Mumford, N.Y.—June 7
Shortly after the USHJA National Hunter Derby wrapped up, I wandered back to the barns to catch up with Jen Alfano who’d just won the USHJA National Hunter Derby on Me Again. I chatted with a few other competitors and friends first, then wandered down the aisle to see if that she was free. She was squatting in his stall, wrapping his last leg when I came by. She looked up at Jersey Boy, whose nose reached up above the next stall over to try to visit her horse as she finished the wrap.
“Lewis!” she yelled at him, but good-naturedly. She shook her head and smiled as she glanced at me, then back at the wrap. “Take your time if you want, I have plenty of work to do.”
That’s typical for Jen. The Buffalo, N.Y., rider is nothing if not hands on, even when she only has three in the barn like she does this weekend. She has great staff, but she’s always there first and stays latest. It’s not just dedication to winning in the hunter ring, it’s love of horses, through and through. She has a new obsession and tremendous respect, for example, with American Saddlebreds thanks to riding in a demonstration class at Devon (Pa.) the last two years (she’s even read Saddle Seat Horsemanship, written by her favorite horse’s trainer, Smith Lilly).
While we chatted on tack trunks outside the tent, she kept half an eye on Lewis, whom Jessica Litfin took for a short lunge in the nearby schooling area. She was no doubt watching for any hint of what mood the notoriously quirky chestnut might be in for tomorrow’s $35,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby.
Still, Jen knows him better than anyone. Like most of her champions, she’s developed that horse from the start.
Me Again’s in that category too. Helen Lenahan bought him a year and a half ago for Jen to bring along. Kansas grand prix rider Brandie Holloway bred the Dutch Warmblood, who’s out of her former grand prix ride Gabriella Z, and by Cardento. While Me Again is technically 6, he was born in October making him a solid six months younger than most other 6-year-olds.
She brought the 3'3" pre-green horse to The Derby At Genesee County Museum for the third national derby of his career. Jen’s got a soft spot for the gray, and she laughed at his baby moments, including his reticence to canter during the victory gallop. For a moment she started to panic at why he wouldn't move even when she went to her spur, but then she realized the ribbon had him distracted, and when she took it off he moved off her leg. It was his first time on the grass as well, which he showed during a schooling session the day before.
“The first time I cantered down the steeper hill he couldn’t make it down,” she said with a laugh. “We went from a canter to a gait that I don’t know, to a trot, to another gait that I don’t know, then we were walking, I was like ‘Oh no, this is not good.’ But he figured it out.”
“Linus” (Helen’s other horse’s barn name is Lucy) jumped to the top of Round 1 by a solid margin, but in Round 2, had a mishap over a split rail snake jump. He still earned a high enough score to keep the top spot, and Jen admitted he felt tired after a long day in the sun and his first time negotiating any sort of terrain.
“He was unbelievable,” she said. “All along we thought this was going to be a great derby horse. He’s brave and scopey and fearless which he showed here. For a young horse to walk out on that field and go like he did is crazy.”
A Different Kind of “Old Time” Hunter Class
The Derby at the Genesee Country Village and Museum brings new meaning to the concept of any “Old Time” hunter class.
The property, located a half hour outside downtown Rochester, features an authentic 19th century village and a sporting art museum on site (not to mention a restaurant and traditional brewery). Actors dressed in period costume normally act as tour guides around the village, and during the derby they served as color guard and visited with spectators. Even the National Anthem was performed by the Genesee Harmonic Society bedecked with parasols and bustles, and included both a familiar and 19th century version. Spectators dotted the shadiest parts of the hillside to watch the class, which didn’t draw a huge field in its inaugural year. The venue’s hosted driving events before (which Helen competed in a decade or so ago) but this is their first hunter show, put on by the father-son team of Craig and Brian Brown.
The field, highlighted by an oversized gazebo that stretched several stories into the sky, had plenty of hills to it. There aren’t many grass fields for derbies, let alone ones with much grade, but course designer Bobby Murphy managed to lay a track that kept the jumps themselves on relatively even ground. There were a few related distances, but mostly gentle curves between long gallops to fences, and broken lines long enough that no one bothered to walk.
Up The Creek Farm rider Rachel Clawson had three of the 12 rides. She won the handy on Kelly Waples’ Sox Appeal, who finished overall second just a point behind the winners. Kelly decided to aim her chestnut mare toward this class when it was announced last year, but they hit an unexpected bump when his usual rider, Jamie Bates, had to hang up her hard hat to go on maternity leave. Not that Jamie’s a wimp. At four months pregnant Jamie rode in a George Morris clinic, and even earned a few compliments.
Jamie left her 2 1/2 week old baby with her husband to join her mother Becky Bates to cheer on Rachel and Sox Appeal. After all, he’s been in their barn since he was an unbroken 2-year-old, and is by Everest, a stallion Jamie competed seriously.
Kelly, who’s also started competing Sox Appeal on the national derby circuit, admitted she was pacing when Rachel headed onto the course, but luckily, in her words “She didn’t have a chestnut mare day.”
Other Notables On The Start List
•Amateur Jennifer Dahlman just got back in the tack after a hiatus—and she got right back to winning. She wrenched her neck badly enough to need surgery after getting jumped loose in the tack last year. But though today’s just her second show back, she had a flawless performance on The Other Brother to finish third. The field was no problem for him, as he’s used to hacking around Dahlman’s farm in Cazenovia, N.Y., which has plenty of terrain, but no ring.
“He goes in rain and snow—he doesn’t care,” she said.
She’ll ride the horse who tweaked her neck, Gianni, in tomorrow’s international class. That’s the same great jumping mare that Maggie Jayne and Kelsey Thatcher used to show. Dahlman has another former Pony Lane Farm horse, Namesake, as well.
•Carrie Wehle’s partner for the national hunter derby may have the most diverse resume of any of the horses on the start list. Arioso has fox hunted, evented seriously and shown in the equitation, jumpers and hunters. But that’s a great fit for Carrie, a professional upper level eventer whose résumé includes all that plus FEI-level combined driving.
Carrie, whose family helped found and develop the Genesee Country Village and Museum, knew she wanted to participate in the event, even though she didn’t have a horse who would be an obvious fit. Her upper level eventer, Foghorn J. Leghorn, is in dressage boot camp at the moment. In fact, yesterday after morning chores she braided him, came to the show in Mumford and schooled Arioso, then took Foghorn J. Leghorn for his first Prix St. Georges test an hour south at Houghton College [N.Y.], where problems with the tempi changes kept her 2 points away from her first score toward her gold medal.
Walking through her barn aisle she finally settled on Arioso, even though he’s been mostly doing walk-trot with his owner lately. How’d it go? “I’m an eventer! We don’t need lead changes,” she laughed after finishing 10th. “I guess I just had problems with changes all weekend.”
•With Stuart Horse Trials (N.Y.) just around the corner, it’s not surprise that Carrie’s not the only eventer in the field. Ashley Bradford’s partner Goldika, 20, has miles in that sport as well.
•Junior Emily Cherney rode Rose Hill to sixth. Jen campaigned that mare (Popeye K—Roxdene) in the open divisions before Cherney took over the ride.
•Pony rider Sophia Calamari tacked up 20-year-old Thoroughbred Rose Anne Steal to jump to seventh. That mare used to compete with Laura Chapot in grand prix classes, and is now showing Sophia the ropes. She wasn’t the only non-Warmblood on the startlist; Quarter Horse Gold Point Tradition jumped to ninth with owner Sara Roeser.