THERMAL — The sun shined bright above the desert sky at HITS Desert Horse Park as the crowd gathered to watch the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Qualifier Feb. 11. The competition served as the grand finale of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Thermal event during week IV of the HITS Coachella Desert Circuit.
An impressive lineup of horses and riders from California and around the globe gathered to jump for the final West Coast qualifying opportunity and a $100,000 purse.
As the last stop for qualifiers on the West Coast commenced, riders were hungry for the opportunity to qualify for the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final to be held in Omaha, Neb., March 29–April 2.
USA equestrian Ashlee Bond went home with the coveted, velvet blue Longines sash and a Longines watch as the winner. Perhaps the most important takeaway for Bond, though, was the meaning behind the win with her trusted partner, Chela LS, owned by Little Valley Farms.
“I was not expecting to walk away the winner of this class,” said Bond. “It’s been a long road with my horse ‘Chela’ — we almost lost her and we’re so thankful to have her, let alone have her sound again and competing and winning at this level.
“It’s amazing just being in this field and coming back after having a baby four months ago as well,” she added. “I’m just very happy.”
Two of the top four finishers will be paying a visit to the FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals in Omaha: second place finisher Audrey Coulter and fourth-place Karl Cook. Third-place went to Lane Clarke. The top three finishers are veterans to HITS shows and returned to the place they have all once called home throughout their respective riding careers.
“It’s an amazing group I’m sitting up here with today,” said HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri at the post-competition press conference. “I’m very happy to see all of these riders — Lane, Ashlee, and Audrey — at this table. We’ve watched Ashlee ride since the ponies, so to see her winning a class like this means a lot to the HITS Team. We consider her family. We’re lucky enough to have Longines here as the sponsor, and the best sponsor in horse sports unquestionably. They’ve supported our HITS Horse Shows and we’re looking forward to having Longines back for another World Cup Qualifier next year.”
Brazilian course designer, Marina Azevedo, set a course that created excitement for spectators in the stands and challenged the skill of each horse and rider. The course of 16 jumping efforts would ultimately separate four riders from the talented field for the jump-off.
“It’s challenging to build a course for a World Cup qualifying class,” said Azevedo. “I try to be fair in my courses, but I like when the riders walk away having learned a little bit after they’ve jump my course.”
Bond put in a very impressive ride in the competition, going first in the first-round as well as first to return to contest the jump-off course. The jump-off consisted of eight fences, and was winding and technical, including a bending line to an oxer that caught up a few of the challengers. But Bond and Chela LS remained resilient.
“I don’t feel as though I’m really there yet after my break to have a child yet — to really lay it down in a jump-off,” said Bond. “My plan was really just to put it a clear ride and go decently fast. Everything has been a building road, so I’m getting my feet wet again. I definitely feel lucky to walk home with this win.”
Following Bond was Clarke riding Balu U. After a second-place finish in the $36,500 Desert Welcome Stake to begin the event on Thursday, Clarke returned to the Grand Prix ring to once again capture a prestigious top five finish, this time in third place.
He and Balu U, owned by Georgy Maskrey-Segesman, powered through the course, ultimately picking up eight faults in 40.10.
“I am really glad to have a place to show in California that is not flooded out right now,” he said. “The weather is great, and it’s why we show here this time of year.”
“As far as my horse, Balu U, he’s a great horse,” he added. “I wanted to work on his jump-off pace coming back in. I’ve only recently started going quick with him, and only shown in a few 1.60 classes. I try to focus more on the quality of the jump-off as opposed to the end result.”
Next was Cook, who rode Tembla, owned by Signe Ostby, to an eight-fault ride in 41.05. They looked to go clear until a mid-course vertical and the final fence foiled their shot at the lead. They would settle for the fourth-place title, but would walk away with a qualifying ticket to the FEI World Cup Finals.
The final jump-off contestant was Audrey Coulter and Alex, owned by Copernicus Stables. They took each fence by storm until a difficult take-off distance cost them a rail. They would finish the course strong in 45.29.