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April 18, 2011

Bobby Murphy Puts The Wellington Hunter Derby In Perspective

Bobby Murphy considers the Wellington Hunter Derby to be the top derby in the country besides the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mollie Bailey.

One of the course designers shares his philosophies behind this event and the series.

What was your vision for the Wellington Hunter Derby’s handy course?

The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association High Performance Hunter Committee developed the USHJA International Hunter Derby to bring the art and tradition of horsemanship back to the show ring.

The series has brought attention to show hunters at the international level, increased spectator, media and sponsorship interest, and brought tradition and basic riding principles back to the sport. I feel the handy course this year far exceeded all the goals of the program.

It was one of those classes that was a changing point for the industry for a number of reasons.

The $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby in Wellington was as close as you can get to the derby finals, in both the highest quality of horses/riders and meaning behind the class. The handy round had 17 obstacles (16 in 2010, 14 in 2009) with very little room to make mistakes. The riders who were prepared were rewarded, and the riders who weren’t prepared made obvious mistakes.

A perfect example was Lyman T. Whitehead. He had difficulties on the table top bank in 2010, and you could see he felt uncomfortable with the natural obstacles. This year, his client Visse Wedell held a derby practice class at her Foundation Farm on the Tuesday before the class, and he was a different rider.

He rode the course and natural obstacles with pure confidence on a horse that has shown in several derbies but never placed. Because he cared and made it a point to practice he placed in the top 12. His hard work and dedication will make him a top derby rider in the future. I hope he comes to derby finals—that would be the next step for him to further his development into a derby rider.

Another great example is Liza Towell Boyd and the straw circle, where she refused out with Brunello last year at the Wellington Derby. So her father Jack and brother Hardin went home and built the straw circle, and she returned to the derby finals, conquered the straw circle and claimed third place. She walked away a better rider that day. I could see it in her at the press conference after the class. She was proud, and I was proud of her—not only for conquering the circle but for the way she did it. She never blamed the course; she just admitted she had an off day, and she practiced so next time she would prevail.

What were you trying to accomplish with this course?

This class sets an example of what a top derby class should be. Over time the courses progress on top of one another. In this class the hunt coat on the fence was just decoration, but at the finals the riders might choose a route where they must jump the hunt coat. So the courses are all in steps, and when the horses and riders are ready, we can take another step.

I always work closely with [USHJA High Performance Committee Chair] Ron Danta when designing the high-profile courses because in the end we want what’s best for the horse, and sometimes that’s a learning process on the course designers’ side and sometimes a learning process for the trainers. When we work together as a group we make better decisions, so I always try to get many viewpoints before bringing a new challenge to the table.

Talk about the Wellington Derby in relation to other derbies and to derby finals. Should difficulty of derby coincide with prize money?

The Wellington Derby is hands down the top derby in the country behind the derby finals, and I would put the CN Derby in Chicago during September next on the list.

These derbies were formed using the “Naples Model,” which was the Wrenwood Farms International Hunter Derby in 2008 that truly took the hunter industry to the next level. Jenny Sutton and Kelli McDonald of Wrenwood Farm in Naples, Fla., paved the way for where we are today. I remember sitting with George Morris while he was judging that class, and without ever taking his eyes off the ring, he said, “Bobby, today is a day that will forever change the hunter industry. There’s no turning back now, how could we? Look at what we are watching. This will make better riders and better horses.”

The derby in Naples, the CN Derby in Chicago, and the Wellington Derby all represent derbies that are a changing point for the hunter industry. Chicago will soon unveil a new model for a derby show and currently represents the best model for a stand-alone derby event.

These derbies also represent the largest purses, and I feel that the difficulty does increase with prize money, but many other factors come into play as well. These derbies also have a production behind them, which generates more meaning behind the class as the atmosphere around the ring plays just as important a role as prize money for level of difficulty.

Another factor is the number of entries and the horses and riders behind those entries. The $25,000 Franktown Meadows Derby in Reno, Nev., had the atmosphere to be a great derby but lacked the competition, so the course difficulty was at a very low level. And I even allowed the horses onto the field and to jump a select number of jumps. Do I agree with this? No, but I couldn’t jeopardize the integrity of the class for the sponsors and spectators. I needed 12 riders to make it to the handy round, and I couldn’t take a chance. The 50 mph winds alone could be reason enough for the horses to not make it around the course.

I did learn from that class that the West Coast has a great group of trainers who support their industry. Many trainers sent horses even though they were at another show. We were challenged with a new problem: We had horses but needed to find riders. I think John French rode 40 percent of the horses.

I have seen enough derbies now that I know when to walk away and focus on the derbies that can change the industry. One to look out for is The Hampton Classic Derby (N.Y.), its first. Management has the opportunity to create another great derby that will make this industry better. Lake Placid (N.Y.) also will have its derby again on the grass field. I think it has great potential if the atmosphere around the ring is improved.

The derby at Devon (Pa.) needs a lot of improvement. Many riders have complained two years in a row about the jumps and how the class was run. It takes more than just prize money, or location, or horses and riders. If you have all of these things, then the level of difficulty should increase for the right reasons.

I can also say that I haven’t always made the correct decision in building the derby at the right level of difficulty. I only took into account prize money and built a derby at the Kentucky Summer shows that resulted in only eight double-clean rounds out of 30 horses. I was trying to simulate a paddock fence with skinny planks coming out of the corner, and they got the best of me. I learned to never use skinny planks again no matter the level of difficulty.

What did you learn watching the horses over the handy course?

I have to give a disclosure here because I’m not a trainer. In addition to watching the class, my opinion comes from talking to judges, trainers, riders, and owners.

Overall, the horses looked more comfortable in the ring than some riders. Sometimes the riders made the questions more difficult by trying to be too handy. For example, the table top bank caused problems for a few riders who jumped it perfectly the year before. Last year the table top was used from one end to the other, and this year many riders tried a bending two, three or four strides on the table top, and that drastically increased the difficulty. Next year I think we should utilize the table top as a lane and see if that was the problem. Scott Stewart and Declaration had a difficult time on the table top, but in 2010 they jumped it just fine and finished eighth in the class. So it’s a process to find what brings out the best in both horse and rider.

What are the goals of designing a major course like this? Improving horses? Letting the best horses shine? Giving spectators a show?

All of the above and more. The course really sets the mood for the entire event. There were so many people out for the event, and I was amazed to see spectator involvement. In the International Club we passed out courses with judges cards on the back, and some people enjoyed testing their judging skills. I could also tell by the chatter in the International Club how interested everyone was. During the rounds the chatter level would go way down and then pick back up while they were giving scores, then get real low again once the next horse was on course. Everyone was watching the class. The derbies are building a platform to develop spectators, and a platform as well to showcase horses and riders. It’s all connected.

Did the class accomplish what you were hoping?

The class was a pure success. The story behind the class gets better and better each year and is becoming its own tradition. I still think some of those traditions need to be formed, like in polo they kick in the grass divets and drink champagne on the field. I think next year we should introduce more tailgating in the boxes around the rings and let everyone go on a course walk.

Is this class appropriate for first year horses?

Yes, as long as the trainer or rider doesn’t push the horse beyond its capabilities. There’s a reason the program has the different height options. Usually the lower options are an easier track for the green horses or riders to take. We could compare it to taking a green jumper into the grand prix jump-off and going for the win rather than trying to get a clean round and place in the ribbons. Pushing a horse like that could have negative consequences, and it should be the responsibility of the owner, trainer and rider to know what’s best for each horse.

I feel like many green horses that come into the derby ring are pushed to the limit to chase the blue ribbon, which in return will increase the value of that horse. Who really cares about the $50,000 in prize money when winning the Wellington Derby adds an extra zero behind the sale price of your horse? That’s what this industry revolves around. The buying and selling of horses. These green horses need time to develop into being a derby horse.

We had two first year horses in the top 12 this year. One of them was competing in its first derby with a junior rider, and the other scored in the 90s.

I have to add that it’s difficult for the green horses to go from competing in the E.M. Mische Ring for the first round and then going under the lights for the handy round. The green horses are used to the grand hunter but could get a little lost out in the International Ring. I think once they get the opportunity to show both rounds in the same ring, they will produce even better rounds.

Did the right horses win?

Looking at the top 12 horses and riders, it’s pretty interesting. You have two first year horses, four second year horses, an equitation horse who has won three equitation finals showing in its first derby, four “derby” horses, and a jumper. Two of the top 12 horses were competing in their first derby. And the third-placed rider, Holly Orlando, was competing in her first derby.

The top 12 averaged a score of 83 without any bonus points for handiness, and the top six averaged a score of 88. Add the handy bonus points, and the top six averaged a score of 96.5. So the scores show that overall it was a great class and had a positive effect on the derby program.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Bobby Murphy Puts The Wellington Hunter Derby In Perspective" ran in the April 18, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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Hunter Derby, WEF