Ocala, Florida: Despite an uncertain forecast, droves of spectators packed two VIP tents and filled the grandstands for the return of the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix to the Ocala Horse Properties Stadium at HITS Post Time Farm. With hopes for a battle of the best, onlookers received just that when Charlie Jayne, of Elgin, Illinois, aboard Chill R Z, owned by Alex Jayne and Maura Thatcher, hustled his way to the win.
Forty-six of the world’s top riders, including World Cup champions, Olympic Gold Medalists and Grand Prix stars, attempted the 14 effort course set by Buddy Brown of Menlo Park, California. Many riders had a chance to talk to Brown while they were walking the course, and it was clear the track questioned riders in all the right places, with six securing a spot in the coveted jump-off.
“Many of the verticals were well over 1.60, which we don’t jump anywhere else,” said Jayne. “I thought the course designer did an excellent job with the placement of the fences. Six was the perfect number of clears for a class of this caliber.”
First to reenter the ring for the jump-off was Kirsten Coe of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, riding Baronez, owned by Ilan Ferder, Lovsa Stuteri and Tal Milstein. Hailed as a rising star in the Grand Prix arena, Coe had a rail at the fourth jump, the liverpool oxer, for four faults in a time of 46.918, ultimately leading to a fifth place finish.
Lauren Hough of Wellington, Florida, riding Ohlala, owned by The Ohlala Group, was next to take the stage. Hough approached the course with confidence as a hush fell over the crowd. All-out galloping and zipping through the turns, Hough was on a mission and despite a down rail for four faults at the last oxer, the two set the Great American Time to Beat with a time of 42.601, a full four seconds faster than Coe. Hough, who rode Ohlala in the FEI Nations Cup at HITS Ocala earlier this season, praised her partner for their job well done.
“I’ve had him for a few years but he’s just come into this level in the past year or so,” said Hough. “He’s probably the most talented horse I’ve ever ridden.”
Next to test his luck on the abbreviated course was Jonathan McCrea of East Windsor, Connecticut, with Aristoteles V, owned by Candy Tribble and Windsor Show Stables Inc. The crowd went silent wondering if McCrea would be the one to give them a clean go, but a rail at the second-to-last fence and a time of 49.241 would put him behind Coe on the leaderboard.
Hoping to break the four fault streak, McLain Ward of Brewster, New York, on his faithful Rothchild, owned by Sagamore Farm, was next in the order and hungry for a win after a second place finish at the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix, just one spot ahead of Jayne and Chill RZ, one week prior. Ward breezed through the course giving fans the first clean jump off round in a fast time of 42.903. For a moment, it looked like Ward was on his way to what would be his third $1 Million Dollar Grand Prix title.
“He has been more than a great partner. It’s remarkable what this little horse has done,” said Ward. “I’ve said it before, but he’s really my friend.
“We’ve been aiming for the World Cup Finals since the World Championship last year. When we made that plan, these two $1 Million Grand Prix were on the way there and very important markers for us,” he continued.
Jayne, who immediately followed Ward in the jump-off both in Ocala and in the AIG Million a week earlier, had the advantage of watching all but one of his challengers. The chase was on as Jayne and Chill RZ cut through the course and as they launched over the final fence, the Great American Insurance oxer, for a clean round in a time of 42.24, the crowd erupted in cheers for the new leader.
“Before the jump off I was talking to a friend who said ‘You know Charlie, you won over a $100,000 last week, so just go for it,' so that was basically my strategy,” said Jayne. “I think I got a little lucky at the last fence. I was a few tenths of a second behind McLain last week, and I was just about that much ahead of him this week. Luck was on my side.”
With one last entry to go, all eyes were on Callan Solem of Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, and VDL Wizard, owned by Horseshoe Trail Farm, LLC, as they raced the clock and Jayne for the win. Clean but not quite fast enough, Solem crossed the timers in 44.116 for a third place finish.
As Solem exited, a triumphant Jayne reappeared in the ring for his well-deserved victory gallop and beamed with excitement as he waved to countless cheering fans.
“Everybody in the jump-off was quite fast but I just had the advantage today that Lauren had a rail down and I got to see McLain go,” said Jayne after the class. “I think there was a very strong caliber of horse and riders here today – probably one of the strongest Millions we’ve seen yet.”
Course designer Buddy Brown agreed adding, “To me, the jump-off is an Olympic like round. When you come here to jump for $1 Million, that is special. Tom holds three $1 Million Dollar classes a year. Riders should come ready with their A-game.”
"The two of us have won $480,000 and $570,000 in the past two weeks,” replied Ward, referring to his and Jayne’s results the past two weeks. “To see our sport come to that level is phenomenal. I tried to go a little faster this week than last - I was worried about Charlie. I just had a feeling that he was going to lay it on the line.”
It was unanimous amongst the top finishers that the prize purses offered by HITS are remarkable and HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri gave full credit to the event’s title sponsor.
“Great American Insurance is a fantastic sponsor of ours. To support us at this level is extraordinary and we’re so fortunate in that way,” said Struzzieri at the post-class press conference. “I’m fortunate to have frequent customers of mine sitting up here. I like to have people who support HITS through the year getting rewarded for doing well, and I’m happy about that.”
As ten weeks of show jumping competition at HITS Ocala came to a close with a $1 Million Grand Prix to remember, Jayne is already looking ahead to the HITS Championship in Saugerties, New York later this year. Boasting the richest weekend in show jumping and with the Saugerties $1 Million Grand Prix debuting as an FEI CSI-5* class, riders from around the globe await another opportunity for their chance at international bragging rights and the iconic prize purse.