On paper, the odds were against Eye Candy on Friday at Thunderbird Show Park (tbird) for the CSI5* Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) Team Competition.

With world no. 8 Conor Swail (IRL) defecting to Trailblazers, Eye Candy horses held up at the border, and an unlucky draw to go first in the order, even ultra competitive Team Owner Erica Hatfield was resolved to let the chips fall as they may in Vancouver.

“Part of it was I had no expectation [for the class], so I was just chill. Maybe that was part of the success. Hopefully not, because usually I’m way more amped up than I was today,” laughed Hatfield.

Yet, the air of calm that washed over Eye Candy didn’t manage to take any wind out of their sails. Instead, they leaned into the pressure. Eye Candy veteran Amy Millar (CAN) and new recruit Jessica Mendoza (GBR) drafted Mendoza’s student, 17-year-old Caroline Mawhinney (USA) to the cause. While winning a 5* team competition might sound like a big ask for the youngest competitor in the field, Mawhinney has a certain immunity to nerves.

The trio also fielded some of their best horses, which is something of an expectation when riding for Hatfield. Millar was aboard 13-year-old gelding Christiano, Mendoza was in the irons of nine-year-old Oo Seven De L’equipe, and Mawhinney had her most reliable partner in 16-year-old mare Bacara D’Archonfosse.

“When you ride for Erica, you just bring the best horse that you have in the barn to try to win the class. And Christiano has well proven that he loves this class. This class has been so great for him because, honestly, it makes it feel important,” said Millar.

“Horses do feel that. He loves winning and he loves going out there and doing it and having everyone cheer for him. So until I get one that goes better and faster than him, he’s going to keep coming out and doing it.”

First in the ring for the premier round, Mendoza and Mawhinney put down two conservative clears over the Olaf Petersen designed course, leading the way for Millar to level up the speed and secure their place safely above the cutline.

This is where the all-female squad employed a gutsy strategy, electing their rookie, Mawhinney, to jump the second round alongside Mendoza. More often than not, MLSJ teams will field their two most seasoned riders for the second round in their best effort to qualify gold medal match where they are guaranteed at least silver.

But Eye Candy wasn’t interested in second. They wanted a win, so if anyone was to jump off it would be Millar and Christiano.

“You can’t win them all if you don’t win the first one!” smiled Millar.

Proving their decision was solid gold, Mendoza and Mawhinney repeated their efforts in the second round, only this time with more gas in the engine. They finished on a combined total of 70.19 seconds, just behind the Crusaders in 69.93.

Millar let no strides go to waste in the gold medal match, crossing the timers in a blazing 34.11 seconds. Crusaders nominated Grant Seger (USA) tried to catch her with 11-year-old mare Frieda, but added three seconds to the clock with a late rail to end on 36.71 and hand the win to Eye Candy.

“I got a little rub on number one and number two, actually. And so then I was like, ‘Christiano smarten up.’ And he’s a careful horse so once he did that I knew he was going to be good,” said Millar.

“I knew to just go fast and challenge him and he would do it correctly.”

“We discharged all our bad luck at the border,” quipped Hatfield

For Millar, the success at MLSJ Vancouver doubles as a Canadian hometown win. If there is anything Millar learned from her father Ian Millar, aka Captain Canada, it’s how to bring home a team win on Canadian soil. Both Millars know that the odds are no match for team chemistry.

“I definitely learned how to ride on a team from my dad, and he has always said that Canada was such a small group that we always have needed to create a synergy to be successful. And the same group works together a lot. So, you get to know each other and you get to help each other and make each other better. So I brought that same attitude to Eye Candy,” said Millar.

Jessica Mendoza ©tbird/Mackenzie Clark
Caroline Mawhinny. ©tbird/Mackenzie Clark

There is nothing like a student-trainer duo to bring an exceptional amount of synergy into the ring. Mawhinney has been training with Mendoza at Triple M Farms for seven years. tbird marked her CSI5* debut and Friday, her inaugural CSI5* win.

“I was so happy to be able to compete on a Major League team in general, but it was also so special to be able to compete with my coach on the same team, and of course to win my first 5*,” said Mawhinney.

“I said ‘she’s got this’ and she delivered…I train her, but it’s a friendship, too, so it’s amazing to be a part of this together and to have the win,” said Mendoza.

Call it fate (or a persistent mom) who matched Mawhinney with Mendoza in the first place.

“I started training with her when I was about 12. It was a bit funny. My mom just walked up to her and goes, ‘my daughter’s training with you.’ It wasn’t really an ask, it just was a tell,” said Mawhinney.

Fast forward to the 2023 MLSJ tour and they are essentially a package deal.

“I was very excited to join Eye Candy. I heard that Erica liked to win, and I approached her and I ended up getting on it and was delighted. Then actually, we ended up having an open spot and I really wanted Caroline to be a part of it too,” explained Mendoza.

Hatfield is more than pleased with how Eye Candy has evolved, and the scorn of Swail has certainly worn off since the victory gallop.

“I just think Jess and Caroline brought it together. They’re new to the team, first to go, [Mawhinney] is 17-years-old. Like, pressure does not touch that chick,” said Hatfield.

“Both my parents were pretty good athletes, I think it does kind of run in my family,” laughed Mawhinney.

Performing well under pressure is something that runs in the Eye Candy family too. Millar has yet to reach her melting point after helping secure gold for the team during the Season 1 Team Championships and silver in Season 2.

©tbird/Quinn Saunders

There was one thing, however, that they didn’t all share.

“Caroline can’t drink the champagne yet,” Mendoza joked.