Robert Blanchette (IRL) had never before asked RTS LLC's Chardonnay for speed. The 10-year-old Westphalian mare had only just stepped up to the three-star grand prix level a week prior at Thunderbird Show Park, but she passed the test with flying colors, finishing third in the $100,000 CSI3* ATCO Cup.
In the jump-off again this week for Saturday's $100,000 CSI3* VOLVO Canada Cup, Blanchette decided to try out some new gears. The result was an emphatic victory over a contentious eight-horse jump-off. ATCO Cup victors Vanessa Mannix (CAN) and Catinka 25 settled for second, with Conor Swail (IRL) and Theo 160 third.
"I haven’t had a horse that could go that fast at that height and make it seem so easy," Blanchette said.
It was a jump-off to remember, as eight combinations sailed through the first round of Peter Holmes' (CAN) 1.50m–1.60m track. Blanchette was in top form, advancing to the jump-off aboard both Chardonnay and veteran mount Coupis.
In the jump-off, Coupis was first out. The grey lost a shoe in the schooling area, which left him little time to warm-up. Still, he jumped a second clear round, but it slotted Blanchette into second behind early leader Swail, who laid down a sensational trip aboard Theo 160—a horse that has won three international classes at tbird over the course of the last two weeks. Still, Blanchette left the ring with valuable information about the track.
"I wasn’t able to go as fast with [Coupis], but I got the track down," Blanchette said.
When Blanchette entered the Fort Grand Prix Arena for the second time, the leaderboard had changed. Mannix, Swail's student, had outpaced her coach, taking over the top spot with Catinka 25. Blanchette did not get a chance to watch her. He simply went in the ring and rode what felt right for his horse.
"I’ve never actually pushed her," Blanchette said. "I was always thinking that she had a lot of scope and there was no reason to make her a lower-level speed horse, so I never went fast with her. My plan [today] was to go in and ride feels what [felt] right.
"I went forward to [Fence] one, saw the slice to [Fence] two, added a stride to [Fence] three, because she landed a bit wide," he detailed. "I thought, 'I added a stride, so I better keep on the pace.' I saw [Fence] four at the same pace, and I turned right and had a tight angle back to the [tbird] vertical. Then I went inside tight to the double of verticals. Before, that would have been difficult for her. She's so scopey, she would land and almost be at [the B element]. I said 'Whoa,' and she listened."
Blanchette elected to do seven strides instead of six to the final fence, but he and his mount had already done enough. He reference a quote from Swedish Olympian Peter Eriksson, expressing that it wasn't a rider's job to win by "six seconds." One only needed to win by "a sixth of a second."
The win marked the first for Chardonnay in international competition, and Blanchette sees a bright future ahead for the chestnut mare that joined his string just over a year ago.
"She’s just a top horse," he said. "I think for me, it takes a year to get to know them. It's been a little over a year now, and we're just getting there. This horse show is so good. The footing is so good, and the course design is so good that you can really move a horse up."