Chris Pratt and Cruise win the $200.000.- Grand Prix in Thermal

It was a spectacular end to the 2012 HITS Desert Circuit for the Canadian jumper, who collected a $60,000 check for his efforts and had a premium showcase to strut his stuff for Olympic selectors. Pratt, whose Epic Stables is based at Middle Ranch in the Lakeview Terrace section of Los Angeles, is hoping the 11-year-old KWPN gelding can carry him to the 2012 summer games in London.

“We’re off to a good start, but we’ll have to see how he jumps in Spruce Meadows in June and July.” The Canadians don’t have official Olympic trial classes; the team is subjectively assembled by a five-person selection committee.

“They observe the horses and riders during the Wellington circuit, the Thermal circuit and, most importantly, at Spruce Meadows. It’s a good reputable group that knows what it’s doing. In terms of the riders, the Canadians just don’t have the numbers to do it any other way.”

The system seems to be working. The Canadian show jumping team won a Silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, with countryman Eric Lamaze and Hickstead winning the individual Gold.

In the Sunday class presented by Lamborghini of Newport Beach, Pratt and Cruise topped a field of 43 to cap the six-week winter circuit in Thermal. The popular class is a crowd favorite, as much for the colorful Lamborghinis dotting the berm as for sporting competition.

“This is our third year as a sponsor at HITS, and it’s been a nice fit,” said Lamborghini of Newport Beach principal Donny Gath. “The lifestyle of the riders and our demographic of buyer are very similar.” Gath has a personal connection to HITS. His daughter, Kendall, has been riding hunters for four years, and just made the move to jumpers. “We went to Thermal with one horse and came home with two,” Gath chuckled.

The entire Gaff family was looking on from the VIP tent as Pratt and three others cleared the 14-obstacle Olaf Petersen Sr. first round course and advanced to the jump-off. Seventeen jumping efforts included a double combination at fence eight, and a triple combination at fence 12 in front of the HITS VIP Pavilion. Rails fell at a handful of points throughout the course, but many riders found trouble at both combinations.

The double was a vertical to an oxer, followed by five strides to another sizable oxer at fence 9, and the triple combination presented a tight distance between b and c to a difficult right-hand turn before fence 13.

“Four in the jump-off was a perfect number. The class was for $200,000, so the track wasn’t supposed to be easy,” Pratt said. “I thought the triple in front of the VIP was tough and that gave a lot of riders some trouble.”

It took 11 trips for Francie Steinwedell-Carvin of La Canada, California to post the first clear round of the day aboard Prentiss Partners’ Taunus. It was three rounds later that Mexico’s Enrique Gonzalez of Carlsbad, CA, aboard his own Criptonite, pleased the crowd by guaranteeing they’d get to linger in the spectacular blue-sky summer sun with a jump-off.

John Pearce of Bermuda Dunes, CA, made it three with Forest View Farm & Allison Moore’s Chianto. Pratt was able to see more than half the field complete the course before he and Cruise became the fourth to go clear.

Petersen’s jump-off track was home to nine jumping efforts and introduced two new fences, and the four riders to take to the field represented three nations. Riding for the U.S., Steinwedell-Carvin saw her share of success during the HITS Desert Circuit, including a CSI-W win, but with the added pressure of first-to-go in Sunday’s second round, she and Taunus dropped a rail at the second fence, finishing with four faults and a time of 42.826 seconds, good enough for third.

Gonzalez and Criptonite followed in the second round and finished the course in 45.729 seconds with four faults to earn fourth. Riding for Canada, Pearce and Chianto demonstrated speed and scope, leaving all the rails up and setting as the Great American Time to Beat at 42.760 seconds. With the advantage of being last to go, Pratt managed to rise to the occasion, clearing all hurdles and eeking past Pearce’s time to complete the course in 42.099 seconds.

Canada’s Jill Henselwood of Ontario rode two mounts in the Lamborghini class, going clear on Brian Gingras’ George but picking up a time fault that put them in fifth place.

On March 2, Monica Rahman and La Bamba took first place in the $1,000 Lambo Child/Adult Jumper Challenge, a new class that teamed and adult and child riders and saw them competing on their combined times.  The young rider, Kelsey Gray, riding Sirocco von Hepshoff, received the prize money while the adult got to choose a Lamborghini to drive for the HITS “Horsepower Weekend,” March 9-11. Monica chose the Gallardo model, also known as the “Bicolore,” because it’s two colors.

“We like to try different things up to keep it fresh,” Gath said, explaining that in 2013 he hopes to replicate the Spruce Meadows dual-course class, “where they set up two course, side by side, and a buzzer goes off and the riders race for the fastest time through.”

While plans are already underway for the HITS Desert Circuit 2013, top competitors now turn their sites to the HITS Million Dollar Weekend, Sept. 7-9 at HITS on the Hudson in Saugerties, NY.

Jumper riders had 16 chances to qualify for the HITS Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix, while hunter riders had six Devoucoux Hunter Prix by which to land a berth in the $500,000 Devoucoux Hunter Prix Final and also six changes to qualify for the $250,000 HITS 3′ Hunter Prix  Final.

Coming off Thermal, West Coast riders dominated the Pfizer $1 Million Preliminary Top 20 Rider Rankings, with Pratt, Steinwedell-Carvin, Pearce, Duncan McFarlane and Henselwood filling slots 2-6, respectively. Helen McNaught was No. 8.

The Diamond Mills $500,000 Hunter Prix Preliminary Rankingwas similarly populated, with Joe Gatlin (who served as an announcer for the Lamborghini Grand Prix) and John Bragg sitting at 1 and 2. Likewise, Californians claimed some primo positions on the $250,000 HITS 3′ Hunter Prix Preliminary Rankings.