CSI5* competition continued on the grass field on Saturday at Desert Holiday I. International riders were focused on the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) tour’s final stop in the 10-event series as the last team competition took place as the feature class of the day. Eight teams came forward in the $200,000 Major League Show Jumping Team Competition, sponsored by La Quinta Club & Resort, to take on a difficult track set at 1.50m and designed by Michel Vaillancourt of Canada. At the end of three rounds of competition, it was Team A.I.M. United that emerged victorious in the final leg of the inaugural regular season of Major League Show Jumping.
Set in a format unique to MLSJ, each team put forth three riders in the first round, each competing back to back, and final results after round one determined the top four teams according to faults, with cumulative times breaking any ties. The second round, set in a jump-off format, allowed each team chef d’equipe to select two riders to jump off in a faults-converted format, with each rail adding four seconds to the time. The combined jump-off times and faults would determine which two teams competed for the gold and which two teams competed for the bronze. The riders who didn’t jump off in round two were saved for round three, set over the same jump-off track, and went head-to-head to secure the highest possible podium placing.
Enter A.I.M. United
First to take on the course was the Crusaders, who had some troubles by the in-gate that led to significant time faults and a total round one score of 29 and time of 272.37. Team Lucky Charms were next to tackle round one, and luck wasn’t on everyone’s side as they finished on 15 faults. The Diamond Devils accumulated 13 faults among the three riders, but it was A.I.M. United who really shook things up as all three riders, Ashlee Bond (ISR), Karl Cook (USA), and Eugenio Garza (MEX) each jumped clear rounds putting them on a score of zero in 232.45 seconds and shooting them to the top of the leaderboard.
Immediately following, the hometown team, Team Roadrunners, took to the ring and wowed the crowd yet again with more triple clear rounds from Kyle King (USA), Adrienne Sternlicht (USA), and McLain Ward (USA) in a time of 232.77, just fractions of a second behind A.I.M United securing second place. The Blazing 7s accumulated 13 faults but were quicker than the Diamond Devils, putting them into third with only two teams left to contend. The Otomí Warriors got the job done and finished on 5 faults, knocking the Diamond Devils out of the top four to return for the jump-off. Finally, Team Eye Candy guaranteed themselves a spot in round two alongside the Otomí Warriors, the Roadrunners, and A.I.M. United, with a 4-fault score.
Jumping off first for Round 2 was the team sitting in fourth after round one, the Otomí Warriors, represented by Cassio Rivetti (BRA) and Keri Potter (USA). Each team member had a rail down, putting the team on a total combined time of 94.38 seconds. The season’s current leaders, Eye Candy, were next up and Paul O’Shea had an unfortunate miscommunication at fence seven, leading to a circle and adding valuable seconds to the team’s overall time, putting the total time at 112.49 seconds after teammate Amy Millar took on the track as well.
McLain Ward In The House
In second place overall, Team Roadrunners sent Kyle King and Adrienne Sternlicht, opting to save Olympian McLain Ward for the medal jump-off, hoping it would be for gold. One rail down for King and the first clear round of the jump-off from Sternlicht shot the Roadrunners into the lead. The first A.I.M. United rider, Ashlee Bond, laid down the fastest clear effort of the entire second round, while teammate Karl Cook came in to complete the round doing exactly what he had to to secure a spot in the gold medal jump-off for his team, clocking in at 92.13 seconds, just beneath the time of 94.34 seconds of the Roadrunners and snagging his team’s spot in the gold medal jump-off.
Conor Swail represented Team Eye Candy in the jump-off round for bronze, and laid down every attempt to get his team a spot on the podium, resulting in a quick and clear round and putting the pressure on John Perez Bohm to do the same, only quicker. Though more stride to work with than Swail, Bohm dropped one rail and Theo 160’s natural foot speed seemed to outpace Voodoo, resulting in Team Eye Candy taking the bronze medal in the final leg of the tour.
Gold On Gold
All eyes were on the two gold medal jump-off riders, Olympians McLain Ward and Eugenio Garza Perez. Though the incredible mare HH Azur pulled a rail at fence eight, Ward didn’t step off the gas, knowing he had precious time to make up as the first to jump off for gold. Garza took to the ring knowing exactly what he had to do to put A.I.M. United in the winners circle. Though Contago pulled the same rail at fence eight that Ward did, he galloped to the finish and came in precisely one second below Ward’s time in a thrilling race for home and secured the gold medal for his team.
Earlier in the day, CSI5* competitors took to the grass arena for the FEI $36,600 1.45m Speed CSI5*, sponsored by Marshall & Sterling. Of the 25 entries, it was Jacqueline Steffens (CAN) and the Eye Candy Jumpers entry, Cat Ninja, who emerged victorious after a clear and fast round, stopping the timers with over four seconds to spare over the second place finisher, Kaitlin Campbell (USA) on Feyon, owned by SWS Training and Sales. Third place went to Chandler Meadows (USA) and her own Zamia 3.
Ashlee Bond – Team AIM United
On team plan for round one:
“Our plan was to just jump clear. We have been doing this now all season so it pretty much comes down to who has the least amount of faults. You don’t want to be to slow but all three of us [Eugenio Garza Perez and Karl Cook] are really fast riders so the idea was to have a nice rhythm and to leave all of the jumps up. It worked out really nicely for us in the first round and it worked well in the second.”
Eugenio Perez Garza – Team AIM United.
“Contago is starting to compete at this 5* level and the first week in Mexico was his first 5* ever. So, he is relatively new and when I got into the jump off and knew I had McLain Ward to beat, you either have to go for it or you don’t. I decided to go for it and I think I ‘let the cat out of the bag’ a little bit but we have one week to put it all back together for the finale next week. He is not used to going that fast but I am really happy that he learned and pulled it out.”
Karl Cook – Team AIM United
On competing in MLSJ team competition:
“It is my first time competing in a MLSJ team competition. I am filling in for some of the others. It is super fun when you win of course. I told the AIM team to tell me where they want me to go and when. The team has been great and the grass field here is really standing up to what we are doing to it. This competition and the venue really allowed us to ride and do something entertaining for the people that are watching.”
Steve Hankin – President and CEO of Desert International Horse Park
On what it means for the venue to host MLSJ:
“The League was a very important event for us to support. We knew when we bought the place that we could fix it up but didn’t know if we could get the level of competition we wanted out here. So the League was a nice vehicle for doing that. I think for the most part that people have been pleasantly surprised with what we have out here and I think the place is really holding up well. It has been great to see competition at this level out here in California, it has been a long time since that has happened. I think that it is the start of world class competition out here and more people will start to see that this is the place to be. I think we will see more of this competition out here in the future. I have only lived out here for seven years and I think this type of competition and venue has been missing out here for a long time. I think it is great. The grass field got tested pretty hard over the past two days but I think it has held up really well. To have facilities that allow people to jump at this level and is a great place for their horses is the most important thing.”
Press release provided by the Desert International Horse Park. Highest level hunter/jumper competition resumes at the venue Jan. 6 with the Desert Circuit Prep, followed by the Desert Circuit itself Jan. 19-March 20.
Photos: Tori Bilas & Olivia Airhart for Phelps Media.