Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 16
Liza Boyd was a woman on a mission. The reigning U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Champion was determined to defend her title aboard longtime mount Brunello this year, and she wasn’t going to let giving birth to a baby girl less than three months ago deter that goal at the championship competition, held Aug. 15-16 in Lexington, Ky.
“I definitely had a plan—a little bit of a psychotic plan, maybe!” said Boyd, 35. “Honestly, when I was flatting around at first when I had just started back riding in June, I thought, ‘I really just want to be in the top 10; I’m just having a baby, so that’s my goal.' Then a week after that, I was like, ‘Definitely top three. I gotta break the top three. I’m feeling a little bit better; we’re going to up this goal a little.' And then a little bit more recently, I said, ‘I’d really like to win!’ ”
Boyd, of Camden, S.C., led the Tier 1 competitors and scored an unprecedented win in the process, becoming the first rider ever to win two Derby Championships, let alone consecutively. She and Brunello stood in third place after the Classic Round on Aug. 15, and were in top form as they galloped around the challenging handy course designed by Steve Stephens and Allen Rheinheimer—all thanks to a tough but effective preparatory fitness and training routine.
“He hadn’t shown since September, but I have a great team that rides him,” said Boyd. “Closer to [Championships], we started riding him twice a day, but even when we were in Florida, he stayed on the treadmill and riding in the field.
“I really wanted [Brunello] to have a really good, solid two months of jumping fitness before [Championships] and I didn’t really want anyone else to jump him, so I started [riding again] maybe a little bit early!” she continued. “I started again June 12 after having the baby May 30. My mom caught me and was not too excited, but I felt fine! So we did 2’6” for a week, 2’9”, then 3’, maybe 3’3” for two weeks and this was sort of our end result.”
The 16-year-old derby veteran "Ike" (Accord II—Winnepeg) felt better than ever as he and Boyd made their way around the handy track to claim the Championship blue ribbon once again. Boyd, who worked alongside Ike to prepare herself physically for the event, impressed judges James Clapperton, Jeanne Marie Dunford-Miller, Hap Hansen, Scott Williamson, Julie Winkel and Chris Wynne by skillfully demonstrating the pair’s handiness and taking all four high options. They left the ring with scores of 94, 93 and 94, and earned plenty of handy points to boot—9, 8 and 8, respectively.
“I feel like it’s a little bit of a dream. Like, pinch me!” said Boyd. “I’m still in a little bit of shock, I think. He’s an amazing horse. He really knows when it counts. Tonight he actually was spooky—he spooked at the muck bucket right outside of the ring, and when he did that, I was like, ‘Oh good! He’s a little bit spooky; he’s going to be sharp.’ ”
Boyd also piloted Stella Styslinger’s Eloise around the track before her trip on Ike, which gave her the confidence to really push the envelope her second time around.
"[Riding Eloise first] really, really helped,” said Boyd. “It especially helped in the classic round, because I was cantering in and I kind of froze for a minute like, ‘You haven’t done a derby in a while, are you really prepared?’ You shouldn’t think of this stuff when you’re going around the course, but cantering to one jump, I was like, ‘I don’t think you’re strong enough to do this yet, Liza.’ And then I was like, ‘Don’t think that way! Kick yourself into gear!’ ”
Sour Then Sweet
Fellow Tier 1 competitors Jen Alfano and Jersey Boy, another iconic pair in the hunter ring and 2012 winners of the International Hunter Derby Championship, jumped to the title of reserve champion after a slow start in the Classic Round. Going into the handy, Alfano and “Lewis” stood almost 19 points behind leader Tori Colvin, who ended up third overall after the handy round aboard Inclusive.
“I was pretty far behind, so I had nothing to lose,” said Alfano, of SBS Farms in Buffalo, N.Y. “The fact that [Lewis] moved up so much is great. I’m thrilled with Lewis. He was so good.”
With an all-or-nothing attitude, Alfano took the handiest track and all the high options in the second round. That risk paid off, and the pair scored 9 handy points from each judge across the board and an overall scores of 93, 92 and 86.5.
Watch Brunello and Jersey Boy's handy rounds side-by-side...
“I thought [the course] was great,” said Alfano. “When we walked it, [Liza and I] did have some questions though. The last jump was big!”
But Alfano, 45, had confidence in Lewis, and when he started acting up in the warm-up, she knew the 12-year-old gelding by White Star would give a great performance in the show ring.
“He didn’t school well, which is normally a good sign for him,” said Alfano with a laugh. “Usually the worse schooling you have, the better he is in the ring. When you’re in the schooling area, it’s a little hard to keep saying that to yourself, but it’s true! He was nervous, he was spooky and he would hold off at the jumps.
“But of course he was perfect [when he got into the ring],” she continued. “As soon as I picked up the canter and he locked on the first jump, I knew I was really home free. He gave his all. He felt phenomenal.”
Alfano and Boyd, who are friends as well as competitors, credit their success in the prestigious derby to their deep connection with their horses. Both have been with their mounts for years and know just about everything about them, which gives them an edge in the show ring.
“We’re both on really seasoned horses and we know our horses really well; I mean, they’re like our kids,” said Alfano. “And that’s half the battle in a class like this; you really have to know your horse and what you can do and what you can’t do with them.”
“And also, we’re the only ones that show [our horses] and we’re the only ones that ride them usually,” added Boyd. “We have great horses and we’re good riders, but we really manage them and know them so well, and I think that’s to our advantage. We’re fortunate that way.”
Ward Tops Section B Handy
Morgan Ward is just 17, but she and her Comissario set the tone for Tier 1 competitors, finishing in first place in the Section B Handy Round and fifth in Section A.
"We bought Comissario two years ago from Emil [Spadone] and I did him in the junior jumpers for the first year, and then we decided to do the hunters with him," said Ward, of Milford, N.J., explaining his aptitude for the derbies. "He's an amazing horse."
Ward took all the high options and earned scores of 86, 90 and 85, plus handy points of 9, 9 and 10, respectively. "I thought [the course] was a little bit tricky in a few spots for me as a junior," she continued. "But I thought it was fun and all the high options were really fun."
Though she was a bit nervous to compete, her nerves turned to confidence once the pair entered the big atmosphere of Rolex Stadium. "I know my horse and I was really confident in him," she said.
Sandy Ferrell, also in Tier 1, clinched the second-placed spot in the Section B Handy Round on Mayfair, owned by Stephanie Bulger. "Good horses make good riders and we all had really good horses," she said of the top four, who all have longtime partnerships with their mounts. Ferrell rode Mayfair at one derby at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) this year, so the big jumps were a bit intimidating.
"For me, I'm not like veterans Liza and Jen, who do this all the time. I was like, 'These jumps are really looking big!' "
But luckily, the bigger fences suit Mayfair best. "It actually gives him something to study because he's so brave that over the little jumps he gets a little complacent and doesn't really have to try," said Ferrell, 47, of Wellington, Fla.
Chair of the International Hunter Derby Task Force Ron Danta added that the growing popularity of the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship drew in an unprecedented number of online spectators watching the live feed. Even last year, that number was larger than that watching the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, according to Danta. "I think it was one of our best derbies," he said. "Each year you can see the improvement in the quality of the riding and the horses. The first year we started, we didn't have derby horses in the country, so we had a mix of equitation horses, jumpers and hunters. So it's been an amazing journey to watch the development of derby horses."
To learn more about the competition, click here.