Conor Swail (IRL) had a big choice to make with his entry in Sunday’s $226,000 Marshall & Sterling CSI4* Grand Prix to conclude Desert Circuit IX. His choices were Theo 160, who has earned more prize money during Desert Circuit this season than in 2021 and 2022 combined, or Vital Chance De La Roque, who has been in the midst of a mid-life crisis of sorts.
The world-ranked number six opted for the latter, and his decision paid off, taking victory in the final Grand Prix of the season at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP). While a win is a win, Swail recognizes the horse didn’t put in his best performance, meaning there is homework to do despite a major victory.
“I’m very happy obviously,” Swail reflected. “[Vital Chance] is still not where he should be or where he’s going to be, but it was a day to get in the trenches and fight it out. It’s a great result today but as far as going forward we have a lot to improve on.”
Swail and “Vinny” put in the second of only two clear rounds over Peter Grant’s (CAN) course, following Sophia Siegel and A-Girl in the jump-off. With Siegel pulling two rails on her way to a time of 52.13 seconds, Swail kept his pace slow, but still accumulated 8 faults, meaning it came down to time. He picked up the pace and crossed the timers in 48.31 seconds, taking the win in an uncharacteristic fashion.
“When I won [the CSI3* Grand Prix] on Theo [week three], there was no other clear and I just went slow clear on him, and that was the first time I ever had to go in and try to jump clear,” Swail shared. “This was the second and I kind of failed but at least I still won.”
The crowd became extremely engaged once the duo pulled the second rail and the win was up in the air. Swail is used to extreme pressure situations, but he’s not as familiar with his horse in this state, so nothing was guaranteed.
“The jump-off is a lot less technical, and especially today; it was mostly singles out there, really,” Swail explained. “When Sophia had a couple down so I thought I’d just tip around and be handy. I suppose it made it exciting again. He got aggressive on me and he made a few mistakes. I sped it up a bit and I think cutting inside to the last helped me.”
Choosing between two impressive mounts as candidates for a CSI4* grand prix isn’t the worst of problems for elite riders, but Swail recognized a lot was on the line with his decision.
“Theo has been incredible the whole season here. A four-star grand prix is a bit of a stretch for him. The better horse is obviously Vinny; it’s his job to come and do this and he’s normally very good at it we’re just in a bit of a confidence crisis at the moment. Thankfully we pulled it off today,” he said.
Swail knows he has work to do with Vinny, but their partnership is a strong one and they have the results behind them to prove he will get back to the top.
“He’s always a feisty horse; I think that what makes him so good,” he remarked of the 14-year-old Selle Francais gelding (Diamant De Semilly x Rivage Du Poncel). “But he really is boiling over on me at the minute and I’m struggling to try to manage that. This was a big step forward, winning the four-star Grand Prix. We’re going in the right direction. He’s one of the best horses in the world when he’s in top form. It’s going to take another three or four shows at least.”
Siegel finished second on the podium while Cassio Rivetti finished third with Nadale Van Dorperheide, owned by Ilan Ferder, making for an international podium to conclude FEI jumping for the season at DIHP.