Thermal, California – December 10, 2021 – Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) team competition came to a thrilling close on Friday night of Desert Holiday II, as Team Eye Candy was awarded the gold medal and crowned season champion in the inaugural year of the tour. After three rounds of exciting competition unfolded in the Grand Prix Arena for the final round of the 10-event circuit, Team Eye Candy proved to be unbeatable, putting in solid clear rounds and lightning fast jump-offs to secure their spot atop the podium and their season title.
The Grand Prix Arena boasted a course of 13 obstacles designed by Ireland’s Alan Wade (IRL), featuring a vertical-oxer-vertical triple combination, an oxer-vertical double combination, a skinny vertical set directly in front of the in-gate, and a liverpool. In a format unique to MLSJ, the eight teams each sent three riders in for the first round consecutively, then the total scores and combined times determined the top four to return to jump off. Combined times would serve as a tiebreaker if necessary, so riders rode the first round similar to a speed class, focusing primarily on keeping fences intact.
The teams took to the course in reverse order of points, with the Blazing 7s taking center stage first and Team Eye Candy returning last on 60 points. The Blazing 7s, sitting on 33 points accumulated over the season and eager to improve upon their standings, started out strong with a clear round from Rowan Willis (AUS), but fell victim to both jumping and time penalties for a total of 16 faults. The Otomí Warriors also began on a zero score as Cassio Rivetti (BRA) put in a clear round, but his teammates fell victim to several rails across the course, putting them on a total score of 12 faults.
The Diamond Devils had three solid rounds with only one rail down and two single time faults accumulating a total of 6 faults, putting them in a promising position. The Lucky Charms didn’t quite have all the luck in their favor, totaling 12 faults after each rider pulled one rail, but posted a much quicker total time than the Otomí Warriors. The Crusaders had just one rail plus one time fault, pushing them into the lead with a total of 5 faults and guaranteeing them a spot in the jump-off with only three teams left to go.
Fresh off their victory in leg nine of the MLSJ tour on the grass arena at Desert International Horse Park, A.I.M. United put themselves back in a promising position with only 4 faults and overtaking the lead. The home team Roadrunners started with a bang posting a clear round from Christian Heineking (GER), but the disappointment ensued as rails fell for a total of 12 faults and a spot just below the cutoff for the jump-off.
Last to take on the first round, Team Eye Candy sealed the deal with clear rounds from Amy Millar (CAN) and Jacqueline Steffens (CAN), plus one single time fault from Conor Swail (IRL) to put them in pole position as the leaders, returning last in round two.
In round two, each team selected two riders to jump off in order to secure a spot in the final round, the jump-off for gold. Faults were converted into an additional three seconds on the clock, so riders who had rails early felt a sense of urgency to increase their speed to make up any extra time. The quickest two times went head-to-head with the final rider in a jump-off for gold, while the third and fourth quickest times competed for bronze and the last spot on the podium.
First to return were the Diamond Devils, who sent in Kristen VanderVeen (USA) and Nayel Nassar (EGY), who both jumped clear and to the exact same time, putting them on a total time of 103.92. The Crusaders started with a rail down for Juan Carlos Garcia (COL) but teammate Nicky Galligan (IRL) sped to the fastest clear round time at that point, to clock the team in at 103.82 seconds and overtook the lead. A.I.M. United, set on returning to the coveted jump-off for gold, pulled three rails total, adding nine seconds to their overall time, totaling 107.30 and putting them in the jump-off for bronze. Eye Candy returned and stayed true to their winning ways, pulling out a double-clear effort from Millar and Steffens in a time of 97.00 seconds and securing the top spot in the gold medal jump-off.
As the jump-off for bronze got underway, Ashlee Bond (ISR) took the quickest time of the night in 48.05 as she tried her best to snag the bronze medal for A.I.M. United, which proved successful when Natalie Dean (USA) rode to a second clear round but just behind the pace in 50.69 for the Diamond Devils.
As the jump-off for gold neared, an elimination from the Crusaders led to an automatic gold medal win for Team Eye Candy and the overall season title for the team leading the way since week one.
Show jumping competition continues at Desert Holiday II on Saturday with the FEI $72,900 Farmvet Winning Round CSI5*, the FEI $36,600 Cabana Coast Winning Round CSI2*, and the FEI $230,000 Adequan MLSJ Grand Prix CSI5*, presented by Essence Art Gallery.
From the Winners Circle
Team Eye Candy:
Conor Swail – Third Rider for Team Eye Candy
On the strategy for the team competition:
“The strategy is based on Erika, she determines who goes where and we are all happy to do so. Tonight, the two girls (Amy Millar and Jacquline Steffens) were amazing. By the time I went in there were two clear rounds posted and I think that I had to get 8-faults or less, so my job was easy enough. All of the credit needs to go to Amy and Jacquline. In the second round, we decided to leave me for the final round because my horse was supposed to be quick. But the speed that my two teammates showed was phenomenal. I watched Kristen VanderVeen go and she was a very fast rider, and Nayel [Nassar] who is also doing really well and winning everything, and I thought that it was going to be really tough for us, but our team beat them each by four seconds so it was a perfect night.”
On leading the series coming into the season finale:
“We came into tonight’s competition with the pressure of leading and there was a bit of trash talking from us on whether or not other teams were going to catch us, but luckily we got the last trash talk so we have bragging rights until next year and things are good.”
Jacqueline Steffens – Second Rider for Team Eye Candy
On her horse, Freaky:
“I was riding my horse Freaky today, and he is my top horse. I have been jumping a lot of the 5* Grand Prix’s with him and we used him for the class today because it meant a lot to us. He was absolutely unbelievable and he is a great horse and was really quick tonight when we needed him to be.”
Amy Millar – Lead Rider for Team Eye Candy
On the competitive spirit of Team Eye Candy:
“Being a part of this team has been amazing through and through. When it comes to trash talking, we have the master in our owner, so we always win! We also take everything very seriously and even in the pre-event games and draw party’s, we are out to win. It is the same with the team competition, we have always taken it very seriously and put our best horses in and best efforts in. Jacquline and I have ridden a lot together and we work well together and the whole team has been very welcoming to me. As far as opportunities, the chance to compete in all of these 5* competitions has been fantastic for my riding, and for my horses, and the people that support me. Everyone loves it! This format inspires you to throw it all to the wind and go as fast as you can go and that’s really fun.”
Keean White – Co-Founder of Major League Show Jumping
On the culmination of the Major League Show Jumping Team Competition:
“I think that Matt [Morrissey] and I were breathing a sigh of relief that we made it here and finished 10-shows. We had some challenges along the way with COVID, but I think that today the energy among the teams and the riders, there was a lot of pressure that everyone was feeling but no one wanted to talk about and seeing all of the fights that the teams had right to the end meant a lot. It was fitting to see Team Eye Candy win, they rode their best horses and built their strongest team and Erica and Alan Hatfield built a winning team and Paul O’Shea was an amazing coach and they showed the effort that goes into winning this league. Hopefully this will inspire more teams for next year.”
On what has made Major League Show Jumping Successful:
“I spent most of 2020 talking to everyone about this idea that we had on paper. It took a lot of faith in Matt and I from our peers to be able to pull this off and it meant a lot to both of us that we had eight teams and 48-riders that believed that we could do it. Without that support, the League would not have happened. We owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to every rider and team owner who said that they wanted to be part of it. We are over the moon and we have paved the way to do something special for the next decade. This is year one and in a few years we can’t wait to see where this goes.”
Erica Hatfield- Owner of Team Eye Candy
On winning the Major League Show Jumping Series Finale:
“It was just awesome to win. This year was not full of ranking classes and, yes, we were riding for some money, but because it is a team class, we are splitting up the money, so at the end of the day it is a team class. To me, this year meant so much because everyone was riding from their heart and spirit. Especially in tonight’s class, it was so inspiring because no other team was going to let us walk away with the win. For me, I feel super lucky to be a part of it and have these amazing riders around me. I am not the one with the talent, I just get to hang and it’s cool.”
On owning a Major League Show Jumping Team:
“For me, it was kind of an accident. I did not grow up in the sport and I came to the sport as an owner and not a rider, so my whole thing is to express the passion I have for what I am doing. I really want people to connect to the horses and a lot of what I do is to bring attention to them. It started with a love of horses and a love of horses means a love of sport. I feel so lucky to be a part of this and I am so grateful to Keenan for putting together a format that is so exciting and accessible for my family.”
On winning the inaugural team competition:
“I was very superstitious about whether or not we were going to win today and I wrote tons of captions on how I was going to explain a pathetic loss. This was a big deal for me. I knew that this league was coming for a long time and we set out to win this because I like this format and I want the sport to go in this direction. Maybe we put a little bit more thought into the team competition at first but it became very competitive by the end.”
Steve Hankin – President and CEO, Desert International Horse Park
On hosting two weeks of Major League Show Jumping:
“It was great to be a venue that people respected enough to want to come here to compete. I suspect that a year ago, when people were told they were coming to Thermal, that there were some eye rolls, but I hope we have changed their mind. We set about making this place [ DIHP] into a credible destination for the top riders and the response from everybody has been super the last couple of weeks. That motivates us to do even more out here. To have this caliber of athletes competing in California has been a thrill for me personally and I think that it has been a long time coming. Now I am going to go and sleep for a month!”
Final Results – $200,000 Major League Show Jumping Team Final
1) EYE CANDY
Amy Millar (CAN) & Christiano – 0 / 0 – 48.76
Jacqueline Steffens (CAN) & Freaky – 0 / 0 – 48.24
Conor Swail (IRL) & Theo 160 – 1 / 80.37
Juan Carlos Garcia (COL) & Habab W – 1 / 4 – 52.37
Nicky Galligan (IRL) & Javas Miss Jordan – 0 / 0 – 48.25
Samuel Parot (CHI) & Dubai – 4 / 78.68
3) A.I.M. UNITED
Ashlee Bond (ISR) & Contefina LVF – 4 / 0 – 48.05
Eugenio Garza Perez (MEX) & Victer Finn DZ – 0 / 8 – 53.17
Karl Cook (USA) & Coachella 4 – 0 / 4 – 51.13
Source: Press Release by Tori Bilas / Phelps Media Group for Desert International Horse Park
Photos: © Phelps Sports / Tori Bilas / Libby Greene