When Rock Star underwent colic surgery last fall, Jennifer Alfano knew it would be a challenge to find a mount ready to fill his formidable shoes while he eased back into the show routine. After all, the pair led the ASG Software Solutions USHJA International Hunter Derby standings almost all season after recording win after win in the series.
But SBS Farm’s Jersey Boy proved himself ready to step up as a serious contender for Alfano at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, when he jumped to the top of the $50,000 ASG Software Solutions USHJA International Hunter Derby during the circuit’s season finale, March 25-29 in Wellington, Fla.
“Jersey Boy is just coming into his own; he just keeps getting more and more dependable as time goes by,” said Alfano, 40. “I used to say that Rock Star was my most dependable horse, and Jersey Boy is starting to become the same way.”
Jersey Boy’s latest blue marks his second consecutive derby win, having topped the high performance class during HITS Ocala IV (Fla.).
The chestnut gelding led the class from start to finish, topping the classic round held on Friday in the main hunter ring, as well as the well-attended handy final held in the grand prix field on Saturday night. Jersey Boy’s brazen second round drew scores ranging from 88 to 95, plus a healthy 32 bonus points to take the title. Kelley Farmer’s newest star partner, Early Applause, turned heads in his first derby to take second after a stellar handy trip.
Having spent the winter competing in Ocala, Alfano shipped in three mounts for the class in Wellington. While few of the record 66 entries faced any problems in the classic round, Bobby Murphy’s handy track gave the hunter riders plenty of work, and it took four teams of judges to preside over the entire grand prix field.
Riders had the opportunity to flat their mounts in the formidable International Arena two days earlier during the afternoon, but the lights, crowds and decorations transformed the grand prix field by Saturday night. Competitors faced the double whammy of having to display bold rides over a spooky, difficult course in order to have a shot at the money, while Geoff Teall and Danny Robertshaw provided live play-by-play analysis.
“It’s quite difficult because the riders know that in order to be competitive they have to go at the course with some quickness—and it’s at night under those lights,” said Linda Andrisani, one of the eight judges who oversaw the handy round. “There’s no time to take a moment to trot around or get a look at the field. They’ve got to go right in and be ready to roll. The atmosphere played a big role.”
Up For The Challenge
The 25 competitors who returned for the handy round had plenty of chances to show off, with lots of 4-foot options and opportunities for tight turns while navigating a “rock garden” both before the first and after the second fence.
“There were a lot of challenging parts to the course,” said Alfano, Buffalo, N.Y. “My horse is a little looky, especially with things on the ground, so the rocks at the start were a factor. Things like that are harder for him than the jumping. He took a little look, but not too bad. He’s so scopey and fit—he only showed three weeks in Ocala this winter, but he’s in great shape.”
The most brazen in the field attempted an almost impossibly tight inside turn to the second jump, but only Jessica Springsteen and her game Tiziano nailed the risky option. Riders had to choose between a pair of long triple combinations, which backed off plenty of mounts, and finish with a hand gallop to the last fence.
Some high-risk rides paid off early on, with Liza Towell Boyd and Castello galloping up the standings from 23rd to fourth after a nothing-to-lose trip early in the class. Juniors Springsteen on Tiziano, Jennifer Waxman on Falcon and Reed Kessler on Quintelli all catapulted from the lower half of the list into the money with stylish rounds worthy of any equitation class.
But some gambles backfired, with plenty of rails rolling out of the cups and a few horses digging in their heels when ambitious riders attempted tougher options over the spooky course. Scott Stewart’s second year ride Castlewalk lay second coming back for the handy round, but the gelding took a serious look at the rocks before the first fence, planting his heels in front of the jump.
Farmer and Early Applause drew a huge response from the crowd when she hunted down to the last in a stride less than everyone else.
“I wasn’t planning on doing eight strides in the last line,” admitted Farmer, Keswick, Va. “I was just galloping and it happened. I knew I couldn’t be passive or conservative—I knew Jen wasn’t going to back down.”
The judges rewarded Farmer with a total of 31 bonus points, elevating her from fifth to the second slot behind Alfano. That red ribbon hangs next to the blue the pair picked up on Valentine’s Day at the $42,500 AHJF Hunter Classic Spectacular.
Trainer Larry Glefke couldn’t have been happier with the first year horse’s strong performance.
“I think this is the eighth show of his career and his first derby,” said Glefke. “He’s just an incredible animal. The derbies have really created a place to keep a real hunter. People complain that the jumpers are involved, but I think ultimately they’ll have a hard-pressed time. No equitation horse, no jumper is going to beat these kinds of horses.”
SBS Farms owner Susie Schoellkopf pointed out that the USHJA High Performance Hunter Finals, to be held Aug. 21-22 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., have created a much-needed goal for elite owners and riders.
“With the finals in sight there’s no pressure to go every weekend,” said Schoellkopf. “You can keep your nicest horses fresh and going well while aiming them toward the big class.”
The judges also enjoyed presiding over such an impressive competition.
“It’s so special to get to judge a class like this, just an honor,” said Randy Mullins, another member of the jury. “This is the crème de la crème. This format brings out the scope and elegance of the sport without making it look like inside five, outside four. This is when judging is really fun.”
When Alex Jayne first saw Francesca, he wasn’t sure she’d be cut out for the hunter ring. While the beautiful mare’s canter struck him as nothing short of breathtaking, it didn’t excuse her way of going: a style he could only describe as “jumpery,” unsurprising since the mare started her career aimed at becoming an international show jumper.
“I had my doubts at first, about whether she’d be able to relax, but my daughter kept saying, ‘She’s the real deal! This is it!’ ” he recalled.
Jayne couldn’t have been happier to be proven wrong six months later at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, when Francesca earned the regular conformation circuit tricolor for Maddie Thatcher with Maggie Jayne aboard. Maggie picked up a second series award for Thatcher in the second year ring on Namesake.
Both horses do double duty in the junior divisions with Thatcher, who meets the Jaynes at horse shows from her home base in South Jordan, Utah.
The Jaynes imported Francesca (Horse La Loi II—Ka Killy R) last summer, and the Dutch Warmblood proved a quick enough study to advance from the pre-greens to the first years to the regular conformation division in a matter of months, besides serving as the perfect first junior mount for Maddie.
“She’s become very slow and relaxed, and she’s gotten to the point where she can step into any ring and just be exactly the same every single time,” said Maggie.
Maggie started with her other series champion, Namesake, after the Pennsylvania National, taking over the ride from Tracey Fenney. “He’s a really incredible horse, and he tries super hard. He didn’t show that many weeks and still ended up series champion. Maddie and her sister Kelsey take turns on him in the juniors, and he’s going to be a fantastic one for them,” said Alex.
Alex and Maggie, of Our Day Farm in Elgin, Ill., have trained plenty of top hunters, but this year their tackroom was overloaded with rosettes, thanks in no small part to the impressive string collected by the Thatchers.
“It’s one thing to have one fantastic horse in your barn, but it’s rare to have five or six that can walk in any ring and win,” admitted Alex. “It’s been an amazing circuit.”
A Veteran And A New Star
Before Brianne Link started riding Tallyman at last year’s WEF, she had spent all of her time in the children’s pony hunter ring and had never so much as sat on a jumper. But over the course of a year, Tallyman took the 10-year-old from novice show jumper to this year’s pony jumper series champion.
“I love Tallyman. He is just the best pony jumper, and he’s taught me so much,” said Link, East Islip, N.Y. “He’s so good, he’ll make up for my little mistakes. His canter is so smooth.”
Along the way Link picked up a second series award aboard her first full-sized mount, winning the children’s hunter, 14 and under, circuit title aboard Silas V.
Link trains with Jim Toon of JT Farms, who helped her track down both of her winning mounts. “I had one lesson with Jimmy, and that was it. I knew it would be great,” she said. “He helps me so much with my horses.”
While Tallyman came to Link with a long record and plenty of tricolors, Silas presented a bigger challenge. She started riding the Rhinelander shortly after he came to the United States from Europe, before he’d had a chance to pick up any show miles at all.
“I work hard on getting him round and relaxed in my lessons, and getting him calm when there are other horses around him,” said Link. “He’s so sweet. Tallyman sometimes tries to nip, but Silas—I call him Silly Boy—he tries to lick me through the bars when he’s in his stall.”
Though she skipped directly from the children’s pony division up to the jumpers and horses, Link found a new challenge in Wellington, riding Woodland Way’s Sensation in the medium green pony hunter division for Woodland Way.
“It’s a lot of fun getting to ride all the different horses and ponies,” said Link. “They all teach me something different.”
Last year Link became the youngest equestrian ambassador for Just World—a non-profit that provides long-term assistance to local partner associations based in developing countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Though her riding Link has raised more than $2,000 for the organization. Her next big show will be her biggest challenge yet: Link will travel to Guatemala at the end of April to compete in a CSI* and visit a Just World project site there.
A Perfect Fit
When the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association and U.S. Equestrian Federation finally declared the low amateur-owner hunters a AA-rated division for the 2009 season, no one felt more excited than Laurie Stevens. The addition of the classes to the WEF schedule couldn’t have come at a better time for Stevens and her Orka, and together they captured the series title during the division’s inaugural year.
“I’ve been wanting to see this for ages, and I’m so excited to see it come up on prize lists,” said Stevens. “The 3-foot isn’t substantial enough for my horse—he’s very scopey and has a huge stride. The low amateurs [at 3’3″] is just the perfect fit for us. It’s been very competitive. Some weeks there were 22 entries. The best part is it goes Thursday and Friday so I’m not trying to show while the kids are out of school.”
Winning the Wendy W. Newby trophy that accompanied the award held special meaning for Stevens too. Newby’s daughter, Tammy Provost, has served as among the most important figures in her career with Orka, initially helping Stevens select the chestnut Westphalian.
Orka showed promise from the start, scoring plenty of pre-green wins with professional Rob Bielefeld in the irons shortly after being imported by Joe Norick and Bert Mutch. Stevens decided to shorten his complicated German name to one segment, hence the unusual moniker, which she said suits him perfectly.
“When we got him he was extremely green, but he was always very, very quiet,” said Stevens. “He’s the kind of horse who is the same way every single day, just walks out of his stall as the same horse no matter what.”
Besides riding, Stevens stays busy raising her four children and helping her husband Haynes Stevens with his new veterinary clinic. The Boca Raton, Fla., resident met her trainer Lainie Wimberly when the Connecticut-based professional started renting stalls during circuit.
“We thought we’d give it a go, and it’s been incredible,” said Stevens. “We have amazing chemistry, and my horses have been so successful with her help.”