You could hear a pin drop.
It sounds like a cheesy line for a movie, but it is the truth.
Watching the livestream doesn’t even come close.
The crowd’s applause was thunderous after Kelley Farmer and Mindful finished their trip, but after Liza Boyd and Brunello’s names were announced over the loud speaker, everything went quiet. The sound of the frogs and bugs in the adjoining lake were louder than anything coming from the Rolex Stadium.
Gasps filled the stadium as she turned tightly following fence 9, a high option oxer heading towards the stands, but then it was back to bated breath.
And then Brunello powered over the final fence, and you couldn’t keep the crowd silent any longer. Boyd’s father Jack Towell let out his signature whoop while jumping up and down and everyone exploded.
If that wasn’t enough verification that the round was something special, all one had to do was look at Boyd’s face.
Elation. Euphoria. Immense satisfaction.
Brunello, a 17-year-old Hanoverian, looked like a youthful horse as he cantered away and was showered in pats. Before the pair left the ring, Boyd headed just left the of the in-gate where her father was waiting to give both Boyd and Brunello pats.
Fast forward through the awards ceremony, and we’re getting ready to start the press conference. The smile still hasn’t left Liza’s face.
“I don’t know,” she starts, pausing as she struggles to come up with a way to describe her feelings. “I just—the horse is unbelievable. I was so nervous in the schooling area; I couldn’t get it together. I said ‘I should just get off and let him do it himself.’ It probably would have been a 100.
“He’s just amazing. I’m in a little bit of shock, and I’m so lucky to have that horse in my life.”
While luck might have brought “Ike” into her life, it takes skill to top the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships not once, not twice but three times in a row.
If you think hunter derby courses are simple, you should sit in on a press conference after a major hunter derby. Even after it’s all said and done, they’re still going over the options course designers Steve Stephens and Allen Rheinheimer left them. (A course map can be found here)
The major topic of discussion? The line from the high option at fence 3 to the Aiken brush fence at No. 4. Should it have been eight strides or nine?
“I kept calling Hardin [Towell, Boyd’s brother who competes in grand prixes] on the phone. ‘OK, what is Steve looking for here? What would you do here in a grand prix?’ ” Boyd said.
“I just assumed when I walked it that in a class like this that they were looking for bold,” added Brady Mitchell, who took third overall and won the Section B with Cassanto. “Although [trainer Andre Dignelli] mentioned that if you turned very short back on the wall that the nine [strides] was the better option there.”
“I think it all depended on how you jumped into the wall,” said Farmer, who ended up second.
“After you did eight that sold me,” Boyd said, looking at Mitchell.
With all this talk of plans, what was Boyd’s?
“My plan was to be a little careful [at jumps 1, 2 and 3, and then kick into gear after that,” she said.
And kick it into gear she did. The three judging panels rewarded that brillance, giving her a 94, 96, and 94, plus two 9s and an 8 for handy points.
Farmer, who also came second to Boyd and Brunello in 2013 aboard Mythical, joked that she would pay for and host Brunello’s retirement.
But Mindful is no slacker himself, as the money-leader this season he’s proved he’s worth his salt.
“I got in his way tonight,” Farmer admitted. “He was trying to win, and I didn’t let him, but Liza’s horse went beautifully.”
Mitchell might be ranked as a Tier II rider (the top 30 lifetime money earners are considered Tier I), but he’s making his way steadily up the rankings. He and Cassanto, owned by Emily Perez, brought their own A-game tonight.
And it’s not the first time they’ve stepped up in a night class. The pair took second in the $100,000 Peter Wetherill WCHR Hunter Spectacular this March.
“I’m honored to be in the company of these riders, and I knew that to try to get ahead of them I had to do something special tonight, and I feel like I had the best possible round that I could have,” he said. “I’m absolutely thrilled to be third in this class. It’s like a dream of mine to be in this class let alone in the top three.”
Darcy Hayes rode Say When to the reserve position in the Section B and sixth overall.
“Mainly his job is an adult amateur hunter,” she said. His owner rides him for the most part, and I do him every once in a while in the derbies. I don’t get to do him very often, because he does do the adults, but he’s a very, very nice horse, and he’s only 7, so he hasn’t done it a lot time either. So to come in and have him be such a big boy is exciting for me.”
Third-placed pair from the classic round, Sandy Ferrell and El Primero ran into some trouble when the gelding had a late change to fence two and then knocked down the top of the cordwood wall at fence three.
Martien van der Hoeven wowed the crowd with his handiness aboard Cellino. The Texas-based rider elected to go inside the Dietrich display after fence 8 and gave the low-option at fence 9 a serious slice. He also chose to turn left after a the final fence towards the rail (something no other rider attempted), but a lowered fence knocked them out of contention.
Want more from Derby Finals, pick up the August 31 and September 7 issue of the Chronicle for in-depth coverage. First round action can be found here. Or you can read about why Brandon Gibson dressed up for the jog.