Gladstone, NJ - Fourteen-year-old Lillie Keenan, of New York, NY, was a front runner today in the first two rounds of competition for the 2011 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East. Held at the USET Foundation Headquarters in Gladstone, NJ, the Talent Search Finals celebrate a momentous 30th anniversary this year. With Finals held each year on the east and west coasts, this program has produced some of the country's top jumping riders, including McLain Ward, Richard Spooner, Lauren Hough, and Meredith Micheals-Beerbaum.
Looking to fill those shoes, eighty-four of the country's top young riders traveled to Gladstone for this weekend's competition. The Finals are held in a demanding four round championship format. Today's competition featured the flat and gymnastics phases, and tomorrow will highlight the jumping phase and final ride-off.
Beginning in the morning, all riders were scored on the flat for Phase I and then returned in the afternoon for Phase II according to those scores. Judging and course designing for the weekend are two of the country's most eminent equestrians, George Morris and Jimmy Lee.
Morris and Lee set a very challenging gymnastics course for Phase II, and the top riders set themselves apart with their skill and execution. Already making a name for herself at a young age, 14-year-old Lillie Keenan led the cumulative scoring at the end of the day. Keenan earned an 89 in the flat phase and had the high score of 94 in the gymnastics to finish at the top of the pack. Michael Hughes, of Allendale, NJ, earned the high score of 93 on the flat, but a disappointing 70 in Phase II moved Hughes down the list of cumulative totals.
Sitting at the top of the standings behind Keenan are Hayley Barnhill, Samantha Schaefer, Schaefer Raposa, and Allison Toffolon. Keenan holds the lead, but with two rounds remaining, it could still be anyone's game. Riding Danielle Cooper's 14-year-old Royal Dutch Warmblood gelding Kosta, Keenan hopes to remain on top and feels confident after today's competition.
"This is an awesome horse and going into it today, I knew that no matter what I asked, he could do it," she stated. "I have to thank Danielle because she is so supportive and she truly wanted him to do well. I knew he could go in there and do it, so I just had to help him a little bit and not get in his way." Keenan reflected on today's competition, noting, "I was happy with my flat; I thought I did pretty well. I was definitely nervous going into the gymnastics, but after the flat I just went to the car and slept for like two hours and tried to relax, and I knew Kosta would be great."
"He is not phased by anything," the rider smiled. "He takes very minimal preparation and he is pretty straight-forward. Starting with the trot jump today was easy for him. He does the high amateurs with his owner, so he is used to jumping way bigger than this and it was no problem. It works if I just try to get him into a rhythm early and then let him do his job; then he is happy and he knows what to do."
Keenan praised her trainer, Andre Dignelli, for his help in preparing for the Finals, explaining, "Andre does everything he can to make sure that we are prepared. Everyone at Heritage does such an amazing job. We come to this show and we have already jumped every course they could possibly build. It definitely makes you feel better going in."
Keenan first showed in the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals in 2009 when she was just 12 years old, but had to pull out of the class at the last minute in 2010 because her horse had an abscess. Even though she could not compete, Keenan stayed at the competition helping her friends, and learned a lot in the process.
"I didn't get to show last year, but it was a great experience because I got to see everything from the preparation side, helping to get horses ready, and then I was able to watch the class and see what happens," she said. "I was a little nervous coming into today because I didn't get to show last year, but that was a good experience and I definitely have the horse this year to make it happen, so I guess everything just fell into place."
After a fantastic day in Phases I & II, Keenan is now feeling good going into tomorrow's competition. She stated, "Yesterday at the meeting, George said that for him the gymnastics are really a preparation for the show jumping round. Both George and Jimmy are amazing course designers and judges and horseman, and I think that today's course was a wonderful test for the riders. It was a beautiful course and I think it really set us all up for tomorrow."
She added, "I definitely feel confident in my horse, and I think that if I get a good night's sleep and go in with confidence, I will be okay. I know the horse can do it, so I just have to pull it together and make it happen."
The 2011 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talents Search Finals-East will continue tomorrow with two more rounds of competition. The morning will begin with Phase III: Jumping. Based on their cumulative scores in Phases I, II, and III, the top four competitors will then return for a ride-off. Using a format modeled after the World Championships' final ride-off; the top-four competitors will ride their own horses, as well as the three other competitor's horses over a shortened course to determine the champion.
More information is available in the prize list: http://www.usef.org/documents/disciplines/jumper/TalentSearchClass/TalentSearch2011.pdf.
For Results and Course Maps visit: http://usefnetwork.com/blogs/2011TalentSearch/read.aspx