Finding Your Derby Championship Favorite

Aug 14, 2014 - 7:30 AM

If you’re a serious hunter fan, chances are you already have a favorite or two for the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship on Aug. 15-16. It’s easy to name the top contenders, but it’s always fun to have another reason to have a sentimental favorite. After all, you already know why you should cheer for frequent winners Brunello and Jersey Boy.

I’m lucky enough to follow the derby circuit and many of its participants pretty closely for the Chronicle, and can attest that there are lots of interesting pairs that will be at the Kentucky Horse Park.

So find a pair (or two) to support, whether you’re clapping in the stands at the Kentucky Horse Park or sneaking peaks at the live feed on in front of your computer (we won’t tell.) As a special bonus, this year many derby participants sent along behind-the-scenes photos that range from sweet to outrageous, and we’ve pulled a few of our favorites from the files to add to the mix.

Scroll down to hear the other Chronicle staff weigh in as well, and let us know who you’re cheering for in the comments. And don’t forget to check out this article about derby riders’ most embarrassing moments.

If you’re looking forward to this year’s event, be sure to check out this year’s Aug. 11 Chronicle’s Derby Championships Preview Issue. We’ve compiled a roster of the competitors (with Bill Moroney handicapping the field) and checked in with Derby program mastermind Ron Danta about changes in the format. We sent a photographer to go nose around RedGate Farm where Molly Ashe Cawley bases in the summer. We have tips from derby gurus about taming the butterfly-inducing trot jump, and sat down with Janet Peterson, who owns top derby horses like Brunello that she loves just as much as the babies she breeds. It’s on top of all your usual Chronicle goodies. We’ll have loads of coverage during the event, so check back all weekend at, and we’ll have full coverage in the Sept. 1 issue. 

1. If you want to see someone rise to a serious challenge.

Choose: Jimmy Torano and Unspoken, Mindful, Scripted, Point Being, Taken, Why, Enticement and So To Speak.
Ken and Selma Garber and Larry Glefke: Unspoken, Scripted, Point Being, Why, Enticement
Ken and Selma Garber: Mindful
Jessica Stitt: Taken

Why Jimmy? Calling Kelley Farmer a top derby contender doesn’t come close to describing what an force she and her partner at Lane Change Farm, Larry Glefke, have been in producing winning derby mounts over the last five seasons. Consider this: Besides being the first hunter rider to join the $1 million dollar mark in lifetime earnings, Kelley toped the USHJA International Hunter Derby Money Won standings this season, with nearly four times as much as money earned as second-placed Peter Pletcher.

But this year she’ll be watching from the sidelines, thanks to a badly-timed broken collarbone. Jimmy Torano will be filling in, with seven or eight rides throughout the evening. Jimmy knows this game well. He’s a strong rider, just as adept at winning derbies as grand prix, but his name usually stays out of the headlines because his business is built on buying and selling horses. Jimmy’s used to hopping on unfamiliar horses and making it look easy, and if anyone can fill Kelley’s considerable shoes, it’s him.     

Jimmy’s already won a derby on Unspoken (before he sold her to Lane Change) and that mare reminds me a bit of La Bonita, whom he rode to the top of the $500,000 HITS Hunter Prix last year. But Kelley’s three partners who have caused the most buzz lately are Scripted and So To Speak, owned by Ken and Selma Garber and Glefke, and Mindful, owned by the Garbers. But he doesn’t have a common horse in the lot, including Why, whom he’ll take over from Lane Change assistant Evan Coluccio so Coluccio can focus on making sure every horse is perfectly prepared. 

2. If you’ve ever taken a break from the tack to go on maternity leave.

Choose: Liza Boyd and Brunello
Boyd and Janet Peterson 

Why Liza? Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Liza’s hardly an original choice, but she’s coming back to defend her USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship title just 2 ½ months after having her daughter, Adeline. Liza threw a leg over her longtime partner Brunello as soon as she was able, and she and “Ike” topped their first derby back at Blowing Rock. (N.C.). At 16, he’s not getting any younger either, but if there’s one thing Boyd and the team at Finally Farms know how to do, it’s keep that horse in top form so he can peak when he needs to.

Ironically, at last year’s Derby Championships (then again at Capital Challenge [Md.]) Peter Pletcher teased Liza telling her it was time for her to have another kid, while Liza laughed it off. Seems he might have a touch of telepathy. 

3. If you want someone with some great stories.

Choose: Karen Kelley and Chosen
Reflections Farm

Why Karen? Every time I talk to Karen Kelley she tells me something amazing. A few years ago I caught her just before she was getting on a plane to go to Machu Picchu for a wedding. More recently she regaled me with childhood tales of foxhunting her show hunters in Connecticut (she’s been hunting since she was 7) and watching her uncle, famed rider David Kelley, ride at the Garden. Her own father was a major figure in the show horse world, among the first to insure horses, counting Bill Steinkraus and George Morris among his clients. Best of all: her first ride ever was on Snowman. If you see her walking the course in Kentucky, ask her to tell you how that happened (but we have a photo in the gallery above).

Bonus points as she’s aboard Chosen, U.S.-bred Holsteiner with a sentimental backstory. Original owner Margaret Edge picked him out in a paddock as a yearling (she was looking for the full sibling of another horse she owned, when Chosen earned his moniker by walking right up to her and sticking around). Edge lost her battle with breast cancer, and Karen often wears a pink ribbon on her shadbelly to honor her.

Karen keeps up with the deLeyers who gave her her very first leg up when she was just a toddler onto their legendary horse. Two years ago she and Harry’s son Marty tied for the performance hunter championship at a show in Aiken. Turns out, both champions even came over on the same plane from the Netherlands.

4. If you’re a foxhunter.

Choose: David Beisel and Calentino or Dan Urban and Cousteaux
Calentino: Loveland Equine Investments
Cousteaux: Patrice Urban

Why David? David Beisel may be better known as a top hunter and jumper rider now, but he started his riding career following around his father, Jim Beisel, a professional huntsman with Mission Valley Hunt (Kan.). David cleared trails, walked out hounds and, in his words, “show(ed) some really rotten ponies.” Last time he took his whole family out was two years ago on Thanksgiving (he fell off trying to take a photo his dad). But don’t miss the photo in our gallery of David and his son goofing around at the end of that meet.

Why Dan? Like David, Dan Urban grew up hunting alongside his dad, ex-MFH of North Hills Hunt (Neb.) James Urban. In many ways Cousteaux lives like the fox hunters that live at the Urban family’s Quail Run Horse Center. “Jacques” spends most of his time turned out with another horse, hacks out over 250 acres and occsaionally schools over natural obstacles at an old hunt fixture. While Jacques (a U.S.-bred by Cicera’s Icewater) hasn’t gone hunting before, Dan used to follow hounds on the jumper he rode at North American Junior and Young Riders Championships.

5. If you’re a pedigree afficionado.

Choose: Molly Ashe Cawley and Kennzo, Eleanor Hellman and Nigel or David Oliynyk and Generous
Kennzo: Kristen Abbatiello-Neff
Nigel: Eleanor Hellman
Generous: Lori Gaudet

Why them? All three of these horses are by Coriano, who’s sired lots of other top hunters like Garfield (who won last year’s Classic Round), Timber Ridge and Costar.

Runners-up include Cornet Obolensky’s get, Friday Night (Kate Ross) and Countdown (Jenny Jones). Another of his more famous offspring, Mythical, finished second here last year, but won’t be coming back this time around.

There’s lots of other sires whose names pop up repeatedly on the order of go, like Caretino (Carson and Zaretina, both Hope Glynn rides), Lupicor (Taken/Jimmy Torano and LPF Woodford/Holly Shepherd) and Tangelo van de Zuuthoeve (Poker Face/Jennifer Bliss and Santerno/Tammy Provost).

And there’s no way you could ignore Harold Chopping’s partner Caramo. He’s by Carano, the sire of the one and only Rumba. 

6. If you want a fresh-faced winner with a real shot.

Choose: Tara Metzner and Come Monday.
Davlyn Farm

When one rider called to tell me that she’s not coming to championships this year, she ended by saying she was on “Team Tara.” It’s easy to see why. Tara’s down to earth and always smiling and friendly to everyone, and she’s totally devoted to both her horses.

This Tara’s first trip to Kentucky since she was a young rider competing for her native Canada, and the excitement of coming from California with two top horses isn’t lost on her. At Last is a cool horse who looks like he could jump the moon, but I’m picking Come Monday for her top finish. That freakishly talented mare has had a succession of great riders over the years (including her owner Tammy Williams who rides her in the adult amateur ring), and “Gracie” and Metzner have really clicked since they paired up last year. 

7. You’re a hands-on owner.

Choose: LPF Woodford and Holly Shepherd
 LPF Inc. and Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner does it all. She picked out LPF Woodford as a 3-year-old in Europe, and imported him. She did all the ground work with him, but got a hand from baby horse guru Frank Barnett when it came time to put the saddle on for the first time. Wagner fed him and mucked his stall at her Lone Pine Farm in Ocala, Fla., and trailered him to shows himself to meet Shepherd, taking care of him herself. He’s a goofy, fun horse with lots of personality (he calls for his “brother” LPF Lost Shaker of Salt when he leaves the barn). Wagner’s husband, Scott Wagner, is on board as well, toting a camera and sense of humor at shows. 

I’m also a fan of Susan’s naming scheme. LPF Woodford started his career named LPF Facebook, but Scott didn’t like it, so Susan renamed him in honor of his favorite bourbon. And his barn name, “Moonie” seems to fit his personality, and it’s in honor of his crescent-moon-shaped blaze.

Last year he debuted here as a 6-year-old and showed how it’s done, jumping to overall 17th. Bill Moroney said that he thinks Holly was seeing jumps before she was born. She’s always a blast to watch, and she’s never one to hold back. 

8. You’re accident prone.

Choose: Lago W and Mickie Sage.
Steve Lockton

They say bad things come in threes, so Mickie Sage should have used up her run of bad luck.

Mickie has the unenviable distinction of breaking her left knee three times in 16 months between Feb. 2010 and April 2011. The first time her grand prix horse spun, jamming her knee into the stirrup to put her out of the tack for three months. In her fourth horse show back, a girl cantered into her in the schooling are and broke that knee once again. Nine months later she broke her femur when a young horse showed her age at home.

She credited her physical therapist, Jim Keller of Next Level Phyical Therapy, for getting her back in the tack time and time again, and her husband, Bob Faber, for putting up with the wheelchairs and complaining. (Her exact words were, I believe, “We weren’t even married then—I can’t believe he stuck with me!”)

Ironically her non-horsey pursuits, mountain biking and snowboarding, haven’t hurt her knees at all.

The Chronicle staff weighs in:

Beth Rasin, Executive Editor/President
“I always wish good things for Daniel Geitner, who has such a diverse background with horses. He grew up showing and foxhunting; he’s raced steeplechase horses, and he’s won major intercollegiate championships. Daniel’s hunting and chasing background sort of harken back to the idea behind the derby championships—and I hope it gives him an advantage! Although he’s not expected to be one of the big winners this year, I think he’s a good horseman whose time will come. Plus, he’s always been very nice to work with on articles. Those people always get extra points in my book!” 

Sara Lieser, Managing Editor
“I’d love to see Karen Kelley do well with Chosen. The first horse she ever rode was Harry de Leyer’s famous mount Snowman, and her uncle is legendary rider Dave Kelley. With an equestrian background and pedigree like that, it’s time to make a name for herself!”

Molly Sorge, Associate Editor
“How can I not root for someone with the same name as me? I would love to see Molly Ashe-Cawley win this year with Kennzo. She’s just such a down-to-earth and fun person.

“Years ago, Molly had a spectacular grand prix horse in Kroon Gravin. That mare was a brilliant jumper, but you could tell she was very quirky and tough to ride even from just watching her. Not only did Molly pick a snaffle and a plain noseband to show her in when many riders might have bitted her up, she also stuck with the mare through some unusual health issues and then kept winning with her.

“I’ll always admire Molly’s horsemanship and her genuine affection for her horses, which I’ve seen over and over.

“In addition, Molly’s a devoted mom balancing her time on horses with raising two kids, which earns my respect. Go Molly!”

Lisa Slade, Editorial Staff
I don’t prefer lazy horses when I’m riding, but I find them incredibly adorable and endearing when they belong to other people. That’s why, when I read Molly Ashe-Cawley’s description of Kennzo in the Chronicle’s derby preview issue, I knew he’d be my favorite for this year. “The only one sweating at the end of a 15-minute hack is his rider,” she said. “He’s lazy, lazy, lazy. He spends the whole time trying to walk.”

“Of course, Kennzo isn’t just lazy. He’s also a beautiful jumper—with killer form up front and with his hind end—and goes in a lovely, forward pace. He used to be a jumper, so he has scope to spare, and he’s amassed a solid derby record that made Bill Moroney name him “one to watch.” But the laziness factor? Yep, that makes him extra special to me.”

Lindsay Berreth, Editorial Staff
“I have a confession to make. I’ve never seen a hunter derby in person. OK, OK, I know! How can a Chronicle staff member have never seen a derby? Well, I tend to cover eventing for the magazine, but I promise you I’m not completely oblivious! I predict that Jen Alfano and Jersey Boy will win.

“I spent a week last year covering the Pennsylvania National, where I got a lesson in high-class hunters from several of this year’s contenders, including Alfano and “Lewis.” The pair won a handy class and it was a treat to watch soft riding from Alfano and brilliant jumping efforts from Lewis.

“Coming from the eventing world where longtime partnerships at the upper levels are more common than in the professional hunters, I love that Jen knows Lewis so well. She’s been riding him since he was a 4-year-old sales horse and made him into a champion hunter. 

“They won Derby Championships in 2012 and last year ticked a rail in the handy to drop out of contention, so I think Jen will be back hoping to avenge that mistake and become the first two-time winner. They’ve been on a roll this season with five derby wins, so I’m hoping for another blue.”

Beth Honcharski, Ad production manager
My vote is for Liza Boyd and Brunello.  At 16, Brunello is the oldest horse in the field and it’s great to see him still competing at the top of his game.  He has the mileage and the momentum from last year’s win to carry him through to the victory gallop.  With Liza in the irons, this pair is definitely capable of a repeat of their 2013 performance.” 

Taylor Joyce, Editorial Staff
A good attitude goes a long way, and I think Conner Hinckley has that on his side. Holsteiners, like Seamless, have a special place in my heart because of their build and seemingly effortless jumping ability. I think Hinckley and Seamless are going to make the derby fences look easy. And after making the trip to Championships all the way from Argyle, Texas—I think this competition will carry a little extra weight to make them put in an all time best performance. And, how can you beat a nickname like Geoffrey The Giraffe? Seamless’ flashy grey coat markings, likened to that of a giraffe when he was younger, are sure to catch the judges’ eyes.”

Haley Burton, Editorial Staff
“I’ve always been impressed with John French’s riding. He is an iconic figure in the hunter world, and he has a no-nonsense style that really grabs your attention no matter who he’s riding. Soldier is a young horse, but the 8 year-old seems to have a lot of promise in the derby ring, as he has shown this year in the California derby circuit. Plus, the grey gelding’s dapples are just beautiful! Together, the pair is sure to put in some very strong rounds in this year’s Championships.

Kimberly Loushin: Editorial Intern
This year I’m rooting for Harold Chopping and Caramo. I spoke with both Chopping and owner Caroline Russell Howe at length earlier this year, and it didn’t take long to realize how much Caramo’s people love him. Caroline purchased the gelding for her to ride before realizing that he was cut out for the derbies. Even though Howe moved to New York earlier this year, Caramo’s stayed with Chopping because their partnership is that strong. Plus he’s absolutely gorgeous and is definitely a horse I’d love to sit on.

“I’d also love to see Daniel Geitner do well with Checklist. When I was a kid, I watched Daniel win a jumper classic in Atlanta with my best friend. Afterwards we went to his barn and asked if he’d sign our copies of the Chronicle. Even though he had much better things to do than talk to a couple of 10-year-olds, he took the time to give us autographs. Since then I’ve rooted for Daniel whenever I can.”



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