How to Leg Up for a $1 Million Day: Hearing from HITS Thermal Riders

The annual AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Thermal will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday
The annual AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Thermal will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday
The annual AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Thermal will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday

Against a hot and dry backdrop of California’s desert, the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix is set for Sunday, March 20. It’s Week 8 of HITS Thermal, the final week of the winter circuit, and the annual class is often a large draw for competitors to travel from Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival—into the unrelenting heat, in pursuit of the large purse.

But much like next week’s FEI World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, this year’s talent pool is smaller than years past, most likely due to the fact that it’s an Olympic year. It’s also quite possible that despite the prize money, HITS Thermal’s lack of an FEI rating lessens the incentive for the World’s best horses and riders to travel to the West Coast state.

Regardless, a few big names have arrived at the HITS Desert Horse Park, including USA’s McLain Ward, Todd Minikus, and Christine McCrea, to do battle against young, California upstarts, like Nayel Nassar and Karl Cook. The horses from the East Coast arrived midweek and were expected to jump in Friday’s $25,000 Smartpak Open Prix.

But given that the show is run by national standards, and not by FEI standards, the horses did not have to jump a grand prix qualifier for Sunday’s main event. Instead, horses and riders have invitations into the class, which then translated into many of the riders opting to take their $1 Million mounts into lower divisions on Friday—to accustom the horses to the surroundings without “wasting jumps.”

We caught up with a few riders to discuss their strategies heading into Sunday. Read on to understand why Ward, Minikus, McCrea, and Cook decided to take it light with their horses on Friday, while Nassar jumped his top mount, Lordan.

McLain Ward:

Q: Why did you decide to ride Rothchild in the 1.40-meter class today?
A: Luckily for me, I’m pre-qualified, anyway, so I’m going to do what suits my horse best. When he’s able to do a nice, small class, and he’s able to thaw a little bit, that prepares him the best for the grand prix.

Q: How do you and Rothchild deal with the heat?
A: For us, coming from the East, it’s much drier heat. I think you notice it in your own breathing; for sure, you need to be aware of it. But he’s a blood horse and it’s one class and I think he’ll handle it fine.

Q: Does the additional travel put any strain on you?
A: I was actually just saying to my wife that I don’t really like staying in one place for so long. It was nice to be in a hotel again. I’m a nomad by heart so I enjoy travel. I think we have to balance it well for the horses. There is so much travel now that I think people take it for granted the stress that it causes the horses. We try not to over show our horses, and we’re lucky enough to have a large enough string to split them up a little bit.

Q: How important are these $1 Million classes for the sport, in your opinion?
A: I think the prize money around the world is growing exponentially, and that’s great not only for owners but also for the athletes. It really allows us to really focus on the sport and not need to supplement our income in other ways in the industry. It’s exciting for it to go in that direction within my career and build that for the next generation.

Q: What are your thoughts on the class not having an FEI rating?
A: Money is still green. It goes in the bank account the same way.

Todd Minikus:

Q: What caused your decision to enter Quality Girl into the 1.30-meter on Friday?
A: Even though Quality Girl has been in this ring before, I just wanted her to come in and familiarize herself with the ring. She’s been showing all along the winter in Wellington so she didn’t need to jump a big course. Basically, I didn’t even want to jump any jumps. I went in to flat in the ring.

Q: And how did she travel?
A: She seemed to travel well. I actually rode on the plane with her, and she’s been in great spirits since she got here.

Q: How does this $1 Million fit into your schedule?
A: Anytime you get the opportunity to jump for that kind of money—if you get an invite—for sure you should try and take advantage of it.

Q: Does it matter to you that the class isn’t FEI rated?
A: No, not really. It’s a national class, and we show frequently under national rules.

Christine McCrea:

Q: Originally, you were going to ride Win For Life in the $1 Million, but instead, Dynamo is here. Why the change?
A: Win For Life was in the paddock the other day and he stepped on the clip of his shoe. He’s fine now, but I switched them. I’m showing Dynamo here and Win For Life next week in Ocala.

Q: What was your decision to do the 1.40-meter with Dynamo today?
A: My horse knows what his job is so I just wanted for him to get in the ring and feel the ground and jump a couple jumps and to see the sights. I didn’t really want to compete him in anything bigger than that. Save him for the $1 Million, was my thought.

Q: Will you just rest Dynamo on Saturday before Sunday’s class?
A: Actually, Dynamo was a little bit wild and feeling good. So I might hack him harder tomorrow and make sure he’s focused.

Nayel Nassar:

Q: What was the strategy behind competing Lordan in the Friday grand prix when everyone else seems to have chosen the lower divisions?
A: Normally, if he were really in his groove and going, I probably would have done a smaller class and gone right into the $1 Million. But he’s been out of the sport for a while and missed all of 2015. He’s only jumped three shows before this one, and in the three, he seems to have come out the first day really well and then get even better for the grand prix.

That strategy worked really well the first two weeks I was here and when I was in Mexico. So I figured I would just keep that strategy the same and get him to do one nice bigger round so he could get his body loose and figure out what he’s here for. Hopefully he’ll be all set for Sunday.

Q: As a West Coast rider, are you wiling to comment on the lack of FEI-rated shows?
A: I think California really lacks FEI shows, and it’s tough for us riders out here to really get up the ranking list without traveling hours and hours away, or even to the other Coast to get points. We have a really great circuit in the fall now, which is exciting. But our winter and spring circuits are a little dead.

Of course, with the kind of money being put up out here, it still gives us something to jump for, and it still makes it exciting for us. HITS Thermal is putting up a lot of prize money, which is great for the sport on the West Coast.

Karl Cook:

Q: What’s the strategy heading into Sunday?
A: To win.

Q: And with your $1 Million mount, Tembla, why did you choose to do the 1.40-meter but to not do the jump off?
A: The footing is quite hard out there. We’ve been in the ring for many weeks. It’s good to get a good schooling round and work on the rideability and not worry about the jumps so much. And you can stay relaxed as you do it.

Q: Does it matter to you that the class isn’t an FEI-rated one?
A: It does matter. It would be great if there were more Longines point shows out here. But there aren’t, and I don’t want to spend the money to buy my way into shows. And I don’t like being away from home.

The Rolex points [for USEF rankings] does help for U.S. standings, which USEF will look at for putting riders on Nations Cup teams and whatnot. So it does help for that. And it’s a whole boatload of money to jump for, which is never a bad thing.

Q: You recently said Tembla isn’t ready for the World Cup Final. How do you think she fits into the $1 Million?
A: I think this is more her jumping style because it won’t be as big or as technical as the World Cup Final. Also, the ring is much larger and the atmosphere is much more relaxed. With the added space [at Thermal], she can use her big stride to rumble along. Things don’t come up as fast, so I think that will help her.

The AIG $1 Million at HITS Thermal will begin at 2 p.m. PT on Sunday, March 20 and will be available to livestream on the USEF Network.