The $500,000 AIG Grand Prix at HITS Saugerties, New York, was not planned as the world’s richest show jumping competition of 2020. But that’s likely the way it will be remembered, part of a crazy year that turned around so much of what we took for granted in horse sport. With no Spruce Meadows, Aachen CSIO or many other major competitions ‒ including the Olympics ‒ the fixtures that survived the onslaught of Covid cancellations took on landmark status.

Despite the issues involved with running shows during the pandemic, HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri never considered cutting the prize money for the September 6th class. The riders, he noted “need a chance to have a good payday,” which also included the Diamond Mills $250,000 and Platinum Performance $100,000 hunter competitions, in addition to the grand prix that drew 50 horses.

Ben Maher of Great Britain, who has been staying in the U.S. this year, shipped the dynamic Explosion W up from Wellington, Florida, “especially for this class.” It was mission accomplished for the number one-ranked horse and rider competition in the world as they prevailed in a four-horse jump-off over a fellow Brit, also last year’s runner-up, Amanda Derbyshire on Cornwall BH.

It was only Ben’s second show this year and he felt a little rusty, coming in just under the 88-second time allowed in the first round. But his mount, listed as the world’s best horse on the final WBFSH (World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses) Ranking List for 2019, filled in for him where necessary so he could collect a $150,000 paycheck.

“He has always been a phenomenal horse, the horse of a lifetime, and he did everything for me today,” Ben said about meeting the challenges of a testing course designed by Florencio Hernandez of Mexico.

While Ben’s lack of showing was due in part to having back surgery before everything shut down, other riders also haven’t been able to compete as much as they normally do, simply because there are fewer shows than usual. Click here for full results.

Mario Deslauriers and Amsterdam 27 competing in the $500,000 HITS AIG grand prix. (Photo © 2020 by Nancy Jaffer)

“It’s a trying year for all of us. We showed a little bit here and there, we stayed close to home,” said Canadian Mario Deslauriers, who is based in New York. He had two horses in the class, but finished out of the money.

“We enjoyed a lot of family time and played a lot of golf. We try to focus every time we come out to use our horses right. I think everybody’s in the same boat and we’ve got to take it day by day. This year was pretty easy on the horses, because we didn’t compete all that hard with no Spruce, no bigger shows going on.”

The Great American $1 million grand prix slated for the HITS Ocala show in March was cancelled after the U.S. Equestrian Federation shut down all competitions as of March 20th with the onslaught of the pandemic. USEF shows didn’t resume until June 1, taking out a chunk of the year that included the FEI World Cup finals in jumping and dressage in Las Vegas, the Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*, and Devon.

So for the finale of the Saugerties series, Tom said, “We were pretty committed to making this week a special week.”

HITS joined forces with the Vermont Summer Festival for a series of shows in July and early August, after restrictions from the Green Mountain State meant those competitions could not be held there. But the first show of the year in Saugerties was cancelled after one day when New York state health officials declared that even without spectators, it exceeded the mandated limit on the number of people who could gather at that time. As Tom pointed out, “We’re at the mercy of Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo and New York State.”

Tom, wearing a mask, regularly gave video updates of the shows’ status until they got going.
The situation was, of course, “frustrating, for sure,” but as Tom noted, “We’re survivors here, and work pretty hard at it. We were able to weather a storm better than most. But it was also gratifying to get it done in a healthy and safe manner.”

Even so, he noted, Covid-related concerns meant organizers had a “sleepless summer.”

New York requires people coming in from states deemed Covid hotspots to quarantine for two weeks after crossing the state line before going out in public. That ruled out many competitors from the U.S. who otherwise would have made the trip, including Beezie Madden, who had to stay home on her New York farm instead of coming to HITS after showing in North Carolina earlier this season. Because of international travel restrictions, no one could come in from Europe, and the border with Canada has been closed for months.

The Canadian situation hurt the show, Tom said, explaining “that all weighs into that number where we lost several hundred horses a week that had shown interest, or made entries to come, but were never able to come.”

The USEF’s Covid regulations, “which are much more severe than the state restrictions,” according to Tom, bar outside spectators and require everyone to wear masks unless they are mounted. That involves some oversight. Four stewards reminded people to abide by that rule at Saugerties, as did HITS staff, and even Tom went on mask patrol. Expulsion from the showgrounds is the penalty for refusing to wear one.

The vigilance was serious; USEF is very strict about masks, going so far as to reprimand a show down south earlier in the summer when the live stream of the competition revealed some people were not masked. Meanwhile, the empty grandstands, a Covid-related signature in the U.S., affect “the electricity you might have at a big event like this,” Tom commented.

The big money class at Saugerties usually allows only one horse per rider, but that rule was changed due to the circumstances. Several riders had multiple mounts in the class, run at a national, rather than international, standard. While hosting 1,000 horses meant HITS was a pretty big show, Tom noted the showgrounds can handle 2,000, which means it’s set up for social distancing under the current situation.

“We’re fortunate we could do these (the Saugerties shows) and be safe. It sets a precedent going forward. I’m pretty bullish (on 2021),” he said.

“If we go into next year with the status quo, there’s no reason why the same professional organizers can’t deliver the same safe professional events.” He believes customers who were reluctant to show may return next year after seeing how competitions are being done safely.

The AIG Grand Prix has offered more money than any other grand prix in the world through last weekend. It appears unlikely that any new grand prix with more money will be scheduled in the Western hemisphere and no show scheduled thus far in Europe has a bigger purse, although several shows have not yet published the amount of their prize money.

HITS, meanwhile, is branching out. It hosted August’s USEF National Dressage Championships at its newest venue, Lamplight in Illinois, and for its Saugerties wrap-up is doing a dressage show that it is presenting itself, rather than simply serving as the venue for another organization’s show, as it has done in the past.

“We’re dipping our toe into dressage,” said Tom. “We’re usually just the landlord.”