American Olympian Lauren Hough joined the “million dollar club” with her win in the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix on Sunday, March 26, 2017 at the HITS Ocala Circuit in Ocala, Florida. Hough rode her longtime partner Ohlala, a 13-year-old Swedish Warmblood mare (Orlando x Carrera) to first place in the class.
The final event of the 10-week winter circuit in Ocala, Florida was well attended, with a total of 49 first-round entries. German-born course designer Werner Deeg set a stout 1.60m track with challenging elements that would create some persistent problems for the horse and rider combinations. The first round featured a challenging triple combination that knocked out many riders from the jump-off round. It was the middle oxer of the 7 A/B/C combination that was consistently the trouble spot, though time allowed in the first round did not seem to be a factor. Fourteen combinations went clear and challenged each other for the big prize money.
Deeg commented on the comfortable time allowed, which led to a slightly larger jump-off field than he had hoped. “I agree completely that the time allowed was [a] little bit too comfortable. I measured twice and I had a difference of meters, so I decided to take the shorter one and [the time] was a bit long.” He also was very conscious of safety in the class, knowing he was building the course for a wide range of riders. Commenting on young rider Emily Moffitt’s dramatic fall, which occurred early in the class, Deeg said, “We have some top riders here and some not so experienced ones. I have to be aware of everybody. It was a little bit tough what we had happen with the second horse, but that happens sometimes in our sport.”
Among the other jump-off competitors were American household names including three-time million dollar grand prix winner and Olympian, McLain Ward; and two-time million dollar grand prix winner, Todd Minikus. Last weekend’s West Coast AIG $1 Million Grand Prix winner Mandy Porter also successfully navigated the first round.
The second round provided an intensity that reflected the larger group size of the jump-off and matched the high caliber of competitors. For the jump-off, the 7 A/B/C combination was condensed into an in-and-out, beginning with the oxer. The second pair to compete in the jump-off, Alberto Michan and GC Chopin’s Bushi, found difficulty at the 7 B/C element, as a slightly angled approach caused Michan’s mount to refuse, resulting in a dismount.
Jump-off competitors following Michan made sure to give their mounts a good look at the combination before beginning their round. British Olympic showjumper Ben Maher delivered the first double-clear round aboard Don Vito, with a jump-off time of 50.874. Maher was immediately followed up by McLain Ward and HH Callas, who were just a split second slower than Maher, with a jump-off time of 51.379.
However, it was Hough and Ohlala who had the fastest time of all. Hough went mid-way through the jump-off aboard her slightly built 15.2-hand mare. Mimicking the slice executed by Ward at the first jump, she and Ohlala kept up the quick pace throughout the course, not sparing a second to deviate from her jump-off plan. This confidence proved successful as the pair crossed the timers with a time of 48.966—a pace that proved unbeatable throughout the rest of the class.
As she left the ring, Hough wasn’t sure the time would hold, however. Going mid-way through the jump-off, Hough said, “I was not feeling confident because there were seven more behind me, so it was a long wait. There were places where other horses left strides out, but I rode the fastest round I could with her. Obviously, you always need a little bit of luck on your side with events like these.”
Germany’s André Thieme was one rider who put particular pressure on Hough. The 2014 Great American $1 Million Grand Prix winner had just returned from a successful trip to California, where he competed in last weekend’s AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Coachella. Thieme rode clear in the jump-off with a time that bested both Ward and Maher at 50.086, securing a 3rd place finish for him and his mount Conthendrix. Thieme earned fourth place last week in the AIG $1 Million class and, combined with his performance in the class today, has secured roughly $200,000 in prize money.
Near the end of the jump-off, Aaron Vale and Finou 4 were the closest to rival Hough’s blazing fast time. With Finou 4’s huge stride working in their favor, Vale galloped down to the final jump for a clear round. Unfortunately, he was half a second too late when he stopped the clock at 49.442. That time was enough to beat out other double clear contenders and assure Vale a 2nd-place finish.
Vale commented on his strategy going into the second round.
“In the jump-off, it’s the riders against each other but in the first round, it’s the riders against Werner [Deeg]. You’re trying to play to your horse’s strengths and avoid his weaknesses the best you can. We all rode the best round that suited our horse. That’s the cards we put on the table and that’s the order we finished in. We’re all pretty happy.”
Now that Ohlala is 13 years old, Hough said she is becoming more selective about the types of events the mare competes in. “I want to preserve her for as long as possible. I’m going to pick and choose the right venues for her and try to show her without over using her.” Hough is looking toward the LCGT event in Miami next and down the line, she hopes to show Ohlala in May at Hamburg. Hough says she is also keeping an eye on the WEG for 2018.
Both the top-finishing riders and Deeg commented on how the professionalism of HITS Ocala and the quality footing and jumps for the prestigious event helped to make the class such a success. Hough said, “I was lucky enough to come here for the week of the Nations Cup and I said to Tom [Struzzierri] how fantastic the footing was. I had a bit of a slow season with Lala. She wasn’t happy at WEF, so I pulled way back and made this class a real focus for this week.”
As Lauren Hough said at the outset of the press conference, she’s been knocking on the door for a while in her past performances in million dollar classes. Today, that door opened.
Photos ©Dominique Gonzalez for NF.
Source: Noelle Floyd.com