TAMPA — Mario Deslauriers won the $200,000 American Invitational on Saturday night after defeating 31 other riders under the lights of Raymond James Stadium.
Deslauriers, 47, captured the title over four other riders who made it to Olympic course designer Steve Stephen's shorter, faster jump-off. Deslauriers won with a time of 44.50 seconds, defeating Molly Ashe-Cawley by 1.31 seconds before a crowd of more than 8,000. The 41-year-old Wellington resident also won the Invitational in 2001 and 2002.
Beezie Madden, 48, of Cazenovia, N.Y., was in contention early with her time of 46.31 but finished third. She was the Invitational winner in 2005 and 2007.
Deslauriers said his horse Cella, who just recovered from a toothache, performed very well in the first round and "jumped even better in the jump-off." It was her first major (Grand Prix) class in three weeks.
"To walk in here and do this," he said. "She's incredible."
Madden said this was the "first real appearance" of her horse Simon. She said she could have pushed harder to go faster.
Ashe-Cawley said her horse Carissimo "has been working his way toward this (event). He's a great horse."
Last year's champion, 31-year-old Kent Farrington of Greenwich, Conn., lost his bid for the title when he had one knockdown for four faults and a time of 45.10 seconds. Charlie Jayne, 26, of Elgin, Ill., was the fifth rider in the jump-off but incurred three knockdowns and a time penalty of 51.59 seconds, over the 50 seconds allowed.
The five were the only riders to complete the first round without a fault, forcing the jump-off.
Deslauriers won $60,000. Ashe-Cawley won $40,000, and Madden took home $30,000.
This was the 40th anniversary of the prestigious world-class event, named after its late founder, Gene Mische. The field of contenders included a corps of Olympians and international champions.
Opening ceremonies included a parade of horses representing nine breeds: Akhal-Teke, Appaloosa, Friesian, Morgan, Paint, Quarter Horse, Saddlebred, Trakehner and Gypsy Vanner. The fans cheered when the black and white Gypsy Vanner bowed before leaving the stadium. The crowd went wild with the next act — a trick rider who stood on the backs of two horses while twice jumping over a flaming pipe. The feat was especially impressive because horses have a natural fear of fire.