Friday, May. 31, 2024

Linback Saves Best For Last At HITS Ocala

This Illinois-based amateur wins the featured grand prix on the HITS Ocala Winter circuit.

Laura Linback really couldn’t complain. She’d had six successful weeks on the HITS Ocala Winter circuit, all of her horses were healthy, sound and had won ample ribbons, and her family spent the entire circuit together in Ocala, Fla.

But there was one small thing missing—a grand prix victory.

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This Illinois-based amateur wins the featured grand prix on the HITS Ocala Winter circuit.

Laura Linback really couldn’t complain. She’d had six successful weeks on the HITS Ocala Winter circuit, all of her horses were healthy, sound and had won ample ribbons, and her family spent the entire circuit together in Ocala, Fla.

But there was one small thing missing—a grand prix victory.

So when she and Woodrun’s As Di Villagana tackled the $100,000 DeLuca Toyota Tundra Grand Prix, the culminating grand prix during the Ocala Winter Celebration, March 10-15, at HITS Post Time Farm, Linback was on a mission.

Right away, she had a good feeling about the class. Linback was the final rider in the 42-horse field, and when she walked the course, designed by Florencio Hernandez, she immediately felt confident.

“The first round was very big but very fair,” she said. “I really liked the course when I walked it. Even though the jumps were big, the course was inviting. I felt great.”

Linback and “Asdi” were the fifth and final pair to conquer the first-round test, and they added their names to a collection of top riders gunning for a $30,000 first-place check. Going last in the jump-off, she modified her plan of attack slightly from previous classes but not for her horse, for herself.

“The jump-off hasn’t been our best friend over the last couple of weeks,” admitted Linback. “We had a rail in the jump-off the past two Sundays, but today we pulled through and jumped double clear.

“There was never a problem with my horse,” she added. “All circuit he’d been fantastic, jumping clean round after clean round. But in the jump-off I’d go fast and have 4 faults. This time I didn’t watch anyone jump off before me. Instead, I rode my plan.”

Beth Underhill and Iron Horse Farm’s Cantero Z established the time to beat as the first competitors on the jump-off course with a clear round in 41.73 seconds. That time still stood when Linback entered the ring. Even though she didn’t see any of the other rounds, she believed her initial speed early in the course was the key to the victory.

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“I flew to the first jump. I laid it out early on. For me the difficult part was the end of the course. In the first round there was a rollback to a combination, and a lot of people had rails there,” Linback explained of the test Hernandez also included in the jump-off. “It was a combination of vertical to oxer, and the vertical was the challenge. I laid it out early so I could pause and regroup to jump those last clean.”

“Laura was a very deserving winner,” said Hernandez. “She was fortunate to have the last spot in the class. She knew exactly how fast she had to go and pulled it out in the end.”

Mike McCormick and MTM Farm’s MTM Remington finished third with a slower clear round in 43.36 seconds. “Any time a 61-year-old man can have this much fun on a Sunday, it’s a great day. It was worth getting up early!” he said.

Linback, 41, Long Grove, Ill., also credited her husband and trainer Troy Linback with the victory and his support. In addition, she was thrilled that a bit change they’d made during the first week of the circuit paid off with a more rideable horse. Even though the pair had won multiple grand prix classes in 2008, she still believed there might be room for improvement.

“It’s all in those little details,” she said. “[Our partnership] was so close to perfect that I was afraid to change anything. But I thought, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work I take full responsibility.’ It turned out to be the last piece of the puzzle. The horse and I just clicked perfectly, and after that we jumped all clean rounds.” 

Linback has been partnered with Asdi for 11⁄2 years, and she’s still pinching herself that the stallion she’d long admired under the guidance of Pato Muente resides in her barn. “We couldn’t be happier with him,” said Linback.

“The day I tried him he was about to leave for a horse show so I just jumped maybe 4 feet, and he was amazing. I just needed to know that I could ride him.”

Even though Linback has enjoyed success at the top levels of the sport with such horses as Remember Me 9 and Grand So So 2, both now retired, she described the 13-year-old Hanoverian stallion (Acord II—Folklore, Ferrari II) as “a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

As the mom of an 8-year-old son, she’s put her international aspirations on the back burner for the past few years, but Linback is wondering if perhaps it’s time to think again. “I had these two mares, and I never thought I’d have such nice horses again,” she said thoughtfully. “Having such a nice horse maybe changes things. Maybe we can start to dream big again.”

Boy Wonder

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There was just something about a young chestnut gelding that caught Susie Schoellkopf and Jennifer Alfano’s attention on a visit to Louise Serio’s Derbydown two years ago. They couldn’t quite put their finger on why, but they thought he was cute and took him home to SBS Farms.

“I don’t think either of us thought he was the horse he is,” reflected Alfano. “We thought he would make a cute horse for somebody. And he did. He made the perfect horse for me!”

That horse, Jersey Boy, 7, a Hanoverian (White Star— Hauptstutbuch), has a special place in Alfano’s lineup and collected the blue ribbon in the $10,000 USHJA/ ASG Software Solutions International Hunter Derby at the HITS Ocala Winter Finale, March 4-8.

The pair topped a class of 60 other competitors, and Alfano, 40, Buffalo, N.Y., earned her second consecutive derby win at HITS Ocala. They dominated both rounds, and after the second round with the bonus points, Jersey Boy had amassed almost 400 points.

“He was really awesome,” said Alfano. “When he’s on he’s hard to beat. Sometimes you don’t know what to expect—you really don’t know until you head to the first fence. When I jumped the first fence I knew he was on and wanted to win the class.”

Jersey Boy, who also earned the show’s reserve championship in the regular working division and the reserve circuit title, began his competitive career in the jumper divisions and then discovered his niche in the four-foot hunters. 

“When we got him he wasn’t even  jumping around courses,” said Alfano.  “I took him to Florida two years ago, but I didn’t know what to do with him. He was too brave for the pre-greens and too green for first years. Everything was too easy for him. So I took him into the jumpers. The first week I did level 2, then the next week level 3 and the next level 4. Eventually, he did the young jumper classes.”

As the summer rolled around, Alfano and Schoellkopf reevaluated their young protégé and decided to braid him up and send him into the hunter ring again.

“At Cleveland [Chagrin Valley Hunter Jumper Classic] he did level 4 and the green conformation division,” said Alfano laughing. “After that, he stayed in the hunter ring.”

Even though Jersey Boy, nicknamed Lewis, has an impressive collection of championships and derby ribbons, he’s still growing up.

“Sometimes he does the unexpected,” Alfano added laughing. “And in the barn he’s just terrible. He’s constantly doing something, constantly in motion and constantly playing with his mouth. He’s like that bad kid who’s super smart. He’s always ripping off his blankets and wraps, and when he’s in the grooming stall all you hear is ‘Lewis! Stop that, Lewis!’ But you can’t get mad; you look at his face and laugh.”

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