American grand prix rider Mandy Porter delivered a skillfully ridden round to win the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at theHITS Coachella Desert Circuit in Thermal, California.
Entries in the 2017 edition of the AIG $1 Million were the most popular to date. The class was at capacity with 54 competitors in the first round. And unlike prior years, the stands were all but filled despite 95-degree temperatures. Spectators battled the heat with meticulously constructed tents and portable fans that lined the perimeter of the ring, under which they waited anxiously to see hometown heroes compete in the west coast winter circuit’s most anticipated class.
San Diego, California-based Porter, who has won two other major grand prix classes at Coachella this circuit, rode Abigail Weese’s Milano a twelve-year-old SWB gelding (Orlando x Pomme Royale) to the win. “He’s a bit of a freak,” said Porter. “He’s a really good competitor; every time in the ring he gives it his all. If there’s something he needs to practice, he thinks about it and he comes out wanting to do it better.”
With a technical round one that caught out the most riders at the penultimate obstacle, a double of verticals that rode directly from a triple bar, clear rounds were hard to come by. While Ireland’s Cian O’Connor showed the way with an early clear aboard Good Luck, it would then be a long wait for the jumpoff list to grow.
The same double of verticals reappeared in the jumpoff, but the top three riders all found clear paths over the fences. As second last to go into a six-rider jump-off, Porter delivered a round that would be unbeatable. When the famed French horseman Eric Navet stepped into the ring as the final competitor to try his hand at the jumpoff course, Porter had already decided she’d be happy with the results of the class. “I was so excited with how the horse performed and that I didn’t screw up. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen,” said Porter. Luckily, her round remained on top when Navet exited the arena.
Porter narrowly beat 2nd place finishers Tamie Phillips and Cristar of Canada. Mandy finished the jump-off with a clear round and a time of 41.600. Phillips finished a hair slower with a clear round and time of 41.954. Irish showjumper Cian O’Connor and the crowd pleasing Good Luck finished 3rd with a clear round and a time of 43.986 in the jump-off.
The new 1.50m height for the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix was extremely popular with west coast competitors. The rule change allowed those who otherwise might have been discouraged by the 1.60m height to compete, thus adding new faces into the pool of rising west coast riders. Phillips was also very pleased with the new height: “It gave me a lot of confidence going into this class,” she said.
“The results of this class for those of us who organize these events really couldn’t have gone any better,” said HITS CEO Tom Struzzieri. “Cian is a great competitor and McLain [Ward] is a dear friend of mine but to have clients who were in Coachella the whole circuit win the class was great. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a couple of these gals who rode so hard all winter are here sitting next to me."
O’Connor saluted the show organizers for the change in height. “I really admire Tom [Struzzieri] and the show for putting the class at a 1.50m height so that new people can jump in these classes,” he said.
The inviting height was countered by a technical course designed by Ireland’s Alan Wade. An additional rule change allowed some riders to qualify not only one but two horses. Porter had two, first round entries, Milano and Coral Reef Follow Me II.
Twenty-one-year-old Uma O’Neil was the youngest rider to make it to the jump-off round and also one of the least experienced competitors. Before the class, she a young rider stepping into the grand prix level, but after, she was a serious contender in a $1 million class. Additionally, 25-year-old Zazou Hoffman, who has been on a winning streak in Coachella with two recent grand prix wins, was able to show both of her horses in a more challenging setting than a typical Coachella grand prix. The class functioned as a way of putting aspiring young riders squarely on the map while affording them the opportunity to compete against some of the best riders the east coast has to offer.
The adaptation of the Coachella edition of the triad of $1 Million Grand Prix classes that are organized by Struzzieri and the HITS team seemed at first to be a gamble. However, lowering the heights and welcoming a higher proportion of developing riders into the class was given all the more weight by their stellar performances in a highly technical grand prix. This class allowed a pool of fresh new faces to enter the spotlight and allowed west coast riders the opportunity to compete for big prize money that is too often swept up by travelling east coast competitors.
The results of the 2017 AIG $1 Million Grand Prix are a triumph of innovation on the part of horse show organizers to adapt to the challenges that face equestrian sport. By giving the opportunity for more rising young riders and professionals to compete at the highest levels, so begins the process of revitalizing the competitive community that has produced equestrian athletes such as Lucy Davis, Rich Fellers, Lauren Hough and Richard Spooner.
—By Sophie St. Clair for Noelle Floyd