Kentucky, USA, November 2, 2011 - Floridian, Todd Minikus, stormed to victory in the Sasco Creek Farm International Welcome Stakes on the opening night of the Alltech National Horse Show at the Horse Park in Kentucky, USA tonight riding the aptly-named Sweetheart.
With a sparkling field of 43 starters from six nations all vying for a cut of the $50,000 prize-fund this was never going to be an easy one to win. And, sixth to go, fellow-American and newly-crowned Pan-American team champion McLain Ward made sure of that when setting a super-fast early target with Pjotter van de Zonnehoeve.
Ward's dare-devil ride saw him race through the finish in 58.02 seconds to put it up to the rest of them. And, in the final analysis, only Minikus found a faster route home when leaving all the fences up with a great ride on his handsome 12 year old gelding.
The USA's Laura Kraut slotted into third with Teirra, while Great Britain's Nick Skelton slotted into fourth with Unique. The home runners will need to watch out for the British veteran for the rest of the week however. He was only schooling his top ride Carlo when easily taking tenth place tonight, and he is right on form having scooped the President's Cup in Washington just a few short days ago. He has Saturday's night's $250,000 Alltech National Horse Show Grand Prix, and those valuable FEI World Cup qualifying points that go with it, in his sights.
Richard Jeffery's 11-fence track was plenty demanding for an opening night, and although some of the riders were familiar with the Horse Park's Alltech arena, which was home to another World Cup qualifying competition in September, the fences were very new to most of the horses. Jeffery, from Bournemouth in the south of England, had acquired much of the fence material used for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and the course looked imposing in the considerably smaller Alltech ring, although it jumped perfectly well. There were a few double-takes at the oxer at fence six with its starey "Mountain Range" filler backing plenty of them up. This, along with the unforgiving opening vertical and the penultimate triple combination, fell consistently throughout the competition.
It was the host nation's Kate Levy who led the way with a great round from Vent du Nord that eventually settled her into sixth place carrying a time of 62.72 seconds. Skelton shaved more than two seconds off that when following with Unique however, and that looked set to be the target for some considerable time. However Ward blew it away with a sensational round in 58.02 seconds - reducing the first-line distance to just five strides and never looking back.
"My game plan was to set a hard pace, but I was lucky to get that first five!" Ward said during the post-competition press conference. He added that he had not ridden Pjotter since September, but Minikus immediately interjected "maybe so, but he was the winner of the Grand Prix at that show with this horse!"
Minikus explained that he didn't see Ward's ride "but there was a buzz in the schooling area after he came out of the ring, I didn't think of doing five down the first line until then, but I decided that if I wanted to be competitive then I had to follow suit - he changed my plan for me!" the riders explained. "I've seen that horse (Pjotter) go, and how he (Ward) rides it - blazing fast generally - so I guess I took a good crack at it. I met the first just right, made the first (line) in five, and had a great rhythm for the rest of the course," he added.
Talking about his Heartbreaker gelding Sweetheart, he explained that the horse is owned by the parents of Chris McCrea - the US rider who claimed Jumping team and individual gold at last weekend's Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. "Earlier in the year I was asked if I'd like to take him and see what I could make of him - in the winter there was a problem with a shoulder and a few other things so we didn't show until this summer and we won a couple of nice Grand Prix classes - it's looking like he's going to do pretty well," Minikus said, in something of an understatement.
Ward talked a little about Guadalajara. "The hardest thing about coming home was 20 degrees and no heat and no hot water!" he said. The north-east of the US was hit by a freak snowstorm over the Halloween weekend that left vast swathes of the country without light and heat for days, and felled trees and branches that led to severe damage to property. "But Guadalajara was phenomenal" he pointed out. "We did what we set out to do and it was such a great venue, great hotel, a great Games all round!" he added.
He and Minikus are very excited about the week ahead at the all-new Alltech National Horse Show in Lexington. "This is the natural place for The National", Minikus said tonight. "I first came here back in the 80's and it's lovely to see the Horse Park progressing so much - this show adds so much to the overall theme of the Horse Park".
Ward agreed. "It's an incredible venue and there's a lot of enthusiasm and support from sponsors and athletes which is great to see. We can look forward to exciting jumping this week and to a great Grand Prix".
Photo: The USA's Todd Minikus and Sweetheart galloped to victory in the Sasco Creek Farm International Welcome Stakes on the opening night of the Alltech National Horse Show 2011 at The Horse Park in Kentucky, USA tonight. Photo: Shawn McMillan Photography.