That’s a pretty big check! photo by Elizabeth Skuba

Those were the words of HITS President Tom Struzzieri as he discussed the Pfizer $1 Million during the post-even press conference.  Clearly not, as HITS also offered the Diamond Mills $500,000 Hunter Prix and the HITS $250,000 Hunter Prix Final on Sunday’s slate of events.  That’s $1,750,000 in prize money in one day!

Mr. Struzzieri is obviously not afraid to write checks, and he’s getting rather good at handing those checks to Brewster, N.Y.’s McLain Ward.  McLain took the $350,000 winner’s share of the purse in 2010 as he won the inaugural event on the great Sapphire. In 2011 Sapphire was sidelined due to a check ligament strain, and Ward competed with Antares F, taking home third place and $120,000 for their efforts.

This year, with the venerable mare enjoying a well deserved retirement, Ward returned to the Grand Prix ring at HITS-on-the-Hudson with Antares F.  This year the pair posted double clear rounds and once again Ward found himself shaking hands with Tom Struzzieri and Pfizer’s Stuart Meikel and accepting a $350,000 check.

Maybe McClain is thinking he better grab that check and go! photo by Elizabeth Skuba

Jill Henselwood and Jonathan McCrea gave Ward a run for that money, but Ward and his grey gelding are fast, as McCrea wryly noted. “With McLain in the jump-off, I figured I could skip a jump and still be slower,” the Irishman quipped.  Ward allowed that such a small jump off group allowed him to ride his plan and use his horse’s speed to “put stress” on the other combinations.  Henselwood, a two-time Canadian Olympian allowed that her horse’s greenness and tendency to jump high was a disadvantage, but told the crowd, “I had to try!”  Henselwood set off at a determined pace on her 2012 Olympic partner George, but felt that she was behind even at the second jump.

Jonathan McCrea and Colorado

Jonathan McCrea and Colorado. photo by Elizabeth Skuba

Jill Henselwood and George. photo by Elizabeth Skuba

Ward admitted, with classic understatement, that his schedule and getting the horse ready for this class this season was “a mess” given his injury and the Olympic Games, but with the help of his team, his owners and a Wild Card from the HITS management he felt lucky to have been able to participate in what he called a “great class.”  Ward then went on to compliment course designer Olaf Petersen Jr.’s handiwork, saying, “I thought it was tough, I thought the jumps were beautiful…I thought the course was hard.”  Ward went on to talk about the test offered by the triple, which he felt was a “real 5* competition triple combination” and that how in class in the caliber of the Million, a 2-3 horse jump off was right on the money.  Henselwood agreed, praising the footing and calling the triple combination scopey and noting that with the course “every time you turned to the next problem, it was an option. I hate that!” she laughed.

Henselwood was asked to describe her partner, the 10 year-old George, which elicited more laughter from the amiable Canadian. “He’s a character!” she said, smiling fondly.  “I don’t think he gives a lot of thought to what he does.”  She want on to praise him, saying the gelding gives a lot of effort (the gelding jumps so big and hangs in the air so high that more than a few hearts skipped a beat while watching) and going on to say how proud she was of the way George has matured through the Olympic process. She concluded by saying that the HITS effort was perhaps the gelding’s best to date,  and that he walked into a new venue and delivered, which in her words, “was a first for him.”

McLain and Antares F go “wheels up!” photo by Elizabeth Skuba

While Ward, Henselwood, and McCrea made the course look fairly easy, it clearly wasn’t.  Many of the fences were regulation height, the water was 4 meters, the double was extremely short, and the triple was not only big, but was a one stride to a one stride, not a one to a two, which Ward noted was unusual in US competition.  Many horse and rider combinations scattered a great deal of lumber (some over 20 faults), retired, or parted company.  Struzzieri allowed that the course was “maybe a little bit too challenging for some of the riders,” which he called unfortunate, citing his goal is to grow the sport and give the riders a good experience.

Yep, I’d call this a “big” fence. By the way, Olaf Petersen, Jr. and his father modelled this fence after one from the Beijing 2008 Games. photo by Elizabeth Skuba

Thanks for reading!