Ask Louise Serio to describe the ideal hunter, and the answer’s right at the tip of her tongue: Castle Rock.
She’s not being immodest to name the horse she campaigns for Bryan Baldwin as the two-word description to that much larger question. The judges of the $32,875 World Champion Hunter Rider Palm Beach Professional Hunter Classic Spectacular confirmed that opinion on Feb. 18. They awarded Castle Rock the top check in the biggest class of WCHR week at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., Feb. 16-20.
“He has every part,” said Jim Clapperton, one of the eight judges who presided over the class. “He’s got the movement, he’s got the jump, and he’s incredibly scopey. Several horses can jump four beautiful jumps in one course, but he jumps every single fence the same. He’s a standout because he has every quality you could possibly want.”
Scott Stewart rode Krista Weisman’s first year mount Reality to second place, with four-time winner Liza Boyd piloting Brunello to third. Boyd also rode Sarah Ward’s amateur mount, Onassis, to fourth.
“He’s pretty much a veteran now,” said Serio of the 12-year-old she’s been showing since 2008. “It’s nice to have a horse that’s so made. He’s done these classes before, but it’s not all that relaxing, because then it’s all up to you!”
Her competitors didn’t make her job easy. With juniors and amateurs separated into their own classic this year, 25 top professional mounts contested the two-round class. Many perked up considerably under the lights in the impressive International Arena, which the jumpers surrendered for all of WCHR week.
Horses earned a spot in the competition by winning a tricolor during Weeks 5 or 6 of WEF, with a few slots reserved for emerging pros and other qualifiers at WCHR competitions. The start list included heavy hitters from across the country, with two riders—John French and Marla Amormino—making the trek from California for the class.
Ken Krome earned unanimous praise from judges and competitors for his inviting tracks that included several bending lines and two separate in-and-outs: one vertical-to-vertical and one oxer-to-oxer.
“From the photos you can tell that the horses were impressed, but there were no traps and nowhere that a good horse would get suspicious,” said Clapperton. “Having a good course like that really helps us out as judges.”
Home Field Advantage
The first of three horses to contest the 4′ section of the class, Castle Rock looked at ease over the course, earning an average mark of 87.12 to lay third overall. In the second round he managed that same balance of brilliance and relaxation to post the winning average of 90.5.
Last year’s winners, Brunello and Boyd, put in the best trip of Round 1. So she came back last in Round 2 and took the opportunity to teach the crowd how to hand gallop.
“Brunello made a great effort in the first round; he just tried really hard,” said Boyd, Camden, S.C. “The second round I was a little slow to the first jump, so I figured I’d better make up for it to the last fence!”
Stewart’s pair of lovely trips aboard 8-year-old stallion Reality meant that Boyd had to settle for third. Reality competes with Weisman in the amateur-owner division and just debuted in the first years, keeping a side job in the breeding shed.
“I was really thrilled with him because I didn’t know what he would do,” said Stewart of the Mecklenburger (D’Olympic—Smilla II). “He was perfect. I couldn’t have expected him to be as good as he was, but I’m really happy with him.”
Serio topped the class in 2005 aboard Costello, and last year Castle Rock finished third. Stewart’s second-placed ribbon from the class joins a string of other Hunter Spectacular ribbons in the Rivers Edge tackroom ranging a spectrum of colors—save one.
“I’ve been so close [to winning] so many times before, but it’s all right, I had a great week,” said Stewart, Flemington, N.J. “I was nervous during the week for whatever reason, but tonight I was not. I was happy with the horses during the week. This was just fun.”
Winning in Wellington is nothing new for perennial Florida resident Castle Rock. He lives with Baldwin in Tampa for most of the year and moves to the farm of fellow Derbydown customer Bridget Hallman near the show grounds for the season. The Dutch Warmblood (by Corland) has left the state exactly twice to show since pairing up with Serio in 2008. That home field advantage serves him well, and he won last year’s $50,000 The Chronicle of the Horse/ USHJA International Hunter Derby at WEF as well as several regular working hunter circuit titles.
“This was the second week we did the [high performance division],” said Serio, Kennett Square, Pa. “He doesn’t show much because he’s made. He went better this week than last week. Now he’ll have time off, because that’s what he does.”
Small Affair Makes A Big Impression
While Olivia Esse loved the chance to ride in the International Ring in the $31,750 WCHR Palm Beach Junior/ Amateur Hunter Classic Spectacular, she admitted she would have preferred to join the pros on Friday night. But those pros probably didn’t feel the same way.
She guided Iwaski and Reilly’s Small Affair to the highest score of the week—one panel of judges awarded her a 94—on her way to the blue ribbon. Victoria Colvin rode Stewart’s Inclusive to second, just ahead of Hayley Barnhill on Susan Gordon’s Heartfelt.
“That class was just fantastic,” said judge Sue Ashe. “You had these amazing horses and these top riding kids and amateurs. Small Affair was just unbelievable, and Olivia is a beautiful rider. She’s soft and demanding without being demanding. Her eye was so good; she was a real treat to watch.”
Esse wasn’t exactly in a winning mindset heading into the class. She’d just ridden a disappointing trip in the equitation ring and had to rush to warm up. Feeling “a little frustrated and a little nervous” she also worried that her mount might feel tired as he’d had a big week, also competing in the WCHR Palm Beach Professional Hunter Classic Spectacular with John French.
But Esse put her worries aside and laid down a spectacular first round to land in the hot seat for Round 2. No one made it easy for her to keep her cool. Fewer than 7 points separated the top eight riders for the second trip.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking coming back on top,” she said. “I was just trying not to think about other people and focus on the course. Then I didn’t see Tori’s round, but I heard her score [of 89], and I knew I’d have to be great. But he was absolutely perfect.”
French coached Esse to the win on the 8-year-old Selle Français (Elf D’Or— Eva de Fontenay), and he also campaigns the horse in the performance division. According to Esse, that horse makes his rider really work for the ribbons.
“He’s pretty stubborn, and he has lots of personality,” said Esse. “He can be crabby in the warm-up ring, but every time he gets in the show ring he really goes. Sometimes in the smaller rings he’s not as great, but in the big field he’s fantastic because he can really show off his stride.”
Esse made two trips from Los Angeles, Calif., for WCHR week and the qualifying week in order to minimize her time away from the classroom, and she’ll spend the rest of circuit at HITS Thermal (Calif.). But the cross-country treks were worth the effort, as she claimed the small junior hunter, 15 and under, title on Illusion and the large junior hunter, 16-17, title on Small Affair in Week 2, as well as reserve with Small Affair the week before.