Lexington, Ky. – Aug. 18, 2017 – Now in its ninth year, the eagerly-awaited 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship brought many of the nation’s most talented horses and riders to Kentucky to compete for the most prestigious hunter title of the year. The International Hunter Derby Program recently hit a milestone, having awarded more than $10 million in less than 10 years to competitors, and this year’s championship significantly added to that total, offering one of the highest payouts in the program’s history. With the total purse topping $268,000, each of the 84 competing pairs were motivated to lay down brilliant performances Friday in the classic round in order to earn their places in Saturday’s championship handy round. John French, the inaugural 2009 champion, ultimately stole the show ahead of the field, riding to both first and second place aboard Skyhawk and Center Court, respectively.
As the 15th in the order-of-go, French and Center Court, owned by Hiller Farms, LLC, set a high standard for the entrants that would follow them with scores of 89.00, 89.00 and 88.50, plus an additional four points from each of the three judges panels for taking the high options, for a cumulative tally of 278.50. Also taking the four high options, Victoria Colvin and Cuba, owned by John and Stephanie Ingram, LLC, gave French and the 7-year-old bay gelding a run for their money a handful of trips later but fell just short with a score of 275.25. As the class progressed, it became clear that French and Center Court were the ones to beat. Though the top 12 cut-off continued to climb, ultimately reaching a lofty 265.50 as horse-and-rider combinations repeatedly scored respectably, none were able to top the leading pair until French returned to the Rolex Stadium with his second mount.
Armed with the knowledge from his previous trip around designers Alan Lohman and Danny Moore’s course, French returned to the judges’ scrutiny aboard Skyhawk, owned by Laura Wasserman, and outdid himself with marks of 89.50, 89.50 and 91.00 in addition to the 12 bonus points for a total score of 282.00 to capture the one-two lead. French and Skyhawk’s score of 91.00 was the second-highest score awarded throughout the day, and they, along with only two other pairs, Colvin and Cuba as well as Kristy Herrera and Candid, were able to break the 90-point benchmark. Twenty more pairs chased down French’s top two positions to no avail, leaving the 2009 champion in prime position headed into Saturday’s finale to claim top honors once again.
Competition was fierce with frequent scores awarded in the 80s, but Colvin and Cuba retained third position behind French and his mounts, followed closely by Geoffrey Hesslink aboard his own Cadoretto with total marks of 273.00 as one of the first to go in the class. Hesslink is among good company in his first International Hunter Derby Championship, as nearly half of the competing riders were also making their debuts in the elite class. Only one-quarter of a point behind Hesslink, veteran rider Liza Boyd, the three-time champion from 2014 through 2016, navigated Stella Styslinger’s O’Ryan to fifth position with their score of 272.75. Jennifer Alfano rode Sharon O’Neill’s Miss Lucy, the 2016 champion horse, to a score of 271.80 to claim sixth place. Last year, Alfano was forced to give up the ride on the chestnut mare to Herrera due to an injury, but the catch-rider performed spectacularly, earning the 2016 championship honors.
The 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship will return to the Rolex Stadium Saturday afternoon, with horses and riders pegged to compete in either the derby challenge or the coveted handy hunter round, which will determine the new champion. The top 20 highest-scoring pairs have qualified for the Section A portion of the prize money, representing the largest percentage of the pot, while the top 20 tier two duos, determined by money won throughout the year, from the classic round will vie for the Section B prize money. Ultimately, the horse and rider with the greatest composite score from the two rounds of competition will be crowned the newest champions.
FROM THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
John French – Leader of the 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship
“I started riding him at this show last year. It’s nice to have had him for a year and now I know him a little bit better. Last year, it was a little hard because I just got on and I had never ridden him before and he wasn’t quite used to my long distances in the handy, but now I have figured him out and I felt really comfortable with him today.”
On Center Court:
“Center Court, who is in second, I got him as a 4-year-old-based off an internet ad from England. I brought him over after I just liked him on the video and it took a year and a half before he would even do a lead change. I hadn’t brought him [to the International Hunter Derby Finals] in the past because I didn’t think he was quite ready or that I could count on getting the changes done out there in the big field. At 6 years old I did take him to indoors and he was champion at the Washington [International Horse Show]. This year I felt he was ready to come and that’s basically been our goal all along with him — to bring him here — because I always knew he was a derby horse.”
On the course:
“I thought it flowed really nicely. When you looked at the course, it looked pretty. The space between the jumps seemed all the same. It wasn’t like some came up really fast — it flowed. The high options were high enough, but last year was almost crazy high. There were so many good scores in the 80s and that’s kind of what you want.There were a lot of good rounds.”
On his hopes for the handy round:
“I hope there’s a lot of inside options and I love single jumps. I hope there’s not lines that you have to run down. I’m sure there will be a trot fence— it’d be nice if there wasn’t. Sometimes you never know what’s going to happen at the trot fence.”
On how his previous rides affected his trips today:
“Once I ride one and it goes well then I feel much better riding the second one. I showed them yesterday and they weren’t really good. Skyhawk tripped and almost fell down after the trot jump and Center Court was so asleep, but in a way it was good for me because today I knew we had to step it up here a little bit and it made me wake them up a little bit more.”
Victoria Colvin – 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, third place
“I started riding Cuba at the beginning of WEF. The Ingrams own him. He’s a saint. John Ingram shows him in the amateurs. I think this is the first year he has started derbies and he’s done a couple of derbies before here, but he hasn’t had the best luck. One round he tripped and one round he swapped. He just hasn’t had the perfect round but I was really pleased with him today. He couldn’t have been any better so I was very happy with him.”
On her hopes for the handy round:
“I love single jumps. I’ll take a single oxer any day. I’m ready to go very handy [tomorrow]. I love the handy [rounds]. I’m going to have some fun.”
Geoffrey Hesslink –2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, fourth place
“I bought him at the end of Florida and he’s 6 years old. He’s kind of a baby so I started showing him in the First Years and then tried out some derbies and he’s been pretty successful at those so I brought him here and he was outstanding today. It’s really special [that I own him]. I wasn’t expecting much at all. I kind of came here for experience and my goal was to have a nice, smooth round with no major errors. It’s really nice that he was that good today.”
On the course:
“I thought it was a lot of unrelated single jumps versus related lines, which was nice. I thought it flowed really nicely.”
On his hopes for the handy round:
“I’m just hoping to have a smooth round and not make any major mistakes. I hope the high options aren’t too crazy, but there are places where you can be handy. This my first time competing at Derby Finals and so far it’s been good. I’ve liked it so far. The venue is beautiful and they do a good job. It’s fun to come here and compete against the best at this. I went very early so I was definitely nervous, but once I jumped jump one I was good.”
Place / Rider / Horse / Owner / Score
USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship – Classic Round
1. John French / Skyhawk / Laura Wasserman / 282.000
2. John French / Center Court / Hiller Farms LLC / 278.500
3. Victoria Colvin / Cuba / John & Stephanie Ingram, LLC / 275.250
4. Geoffrey Hesslink / Cadoretto / Geoffrey Hesslink / 273.000
5. Elizabeth Boyd / O’ Ryan / Stella Styslinger / 272.750
6. Jennifer Alfano / Miss Lucy / Sharon O’neill / 271.800
7. Daniel Geitner / Raffle / Janet Peterson / 270.500 8. Amy Momrow / Aeroplane / Melissa Wight / 269.000 9. Erica Quinn / Celtic Fire / CF Partners / 267.400
10. Kristy Herrera / Candid / Jennifer Alfano / 267.000
For more information on the 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, please click here.