Monday, March 15, 2010

Jill Henselwood of Canada Captures the $300,000 Lamborghini Grand Prix at HITS Desert Circuit

A year ago HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri promised his riders when the 2009 Grand Prix was cancelled due to inclement weather, he would up the ante to twice as much prize money, a total of $300,000, for 2010’s final Grand Prix of the HITS Desert Circuit, and he made good on that promise today.

“It was pretty easy (last year) to decide what was best for HITS for the following year and the next 10 years. It as a hellacious day that day, so we had a rider’s meeting, and I asked the riders what they wanted to see done. I said it’s the biggest money class west of the Mississippi, and it means a lot to you (riders), so why don’t I split up the prize money and make sure everyone goes home with something? Or.. I can double it up next year. Some of the riders were thinking longer term, some shorter term, some had bills they had to pay, and since I really couldn’t get a consensus, I did both” says Struzzieri (left).

German Course Designer Olaf Petersen, Sr. (below right) did more than his share to make the 41 horse and rider combinations earn their paychecks. Since there were no height specifications, Petersen chose to build the course at 1.60 m with a time allowed of 86 seconds in the first round, which as it turned out did not need to be adjusted. Petersen felt the large Grand Prix ring presented opportunities “to find interesting lines, unlike the smaller indoor arenas that take more time to find interesting lines. I can fill the arena and do the course changes so quickly because everything is more or less in position. This is a nice, nice arena. All the HITS arenas are big.”
When asked what challenges he was going to put in front of the horses and riders Petersen responded “For me the height is less important than the distance between the jumps, the line to the jumps and the way the jumps are constructed. Those elements are much more important (to me). For example, I can build a 5’ jump in a Grand Prix class, and everybody jumps it clear. I can also put a 5’ jump up that 50% of the people will have down. It is the way I construct the course. The colors of the jumps also play a role. For instance horses jump better and more carefully if you have more contrasting colors in the jumps like black like black and white, or dark red and white. The course designers play with distances, color and construction.”

Talking specifically about the $300,000 Lamborghini Grand Prix, Petersen points out “You see the last jump? It’s a 1.60m but only has 3 rails. The distance between the second to last jump and the last jump is a little bit tricky, it’s 6 short strides. This is one of the questions I ask, because I want to test a lot of the riders, not only the horses.”

The elephant in the room was the quadruple line of an oxer, one stride to a vertical, two short strides to another vertical, and one stride to the last element which was another oxer. But it didn’t end there,

Petersen added a skinny white rail jump at the end of the ring just when the horses and riders though they could take a breath….not so fast….. says Petersen “In this class we have a very rare combination, a quadruple combination. Have you ever seen one? Most of the riders haven’t either. Most of them haven’t jumped it of course. I think one of the hardest tasks here is the jump following the combination.. the skinny. I believe this fence will come down more than they others. Why? Because it’s white, no contrast, skinny, difficult to see, and the horses have done four efforts before it, so they relax a little bit.” Would Petersen go out on a limb and predict who he thought might win the class? “John Pearce” he replied.

In the beginning it looked like the course might be a touch on the easy side as Canadian silver medalist from the 2008 Olympics Jill Henselwood on Bottom Line clocked around the course fault free in a blazing fast time of 77.737. Next up Andre Theime on Aragon Rouet, another clear round with a slower time of 83.427, still well under the 86 seconds allowed. Petersen had told us to watch Theime as he had brought two horses, Aragon Rouet and Cesar to Thermal from Wellington, Florida specifically for this class; so far his prediction seemed to be spot on.

Aragon Rouet and Andre Thieme claimed 5th place in the grand prix

Southern Pride and Karen Cudmore earned themselves 4th place in the class

The next 13 horse and rider combinations struggled with the course the first two riders had made look so easy. It was the skinny, as predicted, and the quadruple that were wreaking havoc with the field. Jumping faults in the double digits were starting to plague the field, although the time allowed didn’t seem to be nearly as problematic.

At the end of the first round it was only Keri Potter on Rockford I, Guy Thomas on Peterbilt, Helen McNaught on Caballo, local favorite Susie Hutchinson on Cantano and Karen Cudmore on Southern Pride joining Henselwood and Theime making it a total of 7 horses and riders in the jump-off.

The course was adjusted to include jumps 15, 16, 17, 10a and b (formerly part of the quadruple), 11, 12, 13, and 14 with a time allowed of 57 seconds. Henselwood was 1st in the order, again posting a blistering time of 40.153 a full 16 seconds under the time allowed and double clear to boot. Next up Thieme…again double clear with a time of 42.063 which would ultimately put him in 5th place. Keri Potter and Rockford 1 looked like they had it in the bag clocking around at 39.240 but a rail dropped them down to 6th place. Peterbilt and Thomas posted a clear round in a very respectable 40.665, just a hair shy of overtaking Henselwood, but good enough for second place.

Guy Thomas and Peterbilt were just seconds shy from the winner, but still had to settle for 2nd place

Paris Sellon (left) and Saer Coulter were the two youngest riders in the class

Michael Endicott and S.F. Shakira managed to keep all rails up, but had one time fault, setting them back to 8th place

Up next Helen McNaught on Caballo, who ran into trouble starting with the second fence, and ended up with 8 jumping faults and a time of 42.911 resulting in a 7th place finish. Susie Hutchinson galloped into the ring putting the pedal to the metal to try to overtake Henselwood and Thomas. Another double clear, but with a time of 40.713, she would end up in 3rd place. Last in the jump-off, Karen Cudmore on Southern Pride, another double clear round, but with a pace of 41.955 she couldn’t overtake the top 3, and ended up in 4th place.

Henselwood was the first one in the In Gate at the start of the class and the jump-off. Now, for the last time she would once again be the first one back in…but this time for the award ceremony. When asked about going first in both rounds Henselwood answered “I hate that! It’s a big advantage at the end, not the beginning.”

How did Henselwood (above( think Petersen’s course rode? “It was very technical, he honed the time allowed right down, no leeway, you had to turn to each element and solve the puzzle.” Henselwood went on to explain where she saw opportunities for her particular horse “That horse (Bottom Line) is fast! She was born out of her mother fast! It’s slowing her down that’s the trick. You have to be patient and make her take her time, especially toward the end, once she’s made a really good effort, it’s like her energy comes up, she needs to learn to hold that consistently, not use herself up, and not make it hard on me to steady her.” Was the quadruple line a challenge for Bottom Line? “It was kind of interesting because I’m an Ian Millar protégé. I was born and bred on gymnastics, so when somebody says you put all those in a row, I say, that’s what we do to teach them how to jump. So 4-5-6 elements, that’s right up my alley, but Olaf built a very interesting quad, and very technical.”

This is Henselwood’s 7th pilgrimage down to HITS from Canada “What is not to love about California? You get perfect weather. We went up the (Palm Springs) tram with all of my staff to be in the snow at the top of the mountains last week so we wouldn’t be homesick….what do you not have in California? I’ve used this tour in the peak of my career when I was getting ready for the Olympics and my Pan Am gold; I started those winters with the HITS in Indio and in Thermal.”

Bottom Line and Jill Henselwood

What’s next for Henselwood? “I’m hoping to make the team list for the World Cup Finals in April, but that’s not a sure thing. If I’m not on the team for WEG I absolutely will be in Saugerties for the $1 million Pfizer Grand Prix, its only 5 hours from home for me.”

Henselwood talks about her partner Bottom Line, owned by Brandon Construction “She’s 11 years old, she’s owned by Brad Prather and his family from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She’s got character. She came from Emile Hendrix in Holland, who is a famous dealer there. We’ve had her now for four seasons, and she’s for sale. If she were a celebrity she would be Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), she’s got character!”

What was it like to have Will and Nicki Simpson, Rich Fellers, Ashlee Bond, Richard Spooner all on the East coast, and unable to compete in this class? “I didn’t miss them!”