Gregory Wathelet’s upcoming Grand Prix mount Ace of Hearts has always shown the athleticism to be an international horse. Now he’s gaining the consistency.

The 13 year old, former-dressage horse is a late bloomer as a show horse. His jumping career didn’t start until age five when he was acquired by the Belgian Olympian and, in the eight years since, has been interrupted multiple times by his propensity to over jump, minor injuries and pandemic show stoppages.

This past year, Wathelet has been making up for lost time—and making strides in the gelding’s show ring progress. Competing at Desert International Horse Park in Thermal, CA this winter, Ace of Hearts has been competing consistently at the 1.50m and 1.55m heights—and consistently placing in the top 10.

“[As a young horse] he always jumped too high. He didn’t really trust his scope and also because he was missing rhythm. Now that I’ve been riding him for a year, you can see that he has the scope,” said Wathelet. “I have the feeling [now] like I can trust him more and more at this height [1.55m] and it’s for sure really fun to ride him because the quality is fantastic.”

The horse’s Jumpr App stats support that optimism.

Since January, the gelding has earned three international podium finishes on the Desert Circuit, winning at the 1.55m and 1.50m height, including his first Grand Prix title, the Go Rentals CSI3* Grand Prix on Sunday. Ace of Hearts has a 100% clear round average in four classes at 1.50m and has already earned more prize money in the first two and half months of 2023 (€34,419) than in all his years prior, combined.

Sunday’s Grand Prix was their biggest test yet. Twenty-five combinations contested Marina Azevedo’s challenging 1.55m Grand Prix track. Seven combinations did not complete the course; five elected to retire while two were eliminated. Nine more collected three or more rails on course.

“We could see it [was difficult] right away,” said Wathelet. “This week, [Marina] has built a very good, but very difficult course…from the beginning, the fences were high. There were a few big jumps for a three star and then also some spooky jumps like the wall, the delicate wide vertical, and the last line that was a little bit more technical.”

Only two combinations found a clear path to advance to the jump off. Wathelet and Ace of Hearts and Vanessa Mannix and Kingston. Wathelet was first to return.

“He jumped an amazing in the first round, then with two [in the jump-off], it’s always a little bit delicate to know what you have to do. If you have to go too much or just a bit. I was thinking, okay, I’ll go easy with the speed without going too stupid. And that’s what I did.”

Wathelet and Ace of Hearts stopped the clock at 45.68 seconds, but a rail at the final oxer left the door open for Mannix.

“I stayed inside to the last [fence] because I found a good line to cut in. He just focused on the [decoration] behind the jump rather than what he had to do, and that caused the four [faults] so I was a bit surprised,” he explained.

The Canadian rider took a crack at chasing the time to beat, but when a rail fell mid-course, she was forced to pick up the pace and ultimately into making a second error. Mannix and her expressive grey finished on eight faults to hand Wathelet the win.

All photos ©DIHP/Megan Giese Photography

Next week, Wathelet and Ace of Hearts will contest the 4* Grand Prix at the final week of the Desert Circuit.

“After, he going to be ready to maybe to do a 5* Grand Prix. That’s the plan.”