Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2024

French Returns To His Roots For WCHR Professional Finals Victory

John French wasn't even supposed to be at the Capital Challenge Horse Show. The California-based professional rider--who grew up about 30 minutes from the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.--had decided to skip the show. But then at the last minute he sent in entries just in case he changed his mind later.

That was one of the best decisions he made this fall as French won his second Stillwell-Hansen World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Finals and his student, Lesley Bulechek, topped the WCHR Amateur-Owner Challenge aboard Vida Blue.
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John French wasn’t even supposed to be at the Capital Challenge Horse Show. The California-based professional rider–who grew up about 30 minutes from the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.–had decided to skip the show. But then at the last minute he sent in entries just in case he changed his mind later.

That was one of the best decisions he made this fall as French won his second Stillwell-Hansen World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Finals and his student, Lesley Bulechek, topped the WCHR Amateur-Owner Challenge aboard Vida Blue.

But French’s victory in the featured hunter class wasn’t easy. He walked into the ring needing to nail the fourth and final round to clinch the victory.

With his parents, Jill and Bob French, Sparks, Md., sitting in the stands to cheer him on, John tactfully guided his mount to the highest fourth-round score to edge Peter Pletcher by .17 points to claim the title of 2006 Monarch International/Show Circuit Magazine Professional World Championship Hunter Rider at the show, held Sept. 30-Oct. 8.

This year’s Pro Finals, a class based on the World Show Jumping Championship format in which four riders jump four rounds on four different horses, was one of the most competitive in recent years. Six judges presided in pairs: Sue Ashe and Hap Hansen; Mindy Minetto and James Clapperton; John Roper and Randy Mullins.

French and Pletcher were joined by Scott Stewart and Louise Serio, the defending champion, in the Friday evening class. All four riders had previously won this title and knew just what it takes to earn top scores.

“It means a lot showing against these other riders,” said French, of Gilroy, Calif. “They’re really great riders.”

The riders collectively said the four horses donated for the class was the best group of hunter-type horses they’d had. They included Madaline and Rosemary Toulas’ Intuition, Morgan Hill Partners’ Locatelli, Jimmy and Danielle Torano’s Larona and Crystal Row/Rolling Oaks’ Fortunate.

Stewart led the way after the first round with an 87.33 aboard Intuition, just .33 points ahead of French, who rode Fortunate. Serio’s first mount, Locatelli, was a little fresh, and she stood fourth with 80.66, while Pletcher had a rub with Larona and an 84.66.

French moved into first place in the second round with a solid ride on Larona, although Pletcher was just behind with the round’s best score on Locatelli. Stewart dropped to third aboard Fortunate, and Serio remained fourth after her trip on Intuition.

For the third round, course designer Michael Rheinheimer added a bending line. Pletcher nailed the course aboard Intuition for the best single round score of the class with a 90. He moved into the lead, with French 4.5 points behind after his trip on Locatelli. After their rides, Stewart and Serio were still within striking distance, however.

A new feature this year included a handy hunter course as the fourth and final round. The riders negotiated an S-turn for the first three fences and then hand-galloped to a single oxer in the center of the ring. A sweeping rollback and an in-and-out concluded the course.

Stewart led off aboard Locatelli, and his great turns and bold hand-gallop earned a huge ovation from the crowd, which turned to boos when the score of 88 was announced. He finished with 337.99.

Serio started out strong with Larona, but an awkward jump at fence 2 left her with a score of 74.33 for a total of 323.98 and fourth place. Pletcher’s ride on Fortunate included nice, smooth turns, but perhaps his wider path kept him to an 84.66, for a total of 346.65, eventually good for second place.

For his final ride, French was fortunate to have Intuition, who was the top-scoring horse. “I knew this horse a little bit, and he’s my kind of ride,” he said. “I’m not an aggressive rider and don’t use a lot of leg, and this horse suited me.

“This [round] was my best ride,” he added. “Peter was several points ahead of me, so I needed a good score. It turned out to be just enough.”
French, 44, has spent the past 18 years on the West Coast. This was the third time he’d contested the WCHR Professional Finals and his second title, having also won in 2000.

“This was fantastic,” said French. “Today was my father’s birthday too. It was so nice to come back to Maryland and to have the show go so well.”

Additional Challenges
Each of the “Final Four” contestants was successful throughout the week. On Wednesday night Stewart battled for the blue against Liza Towell in the WCHR Professional Challenge. After the dust settled, just 2.67 points separated the first- and second-placed horses in a class where the judges were also applauded for their work.

“I’d rather be second and judged right, than be first and be judged wrong,” said Jack Towell after watching his daughter Liza gallop into center ring aboard Onassis wearing the second-placed ribbon. Onassis, who was also the second year green champion, finished just behind Stewart and Cool Blue.

As the horses took their victory lap, Jack was all smiles, thrilled with the outcome. “That was perfect judging, and that’s what we’re after in the hunters,” said the elder Towell, of Camden, S.C. “[Scott] beat [us], and he did a good job beating [us]! I’m excited to be second.”

Stewart was also thrilled with his placing. He said, “This was just for fun. It’s almost cheating he’s so easy. He just jumped out of his skin. He tried over every jump. He didn’t jump one jump casually.”

Earlier in the day, Stewart watched his student Krista Weisman ride her 7-year-old Music Street to the blue in the WCHR Senior Under Saddle. Fourteen horses began the class and one-by-one, horses were eliminated and lined up in the center of the ring. The class continued until the final horse–the winner–trotted in to collect the blue ribbon.

The final two horses on the rail were Music Street and Gray Slipper, a strong contender for the title too. Gray Slipper had already collected the grand hunter championship with Louise Serio, the leading professional hunter rider, on Wednesday and also won every amateur-owner class with Bridget Hallman. It was a familiar battle.

“[Gray Slipper] does the same division [amateur-owner, 18-35] as I do, and they are always back and forth with first and second [in the under saddle],” said Weisman.

Gray Slipper’s impressive accolades with Hallman included their second consecutive grand amateur-owner title, and Hallman was named best amateur-owner hunter rider. Despite her success, Hallman chose not to enter the WCHR Amateur-Owner Challenge. Instead, Lesley Bulechek, Los Altos Hills, Calif., took the top place aboard Vida Blue.

Like Hallman, Bulechek had doubts about showing in the WCHR Amateur-Owner Challenge class after Vida Blue had shown in two divisions over four days, earning the reserve championship in the amateur-owner, 18-35, division.

“I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t do it, and then at the last minute I thought that I would do it for fun,” said Bulechek.

She certainly enjoyed putting together the winning round. “There are some pretty amazing horses in there so just to be in the top 10 is great,” said Bulechek.

Bulechek has been riding Vida Blue for less than a year, but they have a good rapport. “I’ve never ridden a horse that is this happy to be in the ring and work,” said Bulechek. “She gives every single jump 100 percent. I’ve never walked into the ring on her and felt that she didn’t want to be there.”


On A Roll
Courtney Cummings, Leesburg, Va., dominated the Monarch International North American Adult Equitation Championship.

Cummings, 36, led the class going into the second round. She said, “My thoughts going in to the second round were, ‘Just find the jumps and be smooth and not blow it.’ I was worried about blowing the last jump because it’s the last jump!”

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Cummings posted an 85.2 for a two-round total of 169.4. No one else came close.

It was no surprise that Cummings collected the title after her successful showing the previous day when she was champion in the adult equitation division riding her Last Call. The 12-year-old Canadian Sport Horse has been with Cummings for four years and also shows in the jumpers.

“He’s a great guy and is as honest as the day is long,” she said.

Although Cummings didn’t compete in the equitation as a junior, she enjoys the challenge as an adult. “What I like most about the equitation is that you have to be smooth and accurate. I think it’s wonderful that they do have this for the adults. They make a big deal out of it here, and I think that’s wonderful,” she said.

Cummings and Last Call returned on Friday to compete in the Ariat National Adult Medal Finals. As the top qualifier in this season’s standings, Cummings went last in the field of 27. She posted an 85.1, the second-highest score behind Linette Dooley, of Columbia, Conn., who posted an 88.6.

It looked as if Cummings would give Dooley a run for her money. But when Cummings returned for the shortened course, several hard rubs produced a score of 83.9. Cummings left the door open for Dooley, who returned to nail the course with an 88.7 and take the win.

Dooley, 39, made the Ariat Finals a goal this year, and when she qualified she leased London Fog, 16, a Thoroughbred gelding, solely for the class.

“He’s a great horse. If you’re on it, he’s on it,” said Dooley, adding, “there’s nothing very difficult about him, which is what’s great.”

She had only ridden him twice before the class and was advised to avoid schooling. “You can’t go in the ring with the horse at all before the class,” said Dooley’s trainer Armand Chenelle. “[Linette] was kind of trusting us on that one.”

Although the lack of practice time made Dooley nervous before entering the ring, she was able to tackle the twisting course with finesse. Dooley’s soft, flowing trip around a course that had produced scores in the 50s and 60s for many, made it clear that Dooley belonged at the top of the class.

Lara McPherson also clearly belonged at the head of the class after the WCHR Adult Amateur Classic. Aboard Tenerife, McPherson posted a two-round score of 171.99 and topped second-placed Eye Remember Rio and Victoria Watters (165.50) and third-placed Grandeur with Dawn Fogel (163).

McPherson entered the second round in second position, behind Grandeur and Fogel, and moved up to the blue ribbon with a bold ride that scored 87, 84 and 88 for an 86.33 average.

In the first round, McPherson picked up a strong pace and didn’t deviate. She said working toward her judge’s card the past year has really helped her become a better exhibitor.

“I know now I need to really get to the first jump, for example,” she said. “Having been in the judge’s seat helps me see what the judge sees and what catches your eye.”

Although McPherson is a veteran competitor and a past finals victor–including the 1997 Ariat National Adult Medal Final–she credited former trainers Dale Crittenberger and Peter Foley for their words of wisdom going into the second round.

“Dale walked up to me and said, ‘Just get a score,’ ” said McPherson. “He said that to me years ago too, and I just kept that in my mind. It makes it so much easier instead of thinking I have to be perfect.”

McPherson, 39, McLean, Va., trains with Miranda Scott of Meadowbrook Stables and has leased the bay, Dutch Warmblood gelding this year. She describes him as a horse with “just enough attitude” to make a great show horse.

Scott also shows Tenerife, a first year green horse, in the green conformation division. The pair earned ribbons at Capital Challenge, and Scott contested the WCHR Pro Challenge with him earlier in the week.

“He’s a true show horse,” said Scott. “He just goes in the ring and is always the same. Today, we just took him out of the stall and went right to the ring. He knows his job and knows it well.”


Junior Stars
Even though Jennifer Waxman held a strong lead in the WCHR National Junior standings going into the WCHR Junior Challenge, she admitted she was still nervous.

But after the 31 starters concluded the one-round Challenge, Waxman and Saloon led the victory lap and earned the national title with an impressive 2,032 points. And her smile was radiant as she talked about the day.

“He went amazing in the Challenge,” said Waxman, smiling. “He knew it was an important class, and he was jumping outrageous. He stayed so smooth.”
Waxman, with scores of 92, 90 and 90 for an average of 90.66, was the only rider to break the 90-point barrier.

Waxman, 14, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is in her second full year in the junior hunter division and thanked her trainers, Ken and Emily Smith, as well as owner Whitney Roper for her wonderful junior hunters.

In addition to Saloon, Waxman leases Sister Parish from Roper. Waxman began riding the bay mare in July, and the two quickly forged a strong connection. They concluded the Capital Challenge with the championship ribbon in the WCHR Junior Hunter Under Saddle.

Nick Haness of California earned the WCHR National Junior Reserve Championship after accumulating the grand junior hunter championship with Glen Eagle. He added a fifth-placed finish with Providence in the Junior Challenge for a final total of 1,775 points and earned the best junior rider award.

Earlier in the day, Megan Davis guided her small pony Far From Home to the WCHR Pony Challenge victory with scores of 90, 88 and 87 for an average of 88.33.

Davis, 11, of Lutherville, Md., went early in the class and nailed the long and challenging course. But then she had to wait through the remaining smalls, then all of the medium and large ponies to find out if her score would hold.

“I was just hoping I’d hang on,” said Davis. “But I really didn’t care too much about whether I won. I was just happy with the way he went. I was just proud of myself and my pony.”

Davis, who trains with Kelly and Tim Gougen, has contested the class for the past two years and was fourth in 2005. She was thrilled with their performance in one of their final appearances together as she’s outgrowing him.

“He seemed really excited about today,” she said. “I think he knew it was more special.”

Like Davis, Liberty Buttenwieser was proud of herself and her pony after they convincingly took the WCHR Children’s Hunter Classic. Buttenwieser and Ride The Rainbow qualified for the second round after a score of 83 and stood third. As the only pony qualifier, Buttenwieser had to wait through all of the horses and a course adjustment before she could tackle the second round.

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She went in confidently and with the late afternoon sunlight shimmering through her gray pony’s tail, they painted a beautiful picture as they cantered around to a score of 88 for the title.

“Today he was perfect,” Buttenwieser said smiling. “He loves what he does. He came out here and went around great.”

Buttenwieser, 12, South Salem, N.Y., leases the large pony from Gary Duffy and Little Brook Farm and trains with Molly Flaherty and Patricia Peckham.


Equitation Riders Shine
The race was neck-and-neck for the blue ribbon in the Monarch International Show Circuit Magazine North American Equitation Championship class as Sloane Coles and Megan Massaro walked into the ring for testing.

Just .10 points separated them after 100 riders faced the first round and 20 returned for a second round at the Capital Challenge, Oct. 1.
But in the end, it was Coles who finished on top, and her trainers Frank and Stacia Madden were named leading equitation trainers for the second consecutive year.

Coles and Papillion 136 were first to attack the test, and aside from having a rail down over the first jump, the pair had a flawless performance.

“I was so excited that the hand gallop was the first jump because he’s so good at that. But he was just tired, and he had the rail. The rest was beautiful,” she said.

Massaro went second. “I was extremely nervous. I wanted to do well for [trainer Don Stewart Jr.] because he’s done so much for me, so I put a little pressure on myself,” she said.

Massaro’s test was accurate too but slightly conservative.

When the ribbons were announced, Massaro was called back to lead the victory gallop with Coles in second. It wasn’t until after the pinning that the officials discovered an error in the computer scoring.

“With numerical scoring that can happen,” said Coles. “Frank told me what had happened, and he didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

Madden added, “[Co-managers] Billy Glass and Oliver [Kennedy], Don and myself� no one wanted to do the wrong thing. We decided that it really boils down to maintaining the integrity of the class, and Billy felt strongly that we had a chance to correct it. It’s very important in this class and every class at the Capital Challenge that people know that the integrity of running the event the right way is the most important thing. They felt horrible for the girls, but they wanted to do what was right for the integrity of the scoring system.”

Like Coles, Lila Abboud faced a similar moment in the ring when her horse dropped a rail in the first round of the Show Circuit Magazine National Children’s Medal Finals.

“I wasn’t sure how the judges were going to feel about that,” said Abboud. “I think one judge scored an 80 and one judge was lower.” The young rider’s scores were high enough to move on to the second round, however.

The 15-year-old improved her ride when she returned to the ring. “The second course I thought was really good. I was really happy with that,” she said.

Children’s equitation riders from across the country competed all year to qualify for the Finals, but only the best 31 vied for the title. When the top 10 returned for a shortened course, Abboud held fourth place. She went on to post an 82.7 in the second round. Nerves got the best of the final three riders and none could score out of the 60s. Abboud’s two-round total of 162.9 clinched the win.

The 10th-grader made the trip down from New York to compete and trains with Kim Jones. “I’m really excited to have won this class,” she said. “I came in not expecting to win. I was told to do my best and have fun. I was just excited to be coming and to qualify and everything.”

Abboud rides Sommersby, an 11-year-old Hanoverian, who is an impressive 17.3 hands. She leased the gelding for a year before buying him in March. “He’s amazing to ride,” said Abboud. “He’s really smooth, and he’s a lot of fun.”


Special AHJF Awards
Old Springhouse Lifetime Achieve-ment Award: Olin Armstrong
Jeffery Katz Memorial Award: Janet Read’s Boulevard Deir
China Blue Farm Working Hunter Challenge Award: Bridget Hallman’s Gray Slipper
Dover Saddlery Junior Hunter Chal-lenge: Erin Larson and Caitlin Miller.
Winter’s Run Sportsmanship Award: Jenny Karazissis
Alabama Clay Conformation Hunter Award: Janet Read’s Boulevard Deir
Rox Dene Award: Janet Read’s Boule-vard Deir
Heard A Rumor Award: Samantha Hallman’s Lucky
Hunter Course Designer Award: Richard Jeffery
Far West Farm Perpetual Trophy: Madaline and Rosemary Toulas’ Intuition
National Champions: Professional–John French; amateur-owner–Rachel Geiger; junior–Jennifer Waxman; pony–Schaefer Raposa; adult amateur–Carol Cone.


Farrington Holds On To Victory
Kent Farrington thrilled the crowd at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md., as he rode so fast he momentarily lost control as he edged McLain Ward for the blue ribbon in the $50,000 Ariat Congressional Cup CSI-W Grand Prix.

“I knew McLain would be the one to beat on Goldika,” said Farrington. “When he’s fast, he’s very fast, and that mare is very careful.”

Farrington and his mount, Madison, stopped the clock in 31.83 seconds, 1.57 seconds faster than Ward and Goldika 559.

The World Cup qualifier offered up a challenging course designed by Leopoldo Palacios, who narrowed the field of 47 horses using maximum heights and spreads.

Eight horses returned for the shortened course, which included galloping lines and extremely tight turns. Margie Engle and Hidden Creek’s Quervo Gold were the second to tackle the track and set the pace with a clean go in 35.11 seconds.

Ramiro Quintana returned behind Engle and left the rails in the cups, but he was just off the pace with a 35.78-second finish. Ward returned fourth and set the bar higher as he hugged the turns and pressed Goldika across the ground. His time of 33.40 stood until Farrington returned.

Farrington, 25, Greenwich, Conn., never took his foot off the gas pedal as Madison’s power propelled him around the turns, and her speed left a stride out of the second line to a tall plank jump.

“She rolls back very fast to the right, so I think I got a good turn to the third fence–I turned very short there,” he said. “And then I left out a stride to the plank because she has a really big step. I think that’s where I made up the most time, at the beginning of the course.”

As Farrington galloped a rollback to a large oxer near the in-gate, just before take-off Madison rooted and pulled one rein out of Farrington’s hand.

“She doesn’t have a very good mouth, and she’s always flipping her head around. Right before the fence I went to turn back and she gave a really hard tug and pulled the rein right out of my hand. I jumped with no rein and then sort of picked it up as I was going again,” said Farrington.

The disorganization was obvious, and for a moment it looked as if Farrington was riding western with the reins in one hand.

It was a critical second for Farrington, who had to settle the mare for a tight in-and-out. “I needed to do a steady distance because it was a very short distance to a wide oxer,” he said. “You didn’t want to come in too fast. In all the scrambling, I think I slowed down anyway.”

Farrington was able to reorganize, and Madison flew over the combination and then blasted over the final oxer with the winning time. The crowd roared in appreciation. “I’m really happy. That horse really feels great,” said Farrington. “She came in and just did that one class—one-for-one.”

Tricia Booker and Michelle Bloch

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