In one of the most exciting jump-offs of the entire eight weeks on the 2005 Winter Equestrian Festival tour, Michael Whitaker of Great Britain raced past his niece, Ellen Whitaker to secure the win in the $75,000 Grand Prix of Tampa CSI-W, presented by Kilkenny/ICH as the Tampa Bay Classic wrapped up on Sunday at the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center in Tampa, Florida.
Fifty-two starters went to the post in the 2pm featured event at the Covered Arena. Today’s pivotal and pressure packed Grand Prix of Tampa, arguably the most important on the entire tour, had qualifying implications for the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, April 2, the Budweiser World Cup in Las Vegas on April 20 -24, and for year end awards for the American Grand Prix Association (AGA).
The Course Designer for the main event was Canada’s Michel Vailancourt. The course consisted of 14 numbered obstacles with seventeen jumping efforts. Scoring was under FEI Art. 238.1.2. Time First Jump Off. Those tied for other than first place remain tied. International Level.
Fourteen horse and rider combinations qualified for the timed jump-off by going fault free over the challenging first round course. Fifteen riders had four faults and would wind up in a fifteen way tie for fifteenth place.
Today’s Grand Prix of Tampa was the final money qualifying event for the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational.
With $75,000 in prize money at stake and a first place check of $22,500 on the line, the jump-off got underway with Callan Solem on the Quiet Winter and BJ Maghan’s Allsion. Solem put in a careful and clear performance as the first to return, crossing the finish line with no faults in 42.99 seconds.
Anne Kursinski, whose spot in the Invitational was well in hand, would need a good finish to make a move up on the World Cup points list. She returned with Scott Hakim’s Roxana 112 and set a pace that would hold up until the halfway point into the jump-off. Kursinski, disdaining an inside cut following fence eleven, elected instead to keep a fast gallop and crossed the finish line clean, in a hasty time of 39.81 seconds.
Debbie Stephens and Centennial’s Cosequin’s CEO, had two knockdowns along their jump off route, finishing with eight faults and breaking the beams in 45.93 seconds.
Back to back Athens Olympians were next. Beezie Madden and McLain Ward, all set with their invitations for Saturday’s Budweiser American Invitational, rode fourth and fifth in the speed challenge. Unlike Ward, who sits second on the World Cup qualifying list, Madden was fighting for a spot on the Las Vegas roster. Aboard Authentic, Madden pulled an early rail in the jump off. She finished up with a speedy time of 39.54 seconds, but when the scores were tallied, the rail down today would be expensive.
Ward, riding Sapphire, owned by the Double H Farm, returned for their challenge next. Ward became the first to successfully negotiate the inside cut following fence eleven but a careful pace on the balance of the course moved Ward into second place behind Kursinski. Ward’s time was 40.57 seconds.
Molly Ashe and Jane Clark’s Cocu, ran into problems following a quick start and retired from the jump off.
Todd Minikus was battling for a spot in both the Budweiser American Invitational and the World Cup as he entered with Harry R. Gill’s Flier. Electing not to take the inside cut, Minikus and Flier couldn’t catch Kursinski, but knocked 0.23 seconds off of Ward’s time and took over second place. Minikus finished in 40.34 seconds.
Riding eighth in the encounter against the clock, Jeffery Welles became the new leader with Kimmel Yager Equine’s Armani. Welles strengthened his hold on a spot for the main event Saturday night at Raymond James by flying around the Vailancourt designed course and tripping the timers in 39.69 seconds, knocking 0.12 seconds off of Kursinski’s top time. Welles finished in 39.69 to grab the lead.
Georgina Bloomberg, assured of an Invitational spot, came in tied for World Cup points with Beezie Madden. Bloomberg, riding the Gotham Enterprise’s Riviera, put in a fault free performance and crossed the finish line in 41.44 seconds.
Then, it was 8 faults for Switerland’s Maryline Vorpe and Mercure du Chablis. Vorpe’s time was 43.73 seconds. Robin Van Roosendael, owned by Looking Back Farm and ridden by Erynn Ballard, were next and were clean in 44.80 seconds. Following Ballard, and riding twelfth in the tiebreaker, Gregory Wathelet of Belgium and Mozart des Hayettes, racked up 20 faults in 55.45 seconds.
Ellen Whitaker and her uncle, Michael Whitaker were the last two challengers.
Ellen Whitaker was up first on Mrs. J. Zilli’s AK Locarno 62. Whitaker, a relative newcomer to the international show jumping scene, has had a tremendous Florida tour and had already secured a spot in the Budweiser Invitational. She showed why she’s been such a factor in almost every event in which she’s competed. She handily made the inside cut following fence eleven and raced around the balance of the speed course fault free, taking over the top spot on the leader board with a new top time of 39.50 seconds, 0.19 seconds faster than Welles.
Michael Whitaker and Portofino 63, owned by the Beverly Hills Equestrian Partners, was the final entry remaining, the only one standing between Ellen Whitaker and her first major Florida victory. For Michael Whitaker, a spot in the Budweiser American Invitational hung in the balance. His performance had the standing room only crowd on their feet from the moment he crossed the starting line. When he easily made the inside cut at eleven, he was on equal pace with niece, Ellen, but with two fences to go, it was obvious that if he could leave those two jumps up, victory was his for the taking. The fences did stay up and when Whitaker flashed across the finish line the scoreboard showed the amazing winning time of 38.40 seconds, 1.1 seconds faster than Ellen.
“The course suited me perfectly so I knew I had a chance,” Whitaker said at the post event press conference. “Ellen made it very difficult for me but as good as my horse was jumping today, I knew I had to have a go at it. She was magnificently good today. She had a very good first round so I knew she was on. She was really concentrating today, she was on top form,” he said.
Whitaker said that the inside cut was the key to victory today. “You had to make that cut to have any chance today. If you could pull off that cut, you were really set.”
Course Designer, Michel Vailancourt, said the inside cut was not an easy one. “It’s a very, very difficult cut. Unless you’ve got a horse you know that really can do that cut well, you’re better off to go around and keep the pace up. If you can’t make the cut quick, if you have to slow down to do the cut, you end up just trading four quarters for a dollar and it doesn’t really pay off,” he chuckled. “But Whitaker, and I’ve seen him do it a hundred times, is so good at that. He can land and cut so fast without losing any momentum or speed, that I knew before he went that he’d be making that cut and more importantly he’d make it work. And that turn made the whole class.”
Vailancourt said he was impressed with today’s jumping. “I was surprised! I didn’t expect that many clear,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected that many clear. I talked to a number of the riders before the class and everyone thought six to eight would be a fair estimate. But, they out jumped me, you know! I thought the first real technical line would catch a lot more people and it didn’t. The double to the planks and even the double itself did not catch as many as I thought and the planks really didn’t catch the number I thought it would. Even though the distance worked the way I expected it to work. They were getting chest deep, but today,” Vailancourt conceded, “the horses were just trying so hard. More power to them, they just out jumped me.”
“It was a great class,” Vailancourt continued. “The jump off turned out fantastic because of the number involved. We, as course designers, sometimes don’t want to get all those numbers clear, but, most of the time when we get a big jump off like we did today, it turns out to be a fantastic class. Today’s was a great class!”
Whitaker liked the Vailancourt course. “I thought it was the least difficult course of the three classes we jumped this week. We had fourteen clear today and in the last couple only five or six, so I thought the course builder was a bit more fair today, really.”
“I’m pleased for a few reasons, really,” Whitaker went on to say. “We’ve been here for three weeks and I haven’t done too well and to get into the Invitational, well, that’s really handy. I thought I needed a few World Cup points as well, but as it turns out, I found out just before I rode that I made the cut for Las Vegas,” revealed Whitaker. “But, it’s nice to win anyway.”
Asked if he was excited about punching his ticket for the Invitational, Whitaker said, “I really am. This is my first time over here for the Winter Equestrian Festival and to qualify for what I’m told is a fantastic event is just perfect for me.”
Ellen Whitaker was pleased with her inexperienced horse. “Well, he was really, really good today. You know he’s a bit inexperienced and I haven’t gone against quality much with him so I didn’t know what to expect in a class of this caliber but he was really good today,” she said.
Ellen said that she knew in advance that her uncle would lead today’s victory gallop. “Yeah, I absolutely knew he was going to win today, whether it was me for second place or not,” she said. “He’s been so hungry. Michael’s been so unlucky these past three weeks here in Florida, we all knew that today was his day to finally come through and we just had to get out of his way,” laughed Ellen.
Ellen sits twelfth on the Budweiser American Invitational money list following today’s event. “I really haven’t done that much, internationally,” admitted Ellen. “I went to Calgary last year, so I knew a bit of what to expect as far as the riders I’d see here, but I could never have anticipated this kind of success before we arrived, I’m so thrilled with the way things have gone.”
Following the Invitational, Ellen plans to stay an additional week. “I’m going to go to North Carolina,” Ellen revealed. “I’m going to take in the Charlotte Jumper Classic before I go home.”
Michael, too will be going to Charlotte. “I’ll head to Charlotte for the Jumper Classic and then on to the Budweiser World Cup Finals in Las Vegas.”
Asked if she’ll be in Vegas to support her uncle, Whitaker laughed. “I wish I could, but, I’ve got to get to a show in Italy at the same time as the World Cup.”
Official Results - #100 - $75,000 Grand Prix of Tampa CSI-W- FEI Art. 238.1.2 – 03-27-05 – Covered Arena