Wellington, Fla., April 1
Kelley Farmer isn’t a fan of going slow—and that goes double when she's sitting on Taken. At today's $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby  in Wellington, she didn’t have a choice.
“Everyone’s usually yelling at me that I'm going too fast,” said Farmer. “Once I get him going, at some point in time I probably should slow him down, but if I don’t gallop, these guys beat me. Because guess what? These guys aren’t pulling on the reins. So if I am not galloping, I know one of them is going to beat me.”
Watch Farmer's round below.
Farmer came into today’s handy round sitting third behind fellow regular derby winners Scott Stewart (Dedication) and Jennifer Alfano (Jersey Boy). Farmer came in kicking and didn’t stop until she soared over the last fence. Taken pricked up his ears, kicked into gear and soared to scores of 93 and 94 and bonus points of 10 and 8, good enough to top the day. Stewart finished second on Fashion Farm’s Declaration, with Jersey Boy, owned by SBS Farms, claiming third.
Watch Stewart and Declaration below:
A Brand New Venue
There were plenty of nerves about riding on the giant grass field at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Stadium. This was the first hunter class ever set on the field (in past years the handy round for this class ran at night in the International Ring.) While the horses had a chance to handwalk around in the ring before the class—standard practice in these classes since the series’ inception—no one had ridden on it.
The most hand-wringing came over “Mount Wellington,” the huge hill and bank complex that was built a year and a half ago and introduced at the G&C Jumping Derby  earlier this season. Course designer Bobby Murphy  offered riders a choice of how to tackle the obstacle: Riders could canter up a gentle slope then down a somewhat steeper one, or those seeking bonus points could canter up a stepped hill, also cantering down that somewhat steeper side. After that, riders picked up a hand gallop to finish over a hedge.
“Mostly it was the [hill] that worried me and not even the going up. It was coming down, and you don’t get to practice going downhill at a gallop much,” said Alfano, Buffalo, N.Y. “It was fine, and both of my horses cantered right down, but I really had worked myself into a lather about that before the class.”
Here's Jersey Boy and Jennifer Alfano:
The tougher option proved popular and uninfluential. But before the class, there was so much concern about how show hunters would handle the terrain that the judges decided horses wouldn’t earn the normal automatic score of 55 for breaking to trot on the hill, but it would affect their handy bonus. In the end, the stress was all for nothing, as no one broke from canter heading up and down the hill.
“I loved that field. It was so much fun to get to gallop like that and do banks and hedges,” said Farmer, Keswick, Va. “It’s been lovely to get out of the ring.”
Not A Formality
When things went well, the scores were astronomical. Declaration won the handy round with raw scores from judges Bob Crandall, John Barker, Danny Robertshaw and Scott Williamson of 94 and 96 with matching bonus points of 10. Stewart’s ride Garfield shone as well, leapfrogging from 13th up to fourth after 94 and 95 and bonus points of 9 and 9.
Watch Garfield go below:
But it didn’t go so well for everyone, and the handy round was hardly a formality.
“I think that for some of the horses after being in a ring for so long and then getting out here and galloping, they can be a little star struck. They are either OK out here, or they start out a little nervous,” said Stewart.
Top-seeded Dedication dug in his heels at the last minute to fence 2, a well-decorated vertical, and Stewart came out of the tack and landed on his feet.
“Now that I think about it, jump 2 was built like open water, and I rode him to it a bit too slow, and I think he thought he was going to land in the water,” said Stewart.
The tabletop bank—set as the high option—gave a few horses pause, as did the final fence: a horseshoe-shaped hedge set out of a turn against the rail near the spectators. That fence was to be approached from a hand gallop, one of two hand gallops on the course.
Veteran derby competitor Rock Star dug in his heels at the bank, then stopped twice at the last hedge.
USHJA Derby Finals veteran Sander backed off that fence a bit as well, but Maggie Jayne closed her leg and added a cluck to get him over nicely. The big shock came when Boyd’s brave derby regular Brunello hit the brakes there.
“The horses were probably confused after going up and down the bank and then there was the hand gallop,” explained Stewart. “The last jump, we were actually jumping it backwards, the shape was off. I think it should have been the simplest jump on course, but the way it was shaped coming off the bank threw some of the horses off.”
The 2010 winner, Castle Rock, ticked the front rail of fence 3, the CN Chicago Derby rowboat, then kicked up his heels galloping up the stepped hill to drop from fourth out of the running.
Jennifer Darst headed back to the barn early when Monte Cristo stopped coming up the bank and twice at a seemingly innocuous gate. After fifth-ranked Red Sky stopped at fences 1 and 2, Farmer tipped her hat and headed back to the barn early. Haylie Jayne’s partner Humor Me dug in his heels at fence 2 and again at 3, and she had to ride hard for a few fences to get that gray in the groove.