Lexington, KY-August 19, 2011-The day that riders, trainers, owners and spectators have been waiting for throughout the Kentucky Horse Shows Series has finally arrived. The 2011 $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals commenced this morning in the Rolex Stadium. Attendees could not have ordered a more perfect day with sunny skies and moderate temperatures to kick off the long anticipated event.
This is the third annual USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals and it has returned to the Kentucky Horse Park. Scott Stewart and Carlos Boy won today's class and Stewart placed in the top six with all of his mounts and is one of the top 25 horse and rider combinations to advance to tomorrow evening's final event. Lillie Keenan took home the fourth and fifth place finish with Madison and C Coast Z, respectively.
This event was created to bring show hunters to the world stage, to increase spectators, media and sponsorship interest, and bring tradition and basic riding principles back to the sport of show hunters. It is an event that involves a 12-month qualifying period and only the top 75 horses are invited to compete for the championship title. Opening ceremonies began at eight this morning, and soon after the competition got underway with the qualifying round for all 59 horse and rider combinations in the Rolex Stadium. The judges panels were comprised of Scott Hofstetter and Otis Brown for panel one, Russell Frey and Julie Winkel for panel two, Carleton Brooks and Jimmy Torano for panel three, and Jim Clapperton and Mike Rosser for panel four.
Bobby Murphy and Patrick Rhodes designed the qualifying round course, the first of three courses in the finals. This Hunter Derby style course challenged riders over 12 fences ranging from 3'6" to 4'0". The course offered four optional obstacles that would add an additional point per fence to their base score due to their added heights and elevated difficulty. The fences being used throughout the weekend are reminiscent of those that would be found out on a hunting field. Obstacles on the course included oxers made up of natural posts, rails and white board fences, gates, hedges, hay bales, a brush, logs, and natural foliage.
Top contender of the day, Scott Stewart said, "I thought the course was great. I thought that for once I couldn't complain. It was really hunt inspired, exactly what I thought this class would be. So I thought it was a really great course."
Out of 59 competitive horse and rider duos, only 25 will move onto the second round, the Classic Hunter course, and finally 12 will progress to the Handy Hunter course, both of which will be held tomorrow evening. Long time professional Scott Stewart was the eighth rider to navigate today's course, guiding Garfield, owned by Steeple Chase Farm, Inc. to impressive scores of 84, 86, 86, and 86. Stewart also earned additional points for choosing to jump two of the higher options, taking an early lead, but that would only hold up for the sixth place finish, after bettering his efforts with several other mounts.
The first rider to take over Stewart's lead was Junior rider Lillie Keenan of New York, NY. She proved to be quite the competitor with Chansonette Farm LLC's Madison. Keenan and the nine-year-old Warmblood also jumped two of the higher options earning additional points to their high scores of 86, 85, 87, and 88. Their efforts put them in the lead, but would earn them the fourth place award when the dust settled.
"I usually ride Madison in the Large Junior Hunters. I have had her for two years and actually we've recently had a lot of success, she was reserve grand at the Junior Hunter Finals this year and she was great today," smiled Keenan. "I was also at Pony Finals helping out, so I didn't get to prepare my horses at home too much. There was a course set up for practicing this. I really trusted all my horses I knew it was going to be a big ring and it was going to be about galloping around and carrying a pace, that was the main goal. I trusted my horses enough, and I think that Heritage Farms did a great job preparing them. I was confident going in. So really practicing a little bit at home and being able to trust your horse I think was a huge part of it."
Keenan continued, "I loved the course and it was beautiful. It really was a true hunter course. It reminded me of those pictures of my mom when she was a kid and it was an outside course. It was just beautiful and I thought it rode very nicely."
"I think you wanted to be able to show off enough that you were guaranteed to qualify for the second round," Keenan explained. "Some of the bigger options I knew that I didn't want to risk in case some thing happened, like the sun hitting it the wrong way or if you have an unlucky swap or a rail. I think going in today knowing that the scores do not carry over, it was not worth risking too much, but you still wanted to have a round that stood out so that you could definitely get into the next round."
Well into the second half of the entries no one had passed Keenan's impressive scores. However Scott Stewart returned to the ring with Carlos Boy, owned by Krista and Alexa Weisman. This time Stewart executed three of the higher options with a classic hunter style earning an astounding group of scores of 88, 88, 89, and 89 totaling 366 to take over the lead and eventually win the class.
"Carlos Boy has done Grand Prixs here and recently started to do the hunters, primarily this winter and spring," noted Stewart. "He was great today. The last time he showed was at Lake Placid in the hunter derby so I was very happy with him. The hardest part is just trying to get in to tomorrow's rounds. Since nothing carries over I wanted to try to have as good of a round as I could without having a rail. I didn't choose the last high option with any of them. Carlos Boy could have done it easily but I didn't want to take that risk. I just primarily wanted to get a nice solid round. There were a lot of good rounds, and with the course being so good, there were really good rounds the panel of judges had to judge. I think it was much harder to get into the second round this year. The style of all of the top group of horses was really true hunters."
When John French and Crown Affair entered the ring they were the only combination to come close to Keenan and Stewart, who dominated the top of today's scoreboard. French piloted the 16 year-old Holsteiner stallion, owned by Yellow Dog Farm, LLC over two of the higher options and received scores of 85.25, 85.5, 85.5, and 84 to garner the seventh place ribbon in today's competition. Scott Stewart returned to try and better his earlier results, this time with the nine-year-old Westphalian, Declaration, owned by Fashion Farm. Stewart chose to execute two of the higher fence options, and came just shy of raising the bar yet again. With scores of 89.5, 87.5, 91, and 88.5 for a total of 364.5 the dynamic duo earned the second place honors.
"Declaration has actually only been through the 3'3" with his owner. To be honest I don't think I have jumped him since Florida, but he was great today," commented Stewart. "The horses have been home with Ken because I was at Pony Finals so Samantha Conroy rode them mostly and got them ready. I think the first time I rode them was Monday. All of them are experienced here, so I wasn't really worried about the environment. I really trust all four of those horses."
Nearing the end of the competition, Lillie Keenan returned to try and reclaim her earlier lead this time aboard C Coast Z, owned by Chansonette Farms LLC. Keenan guided the eleven-year-old Warmblood around the course choosing to jump two of the higher option fences. Although they didn't manage to beat Stewart, their scores of 84.65,87.25, 84.5, and 87.25 were good enough for the fifth place finish.
"C Coast Z and I have been doing the derbies for the past two years. I believe we came in twelfth overall last year at the Finals. He is a lot of fun and I really trust him. I was excited that he was my last one to go, especially knowing that I already had Madison qualified, I just had to have fun," said Keenan. "I look forward to a big challenge and I think that one of the things I would look forward to would be if there is a hand gallop where you could really just open up. I think that would be fun. Tomorrow night is really about showing off what you and your horse can do. If you trust your horse, you are prepared, your horse is prepared and you are confident going into the ring, then I think taking some of the bigger options is wise if you want to show off."
"It's intimidating to be out there with Scott and some of the other professionals who have been here and won so much," Keenan continued. "I mean I am showing against my own trainer, Patricia [Griffith], and I know how great she can ride. It's definitely intimidating but it almost makes me want it more. I just try to breathe a lot. I kind of just ride through it and try to think about other things and the experience my horses have. I think tomorrow night I will plan on jumping some of the other options on C Coast Z because he used to be a Grand Prix horse in Europe. It's comforting to know that he doesn't care about it if it's bigger. I don't have any special things that I do. I try to focus on what is important, focus on the course and that I ride everything to the best of my ability.
Becky Gochman's nine-year-old stallion Empire earned the third place ribbon with another successful round from Scott Stewart. The competitive team was awarded scores of 88.5, 89, 88, and 90, totaling 363.5 points after jumping two of the higher options.
"Empire is great. He's the greenest one, but he is just so brave and direct, I couldn't be happier with his performance," remarked Stewart. "It all depends on the course, but tomorrow night I think with all of my horses that I will probably try the higher options depending on how the class is going. That will be the fun part because you almost have to do it tomorrow night. I am looking forward to the bigger challenge of the course."
Out of the top 25 qualifying horse and rider duos, there were many riders that qualified multiple mounts through to finals. Scott Stewart will have the best chances when returning to finals tomorrow evening bringing back his four mounts that finished in the top six during the first round.
The final two rounds will be held tomorrow evening beginning at 6:30pm. The top 25 qualifiers will compete in the Classic Hunter Round. From that class, the top 12 riders will compete in the Handy Hunter Round, which will determine champion of the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. The Bluegrass Festival Horse Show at the Kentucky Horse Park will continue through Sunday and will conclude with the $40,000 Bluegrass Festival Grand Prix.
For more information about the Kentucky Summer Horse Shows please visit www.KentuckyHorseShows.com.
Photo Credit: Scott Stewart and Carlos Boy took top honors during Round One of the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals at the Bluegrass Festival Horse Show. Photo By: Heather Bellock/PMG.