John French and Babylon notched their third consecutive win in $25,000 World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Challenge on Wednesday evening during the 30th anniversary of the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. On their heels, Halie Robinson of Santa Barbara, California, and Leisure, owned by Stable Assets, triumphed in the $10,000 WCHR Developing Pro Challenge.
Babylon first won the class with French as a 6-year-old, and the Oldenburg gelding owned by Marnell Sport Horses (Crumbie—Die Cera) has repeated every year since. But their third victory together could be their last—French said the horse is going up for sale at the end of the year.
“He’s the kind of horse…we go on a lot of trails and if I’m having a bad day or whatever, I take him out on the trail and we have a lot of conversations,” French said. “I’m a little emotional because he will be for sale at the end of this year, so I think this could be my last class with him. Knowing that, at least we went out on a good note.”
Riders qualified for the $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge by finishing in the top four in professional hunter classes at the show or ranking in the top 10 nationally. The class consisted of a first round for all 24 competitors and a second round for the top 12 horse-and-rider combinations.
Judging the class was three panels of two judges, such that each panel provided a score, and the average of those three marks yielded the rider’s overall total. Peg Seals and Chris Wynne made up the first panel, while Brian Lenehan and Eric Dirks sat on the second, and Mark Jungherr and Mary Eufemia represented the third.
Entering The Show Place Arena in the middle of the order, all eyes were on the 2021 and 2022 WCHR Professional Challenge winners, French and Babylon. After they landed from the final oxer in front of the in gate, cheers erupted from the crowd.
“I was a little nervous in the warm-up area because he felt a little fresh today, but I knew when he went in there that it’s his job,” said French, who has brought Babylon along since he was a 4-year-old. “I don’t know if it’s because I started him from the beginning when he was really green, but he’s my kind of ride. I wake him up a little bit, but then try to be really soft with no pressure in front of the jump and let him use his head and neck. Because I’ve had him for so long and he is my kind of ride, once I’m on him and in the ring, I’m like, ‘We’ve got this.’”
With an average score of 93.33 in round one, the pair went straight to the top of the leaderboard. Last to return in round two, silence filled the arena as spectators waited with palpable anticipation for each jumping effort. Once again, the duo did not disappoint, delivering an impressive 94.33 for a two-round total of 187.66.
“It’s still nice to win, and he’s such a special horse,” said French, who has now tallied six victories in the class. “We just have a special bond. He likes this horse show, which is nice because it’s a special show and all the best of the best are here.”
Watch their winning round, courtesy of ClipMyHorse.TV and USEF Network.
While most riders had campaigned their mounts in previous classes in the week, French had a different plan for Babylon.
“I just brought him in last night,” he said. “I wanted him to be at the farm, be turned out. He didn’t need to be here. He has the junior hunter division to show in this weekend. You have to make them love their job and want to do it for you. That’s the thing about him. He loves his job and is the happiest horse. You’ll never see him pin his ears back; he just never does that.”
Winning at Capital Challenge has special significance for French as a Maryland native.
“Show Manager Oliver Kennedy and I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, at the barn cleaning stalls,” said French, who now is based in Wellington, Florida. “It’s great seeing people from growing up here and also my family who all still live here.”
Riding to second place with a total score of 182.99 was Nick Haness of Temecula, California, aboard Queen Celeste. Maria Rasmussen of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, and Worthy completed the top three with a score of 176.66.
See complete results here.
Robinson Romps To Developing Pro Challenge Win
With the high score in both rounds of the $10,000 WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, Halie Robinson led the victory gallop aboard Leisure, an 8-year-old Hanoverian mare (Comte—Quanta Costa) owned by Stable Assets LLC. Their 180.32 total came from a first-round score of 89.66 and 90.66 in the second round.
Robinson and Leisure paired up at the beginning of 2023 and have made the most of their show year together.
“I flew across the country in the middle of the night to try her, and we have never looked back since then,” Robinson said. “She is the most incredible little horse in the world. She’s only in her green hunter 3’3” year right now; I think she was one of the only horses out there that was still doing that.
“She’s never been anything but absolutely spectacular,” she added. “This is really just our fourth or fifth show with her this summer, and she has improved and impressed us every single time.”
Robinson was unsure what to expect of the young mare with the bigger atmosphere of a night class.
“She was a professional out there, so she didn’t really need too much,” she said. “I just tried to give her the best performance I could so she could have a special night.”
This was Robinson’s third time in the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, having finished seventh in 2022 and 11th in 2021.
“Tonight was finally the night so I was really happy,” admitted Robinson, who also won the 2017 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals–West at the age of 21. “It’s also so great to win on a horse that we have in the barn and have gotten to know over the past couple of months. She is just as spectacular as we could have ever hoped, so hopefully we get to keep working with her. I think she is really a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”
Robinson gave special thanks to her support team who traveled from afar to be at Capital Challenge. She works, often remotely, with Canadian grand prix rider Chris Sorensen.
“I get so many of my horses from Chris, but he’s overseas most of the time,” she said. “I mostly do everything by myself, and so getting to have him on the ground and have him to bounce ideas off of, even though we do that on the phone most of the time, was such a joy.”
“I think anyone who knows me knows that I could not do it without Abel Davila and our help at home,” she continued. “I leave the horse care completely to them. They take the most amazing care of all the animals. Abel flew all the way from California for this horse, and I can’t thank them enough. To have Leisure’s owner Stephanie Engle here and the girls from the barn was really special.”
Second in the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge went to Haleigh Landrigan of Ocala, Florida, who scored 179.16 for second place on In The Know. Kelly Lorek of Manchaca, Texas, and MTM Campedu were third with a score of 176.03.
See complete results here.