Lexington, Ky.—Nov. 1
After 254 other riders and 282 rounds, Dominic Gibbs felt like Jay Gatsby grasping his fingertips out to that green light, except instead of in the West and East Eggs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination he found himself looking into the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park awaiting his final test in the ASPCA Maclay Final. He’d tasted this almost-victory before as all season long he’d been so close—painfully close—earning fourth in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final (North Carolina), fifth in the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—East (North Carolina) and fourth in the Washington International Equitation Final (North Carolina). But this time he breathed in his trainer Stacia Madden’s final words: “Do the freaking test.”
“I think the biggest thing in the final test and the second round is kids try to beat themselves and be a little fancy. We try to just break it down and be simple. The big word that we used was ‘execute,’ ” said Madden, of Colts Neck, New Jersey. “With Dominic, it was just trying to keep doing what was working. When he got ribbons in the other finals, even though he used a different horse in the Medal Finals, you do what works. What we were doing was working and was getting in the top of the classes week after week.”
Bobby Murphy’s test, along with both the first and second round, focused on adjustability and pace. All day he’d subtly asked for shortening and lengthening in the midst of gentle bending lines and a few combinations. The second round further emphasized that theme by asking for a hand gallop to fence 1 and finishing with an adding six-stride bending line. For most of the top 24 riders, the biggest difficulty fell on mastering the counter-canter transition at the end of the ring, which elevated the top four.
“The second round had so many questions that it required a lot of focus,” said Madden. “You had a counter-canter on each lead, which is always nice because it doesn’t favor a horse one way or another, and then the hand gallop jump always shows a little bit of brilliance and that you have good judgment, then adding a stride in the last line shows control. I try not to talk about nerves because I really feel that is a shot of adrenaline more than actual nerves, so if I can channel that into really focusing on the test then we don’t have to discuss [the mental aspect].”
“In the past I have had some issues with nerves, so I was just trying to keep myself calm and keep it under control to have the best round that I could for the second round,” said Gibbs. “I was coming off of a few great rounds with this horse in the past few finals, and I was really hungry to make it in the second round after a huge crowd of people in the first round. I knew that it was going to be more competitive than ever, so I knew that I had to have a solid round and show myself well.”
Gibbs sat in second following the conclusion of the first round behind Gigi Moynihan, but the flat phase moved him ahead to first, a position he maintained coming into the final test. With Taylor Griffiths-Madden, Moynihan and Sophee Steckbeck at his heels, Gibbs needed to continue showing off his horse’s adjustability in a test that featured more bending lines surrounded by two trot fences and finishing on a hand gallop to the last fence.
“I think the biggest question of the work-off was going forward to collected, then forward to collected again, and that was kind of what they have been asking all day,” said the 17-year-old from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I like that they continued the questions in that way. I think that the hardest part of the test for me was a forward seven strides, collect back to the trot, hand gallop, and having to come right out of the gate afterward.”
But with his tried and true partner of almost two years, Cent 15, Gibbs mastered the nerves and channeled Madden’s teachings to solidify to judges Emil Spadone and Mark Jungherr that he was indeed the winner above Medal Finals winner Griffiths-Madden.
“In the last round, they all came in, and we felt like they were close,” said Spadone. “There was a little room if someone maybe wanted to move up. They all held their own, but there was not enough of a change for us to change our order.”
And to Madden, Gibbs’ season signifies persistent grit.
“I think part of my training technique is consistency,” said Madden. “I am always trying to talk about bringing your low average up a little bit, so the fact that he was so consistent—but wasn’t really getting frustrated with the fact he wasn’t winning because he had improved so much from the year before. That is what really kept his head in the game, or knocking on the door, and we just kept knocking harder and harder until somebody answered!”