August 20, Lexington, Ky
Scott Stewart and Summer Place sailed to the top of Round 1 in the $100,000 The Chronicle of the Horse/USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. Last to go, Jersey Boy took second with Jennifer Alfano up, while Liza Boyd and Brunello claimed third. Another Alfano mount, Extraordinary, finished fourth on an identical score as Brunello, with the scores from judging panel 1 (Ralph Caristo and Rob Bielefeld) breaking the tie.
Heading into this year’s Finals there was plenty of grumbling about the change of venue from the expansive Johnson Arena to the Kentucky Horse Park’s indoor, but today’s course silenced those concerns. Patrick Rodes and Bobby Murphy laid a track built around one theme: outdoors. The perimeter of the ring featured a greenhouse’s worth of trees and decorations, and the jumps themselves found a nice balance between simulated hunting fences and inviting obstacles.
“The horse park has great resources for that theme, with all the old Rolex jumps,” said Murphy, who incorporated the tail from one of the squirrels used last year in this year’s track. “We tried to make it feel like you were outside, and there weren’t these technical four-to-two stride lines that you’d see in your mainstream hunter ring.”
No one fence caused many problems for the 61 riders who contested the class. There was only one strictly related distance—a two stride in-and-out—and a few flowing lines, but the biggest distinction in the track was its length: 14 jumps with mostly single jumps or long broken lines.
“I thought you had to be really disciplined,” said Boyd. “It was really long, so you couldn’t start thinking too fast. I broke the course up into two parts, and after the seven [stride] line I tried to tell myself, start over, regroup, now finish.”
“The hardest part for me was actually remembering the course,” said Stewart. “It actually made everything else easier because I couldn’t worry about anything else.”
Summer Place, owned by Fashion Farm, is technically a first year mount, but you wouldn’t know it by watching. He earned the working hunter title at Devon (Pa.) and second at the $50,000 The Chronicle of the Horse/USHJA International Hunter Derby in Wellington, Fla., this spring. Stewart also qualified his working hunter veteran Declaration, also a Fashion Farm entry, for Round 2.
Great Scores And Great Rounds
The competition kicked off with opening ceremonies, with Iroquois Hunt (Ky.) parading hounds round the ring and the Lexington Mounted Police carrying the color guard for the national anthem. The festivities paused for a solumn note, with a moment of silence to honor horseman Jay Matter, who died following a battle with liver cancer.
The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association factored in the money-won standings, but there was also a random element in the start list. Seventy-five horses were accepted to compete at the finals. The 25 qualified horses with the lowest money earned returned first in random order, followed by the middle group, then the highest money earners.
“Last year when the class started we were getting very low scores: 60s, 70s, now and then you’d see an 80 [among the lowest-ranked 25 horses],” said USHJA High Performance Chair Ron Danta. “Then the halfway point hit, and the scores started going way up. This year even in the bottom area we were seeing some great scores and great rounds.”
Indeed, the rounds started strong and just kept improving. Five horses in the first 25 qualified for tomorrow’s Final, and 16 horses in the last third made the cut. Few riders opted to jump all four of the option jumps, choosing caution over bravado in this, the qualifying round.
Lillie Keenan rode the first of those on C Coast Z, posting the first 90 of the competition 10 horses in. Jen Alfano followed suit shortly thereafter on The Specialist, eventually qualifying all three of her mounts for tomorrow’s Final.
“Two of my horses [Extraordinary and The Specialist] are simple and easy, but Jersey Boy takes a little work and he needs to spend some time in the ring,” she said. “He can be a little spooky and suspicious of things, but he’s great in these classes because he’s such a great jumper he can get himself out of situations. He can spook and be a little bit naughty and still give you good jumps.”
Whatever Makes Him Happy
The last 10 to go, all derby veterans, logged monster score after monster score, with all but one qualifying for Round 2. Brunello, the winner at four classes this spring, made a big impression.
“My horse is a really quiet horse,” said Boyd, whose scores bulged up to 94. “The hardest part is not overdoing it and keeping him happy. I just flatted him lightly this morning, then I got off and let him eat grass outside the ring with his bridle on. It’s a big no-no, but whatever he wants, whatever makes him happy this weekend.”
As always, the derby course got the best of a few of the strong riders and horses. Sarah Ward got lost in the maze of angled fences and turned the wrong way midcourse, having to double back to get Onassis back on track. One of last year’s top derby finals mounts—Camira—pulled a rail with Peter Pletcher up. Due West laid down a stellar round, then proceeded to spook at the ensuing cheers, sending Shane Sweetnam into the dirt shortly after the last fence. Apparition opted out of the second fence of the in-and-out, clearing on re-approach with Jordan Siegel, and last year’s winner, John French, didn’t qualify either of his mounts for the second round after sufficient, but unspectacular, rounds on Crown Affair and C. Quito.