Patricia Griffith recounts her winning trip at the press conference. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
On Sunday, September 9th, a friend and I took what I call a “horse holiday” and drove up to Saugerties, NY for Championship Sunday at HITS-on-the-Hudson. We were looking forward to seriously indulging our horse addiction by watching some of the country’s best hunter and jumper riders compete in two stellar events, the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix and the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix.
We arrived at the HITS campus, were met by HITS staff at the gate, given our credentials, shown to the special parking area (they said it wasn’t VIP but it sure seemed that way to us!) and ferried over to the press tent via golf cart by a very friendly and accommodating HITS staffer. (“You ladies travel far to get her? Want me to swing by the lady’s room?”)
In the press tent the HITS marketing staff made sure we had our Orders of Go, programs, wireless access, and refreshments. I travel for business in a regular basis, and have to say it was a bit like service at an upscale hotel in that respect. I know, the geek side is coming out. What can I say? I’m new to this “reporter” stuff, and getting to wear a press badge, sit in the press tent, learn from the pros, and ask questions while sitting 10 feet away from my idols is a total rush for me.
The $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix is considered by many the premier event for American Hunters. Top juniors, amateurs, and pros come from all over the US to vie for an unprecedented payout. Since the inception of the Pfizer Million in 2010, Tom Struzzieri and the HITS team have been striving to create additional classes that will give riders a significant year-end goal to work towards. To that end, in 2011 they created the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix, and this year, with the intent to offer juniors and amateurs in the hunter world a shot at big money, they created the $250,000 Hunter Prix Final.
The marquee hunter event, the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix, offers 75 qualified riders, 5 invitees and 1 wild card a chance to duke it out over 4 rounds over 3’3″ fences with spreads not to exceed fence height. The fourth and final round was held over a shortened course, complete with handy elements, in the Grand Prix ring amongst the Pfizer Million Grand Prix fences. One by one, riders like John French, Kelly Farmer, Ellen Toon, Jimmy Torano, Hope Glynn, Nick Haness, Tracy Fenney and Joie Gatlin trotted into the ring and negotiated their way around the course. Libby and I could not believe what we were seeing! These riders Do Not Move! They are so smooth it almost looks like they and their horses are on autopilot. I would give my eye teeth to be able to sit so still and give such invisible signals.
The early leader was Amanda Steege, a professional out of Bedminster, NJ, which happens to be my neck of the woods. Steege and her mount, Lisa Arena’s Balou, don’t have the Derby mileage that many of the others in the class do, not that you’d know it. In fact, this was Balou’s first Derby. The pair overcame a bobble in the first round and laid down copybook trips in Rounds 2 and 3 to qualify for the final. They led for most of the class with scores of 91, 91, and 87 until junior phenom Lillie Keenan entered the ring on 2011 $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals champ C Coast Z. In typical fashion the pair floated around the ring, scoring a 90, 92 and 94 to take the lead from Steege. Keenan didn’t hold the lead for very long, as her trainer Patricia Griffith was next in the ring on Lexi Maounis’ Sienna.
Amanda Steege and Balou. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
Lillie Keenan and C Coast C coasting to another lovely round. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
Griffith and the chestnut mare cruised around the ring as though they were just taking a walk in the park and not vying for a top-placed check worth $150,000. As they finished, Griffith smiled and patted the mare, who was clearly well pleased with her efforts as well. After a pregnant moment Griffith’s scores were announced: 92, 93 and 93! Griffith’s smile widened into a grin as she realized she’d won.
Heritage Farm’s Patricia Griffith with Sienna. photo by Elizabeth Skuba.
Sienna getting some well-deserved pats from rider Patricia Griffith. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
Heritage Farm’s Andre Dignelli, Patricia Griffith, and Lillie Keenen with Ashmeadow Farm’s Amanda Steege. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
It was a good day to be in Hunterland, fellow Horse Junkies, especially for Team Heritage Farm. Congratulations to all!
Meeting an idol – me with Jill Henselwood. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
Canadian show jumper Jill Henselwood is quite possibly the nicest person in the sport. Okay, she’s Canadian. They’re all nice, it’s some kind of national rule or something, but Jill is even nicer than your average Canadian.
And she’s funny. If you listen to one of her interviews she’s always ready with a quip, which is usually accompanied by her trademark smile.
Jill is not only one of the nicest show jumpers going, she is one of the best. She trained for years with the legendary Captain Canada himself, Ian Millar, and debuted on the Canadian Equestrian Team in 1991. She was part of the Silver medal winning team at the Beijing Olympics, riding her now-retired champion, Special Ed. She represented Canada at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, and again at the games of the London Olympiad.
Jill was kind enough to give me a moment of her time after the Pfizer $1 Million press conference. I was in full geek mode and asked for her autograph, which she happily gave. I told her how I have always loved watching her ride Special Ed, and that, in my humble opinion, his was one of the best names of all time. You just couldn’t help but smile when you heard Special Ed announced.
Jill laughed, agreeing that she’d also gotten a kick out of Special Ed’s moniker. She recounted how when she got George she’d tried to come up with a catchy name for him, admitting at one point she’d considered “Curious George.” We laughed, and then traded some potential ideas: Boy George, Gorgeous George, Saint George, George Foreman (Wait, there’s too many of them. At least six, as the retired boxer has 5 sons named George.)
It was a nice moment with a very nice lady. Thanks, Jill!
A happy Jill Henselwood and George celebrating a clear round in the Pfizer Million. photo by Elizabeth Skuba.
Air George. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
Jill Henselwood and George at the Pfizer Million. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
McLain Ward accepts his check from Pfizer Animal Health’s Stuart Meikle. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
When he looked out of the window of his home in Brewster, New York, on Saturday night and saw the rain pounding down, McLain Ward was a bit concerned about how the deluge might possibly impact the footing in the stadium at HITS-on-the-Hudson in nearby Saugerties.
It turns out Ward needn’t have worried. Due to ongoing investments in the footing and the extensive efforts of Tom Struzzieri’s ground crew, the effects of Saturday evening’s storm were negligible.
Canadian Olympian Jill Henselwood called the footing a “good trampoline for those horses.” It certainly was for Ward’s Antares F. McLain and the 12 year-old grey Baden-Wurttemberg gelding leaped around Olaf Petersen, Jr.’s course as if on springs, taking the top honors in Sunday’s Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix.
The storms over the Hudson River Valley abated overnight and although storm clouds threatened during the latter part of the afternoon, the day began on a sunny note. Equestrian enthusiasts were treated to a day to remember with the running of the HITS $250,000 Hunter Final and the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix preceding the Pfizer $1 Million.
Twenty six of the best hunter riders in the country saddled up to take their turn in the HITS stadium, navigating a 3’3″ hunter course set on a winding track curving around the colorful grand prix obstacles. Amanda Steege, Bedminster, NJ, took the early lead from the fourth spot on Hunter Derby neophyte Balou, and her lead remained until Patricia Griffith entered the ring next to last on Lexi Maounis’ Sienna. Griffith was followed by her Heritage Farm student Lillie Keenan and C Coast Z, winners of last year’s $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby. Keenan and her grey gelding put in a fabulous round, but fell just short of Griffith’s mark and had to settle for second. Steege finished in third place.
Chicks Rule! Winner Patricia Griffith, Lillie Keenan, Amanda Steege, and HITS President Tom Struzzieri. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
The cutest members of the HITS ground crew. photo by Amy Vodraska
The afternoon’s marquee event kicked off shortly following the wrap-up in hunterland. McLain Ward and Antares F were early in the order, entering the ring third. Ward set of with purpose and tackled the difficult course, with its imposing 10.6 meter water, with aplomb. Seriously, the man is the epitome of the word “chilly.” Rodrigo Pessoa and Pessoa Show Stables LLC’s Winsom followed Ward and dropped the B element of the triple. Ireland’s Johnathan McCrea was the next to jump and he and Colorado, owned by Candy Tribble and Windsor Show Stables, posted a clear round.
McLain Ward and Antares F
Both the poles and the riders fell fast and furious for the next 26 rounds until Canada’s Jill Henselwood and her Olympic partner George entered the ring. The ebullient George, whom Henselwood calls a “character” cleared the fences with room to spare, seeming to levitate over each obstacle. The pair galloped home, leaving all the rails in their cups, to join Ward and McCrea in the jump-off.
The three-horse jump-off was led off by Ward, who piloted the speedy Antares F around the shortened course at a breakneck pace. McCrea was next to enter the ring, but he and Colorado proved unable to match their previous clear round and lowered the height of two fences. Last to enter was Henselwood, who gamely accepted the challenge set by the speedy Ward. Regrettably, the Canadian pair was unable to match their previous clear as well, dropping one rail and finishing carefully to earn second place money.
Pfizer’s Stuart Meikle, McLain Ward, Jill Henselwood, and Johnathan McCrea. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
By that point it was all over but the presentation of the check. McLain led the victory gallop and joined the other top three finishers at the press conference to pick up his WHOPPING GINORMOUS check from Pfizer Animal Health’s Stuart Meikle.
That’s a LOT of zeros for McLain Ward. photo by Elizabeth Skuba
Congratulations, McLain! Don’t spend it all in one place!
Check back soon as there’s more to come on both mega-events from HITS Championship Weekend! Also, many thanks to Lindsay Yandon and the staff at HITS Horse Shows for all their help!
Andre Thieme and Aragon Rouet – win the 2011 $1 Million HITS Grand Prix, photo by Melissa Bennington
I’m getting pretty excited, as on Sunday, September 9th, my friend and I will be heading up to Saugerties, NY to cover the HITS Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix! Whoohoo! A day watching some of the best show jumping riders and their equine partners compete for a bundle of prize money that would choke a hungry billy-goat.
To qualify, riders must compete in at least eight Open Jumper Classes worth $25,000 or more at any HITS shows from September 30, 2011 through September 2, 2012. Additionally, riders may pick up qualifying points at any of two $30,000 RAM Grand Prix held in May 2012 at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Ontario, Canada.
Forty riders have the opportunity to qualify based on their cumulative money won in qualifying classes. Additionally, HITS management has the option to choose five additional riders, and one Wild Card slot will be awarded to the winner of the Wild Card Qualifying Class during the week HITS on the Hudson VIII, September 5-9, 2012. ( Laura Chapot, daughter of legendary US Olympian and former USET chef d’equipe Frank Chapot, who is recovering from surgery to repair a subdural hematoma, won this year’s 30,000 G&C Farm Wild Card Grand Prix to earn her spot in Sunday’s big class.)
Last year’s winner of the Pfizer $1 Million was German rider Andre Thieme with Aragon Rouet (currently the ride of America’s Meg O’Mara). The German rider competently conquered an extremely challenging course , riding two clear rounds to take the win over Duncan McFarlane and the wonderfully named Mr. Whoopy. McLain Ward and Antares F placed third.
It’s going to be a great day of competition at HITS-on-the-Hudson. I’m looking forward to starting off with Rounds 3 & 4 of the Diamond Mills $500,000 Hunter Prix Final, then the Pfizer $1 Million, and then possibly finishing up with the concert by former Doobie Brothers frontman, Michael McDonald.
Samantha Schaefer – winner of 2011 Diamond Mills 500k Hunter Prix. photo by Melissa Bennington
Yep, Championship Sunday at HITS-on-the-Hudson. In the words of Michael McDonald and James Ingram, “Yah Mo Be There!”