Is 1.50m Worth $1 Million Dollars? Riders Discuss Change in Height of AIG Million GP at HITS


A rider pictured at the ingte on the morning of the 2016 AIG $1 Million Grand Prix. Ph. ©Bret St. Clair 

The AIG $1 Million Grand Prix is the grand finale of the winter circuit at HITS Coachella in Thermal, California. Since 2012, HITS has offered the only million dollar grand prix in California, and one of the first in the United States. The AIG $1 Million continues to be the richest show jumping competition on the West Coast of the United States.

A primary goal of the class has been to develop West Coast-based riders, by providing a level of sport sufficient to prepare for the sport’s highest levels of competition. Year over year, the AIG $1 Million has consistently attracted some of the best riders in the U.S.A. Riders from the talent-rich East Coast and even international riders travel to California just for this class, and challenge West Coast combinations each year. Undoubtedly, the class is the region’s most rigorous.

However, with the jumps set at a challenging 1.60 meters, it has been increasingly difficult to find regional riders and horses that can be successful at that level. This season, HITS President and CEO Tom Struzierri pondered the question of how best to develop the sport. Would it sacrifice the standard of competition if he lowered the height of California’s richest grand prix?

We are going to find out. Last September, HITS announced that the 2017 AIG $1 Million Grand Prix would be lowered to the 1.50m level.

Struzzieri hopes that over the next couple of years, the lower height will encourage “new owners and new stock to get in the game.” Some developing riders are excited for the opportunity to compete at the 1.50m level for incredible prize money. Others may find that their clear advantage over the competition is diminished by the lowering of the height. In the case of those traveling long distances, it may not be worth the expense

Professional rider and trainer Lindsay Archer of Shady Lane Farm in Alamo, California qualified for the 2016 AIG $1 Million, and is working to qualify for the class this year. “[Struzzieri] is doing the right thing,” she says of the change. “As much as it would be great to see a big 1.60M class, without the riders coming from the East we just don’t have the depth out here to support the vision.”

Mattias Ekeroth, who is based in California and rides for Sweden, agrees. “Personally, I think it’s nice at 1.50m, but it’s going to be really hard no matter if it’s 1.50m or 1.60m,” he says. “For sure you will get better competition at the 1.50 meter level.”

“Without the riders coming from the East we just don’t have the depth out here to support the vision.”

Veteran AIG $1 Million Grand Prix competitor Candice King of Wellington, Florida points to the many successful international riders who have roots in California, such as Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, Lauren Hough, Richard Spooner, Hap Hansen, Susie Hutchinson and Robert Ridland as an indication of the depth of talent to be found on the West Coast.

King believes the decision to lower the height is helping to develop riders to the next level of the sport. “As somebody who wants our sport to get stronger, bigger, and better I believe Tom [Strutzierri] did the right thing,” she says. “Making this change levels the competition across the country and is healthier for our sport.”

Rising young rider Uma O’Neill of Santa Cruz, California is excited to consider jumping in this year’s million dollar grand prix. She says that by lowering the level, it provides an opportunity for new riders to compete in such a prestigious class that may not have been open to them otherwise. But she admits, “we don’t have so many 1.60m classes available to us on the West Coast. I was kind of sad hearing the Million dropped from 1.60m to 1.50m, it means we were losing another big class. I definitely think that having more opportunities to jump 1.60m is necessary on the West Coast for young riders and more experienced riders.”

“Having more opportunities to jump 1.60m is necessary on the West Coast…”

Therein lies the question. To step up to the 1.60m level, riders need opportunities to jump at that level. This makes for one less opportunity, but will it prove to be the long term stepping-stone as Struzzieri predicts? HITS has never had a problem filling the entry list of the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at 1.60m, and all signs point to a full class at the 1.50m height this March. “People will come up [through the levels] and this class will evolve so that can we put the level back up,” Strutzierri says.

There are many opinions about this decision but the common ground is unquestionable: successful development of the sport is worth $1 million dollars.

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