Ocala, Fla. and Thermal, Calif.—March 16
East Coast Report
Standing by the side of the Hunter 1 at HITS Ocala for today’s $50,000 East Meets West Hunter Challenge felt unusually communal. First of all, anyone who didn’t have a horse in the junior or pony rings (and some who did) flocked to the ring to watch horses in Ocala jump in front of us, or the live feed from HITS Thermal pumping into the monitor and portable Jumbotron by the ingate. Every golf cart spot was taken, and people and their dogs are wandering in and out of the area. A few trainers have their ears permanently glued to the phone to get live updates from California, but things are pretty relaxed. Of course everyone cheered for their friends and barnmates, but there was also weird sense of coastal pride, as if we East Coasters had something to prove against the West Coast horses.
That we did. Kate Conover, Ocala, Fla., took the top two spots in the final round of class, with Caroline Kellogg’s Trendy earning the blue ribbon with a scores of 89 and 95, and Kingston, owned by Jazz Johnson Merton, took second. Last to go on the West Coast, Jenny Karazissis weighed in with overall third with marks of 88 and 89. Taylor Ann Adams—who had five of the 12 horses from Thermal who advanced to Round 2—took fourth for Elizabeth Reilly on Small Celebration.
The revival of this class (it hasn’t been held for over a decade) is the hunter pinnacle of the final week of circuit on both coasts. Here in Ocala, 39 horses jumped in yesterday’s first round, and 45 jumped around in Thermal. That round was judged solely by onsite officials, and those scores didn’t carry over to today. The best 12 on each coast advanced to this afternoon’s final, where riders on each coast took turns over an identical, fairly straightforward classic course set at 3’3”. Two judges on each coast weighed in on both the round they watched in person, and the one they watched on the live feed.
Despite the logistical nightmare of coordinating two separate competitions across the country in different time zones, everything ran pretty smoothly. Horses came into the ring on time with no problems, and none of the horses in Ocala had any major issues. In Ocala, we looked longingly at backdrop of flags and mountains in Thermal that played on the video screen between trips.
The feed was choppy at times, and Brian Lenahan and Pat Boyle, officiating on the East Coast, trotted to the Ryegate trailer for a clearer video for a round or two when things got especially dicey. And it was tough to see the feed on the huge portable jumbotron thanks to the Ocala sunshine, but another monitor by the ingate was clearer. (The judges had their own monitor in the booth.) But the scores were generally in the same ballpark.
While everyone started with a clean slate after yesterday, most East Coasters performed comperably to yesterday, with a noteable exception being Marylisa Leffler, who zoomed from East Coast 12th to overall sixth thanks to a great ride on Zivago.
By the time Conover trotted into the ring with Trendy she was already sitting on top with Kingston, who normally competes with Jazz Johnson Merton in the amateur ring. But she still wanted to win, not just because fans on both coasts—as well as the horse’s trainer, Sandy Lobel, former owner Don Stewart and current owner Kellogg—were watching.
“Yesterday was just the battle, not the war,” said Conover. “Yesterday it was just ‘get through it.’ But I really like pressure actually, and I wanted to win. He’s a blast to ride and he always wants to win—even more than I do. They’re both fantastic horses.”
West Coast Report
For those of us on the West Coast, the simulcast screen provided abundant reasons for jealousy. “Look at all those trees,” said one spectator wistfully. “So much shade!” responded her friend. “Let’s go to the pool right after this,” said another onlooker.
Thermal, Calif., riders and horses have been suffering through an unseasonable heat wave this week—unseasonable even for a city that Wikipedia notes is “often reported to be the hottest spot in the lower 48 states during the summer. Even hotter than Death Valley.”—with temperatures peaking at 100 degrees Wednesday and Thursday.
Today, mercifully, the temperature didn’t reach quite that high, but it was still plenty warm when the first rider went on course at noon. As many spectators as possible crammed under two small red-and-white tents, but those who couldn’t fit quickly abandoned the pursuit of spectatorship and left for shadier domains. The pool, perhaps.
Our simulcast screen was located on what usually serves as the scoreboard for big jumper classes. While the feed here mostly went without incident, only cutting out entirely once and freezing a few times—the Ocala horses were pretty tough to see from all the way across the Grand Prix Ring. You could tell it was a horse going around, and you could definitely see the trees, but it was hard to make out the specifics of any one trip.
The big surprise of the day here came when Iwasaki & Reilly’s Small Affair, ridden by Adams, trotted into the ring and decided he didn’t like the look of something, almost spinning off Adams before their trip even began. Once on course, the horse also took exception to one line, ducking out, and earned scores of 35 and 40 from the two judging teams.
Our last to go, Karazissis on Kelly Straeter’s Undeniable, had the unenviable job of going in the ring straight after Conover’s scores of 89 and 95 were announced.