Jenny Karazissis took Forbes to the Memorial Day Classic, May 21-25, with the sole intention of winning the $10,000 ASG Software Solutions USHJA Inter-national Hunter Derby, and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her on the way to the top check.
So when the pair was called back fifth heading into the handy round, she knew she’d have to pull out all the stops to find the way to blue.
“When I walked the course for the first time, I was thinking that the inside turns were impossible and you’d have to go around and just gallop,” said Karazissis. “They were really, really hard turns. They almost looked like they weren’t meant to be done. They let us walk the course again before the handy, which they don’t usually do, and I said, ‘I’m in fifth. I’m just going to do it.’” With nothing to lose, Karazissis proved the impossible turns rideable, taking the toughest track she could to leapfrog to the top.
Ali Leopold piloted Gina Groth’s Neverland to the second spot, with Kylee Arbuckle finishing third aboard Oscany Inc.’s Valor.
Karazissis arrived in Burbank, Calif., just in time to contest the derby, having spent the previous few days at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) with student Cayla Richards. Forbes had finished as a bridesmaid twice in earlier derby appearances behind Mountain Home Stables’ Rumba at HITS Thermal (Calif.), making Karazissis extra hungry to ride the Dutch Warmblood to his first win.
But course builder Roy Curtis didn’t make it easy.
Besides offering only difficult inside turns, he also removed part of the permanent brick railing around the ring and replaced it with hay bales, requiring riders to jump in and out of the ring and take a few fences in what had been the warm-up area.
“It was a tough course but really good,” said Karazissis. “These derbies are new for course designers and riders, and we’re all learning through trial and error. You never want one fence to be the deciding factor for the whole class, which has happened before. But this was great; there was difficulty throughout.
“I was really happy with Forbes because he stayed much more focused and felt more confident than he did at his last derby at Thermal,” she noted.
Karazissis, Calabasas, Calif., pointed out that it’s also easy to underestimate the effect that the new format and the atmosphere play in the classes.
“The class—and most of these derbies—goes in the evening, and it just feels different,” she said. “It gets a little dark, and the later it gets, the more the horses are thinking about missing dinner. With all the spectators and crowds they can really sense the excitement, and it can get extremely hard for them to focus. Just because a horse is a winner in the second years doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything in the derbies. He could easily come unglued. But I don’t think they should water anything down; that’s not the point.”
Forbes usually spends his time earning ribbons in the amateur-owner ring with owner Tonia Cook-Looker. But Cook-Looker has encouraged Karazissis to campaign Forbes in the derbies since buying him from Don Stewart Jr. and Emil Spadone at Keswick (Va.) last year. She even gave up showing the horse herself at the Memorial Day Classic to prepare him for the derby.
Prior to the derbies, Karazissis tunes up Forbes (Heartbreaker—Perfect Lady) in an occasional 1.10m jumper class.
“The difference in the color and jumps doesn’t bother him; I’d think he’d be a great equitation horse as well,” she said of the 15.3-hand gelding. “When he comes in the ring people think he’s just an oversized pony, but when he starts going around and jumping the four-foot options people take him more seriously.”
Getting Forbes to blue proved a family affair all around. The 8-year-old lives with Cook-Looker and her husband Peter Looker at their San Dimas, Calif., farm, and meets up with Karazissis to school and at shows. Karazissis, in turn, runs Far West Farms with her brother-in-law Nick Karazissis, her husband Kost, niece Cassandra Karazissis and her daughter Katrina Karazissis.
She cited her husband as her biggest help in preparing for the derbies. “He knows how important these classes are for me, and he’s always trying to help me however he can,” she said. “He rigs up some very creative jumps to school over no matter where we are to make sure we’re ready to go.”
With his first derby blue finally secured, Forbes and Karazissis will now prepare for the inaugural ASG Software Solutions USHJA International Hunter Derby Final, taking place Aug. 21-22 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.