By Gavin Menu
As favorite after favorite fell from contention Sunday at the Hampton Classic Grand Prix in Bridgehampton, a new champion, Karen Polle of New York City, rode flawlessly—and faultlessly—to etch her name in the history books at one of riding’s premier events.
Polle and her 11 year-old gelding Without Wings rode last in a jump-off against three other riders, none of whom finished without faults. The pressure was on to complete a second consecutive round in the $250,000 Grand Prix, presented by Longines, without knocking down a rail, something the 23 year-old rider accomplished before a huge crowd at summer’s signature season-ending event.
“This is definitely the biggest win in my career, and I can’t believe it,” said Polle. “I can’t believe I won this at the Hampton Classic.
“When you have to go clear to win, it actually adds a lot of pressure,” she added. “It’s usually a nice position to be in, but this time it was a lot of pressure. It’s sort of yours to lose at that point, so I was definitely nervous.”
Polle finished the jump-off in 47.96 seconds. Todd Minikus, who trained Polle as recently as 2014, finished second with 4 faults aboard Babalou 41 in 43.89 seconds.
“She’s always been a very good rider, and she’s won a lot,” Minikus said. “And With Wings is a very special horse—they’re a great match.”
Adding a bit of humor to the post-event press conference, the 53-year-old Minikus added, “The one thing that she forgot, though, is that when you’re in the jump-off, you have to let the old guy win. So she wasn’t the best of students, obviously.”
Chris Sorensen of Canada took third on Bobby (4 faults/46.23 seconds) and Meagan Nusz was fourth on Dynamo (8 faults/47.58 seconds). Seven other riders finished with just 4 faults in the opening round on what appeared to be a challenging course set out by designer Guilherme Jorge, who will also design the show jumping courses in the upcoming 2016 Olympics in his home country of Brazil.
Jorge explained during the press conference that he intended to create a challenging course, with so much prize money at stake and a field that included half a dozen Olympic riders and four previous winners.
“This is a proven international event,” he said. “It takes a special horse, a horse that has more experience, and we saw many less experienced horses and riders making mistakes.”
Riding ninth in the opening round, Sorensen set the stage with a clear round, meaning other riders would have to also ride clear to force a jump-off. Georgina Bloomberg, a crowd favorite and daughter of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, knocked down a pair of rails, while Richie Moloney, an Irish rider who trains in Riverhead, knocked a rail from the 14th and final jump.
Following clear rides by Nusz, who hails from Texas, and Minikus, who trains in Florida, Ireland’s Kevin Babbington took the ring aboard Shorapur, the same horse he rode to victory in last year’s Classic Grand Prix. The suspense was short-lived for Babbington, however, as he knocked a rail off the opening jump.
The next to fall was Beezie Madden, the Classic Grand Prix champion in 1993, who finished with 4 faults on Sunday. Shane Sweetnam, who won this year’s $30,000 Longines Challenge, awarded to the rider who accumulates the most points in the open jumper classes throughout the week, also finished with 4 faults to fall from contention. That set the stage for one last rider in McLain Ward, a six-time Grand Prix champion at the Classic. Ward’s horse, HH Azur, clipped the top rail on the second jump of a challenging triple, and was also eliminated from competition.
That set the stage for Polle’s triumphant round in the jump-off before a captivated crowd of horse jumping enthusiasts. Polle, who will start her senior year at Yale University this fall, claimed her Japanese citizenship in 2014 and is hoping to qualify for the Japanese Olympic team and ride for her home country when Japan hosts the Olympics in 2020.