When I first heard that New Vocations was going to be hosting a Thoroughbreds-only horse show in the Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park, two thoughts hit me.
The first was a series of unrepeatable colorful exclamations of surprise, excitement and disbelief. There was seriously going to be a horse show held in the very same stadium that hosted the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, that hosts the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals, North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, and countless FEI and national grand prixs, and that horse show was for Thoroughbreds only?!
Get out of town.
Then I read over the prize list and actually started cackling in pure maniacal joy, because this was too much. This horse show, that was going to be held in Lexington, Ky., just 12 miles from where I lived, that was going to be put on in the Rolex Stadium, that was only open to Thoroughbred horses like my 14-year-old hunter, Lucky, was offering a three-foot derby as its title hunter class.
Did I mention that Lucky is my childrens/adult/USHJA national derby horse of the past decade, and that three-foot hunter derbies are our JAM?! NO?! WELL I’M MENTIONING IT NOW.
If you thought this scenario couldn’t get any better, it did: the show wasn’t rated, so classes were just $17 bucks a pop, $25 bucks for the derby. So for a very small fee, I was going to get to show my three-foot hunter in the Rolex Stadium. I cannot get over how ridiculous that sentence is.
Lucky and I IN THE ROLEX STADIUM. Photo by Suzanne Fischer
The show was over two days, Sept. 10-11, and to warm up for the derby Sunday morning Lucky and I did the three-foot division hunters on Saturday afternoon. In typical Ann fashion, after placing second in the hack, we went in for our first over-fences trip and just epically botched it. We earned ourselves the green sixth place ribbon out of a field of, well, six.
Then we went in for the next round, I rode like not-a-moron, Lucky jumped in his usual adorable way and we won!
That’s our career together in a nutshell—we either crash and burn, or do really well. Nothing in between. Which is of course exactly how the hunter derby ended up playing out on Sunday.
On Saturday, we had arrived just in time to tack up, warm up and show, and hauled out immediately after, so the full effect of showing in the Rolex Stadium went over my head a bit that day. But when we arrived bright and early Sunday morning to get ready for the derby, the first class at 8 a.m., it hit me hard, like out of body experience hard. Like I was watching my life as a Hollywood movie.
Let me set the scene for you: fade in on the Kentucky Horse Park, pan across a thick white fog covering the dew laden grass, the sun a large glowing orb on the horizon, just beginning the day’s ascent. It’s a brisk, cool September morning at the park, and the steady rhythm of steel shoes crossing concrete paths on the way to warm-up rings and lunging pens punctuates the low humming of engines as water trucks and tractors work aimless loops around the Rolex arena, preparing it for the morning’s competition.
Then, emerging from that curtain of early morning mist, a single horse and rider come into view: the silhouette of a short, chubby bay steed and a slouching, chicken-winged rider framed in a heavenly angelic glow from the sun behind them—it is the legendary mother-proclaimed three-foot hunter world champion, Happy Go Lucky, with his long suffered amateur passenger, me, in the irons. Cue a small quartet of violins to begin playing softly in the background.
The imaginary pit orchestra heralded the mighty pair’s entry into the warm-up area, just up the ramp from the Rolex arena. The sloucher was dressed in the jet-black $30 consighnment-shadbelly of past blog lore, buttons sticky from their fresh coating of Sharpie, points super-glued firmly in place.
At this early morning hour, they were the only pair hacking in the ring. This arena, where Michael Jung jumped fischerRocanna FST, where McLain Ward warmed up Sapphire, where Liza Boyd prepared Brunello, where the entire U.S. Olympic eventing team flew over their final fences before heading into the ring at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****—well this morning, another champion was being added to that list.
The rider paused often in her warm-up, both to take in the gravity of the moment she was experiencing and to pull crumpled shadbelly tails out from under her seat, where they kept catching as she posted. The shadbelly may have been made for a person six inches to a foot taller than she.
After hitting her designated number of chips and long spots to qualify as a complete warm-up routine, the rider guided her sturdy steed down the ramp to the Rolex arena, just barely resisting the urge to stop and collect a small jar of the footing to have as a keepsake of that-time-she-cantered-where-all-the-champion-ponies-cantered.
She hangs a left where the paved path intersects the ramp to turn and walk along the pond at the far side of the ring. Here near the shores of these tranquil waters, she must find her inner peace and fortitude to tackle the towering 36”-tall track that lay ahead.
Her chef d’equipe, better known as trainer Nori Scheffell, asks if she’s heard anything she’s been saying about how to ride the first round of the derby. The girl has not—she is trying to compile an alphabetical list in her head of all the Olympians whose tracks she was about to canter in.
After a touch-up from groom extraordinaire Susan Abner and a pep talk from the sole attending member of Lucky’s fan club, Hannah Dritt, it’s time to go to battle.
Cue the low rumbling of a timpani drum roll as they approach the in-gate, the great expanse of the Rolex arena laid out before them. The grandstand was silent as she trotted into the ring and across the diagonal to begin her course—whether that was a hushed anticipation of the athletic feat they were about to witness, or due to the lack of a single human occupant in any of the 7,388 seats, who’s to say.
The drums beat louder and the violins crescendo in a frenzy as the curse goes on—she’s finding the jumps, she’s executing the roll-backs, she’s seeing the distances! They soar over the roll-top fence, the one that has been giving so many riders stops and falls before them, and turn to roll back on a stack of hay bales, and then it happens.
She doesn’t see it.
There is no distance to be found, not from staring at the fence, not from pulling or kicking. She’s not making a decision, and she throws the reins up her mighty steed’s neck as the orchestra drops in a record scratch, and the corporate country anthem of every distance-less amateur rider begins to blare: “Lucky take the wheeeeeEEEEEEEEL! TAKE IF FROM MY HAAAAAAAAAANDS! ‘Cause I can’t see this disssstaaaaaanceeeee….”
Lucky taketh the wheel, and Lucky naileth the distance.
Despite the monkey in a suit clinging to his back, he snapped his knees to his rotund little belly and shot through the air like a brilliant 15.3 hand bay bullet. The crowd goes wild (on the inside, I’d imagine, since the volume of their silence does not change) as the monkey manages to stay on, and the course ends well.
As the scores are called out, the judges give the magnificent beast the highest score at the three-foot height, an 80. Happy Go Lucky will be last to return in the handy, with the eyes of the 20-odd parents and fellow competitors waiting at the gate upon him.
The handy round proves as tricky as the first, with troubles popping up every which way for different pairs before it was time for Lucky to march into the ring. In they canter, bending directly from the gate to the first fence. Roll back on the oxer—the high option, because they aren’t messing around—they came to slay. The oxer is followed by a series of four fences rolling back on each other, and as they approach the third, it happens again.
In that vast expanse of a ring, in the shadow of the towering grandstand and judges tower and score board, the pilot sees no take-off point—the violins climb in pitch, their shrill tones growing urgent as the scene turns to slow motion.
She pulls, pulls, pulls in vain, exhausting what little space the poor steed had to work with, and as he clambers over the vertical with his front end the best he can, he catches the top rail with a hind foot, the rail falling to the ground with a dull resounding thud. Dum dum dummmmmmmmmm.
Dare I say it was exactly like when Kelley Farmer came into the final round of USHJA International Derby Finals, in this very same stadium just a few weeks prior, also sitting in first place, and in the handy round just barely knocked a wooden brick off the biggest jump on course, a wall just slightly higher than my own boogey fence, measuring 1.57 meters high and just as wide. So at least Lucky and I are in good company.
In all seriousness, the show New Vocations put on was an absolute blast. What other schooling show can you pay less than $20 to enter and get to show on the best footing in the country, and at a venue as iconic as the Rolex Stadium? The fact that it highlights and raises money for a breed I have been in love with since 12-year-old me met 4-year-old Lucky is just icing on the cake (all told, the show raised $30,000 for New Vocations!).
And while we didn’t get to take home the blue ribbon from the hunter derby, Lucky won the TIP Best Turned Out award, which in my mind is just substantiated proof that he IS the prettiest pony in all the land, as I have been telling him from Day 1.
Bad riding on my part and all, this went down in the books as one of my favorite shows of all time!
Ann Glavan is an editorial staffer for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. Ann interned for Phelps Media Group during the 2014 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival and photographed for The Book LLC before joining the Chronicle team for the summer of 2014. Ann interned for the Chronicle again in the summer of 2015 before finishing up her undergraduate degree in economics and journalism at the University of Missouri, graduating with honors in the fall of 2015, and is back with the Chronicle as a full-time staffer.