Jumpin’ Gee-Willikerz! Equestrian Show jumping events big hits at 2008 NWSS
A bunch of equestrian show jumpers rode into town over the second weekend of the National Western Stock Show (NWSS), and a bona-fide party broke out as a result. Far from being stuffy affairs dripping with elitism, the NWSS $40,000 Grand Prix and its lesser jumping events were big fun for everyone involved. Some of it was the large amount of prize money up for grabs – some of it was the international feel of riders from the United States and Canada competing against each other – some of it was the power and grace of the equine athletes – some of it was the enthusiastic, sold out crowds. Okay … most of it was the high-energy crowd.
“We have such a great crowd here at the NWSS, that’s the first thing that all the competitors say,” described Brad Ettleman, NWSS Horse Show Manager. “They always thank the crowd. It’s a real energetic, educated crowd. They know what they’re watching and they reward the riders for it.”
The riders loved it – every high decibel minute of it.
“Boy, is it nice to jump for this kind of crowd,” said Canadian competitor, Jonathan Asselin, who was making his first appearance at the stock show. “It’s an enthusiastic crowd … fantastic.”
He wasn’t the only contestant from north of the border in love with Denver’s equestrian fans.
“The crowd is so enthusiastic. It’s just amazing,” said Karen Cudmore, an accomplished rider from Canada who now lives in Nebraska. Cudmore is a perennial fan favorite in Denver, and she returns the sentiment. “It’s a sell-out crowd,” she added of what she likes about the NWSS atmosphere. “A lot of people know the horses, they know all the riders. They’re happy with what everybody does. They’re great; they’re just an excellent crowd. It’s exciting for us as riders. They get you pumped up.”
There was good reason for the crowd to pump them up, as the two main events – a $10,000 Gambler’s Choice Open Stake on Friday night and the $40,000 Jack Daniel’s Grand Prix the following Monday night – provided plenty of entertainment and suspense for everyone lucky enough to attend.
The Gambler’s Choice was not a typical Grand Prix style of event, and the format was popular with the thousands of fans who braved Denver’s snow and ice to take it all in.
“The Gambler’s Choice is always an exciting event,” revealed Ettleman before the contest started. “There’s not a prescribed course. Each jump, based upon its level of difficulty, is given a point value and riders are given 60 seconds to go around the arena and gather up as many points as they can get, while jumping any particular jump a maximum of two times. If they knock the jump down, they don’t get the points,” Ettleman continued. “If they clear it, they do get the points. At the end of those 60 seconds, each rider is then given the opportunity to jump what’s called the Joker Jump, which is a 5-foot tall vertical worth 200 points. The kicker on that is that if you knock down a rail, you lose 200 points. The crowd likes it.”
Karen Cudmore took the point lead early and looked like she might even pick up both first and second place, much to the delight of her legion of fans. While 16 other riders went up against her scores and had to fold, Guy McElvain was the very last rider in the arena, and the last hope for loosening Cudmore’s stranglehold on the top two spots. The New Mexico competitor knew exactly how many points he had to accumulate to beat his Canadian colleague, but he wasn’t sure his choice of jumps would do the trick.
“My strategy was just to stick to what our plan was for the course,” said McElvain of his thoughts before entering the Events Center arena. “I didn’t know if it would add up to that many points … but it did.”
“It was a great class,” concluded a satisfied Ettleman afterward. “The last horse went the fastest and with the most points. It was very exciting. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
Little did anyone know, the $40,000 Grand Prix would be even more exciting. And louder too …
On a Ken Krome designed course, seven out of the 22 riders managed clean rounds to force a jump-off. Once the crews finished removing unnecessary jumps from the arena, it was time to rock the house again with the jump-off round of action. The first rider laid down a clean run with a time of 42.902 seconds, and the spectators went crazy. The race was on. It seemed like each successive rider answered the challenge of the one before, as the times kept decreasing, much to the delight of the sold-out audience. The fifth rider in was a rookie, Mickie Sage (of Castle Rock, Colo.), and she showed the pros a thing or two with a sub-40 time. If you could hear anything over the crowd at that point, you weren’t inside the building.
The moment was not lost on Sage.
“Oh, I’ve been sitting in these stands for years,” said Sage of her thoughts on doing so well in her first stock show competition. “And now I’m one of the riders. All I wanted to do was go double-clean,” added the excited competitor. “That was the plan.”
It was a good plan. That is, until veterans John McConnell and Jonathan Asselin decided to show who was in charge.
Local favorite McConnell shaved almost another second off Sage’s total and soaked in a huge round of applause after the last obstacle. The look on his face as he doffed his cap in gratitude showed hope his time would stand up to Asselin, the next and last rider to go.
“I knew he had a good shot at beating my time,” said McConnell. “Jonathan is very aggressive and has nice horses, as well.”
McConnell had no idea how aggressive his Canadian counterpart really was.
Taking an inside line throughout the round and besting McConnell’s time by almost two seconds, Asselin showed he was more than aggressive – he was just plain greedy.
“I saw John go inside and I knew he was fast,” said Asselin about his strategy as the last rider in the jump-off. “I kind of got a little greedy and decided I wanted to try to win it and just laid it all on the line. That horse jumped super. It’s his first big Grand Prix, so I’m just thrilled with him.”
The sell out crowd was thrilled, as well, standing to their feet in response and not letting up until the winner rode a country mile around the arena just to absorb the atmosphere.
“This is my first time here, ever. I think it’s a great tournament,” stated Asselin afterwards.
“It’s a great horse show. I’ve been here for about 40 years now,” agreed McConnell with a laugh. “I won ribbons in the 10 and Under Equitation Class. I’ve been coming to the NWSS for close to 40 years, because I grew up here. It’s a great audience. It’s one of the most fun horse shows we have.”
Ettleman thought so, too. He especially liked how the jump-off played out with the last three riders snatching the top score away from each other.
“You can’t ask for it to be any better from a show producer standpoint,” said Ettleman with a big smile. ” The competition was very fierce and they definitely wanted to best the last, best horse. It gave me goosebumps.”
Not everyone leaves a typical Grand Prix event with goosebumps, but it’s safe to say the NWSS isn’t your typical horse show, either. Just ask the high-energy, sold out crowds. They’ll tell you when their voices finally return.