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WELLINGTON - Molly Ashe, the hottest rider on the show jumping circuit, has withdrawn from Sunday's season-ending $300,000 AGA Championship at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club.

Ashe, who won the last two grand prix events, gracefully withdrew after three-time Olympian Leslie Howard qualified for the class. Ashe was going to ride Howard's horse, Cloverleaf, in the richest show jumping class in the United States, because her own horse, Kroon Gravin, had already been shipped to Sweden for the prestigious World Cup competition, scheduled for April 16-21.

"Leslie and I talked and we thought it was best for the horse and the owner if Leslie showed her," said Ashe, who would have been riding Cloverleaf in competition for the first time. "I'm a little disappointed. I would have loved to show in the class. It should be a great class."

Only 30 riders qualify for the $300,000 AGA Championship, the climax of the world-class equestrian season in Palm Beach County. Howard was a late entry after several other riders chose not to compete.The winner earns $90,000 while the second-place finisher gets $66,000 and third-place receives $39,000. Only 30 riders are invited to compete in this
The 30-year-old Ashe, who lives in Wellington, captured top honors in the last two major events, the Grand Prix of Tampa and the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational, both aboard her 9-year-old Dutch-bred Kroon Gravin. By withdrawing, Ashe lost her chance to become the first rider to capture both the Budweiser American Invitational and AGA Championship in the same year as well as tie a record of winning three consecutive grand prix events, shared by six others. Wellington's Goldstein-Engle was the last person to win three in a row -- in 1994.

Despite the loss of Ashe, the $300,000 AGA Championship boasts an impressive field, led by defending champion Alison Firestone of Upperville, Virginia, seven-time AGA Rider of the Year Margie Goldstein-Engle of Wellington and 2000 U.S. Olympians Laura Kraut of Oconomowac, Wisconsin, Lauren Hough of Ocala and Nona Garson of Lebanon, New Jersey. Engle rounded out the 2000 U.S. Olympic squad.

$300,000 AGA Championship

Tickets are $10 for adults and children under 12 are admitted free. The Club Med Kids Zone will be set up, including free pony rides and a drawing for a free one-week Club Med vacation for two as well as fabulous shopping and delicious food vendors. Gates open at 8 a.m. For information, call (561) 793-5867.

Year Rider/Horse

2000 - Alison Firestone, Royal Future
1999 - No event held
1998 - Nona Garson, Rhythmical
1997 - McLain Ward, Amity
1996 - Margie Goldstein-Engle, Hidden Creek's Laurel
1995 - Laura Chapot, Gem Twist
1994 - Lisa Jacquin, For The Moment
1993 - Leslie (Lenehan) Howard, Gem Twist
1992 - Michael Matz, Olisco
1991 - Michael Matz, Heisman
1990 - Tony Font, Lego
1989 - Tony Font, Lego
1988 - Debbie (Shaffner) Stephens, Volan
1987 - Greg Best, Gem Twist
1986 - Steve Stephens, VIP
1985 - Team Leone (Mark, Peter & Armand)
-- 1985 was the inaugural event and held as a team competition

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