Wellington, Fla.—Feb. 18
Winner of the inaugural $100,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. Winner of the WCHR Pro Challenge and the WCHR Pro Finals. Grand champion at the major indoor shows. Show Hunter Hall of Fame member. FEI World Cup Finals and Nations Cup competitor.
John French’s list of accolades is long, but there was one title he’d been chasing for years: winner of the $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular. And tonight, thanks to an imposing bay gelding named Milagro, French marked that one off the list.
“I don’t have that many years left, so it was kind of nice,” joked French, 60.
It was a hard fought win. Though French and the 8-year-old Hanoverian owned by Kent Farrington LLC topped the classic round with a score of 94, the 12 pairs who returned to the handy round posed a formidable challenge. Six-time winner Tori Colvin earned monster scores with Cadouch Z, including a 97 from one panel, to put the pressure on the riders behind her. Then Nick Haness put in another strong round on Queen Celeste to take over the top spot.
He didn’t hold on to it long though, as 18-year-old Augusta Iwasaki turned in the top-scoring handy round—a 93.66—with Small Love.
With his wiggle room shrinking, French knew he couldn’t play it safe.
“I knew there were a lot of good rounds before me, and originally I wasn’t sure if I was going to make that inside turn to the second-to-last jump,” he said. “My horse sometimes isn’t that easy to steer, but everybody was doing so well that I thought I needed to do it. He was jumping high—I don’t normally have to worry that he’s going to hit any jumps or anything. I was really happy he made that turn, and I could just relax to the last jump. I wasn’t sure what the judges were going to think, but I was really happy with it.”
The judges agreed, giving him a second-round score of 93.5, for a two-round total of 187.5 and the win.
“I think it brings out the best in all horses,” he said of the class. “My other horses that I had in the class were jumping so well in the warm-up area today. I think the lights and the crowd and the jumps were beautiful, to be in this ring and to showcase the hunters I think we get up for it, and so do the horses.”
French started showing Milagro last year, making a pit stop in the 3’3” green and 3’6″ green before leapfrogging into the high performance division, where he finished the season as the USEF Horse of the Year, Increment.
“In the past when I was on the West Coast we weren’t really here showing, so I would just fly here and borrow a horse,” said French, who now resides in Wellington full time. “I would place—I think several times in the Top 10—but I never really had a horse that it was my horse that I brought up and knew him that well like I do Milagro.
“So, it’s nice going in there tonight the fact that I know him so well,” he continued. “When it’s a stressful situation, a class like this, I can relax because I know this horse and I know how he’s going to be. He suits my style of riding, so if I just leave him alone and ride him relaxed, that’s the way he likes to go.”
Iwasaki, who had a storied junior career, is competing in her first season as an amateur and was the only non-professional to make it into the handy round. She is currently a student at Southern Methodist University (Texas), so she arrived at midnight on Thursday in order to compete here this week.
She tacked up Small Love, the same horse she rode to a win in the National Horse Show Hunter Classic (Kentucky), in her last show as a junior.
“We took our time with her,” she said. “She used to be a big jumper, and we definitely had to teach her to slow down, but she’s been special. She’s one of the sweetest horses I’ve ever had, so it’s so special to get to do this.”
Haness has also been racking up the frequent-flyer miles, as the California-based rider has been traveling back and forth between Wellington and California throughout the winter circuit.
He first rode his mount Queen Celeste as a catch-ride in last year’s Spectacular, and has shown her a handful of times since then.
“I think that she came out tonight and knew it was a special event,” he said. “She feels it. They know it’s a special class, especially her. She kind of perks up for the special events. … The whole course she listened to everything I told her to do, and I could tell she was trying to jump really, really well like she normally does, so I think she was just really phenomenal tonight. Coming back for the handy round, I knew that these two were going to be pretty awesome behind me to try to win the class so I tried to take a little bit of a gallop to the jumps, and she was really awesome.”