Saturday, May. 18, 2024

Lights Shine On A Star In Ocala

Jennifer Alfano and Rock Star top the USHJA International Hunter Derby during the HITS Ocala Winter Finals.

Hundreds of spectators secured prime golf cart positions hours before the start of the $10,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby on March 15 during the Ocala Winter Finals in Ocala, Fla., to catch a glimpse of the best hunters on the showgrounds. And Jennifer Alfano and Rock Star didn’t disappoint, putting in a spectacular performance to take the top check for Jennifer Burger of Bright Star 158 LLC.


Jennifer Alfano and Rock Star top the USHJA International Hunter Derby during the HITS Ocala Winter Finals.

Hundreds of spectators secured prime golf cart positions hours before the start of the $10,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby on March 15 during the Ocala Winter Finals in Ocala, Fla., to catch a glimpse of the best hunters on the showgrounds. And Jennifer Alfano and Rock Star didn’t disappoint, putting in a spectacular performance to take the top check for Jennifer Burger of Bright Star 158 LLC.

“‘Rocky’ has been fantastic all circuit, and he was absolutely perfect tonight,” said Alfano, who rides out of Susie Schoellkopf’s SBS Farms in Buffalo, N.Y.

The pair returned in second place for the handy round, earning scores of 90 and 83 in the second round as well as 8 and 8 bonus points to win the title.

Rock Star’s stylish trips edged out a bold performance by Mary Lisa Leffler on Ashley Foster’s Sam Adams, who took second, and Mickie Sage’s polished ride on Ava Lyndsay’s Prestige, in third. Paige Dekko was the highest-placed junior in the class, earning the fourth award on Sag Harbor’s Lucky Star.

The win came on the heels of a stellar circuit for Alfano and her veteran partner. They picked up the regular working hunter series title after winning the division all four weeks he showed.

Experience and steady nerves proved at least as important as jumping prowess, with many greener horses and riders running into problems. The first fence proved especially difficult, as it came off a turn and headed directly into the standards of an end fence. An optional airy vertical looked so unappealing that Logical Choice spooked badly when he caught a glimpse of it, sending Meryl Winslow into the dirt before she finished the courtesy circle.

Alfano had the perfect partner in Rock Star to tackle the challenge. “Rocky is pretty unflappable,” she said. “He sometimes studies things, but he never hesitates. We didn’t have a chance to school under the lights, but I knew he would go great in that ring.”

Competitors almost universally voiced the sentiment that more than any obstacle on the course, the intense atmosphere provided the biggest challenge of the evening.

“The class was especially tough being at night with the wind and the number of people,” said Amanda Steege, who competed aboard James Johnson’s Kingston and second year green hunter circuit champion True Fate, owned by Jessica Lundren. “As hunter riders we keep complaining that we can’t get people interested. Even though a lot of riders ended up having problems, we still had huge crowds, which is just what we need.”

Only half of the horses made it around the first round without pulling a rail or planting their hooves, and plenty of capable horses and riders ran into problems. The top 12 pairs returned for the handy round, which featured a trot fence and lead-over fence, as well as several opportunities to show off by jumping optional decorative barrels.

In keeping with the specifications set out by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association for the derby, the judges handsomely rewarded the boldest trips. Aaron Vale took a no-holds-barred approach to his handy round aboard Paige Dekko’s Mr. Coffee, selecting all the harder choices from a jump-off pace and delighting spectators as he gamely leapt off his mount mid-trot en route to the lead-over fence.

Both judges awarded Vale with the maximum 10 bonus points for his bravado.

Leffler also showed her guts on Sam Adams, striking up a ground-covering gallop and selecting all the four-foot jumps. She returned to the second round in the third spot, moving up after nailing all the difficult options.

“We ride out in the fields, and I grew up foxhunting, but this is different,” she said. “They have some traditional jumps at Upperville [Va.] where we show, so the horses have a taste for it.”

Patty Stovel, who catch-rode Czech for Peter Foley and Woodhall Farm in her first High Performance Derby, hopes that the series will give juniors a chance to improve their riding the way she did as a junior.
“It’s a great concept, and I think it will be really good practice for the equitation riders to dig in deep and ride by the seat of their pants,” she said. “I talked to [USHJA High Performance Hunter Committee member] Diane Carney afterward and gave her my thoughts about how we can keep improving the class. I don’t have any hunters of my own right now, but it was so much fun and just my kind of thing—it made me wish I did!”

Picking Up Winners

After Cismont Manor Farms’ longtime rider Olin Armstrong had to take the winter off to recuperate from a knee injury, Hunt Tosh took up riding duties for their barn full of superstars.

“It’s quite a compliment when Kenny and Douglas Wheeler ask you to ride their horses,” said Tosh. “I was flattered, but filling Olin’s shoes is not an easy thing to do.”

But Tosh stepped up to the challenge, earning three circuit championships on Cismont Manor Farm’s horses. He topped the circuit on Meg Rensberry’s Vivienne in the pre-green hunters, Legend in the first year greens and Bozeman in the green conformation.

Tosh dismissed his own skill and credited the Wheelers of Keswick, Va., and barn manager Mike Rooks for preparing the horses perfectly for the ring. “The Wheelers really know how to pick and prepare winners, and I just need to walk them in the ring,” he said.


Though he had a packed schedule all circuit filling in for Armstrong, Tosh still managed to squeeze in a few of his regular rides. He won the circuit championship in the low hunters on Diva for Sarah Sullivan who was away at college.

Tosh wasn’t the only one catch riding for Cismont Manor. Adult amateur rider Robin Swinderman had admired Point Guard for years, so when the Wheelers offered her the chance to show their flashy, Hanoverian gelding she wasn’t about to let anything stop her.

But she nearly had to shelve her plans when one of her horses crushed her foot the day before classes began. “My foot was in bad shape, but they were nice and didn’t let anyone else take over the ride,” she said. “By the next week I was determined to get on. I said ‘We are going to show—I’ll figure out how to get something on my foot.’”

Swinderman won her first championship during week 2 on Point Guard (Saskan—Daisy) wearing one half chap and a borrowed paddock boot and two more tricolors throughout the circuit to secure the adult amateur hunter, 35-46, circuit championship.

Swinderman, Ocala, Fla., developed a soft spot for “Meatball” while working for Jimmy Toon, who imported him, and she watched her best friend Sachine Belle contest the high pre-greens at the 2001 Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.).

“He’s got such a great personality and a big round belly,” she said. “He’s just adorable. When I got hurt my first thought was that I wouldn’t be able to show him.”

Outside the ring Swinderman kept busy working for Ocala show veterinarian Dr. Robert Barber. “We are pretty busy, and it’s not always easy to get away to ride, especially during week 5 when everyone wants to go home and needs health certificates,” she said. “But everyone at Dr. Barber’s and Cismont made it work.”

Keeping It In The Family

Any trainer would be thrilled to watch her pony win in the ring, but Patty Foster had extra reason to smile when Ghiradelli, the Welsh pony she bred five years earlier, took the medium green pony circuit championship.

“I knew he was special just watching him as a yearling,” Foster said of Ghiradelli (Starlight Hills Sundowner—Farnley Kneehigh). “He was so spectacular that we couldn’t let him go, and I decided to keep him for my daughter Ashley.”

Pony jock Shawn Casady shared the ride aboard “Pee Wee” with Ashley, and before long Pee Wee settled into the show routine.

“In Jacksonville he was still figuring it out and he swerved a bit coming out of the lines, but he’s really more like a made animal now,” said Patty. “Ashley came out of the ring this weekend and said, ‘Mom, he’s not as much fun now that he goes where he’s supposed to.’ ”

Those who keep an eye on pedigrees won’t be surprised at the chocolate-colored pony’s achievement. Patty also bred Ghiradelli’s full sister High Fashion, who won the grand championship at the 2005 USEF Pony Finals.

Foster likes Pee Wee and his siblings so much that she has four more at her Rolling Acres Farm in Brookeville, Md., waiting for their chance in the hunter ring.

A bout of friendly sibling rivalry preceded Laura Pfeiffer’s ascent up the junior hunter ranks with her grand circuit champion.

With Henry Pfeiffer set to age out of the juniors last summer, Doug Mesker had to track down a suitable replacement to pilot Manchineel. Mesker loved Pfeiffer’s way with the Thoroughbred, so it seemed natural to invite his up-and-coming sister Laura to give the horse a try. But when Laura told her brother she was going to give him a try, Henry didn’t offer any pointers, he just said she was lucky.

And after earning the small junior hunter, 15 and under, circuit championship with Manchineel (Spectacular Bid—Chick Pea), Laura couldn’t agree more. “He really likes a certain kind of ride—you have to ride him forward—but he’s just wonderful. It was such a treat to do him all circuit,” she said.

Laura, 15, traveled to Ocala from Temperance, Mich., to compete, and she kept herself plenty busy. She rode several jumpers owned by her aunt and trainer Polly Howard, holding her own in good company in 6-year-old and level 7 classes aboard Thorstin and winning the $15,000 low junior jumper classic on Fox Meadow Farm’s Jordy.

And she rode Kim Carey’s Eli to a sixth-placed finish in her first $10,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby. “I didn’t really know what it was at first, but I saw them piling up rocks in the ring and I started to get an idea,” she said. “When I walked the course I thought I’d better ride hard. It was so much fun and great practice for the equitation. I was so glad we got to come back and do the test.”
Laura also earned the Ocala Style of Riding award.

Working For Success

While plenty of braiders take the occasional turn around the show ring, few manage to balance a full workload and win two circuit championships in one winter.


But Jodi Czaplick pulled off that amazing feat aboard Untold, topping the amateur-owner hunter, 18-35, and the open hunter divisions.

This is the fourth consecutive year that Czaplick and Untold have made the trek to Ocala—and the fourth year they’ve taken a tricolor back to East Quogue, N.Y. She paired up with trainer Keith Powell of Tampa before her first winter in Florida. “We had bought a horse from him a few years earlier, so when we thought about coming to Ocala we called him for some background information,” she said. “He invited us to join him for the circuit, and it’s worked out great.”

Czaplick started riding “Bart” when he was just 6, in the junior hunters. “I like getting them not too long after they’ve been broke and finessing them,” she said. “We also have a 5-year-old named Pretty Woman we did in the pre-greens who’s going well.

“Bart is a really simple horse; you just have to keep him happy. Having him makes it possible to braid all night then get on and compete in the morning. Plus my parents are total horse people. A lot of times I’ll be at shows without Keith, training myself, but my mom is always there—she’s the ultimate horse show mom—painting hooves or wiping my boots at the in-gate.”

Another close family partnership propelled Claudia Billups to series honors in the high children’s jumper division. She and Gustav earned the championship, with plenty of help from her father. While Aaron Vale trains her at competitions, her father Guy keeps her and her mounts show-ready at home in Oxford, Miss., and whenever Vale isn’t around.

“He’s always there at the side of the ring when I’m in a lesson or competing,” said Claudia. “It’s just great to have that kind of support.”

Vale introduced Claudia to Gustav last year when she came down to take a lesson. “I saw him, and I just fell in love,” she recalled. “Aaron let me ride him, and it was all over from there.”

This year in Ocala she squeezed in plenty of lessons with Vale, shipping to his nearby stable several times a week. “I was going through a bit of a rough spot with my horses for part of the winter, but Aaron helped me work through it,” said Claudia, 16. “I got to his farm twice a week to work on trouble spots, mainly going forward and not worrying so much about the distance.”

Claudia’s extra practice time paid off as Gustav and Dellaware Del Roanne dominated the high children’s jumper division, with the consistent Dellaware tending to finish right behind his stable mate.

Vale Rides The River To A Win

The last week of the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit sent Vale on an emotional rollercoaster. His grandfather died a few days earlier, and he had raced to the family home in Saugerties, N.Y., to pay his respects just days before the biggest class of the circuit.

But when Vale stepped into the ring aboard Blue Danube on March 16 for the jump-off of the $100,000 DeLuca Toyota Tundra Grand Prix, he cleared his mind, and everything fell into place. Vale posted the only double-clear performance of the day to nab the $30,000 check for Tatra Farm ahead of Patty Stovel and Shandor 41.

“This was only his third Sunday grand prix, and he went so well,”  he said. “Last week he got a little green and had down an easy fence, so he just missed being in the jump-off. He’s young still, but he’s super talented with tons of ability, and I know he has a great future.”

Walking the course in the afternoon, Vale knew that he had his work cut out for him. “It was a tough course, the hardest we had all winter,” said Vale. “The fences were bigger, the oxers were wider, and that combination was deadly. When I watched the first few go I turned to my friend and said it rides like it walks: difficult.”

Plenty of strong contenders, including the circuit’s leading grand prix rider, Tracy Fenney, ran into problems with the combination and the snug time allowed. The course was so hard that only Stovel and Vale managed to get through the first round fault-free.

Stovel went first in the jump-off, galloping hard but pulling down three rails along the way to leave the door open for Vale and Blue Danube. With a little extra breathing room, Vale posted a double clear to take the top check.

Despite a disappointing jump-off, Stovel remained upbeat about her horse’s performance. “Shandor jumps a lot of clear rounds, but on the whole we tend to have time faults,” said Stovel. “Usually my strategy with him is to post double clear rounds, and I usually settle for fourth or fifth. In the jump-off I figured the worst I could do was second, so I rode him forward. We don’t get to practice very often so it didn’t work out great. But I couldn’t be happier for Aaron and his owners Pavel [Blaho] and Patty [Garthwaite Towle].”

Blaho and Garthwaite Towle were ecstatic at the win. Though Blaho struggles with serious health problems since being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a year ago, he cheerfully joined Vale and his co-owner in the winner’s circle to accept the award.

The win portends a bright future for Blue Danube (Hammar—Pearl Peak, Abdullah), a recent graduate from the International Jumper Futurity who won the $20,000 5-Year-Old Young Jumper Classic at the National Horse Show. The gelding, bred by Frank Chapot, won plenty of top placings with Garthwaite Towle and Darragh Kerins before Vale took over the ride.

Mollie Bailey




Follow us on


Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse