history.
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