Ringside Chat: Chris Payne 'Reigns' Over Inaugural $150,000 Hunter Grand Prix

Jun 22, 2022 - 2:57 PM

Going in to the second round of the $150,000 Hunter Grand Prix, riders had a choice to make. While the round wasn’t billed as a “handy,” there were plenty of options to tighten up your track and ride it like one. Or, you could take the longer routes, opting for a more classic hunter round.

With that in the back of his mind, Chris Payne took the route that best suited Reign, a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Cassini Gold—Solina, Ulft) owned by Still Water Farm LLC. That decision paid off, with the pair taking home the win on a combined score of 276 and median scores of 93, 93 and 90 over Kelley Farmer and Meaningful.

“My horse is lovely across the ground and is a stunning mover,” Payne said. “I really took my time on the course and cantered around at a nice gallop to let him just jump some amazing jumps. I thought that plan would showcase him in the best way possible.”

Payne Reign Hunter Grand Prix_winslow
Chris Payne and Still Water Farm LLC’s Reign took the top spot in the $150,000 Hunter Grand Prix at Split Rock Hunter Jumper Classic II (Ky.). Winslow Photography Photos

While the Lugano Split Rock Jumping Tour is known for its jumper classes, the stops in Lexington, Kentucky, have included hunter classes since 2021. To qualify for the inaugural hunter grand prix, held June 18, and its $150,000 purse—one of the largest awarded in a hunter competition—horses had to earn either champion or reserve in a 3’6” or higher hunter division, and their rider must have competed in both weeks of the Split Rock Hunter Jumper Series. Thirty-six combinations qualified to compete in the first round with $25,000 of the total purse awarded. The top 12 pairs from that round returned for a clean-slate second round, in which the remaining $125,000 was awarded. Unlike hunter derbies, the second round was notably not a handy round. The judges were to score based on “handiness quality, movement, jumping style, manners, and way of going” over the Skip Bailey-designed course. Each rider received five scores, with the highest and lowest dropped and the three median added to determine the combined score.

Payne and Reign won the 2021 Platinum Performance USHJA 3’6″/3’9″ Green Hunter Incentive Championship (Kentucky) after wild success in the 3’6” greens. Payne began competing the stallion in the 3’9” greens this year, earning top placings at shows including the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), Kentucky Spring and Devon (Pennsylvania). They were champion in the same division the first week of Split Rock, qualifying for the hunter grand prix.

We caught up with Chris to learn more about Reign, the inaugural hunter grand prix, and his thoughts on spotlighting hunters in competitions like Split Rock.

How did the course ride, and how do you think it differed from regular hunter and derby courses?

I thought the courses were amazing. Skip Bailey did a phenomenal job. He added elements that we don’t normally see in hunter courses. For instance, we started with a triple bar, which made most [of us] hold our breath for a second, but it really showcased the horses. They cantered up to it and just jumped amazing. There was also a two-to-two stride combination, which we don’t see ever in the hunters, either. But it maintained a big, open feel. It was a nice dynamic.

The judges were very clear that they weren’t going to count strides—that the class wasn’t about that—it was an open hunter course, and Skip did a wonderful job opening the ring up and allowing it to have an unfolded, beautiful feel.

How did you approach the class, given it has this singular feel?

I obviously wanted to have beautiful jumps, but I also wanted to have more of an open canter than I would in a smaller ring, let Reign be a bit freer across the ground. The course kind of encouraged that.

How did the track suit Reign? How did it play to his strengths?

Some of the other competitors were a bit handier than I was in the second round. The judges were very clear: This was not a handy round. They wanted us to ride a track that would best showcase our horses. Reign is a beautiful mover across the ground. He’s a very classic-looking hunter with a beautiful jump. I wanted him to float across the ground and just jump some attractive jumps.

Watch their winning round here:

You and Reign won the Platinum Performance USHJA 3’6″/3’9″ Green Hunter Incentive Championship last year, after which you mentioned Reign’s potential future in derbies. How has his career evolved since last August, and how did that produce or play into your win this weekend?

The plan is to do more derbies with him. He was eligible for the 3’9” green hunters this year, though, so we’ve stayed that course. He’s been quite successful, so I backed off doing the derbies. When he’s good during the week, I feel bad ramping him up for a Friday or Saturday derby. So, the derbies have been on the back burner. From here out, we’ll do less of the 3’9” greens and more of the derbies to mix it up. He’ll most likely end up in the derbies. He’s a very athletic, scopey, brave horse.

Do you think classes like these could offer more opportunities for horses either transitioning between the hunter divisions and derbies or who haven’t found their definitive place in one or the other?

Absolutely. If the horse is not a derby horse and is more of a streamline hunter, this class gives them a spotlighted space. Reign is owned by Still Water Farm LLC, and they’re just phenomenal owners. Watching him compete is a pleasure and joy for them. So, to have a class where they can win some money back and see their horse showcased in a special event is an amazing thing.

Payne Reign Hunter Grand Prix 2 winslow
Payne and Reign had lots to smile about after winning the inaugural hunter grand prix.

Do you hope to see more classes like this in the future?

This is an amazing class, an amazing phenomenon. For Hagyard Equine Group and Lugano Diamonds to sponsor a hunter class for $150,000 is a one-of-a-kind thing. [Split Rock Jumping Tour President] Derek Braun had the insight to try and create this. As a person who mainly shows in the hunters, I can’t tell you how special it was to have that much work put into highlighting the hunters.

The hunters don’t always seem to be spotlighted— the jumpers and grand prix are—so I would love it if this opened doors. It’s different from derbies. It really showcased traditional hunters. I would love more shows to get on board and dedicate more time to the hunters, to give hunters more energy going forward.

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