It was a weekend of contrasts at the Spruce Meadows National show-jumping competition.
For Saturday's $500,000 RBC Grand Prix, rain fell steadily, which created a series of unpredictable results. Two unheralded Canadians, Keean White of Rockwood, Ont., and Vanessa Mannix of Calgary, crashed the party. They unexpectedly finished second and third behind the winner, Mexico's Patricio Pasquel, which gave them two of the most important results of their respective riding careers.
On Sunday, the sun came out, which dried out the International Ring and helped some of show jumping's biggest names return to form.
All in all, it was an eventful first week of the summer show-jumping season. American McLain Ward won Sunday's Atco Classic, a spectator-friendly speed event, aboard Tina La Boheme, edging Ireland's Daniel Coyle by a hundredth of a second. Coyle settled for both a second-place finish (on Simba de la Roque) and a third (on Cita).
Later on Sunday afternoon, American Richard Spooner won the day's featured event, the CNOOC Nexen Cup Derby, on Cristallo, where Chris Surbey of Calgary managed a heartening third-place finish aboard Carnaval.
Saturday's Grand Prix is the main event of the show and it turned out to be a big day for the underdogs, with most of the favourites unable to navigate the course, set by Guilherme Jorge of Brazil, with any consistency. Conditions were not ideal, with a hard rain falling for the entire second phase of the competition. In fact, two of the four riders who qualified for the jump-off competed in the first phase of the event – starting at 9 a.m. as opposed to 2 p.m. – so they weren't dealing with the effects of the steady rain.
"I was lucky enough to jump in the morning when the sun was shining," said Mannix, who ultimately finished third in the jump-off aboard Grand Cru VD Vijf Eiken and had a great ride going until she clipped a rail on the last jump for four faults. "Coming back for the jump-off, the conditions were definitely different."
Second place went to White of Cambridge, Ont., riding For Freedom Z, who was the only rider other than Pasquel to jump double clear.
Spruce Meadows is a rain-or-shine sort of event, and according to White, conditions were even more challenging back on Thursday night when he and Pasquel were readying for a jump-off in the ATB Financial Cup, when a massive storm blew in and briefly caused the event to be halted.
White eventually finished third behind American rider Kent Farrington, the world No. 1, but he said the experience of waiting out the storm with Pasquel ultimately helped both their horses prepare for the deluge, when the rains returned Saturday.
"I do think that had a big part in it – getting the horses out there Thursday night, in the rain and the wind," White said. "It got cold and it got slick. For sure, my horse hasn't jumped in conditions like that before. So I would say, I was very confident going in today, because he was so solid in the jump-off Thursday. On Thursday, we [he and Pasquel] were talking about how unlucky we were to get caught in that position. Today, it ended up coming back to help us."
White has been competing at Spruce Meadows off and on since 2003, but this was his best week yet at the world-class facility south of Calgary.
"The last time I was here, I brought a group of young horses – and they weren't ready for this level quite yet," he said. "So I went back home and the last two years, I focused on some two- and three-star shows. I travelled with them quite a bit and put some miles on them and developed them.
"I really felt coming into this year, I was bringing a strong group of well-prepared horses. I think that really shows."
White didn't actually stay around for Sunday's final day of the National. After his second-place finish Saturday, he took a red-eye flight home because he was simultaneously running a horse show of his own in Toronto.
White wanted to give a shout-out to his team "for carrying the load for me, so I could compete here. It's been a real group effort, between the owners and the sponsors, to put it all together and support me over the last couple of years to take the horses to where they needed to go.
"A week like this is really gratifying. To see all that hard work and support pay off, it's amazing. I get to sit up here and wear the medal, but without the 50 people behind me, this never happens. So it's really special."
Pasquel won his first event at Spruce Meadows last summer, at the Pan-American, on Babel, a 10-year-old homebred gelding that started out at his uncle's farm and showed so little early promise that he actually thought about selling the horse.
But he eventually changed his mind and soon after, Babel blossomed.
"He's a supertalented horse, as you all saw today," Pasquel said. "He tries for you just so much to go over the jumps and then gives you that confidence and you start to ride better. So I'm just so happy for my horse. He really deserves it. He's a winner. He's won everywhere I've taken him."
Pasquel was laughing to himself as he summed up his breakthrough day.
"It was fun because, now my kid rides, and today, he won [his class]. He was bugging me. He said, 'Dad, this is my third blanket already at Spruce Meadows. How many do you have?' So now, at least, I have one more."