Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 19
When you think hunter derbies, you think John French. Fourteen years ago, he helped put the USHJA International Hunter Derby program on the map when he jumped to the win on a charismatic gray gelding named Rumba. Since then, he’s won derbies on both coasts and had good finishes in the championship, but the winner’s cooler has eluded him.
In the years since his 2009 Derby Finals victory, French has won multiple championships during the fall indoor circuit, the WCHR Pro Finals and WCHR Pro Challenges and, this February, he and Milagro topped the $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular in Wellington, Florida. So the man knows a little bit about pressure.
And he felt it, sitting on top with Paradigm heading into this evening’s Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby handy round. It’s a position he’s found himself in before, and it hasn’t always played out in his favor. In 2017, he held the top two spots with Skyhawk and Center Court, but the handy round has been known to cause some upsets, and that’s exactly what happened. Center Court had an awkward jump, and then Skyhawk pulled a rail to fall out of the top ribbons and dash French’s dreams of getting a second championship.
“I knew I couldn’t make any big mistakes in the round,” he said Saturday. “Anything can happen, so I just wanted to do the best that I could and whatever happens, happens.”
Given the option, he would’ve prepared by taking “Mikey” out on a hack out on the Kentucky Horse Park’s cross-country course, but since the derby horses are limited to working in a specified warm-up ring starting on Wednesday, he instead did a 10-minute ride in a hackamore.
Though it wasn’t French’s ideal way of preparing Mikey, nonetheless, tonight he delivered.
The margin for error was slim, as Geoffrey Hesslink had just laid down the ride of his life on Drumroll—matching French’s first-round score of 300.75—to hold onto the top spot with a two-round total of 599.25. The Rolex Stadium was silent as French began his course, and Paradigm jumped out of skin, with only a small error when he rattled the rail at the high option at Fence 9, a vertical. Otherwise, he was flawless.
Tension rippled as French exited the ring and the wait for the scores from the judges—Mike Rosser, Holly Orlando, Jeanne Marie Dunford-Miller, Jennifer Bauersachs, Troy Hendricks and Jessie Lang—began.
When his scores (599.5) showed up on the scoreboard next to the number one, the crowd erupted—and the demure French broke into a grin.
“It’s been a long time. I didn’t know if I was going to win another one,” said French, 61. “I’m probably the oldest person in the class, so maybe this will be the last time for me, so it makes it even more special.
“It still feels amazing to win this class,” he added. “To me, for the hunters, it’s the biggest special class that there is.”
French had the benefit of riding the course already that evening with Milagro, who sat 13th after the classic round. That gelding got a bit bold, rocketing into orbit over the oxer at Fence 8, to finish 10th. But the experience influenced French’s decisions on Paradigm, an 11-year-old warmblood gelding of unrecorded breeding owned by Meredith Lipke.
“After my first horse, at one point I was trying to be a little too bold and he kind of hung back, so I just decided after riding him not to go crazy,” he said. “We had a bit of a lead going into tonight. I was a little bit worried about the trot jump and turning back to the vertical because my horse likes to land on the left lead, so I knew I had to do a change inside there and turn back to that jump, but the high options I think he jumped really well. He had one rub, but the scores were still enough and carried over from yesterday to win the class.”
So what’s first on French’s to do list after the evening’s festivities died down? Head straight to the barn, he said, to give Mikey some treats and tell him how good he is.
Watch their winning round, with commentary from French, courtesy of USHJA and ClipMyHorse.TV:
A Fantastic Evening
This was Hesslink’s second time as runner-up—he also made a move up to a podium spot with Cadoretto in 2017. It was also his second time taking the Section B championship, which is reserved for riders who are ranked 41st and below on the three-year rider money won standings as of Dec. 1, 2022.
Drumroll is still quite new to him, as the pair’s first horse show together was in July, but thanks to an assist from the gelding’s former connections Kelly Mullen and John Roper, he’s become fast friends with Meridian Farm LLC’s 9-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Diamant De Semilly—A-Comme Ci).
“I thought the course was maybe a little tougher than it looked originally,” he said. “My horse was quite impressed, I thought, with the atmosphere, and he really kind of was trying to be quite sharp, so I wanted to be bold and give him a nice canter to work out of and he kept coming up with the jumps, and so it felt really nice. It was good. He tried really, really hard.”
Rounding out the top three was Jimmy Torano with Laskano, Isalou Inc’s 11-year-old Westphalian gelding (Los Angeles—Laskaja). It was an improvement on the pair’s 12th place finish from last year.
“I thought my horse was great,” he said. “It’s a horse you can totally count on. He’s not spooky [and has] a great rhythm. He’s kind of with me the whole way. He never had to do a lead change the entire round. He landed every single lead. I don’t think he really could’ve gone any better.”
The Chronicle has been on-site with a reporter bringing you gorgeous photos, great interviews and behind-the-scenes stories. Make sure to follow along at www.coth.com, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @chronofhorse for complete championship coverage. For more, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the Sept. 4 issue of the Chronicle.