Thermal, CA – It was by all accounts a stellar kick-off to the 2013 HITS Desert Circuit Friday, as 38 horse and rider combinations tested themselves in the $25,000 SmartPak Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health. Crisp weather and a light drizzle did nothing to dampen the spirits of the riders and only added to the exuberance of the horses, who were friskier than usual and seemed keyed into the excitement of the event.
The significance of the class was heightened by the fact that it was also the first qualifier of the HITS Desert Circuit season for the AIG Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix, presented by Lamborghini Newport Beach, taking place March 17.
Eight made it to the jump-off, and it was Brazilian rider Eduardo Menezes of Carlsbad, California who rose to the top on his own Caruschka. Ashlee Bond of Hidden Hills, California and Little Valley Farms’ Cadett 7 rode to second while hoping for a third appearance in the World Cup this year. Helen McNaught of San Ramon, California and Lariccello, owned by Allison Heafey, came in third.
Finishing out the top five was Jenn Serek of Calgary, Alberta and The Shin Shin Group’s Eleonora in fourth, while Canada’s Jill Henselwood aboard Juniper Farms’ New idol Z finished fifth.
The proceeds got underway in the Grand Prix Stadium around 4 p.m. under a moody sky, but plenty of light. The colorful course, set by Canada’s Danny Foster included 13 obstacles 16 jumping efforts – the perfect setting for the first $25,000 grand prix of the HITS Thermal season.
“I have to leave town Monday, to go back to Mexico for the FEI Children’s International Classics Competition where I have a student competing. Knowing that I am going to miss a week of qualifying opportunities, I just gave it everything I had,” said Menezes. “But I’ll be back for DC III.” Menezes found the course “tough, but not super tough. What made it hard was the time allowed. People started to run and had faults.”
The time took a toll on the more careful riders, too. Four pairs – Mexico’s Enrique Gonzalez on his own Quilebo Du Tillard, Hap Hansen of Encinitas, California in the irons of Linda Smith’s Archie Bunker, Will Simpson of Thousand Oaks, California with Monarch International’s Acornia and Lauren Hester of Rancho Santa Fe, California aboard Hester Equestrian’s Warinde B – delivered beautiful rounds that left all the rails up only to be penalized by the clock.
The first pair out in round one, Alberta’s Jaclyn Duff and her own Pater Noster, surprised the crowd by going clear. They crowd would wait another eight rounds, however, until McNaught bounded into the ring on a very animated Lariccello, to be guaranteed their jump-off. That was followed by a fault-free round by Bond and Cadett 7, then Menezes.
Duff was the first out for round two and had a rail down at the Liverpool. McNaught, Bond and Menezes followed, all doing progressively better, but when Menezes laid down his blazing 37.45 seconds time – more than a second faster than Bond, it was clear he’d be tough to beat. Parker and Pearce each had a rail.
“I felt that for the first grand prix of the season, eight clear out of 38 was a good number. Any more and it would have been too soft. The course designer did a great job of testing the riders in the right way,” said Menezes. “It was big enough and scopey enough and a super opener for the first grand prix of 2013 – a curtain raiser on what the rest of the circuit will be like. It will get harder, which is appropriate, but what a good start!”
Bond was particularly pleased as Cadett 7 suffered an injury last year and hadn’t ridden a grand prix since the Sacramento International Horse Show.
“I am beyond thrilled,” she said. “I jumped half a level six earlier this week, but other than that, he’s been resting since. For the first half of the class he seemed a little surprised, but the second round he was like, ‘Yeah, I got this!’ He just got better.”
Riders will get their second chance to qualify for the AIG Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix, presented by Lamborghini Newport Beach Sunday night at the $50,000 EMO Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health.