How fitting that in an uncommon lead-up to the 2022 Spruce Meadows Masters there would be an uncommon finish in a five-star grand prix.
For the first time ever, the Continental show jumping tournament was held just prior to the prestigious Masters, giving horses and riders a chance to re-acclimatize themselves to the facility.
It was on the final day of the tourney that rising British star Matthew Sampson and veteran Irishman Paul O’Shea accomplished a historical first – tying for top spot in the 1.60m Friends of the Meadows Grand Prix held in the pristine North American ring.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” said the 45-year-old O’Shea, the 27th-ranked rider in the world. “It was just a fantastic result.
“I was joint second with myself once. I was in the lead then one of my best friends came in and beat me; no one remembers that I was joint second.”
“Thought I’d go for the tie; luckily, the tactic paid off,” joked Sampson, 32. “It was a tough course. There wasn’t the biggest field of horses but it was still a tough five-star course. To come out on top, it was a great day.”
Twenty-one entries took part in the class, with seven horses returning for the jump-off. O’Shea and Imerald Van’t Voorhof – winners of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup grand prix in July – posted a time of 38.00 with a pair of heavyweights, Sampson and Egypt’s Nayel Nassar, still to come. Sampson, on board his 13-year-old mare Ebolensky, matched that time, while Nassar and Coronado knocked down a pair of jumps.
It was Ebolensky’s first try at a five-star grand prix.
“She really stepped up here last year to the bigger divisions,” explained Sampson, 79th in the FEI rankings. “I got her when she was seven. She’s super careful. She really tries hard and that’s why I haven’t pushed her. She felt ready for it and the way she jumped in the summer series, I brought her up from 1.35 to 1.50 and then we aimed for this grand prix for a couple of months, so to get this result is really nice.”
Given their success together, O’Shea wasn’t at all surprised with Imerald, 14.
“He’s been a fantastic horse for me,” he said. “He’s jumped everywhere and this is his third five-star grand prix win. He loves it here at Spruce. This is a great warm-up for next week and obviously this is a big grand prix in itself, so it’s fantastic.”
“We love Spruce Meadows so to put this extra show on is great,” agreed Sampson. “To be able to jump in the big grass fields before next week, the horses feeling good and in shape, and to get results just fills you full of confidence for what’s to come this week. Fingers crossed we can keep it going.”
For Sampson, the Continental continued where the Brit left off in the summer, when he won 11 events during the National, the Pan American and the North American tournaments. Besides the Sunday grand prix, he added three victories in 1.40m or higher classes.
Nassar was another big winner on the weekend, taking Saturday’s 1.50m Friends of the Meadows Jumper aboard his world championship mount, Igor Van De Wittemoere, in a three-horse jump-off.
“I thought it was a very fair class,” said Nassar. “Obviously a lot of money and not a lot of starters. It’s a tricky job for the course designer to decide whether to build for the number of starters or for the amount of money in the class. I think he built for the money, which was just right. We got the right amount of clears.
“My horse feels really good. He had never even been on this course before until yesterday. He’s a little overqualified for a 1.50 class, but we’re gearing him up for next week. He hasn’t jumped since the world championships in Denmark; we figured this would be a nice week to get him going again.”
Ranked 34th in the world, Nassar, too, is eager for the challenge that the Masters presents and the battles against many of the top horses and riders in the game. For that reason, he also saw having the Continental just prior as a boon for his horses.
“I think anytime you can get in the ring at Spruce Meadows it’s great experience for you and the horses,” he pointed out. “When there’s such a big week like next week, it’s nice for them to get their legs underneath them, get their lungs going and get a few rounds under their belts to gear themselves up.
“I’m a big fan of this week. I think it’s great. All the fields are so good here that it doesn’t really matter for the horses; just get them used to the material and the grass.”
Nassar will definitely be a rider to watch at the Masters. He had a successful week at the 2021 show, posting three victories and nine additional top-three placings.