Harrisburg, Pa.—Oct. 16
The look on Tommi Clark’s face after she completed her high performance handy hunter round was a curious mixture of elation and surprise. When the announcer revealed her score, an 86, her smiles began.
Imagine being a young professional hunter rider, rubbing shoulders in the Pennsylvania National warm-up area with riders like Peter Pletcher, Louise Serio and Hunt Tosh. Then, imagine winning there.
That’s just what Clark did. The 22-year-old rode Exupery to the top of the high performance hunter division, clinching the tricolor with a win in the handy class. While Exupery is a veteran of the indoor shows, having been regular working hunter champion in the 2008 National Horse Show (N.Y.) with Keri Kampsen, Clark had only shown at the Pennsylvania National once before.
“ ’Super’ has come here and won before, and his owner [Steve Borders] wanted to bring him out and win again. I am very lucky to be along for the ride,” she said.
“I qualified when I was on a pony but didn’t come,” Clark continued. “After the ponies, I didn’t have the money to have my own horse, so I went straight to being a professional at age 16 and built from there.”
Such A Privilege
Two years ago, Borders brought Exupery to Clark, after the lanky black gelding had years of experience both in the 4-foot divisions and in the amateur classes with Borders. But at end of 2010, Borders stopped showing, since his juvenile diabetes had caused his vision to deteriorate enough that he doesn’t feel comfortable jumping. So, Clark has been enjoying the ride on Super since.
“He’s the most amazing animal I’ve had the pleasure to ride,” she said. “It means everything to have Steve believe in me and give me the ride. It’s been amazing.” Clark and Super were first or second in every high performance class for the tricolor.
Clark was particularly proud of their blue ribbon in the handy, since the handy classes have never been the 17-hand Hanoverian gelding’s strength. “He’s for sure been there and done that, but the handies were his weak point. But in the last few months, we’ve really bonded, and he’s come through for me amazingly in the handies,” she said. “Actually, most of the course tonight was not built for him. Landing left is not his forte and neither are trot jumps. And we had to land left a number of times, and I think the trot jump was the key to the course, so I was happy he came through today. It was a good test for us, and it showed me that he’s learned a lot.”
Exupery has certainly opened new doors for Clark. “What I’ve learned from riding him is to never be intimidated,” she said. “As a young professional, it’s nerve-wracking to be showing against riders like Hunt Tosh, John French, Peter Pletcher, all of them. What he’s taught me is that I work hard and ride well, anything’s possible.”
While Clark might have been a bit intimidated by her company at the Pennsylvania National, she’s been backed up by a collection of California trainers in her trip east. “Archie Cox was helping me here. Nick Haness has helped me too, and Chance Arkelian helped me at Capital Challenge. I’m really lucky in California that all the professionals have been so supportive and rallied around me to help me,” she said.
She and Exupery didn’t have as stellar results at the Capital Challenge (Md.) at the end of September, but that was all part of Clark’s plan. “Super can get a little bit excited, so Capital Challenge went as planned, which was as our warm-up for this,” she said. She’s continuing on to the Washington International (D.C.) with Super next week.
Critics might point out that the high performance division was populated with only eight entries, but Clark and Exupery didn’t earn a score under 84 and did score as high as 87.
The strongest division of the working divisions that ran on Oct. 15-16 (the conformation divisions go Oct. 17-18) was the first year green division, which had 35 entries. The cut-offs for jogs in those classes were consistently in the 80s.
In that division, Louise Serio and Casino were relentlessly consistent, never placing worse than third. “He’s really just come into himself. I was pleased with how he was here. That’s really good, to be that consistent. He just has such an amazing attitude, and he’s very brave. Nothing bothers him, and he’s very scopey. He’s just lovely,” Serio said.
Owner Bridget Hallman, who also shows Casino in the low amateur-owner division, bought the 6-year-old from Mindy Darst in February. “She gave me some time to get going on him, and she started a bit later this year,” Serio said.
While Casino is a clean slate, Peter Pletcher had the pressure of riding an established star that was developed by another trainer. Scott Stewart brought Empire along, with many championships to their name. In July, owner Becky Gochman returned to riding with Pletcher, with whom she trained for many years. Gochman had switched to Stewart’s New Jersey barn a few years ago because she moved from Texas, where Pletcher is based, to New York. Now, her horses are kept in shape by trainers Steve Weiss and Amanda Derbyshire and meet Pletcher at shows. “We’re really close and have a lot of history, so we decided to try again and see if we could do it despite the distance. It’s worked well so far; she has a great team in New York,” Pletcher said.
The second year green division had just 17 horses entered, and the conformation divisions have 17 in the green section and 15 in the regular section. “I don’t know why they’re so weak,” Serio said. “It’s an important horse show. A little bit of it is that you have to plan a week off, because your horses really can’t do all four. If you want to go to Washington or the National, taking this week off makes sense.
“Everybody has their own schedules and their own reasons for skipping a horse show. Last week at Capital Challenge, all the divisons were full and healthy. I think there are a lot of things that come into play. The performance divisions give trainers a place to show horses not at 4’, so they don’t come to indoors. There are just so many more options out there now. It used to be that indoors was the big deal, and now with the derby finals and even regional things like the national derbies, people are just picking and choosing and using their options. I hope in the long run that will bring more people into the sport,” Serio continued.
Check back on Thursday for coverage of the conformation divisions, and over the weekend for amateur action and the $85,000 Grand Prix de Penn National.
Find full results here, and all the Chronicle’s Pennsylvania National coverage here.