America’s Leslie Howard is a legend in the sport of show jumping and she handily won the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge tonight at the CSI4*-W Royal Horse Show, Toronto, in front of a standing-room only crowd of equine enthusiasts.

Canadian Olympian Beth Underhill was runner-up again tonight, following her reserve-champion finish in last weekend’s Greenhawk Canadian Cup. Underhill’s mount Viggo also received the “All Canadian Cup” this evening, awarded to the Leading Canadian Horse in the International Division.

Of twenty-three to start the Royal’s marquee event, seven were able to keep the jumps up to progress to a jump-off round. The crowd sensed they were in for something special tonight when the first three clean consisted of Team USA’s three-time Olympian McLain Ward, followed by ten-time Canadian Olympian Ian Millar, and then four-time Canadian Champion Yann Candele.

Michel Vaillancourt’s outstanding course design once again forced the riders to take all the chances and turn the impossible turns. As a result, the clean rounds were very hard to come by. It came down to talent, speed and more than a little bit of luck.

“My horse has been jumping well all week,” explained Howard tonight. “He was unlucky to have a rail down in the World Cup but tonight’s course was a great course for him. McLain Ward I’m sure was faster, but luck didn’t go his way with the rails, and it didn’t again for Harrie Smolders. I thought ‘Wow, maybe there is a chance I could actually win this!’”

Howard truly blazed around the jump-off, practically barrel-racing the turns she had to make to shave off the seconds. Nobody was able to come close to her time and leave all the jumps in the cups.

A year ago, runner-up Beth Underhill could not have imagined being in this position tonight. Her horse Viggo had been sidelined, his future unknown. She only began competing him again this summer, progressing through the ranks slowly, to ensure his healing would not come undone. Her patience has obviously paid off.

“I’ve been a spectator myself for the last two years at this level, so I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back,” said Underhill. “I’m so grateful to have Viggo jumping at this level. He still doesn’t have a lot of experience at it, so for him to come out and show such strength in his power, his jump and also in his mentality tonight – it was a big step forward in this horse’s career.”

“You feel the electricity in the crowd. It was standing-room only tonight,” Underhill explained. “That’s something we don’t get the opportunity to experience very often in our sport. To have a Canadian contingent in those seats feels very special and definitely raised the bar in our performance tonight. Having so many Canadians in the jump-off speaks really well to our horse power and the quality of our riders. We have a big three-year cycle coming up with the World Equestrian Games next year, followed by the Pan-American Games here in Toronto and then the Olympic Games. It really augers well for our sport.”

The Ricoh Big Ben Challenge was named in honour of Ian Millar’s world famous mount Big Ben, and tonight Millar received the Lt. Col. Stuart C. Bate Memorial Trophy and was named the Leading Canadian Rider of the competition.

“The Royal Winter Fair is the best, most prestigious show in North America and one of the best in the world. And so to have any success here is particularly gratifying, especially being the leading Canadian rider in front of this hometown crowd.”

The “Braeburn Farms” Leading International Rider Award went to Ireland’s Conor Swail, who was unfortunately unable to compete in the class tonight following an injury he sustained during Friday night’s Weston Canadian Open.

“I think I have pulled my Achilles tendon,” said Swail following the ceremonies tonight. “Game Ready is one of those horses that even when you are fully able to ride, you must do so very well. So tonight was out of the picture.”

“The Royal is an absolutely fantastic show. I love the atmosphere and the crowd is very enthusiastic. And up until last night, I don’t think I have ever had a show like it in my life. I’ve had lots of wins but I went in and my horses were so consistent – my horses were outstanding. They really deserve this. It’s great to be the leading rider with such great competitors and international riders here.”

Earlier this morning, the prestigious Governor General’s Cup and Lieutenant Governor’s Cup classes for Canadian-bred three year-olds took to the Ricoh Coliseum. The bay mare Sweet Be took top honours in both classes, owned by Marie-Claude Lavallee and bred by Josee Turcotte, both of Quebec. Sweet Be is by Sir Wanabi, who competed this year in the Adult Amateur hunter division, winning an over fences class with rider Vickie Robert (St. Eustache, PQ).

Tomorrow’s Royal Horse Show is free with general admission to the Fair.

$75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge

Rider / Hometown / Horse / Faults : Time
1. Leslie Howard / Darien, CT / Utah / 0 : 37.37
2. Beth Underhill / Schomberg, ON / Viggo / 0 : 39.04
3. Yann Candele / Caledon, ON / Showgirl / 0 : 39.46