April 2020 - Farewell to a Champion

news

Remembering Mark Watring’s gold medal partner, Sapphire.

by Esther Hahn

When Puerto Rican show jumper Mark Watring arrived at the 2002 Central American Games in El Salvador with his then 10-year-old mount, Sapphire, the joke that circulated around the competition was that Puerto Rico had sent a pony.

Although Sapphire stood at a respectable 16 hands, the stall in which he was stabled had a divot in the ground so the gray, Holsteiner gelding (Liostro x Roman) could barely hold his head over the door.

“Of course, we were all offended when we heard what people were saying,” Mark remembered, smilingly. “Our grooms would respond, ‘Wait until you see the pony jump!’”
Once the Games were underway, the first day of equestrian competition was a speed class that was also a medaling class, and Mark and Sapphire won. They went on to win the overall individual gold medal, as well. By the Games’ end, the Puerto Rican contingent had composed a little theme song for their winning, little pony, and Mark and Sapphire returned home with double-gold honors from their first international competition together.


At First Sight

 

Mark, based in the Los Angeles area’s Hidden Valley, first laid eyes on Sapphire in 1998, while visiting Puerto Rican colleague, Edgar Pagan, at his Southern California stables.

“Edgar had got in about 10 horses from Europe, and he asked me to come and try them,” said Mark. “I went, and while I was there, I saw this dappled gray horse waiting to get shod. I asked Edgar, ‘What horse is that? Is that one of yours?’ He said, ‘Yes, but he came without two shoes, and while he was in Europe, he kept getting bumped from his flight so he hasn’t been ridden in a month.’”

These details didn’t discourage Mark from riding the 6-year-old prospect. And as soon as the horse had all four shoes on, Mark talked Edgar into giving him the honor of the horse’s first ride on U.S. soil. After just a few jumps, Mark knew he found his next star, bringing Sapphire home that very same day to own in partnership with Dr. and Mrs. John Bohannon.

“I think it was his eye that caught my attention,” Mark explained about his instant connection to the horse. “He was so beautiful. I loved his look and his conformation. From the moment I saw him, I thought that he was stunning.”

All Things Gold

In a couple years’ time, Mark and Sapphire began their winning record at the Grand Prix level. Soon followed the double-gold international debut in 2002 and individual gold at the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic.

At the Pan American Games, Mark and Sapphire sat in fourth place following the first speed round before moving into the lead after the two rounds of Nations Cup competition. Mark competed as an individual as Puerto Rico did not send a team.

“There was a press conference following the team rounds,” Mark described. “I arrived early and there were chairs around a table so I just sat in the middle. And when the teams came in, I was asked to move so that the U.S. team that won team gold could have the center chairs. After questions with the teams, the press turned its attention toward me and asked what I expected to see after the individual rounds on the final day. I replied, ‘I’ll be sitting back in the middle [of the table].’”

Mark’s prediction proved true when he and Sapphire did in fact secure individual gold, earning not only a middle seat at the table but also a slot at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

For the next four years that followed, Mark and Sapphire continued to dominate at the 1.60-meter level throughout the West Coast and at Spruce Meadows in Alberta, Canada. In 2006, the pair repeated their double individual gold performance at the Central American Games in Colombia.

Parallel to Mark’s journey with Sapphire was the growing family that Mark and his wife Jenny began amid the successful riding career. Sons Sterling and Stone joined in 2000 and 2003, respectively, growing up alongside the world travel and international acclaim.

“I’m so appreciative of how much of the world I’ve been able to see, from such a young age, thanks to Dad and Sapphire,” said Sterling. “I’m forever grateful.”

A Legacy In Progress

“I retired Sapphire as a 1.60-meter horse, not realizing he had another 10 years in him,” Mark revealed. “I retired him when he was 16, and I think he had a lot more years left. I should have done some of the smaller classes with him. He was sound right to the day he passed away.”

In retirement, Sapphire enjoyed his daily rides with Jenny. And in the year before his passing, Sapphire learned to work “on the wire,” a bridle-less form of riding that utilizes a strap around the horse’s neck for direction and control. But all the while, a tumor common to gray horses grew large on the side of Sapphire’s head. It began to affect his eye and his ability to chew.

In a matter of two days, it looked as though Sapphire had lost a hundred pounds of weight, according to Mark, which prompted the difficult decision to lay Sapphire to rest on Saturday, February 29, 2020.

Sapphire’s legacy will continue not only in the stories of his gold-medal heroics, but also in his clone, Saphir, born in 2010. And through Saphir, Sapphire’s genetic legacy will be in the foals on the ground and those to come. Mark currently owns one foal, Cortir, by Saphir, in addition to storing frozen straws for future breeding.

“He always cleared the jumps by a couple of feet, but it was so smooth,” said Mark, remembering his longtime partner. “It wasn’t like you were getting jumped loose. His jump wasn’t hard to stay with—you basically just went along with him. He started out spooky and stayed spooky his entire life. It was easier to jump the jumps than to go around them.”

In a sense, the way Mark has described Sapphire, is a model to approach life: overcome obstacles without too much struggle. It just may be the final gift from the iconic gray horse that gave so much to his rider and to the sport.