WELLINGTON, FL, Feb. 5-
The final construction phase of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center was completed Sunday just hours before Canada's Eric Lamaze won the $50,000 Smart for Life Grand Prix at the CN Winter Equestrian Festival, presented by Zimmerman Advertising.
A giant Special Events tent with a paved floor and a panoramic view of the newly installed all-weather International Arena with its eight soaring light towers was completed to host its first lunch for at least 360 guests of the ASPCA Equine Fund. It is large enough to comfortably seat 1,000 guests.
Since taking over the horse shows just 10 days before Christmas, the show grounds have been transformed into one of the world's leading equestrian showcases for a season that has been expanded to 12 weeks from eight weeks in Wellington with record prize money of more than $5 million.
With three weeks of WEF completed, the number of horses competing in jumping, hunter, equitation and pony classes each week is already nearing record levels.
Almost exactly 2,700 horses were recorded as competing last week by Equestrian Sport Productions, LLC that manages the horse show. That is about 100 more than the previous week. The actual number of entries is substantially greater as many horses compete more than once during the week. Official records place the record at almost 2,800 horses in a single week during the 2006 season when WEF was eight weeks in Wellington.
WEF attracts the top horses and riders from dozens of countries from around the world. Later this month, the first of the five trials to select the U.S. team that will defend its team gold medal from four years ago will be held in Wellington.
In the show ring Sunday, having placed third the previous Sunday in the $40,000 KRR Enterprises Grand Prix, Lamaze and Narcotique de Muze II would settle for no less than victory . Of the 12 entries that jumped clear from the 63-horse starting field, Lamaze posted the fastest jump-off time, 40.42 seconds, to secure the win and the accompanying $15,000 paycheck.
"I had a good feeling that the time would stand up, but this is a very competitive circuit," noted Lamaze, 39, the leading money earner at last year's WEF. "I try to leave nothing on the table, I don't want to leave the ring and wish I had done something different."
Only the final challenger gave Lamaze a real run for the money. Brianne Goutal, 19, of New York had the crowd behind her as she raced to the last fence but the clock told the final story-41.03 seconds would leave her in second place with Onira, her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding.
"I missed seeing Eric's jump-off round because I was schooling, but I knew Eric would be fast and hard to beat," said Goutal, a student at Brown University. Earlier in the day, her younger sister, Clementine Goutal, had won the $10,000 Junior Jumper Classic riding Kelline Fonroy in the International Arena.
Beezie Madden of Cazenovia, N.Y., held the early lead with Onlight but, in the end, her time of 41.66 seconds placed her third in the standings. Although she did not win on Sunday, Madden had made a trip to the winner's circle with Play On after scoring victory over James Benedetto of Northport, N.Y., and Kannan's Gigi in Saturday's $20,000 1.50m Classic.
On Thursday, it was hometown favorite Candice King who won the $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Series II . Nine combinations from the 70-horse starting field advanced to the jump-off over the technical track set by course designer Luc Musette of Belgium.
King was the first to post a clear round in the jump-off, shouting encouragement around the course to Rubert, a rambunctious nine-year-old chestnut gelding owned by Skara Glen Stables. The pair stopped the clock in a time of 40.65 seconds. As the last to go, Peter Charles of Ireland was the only other rider to jump double-clear, but in a slower time of 41.44 seconds to take second Murkas Pom D'Ami, a nine-year-old Belgian gelding.
"I'm quite pleased," said King, unable to recall the last time she had scored a major victory at the Winter Equestrian Festival. "I tried to stick to the plan that I walked in the jump-off, I didn't think about who was coming after me."
The win came in Rubert's first grand prix appearance. Besides competing with King in the bigger classes, the Belgian-bred also shows in the medium amateur-owner division with Amanda Gumberg
The 2008 CN Winter Equestrian Festival attracts the best horses and riders from around the world to Wellington and offers more than $5 million in prize money. For more information, visit www.equestriansport.com