Rumba Reigns Supreme In $100,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals

Sep 3, 2009 - 10:00 PM

The elegant gray from California, piloted by John French, jumps into the history books with the inaugural finals victory.

The hush was almost eerie when Rumba cantered into the Sheila C. Johnson Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park on the night of Aug. 22. Hundreds of spectators sat in silence, focused on the final starter and class leader in the handy round of the $100,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby.

Rider John French knew he had his work cut out for him.

Even though he held a significant lead after Round 1, Jennifer Alfano and Jersey Boy had just raised the bar substantially in the handy round. Their amazing performance, which earned scores of 99, 97, 100 and 99 with bonus points, meant that any mistake could cost French and Rumba the title.

French wasn’t thinking about numbers, though. Instead, he was focused on the task at hand.

“I knew Jen wasn’t that far off, and when you get the bonus points involved it changes everything,” said French. “I knew she scored really high. But I really wasn’t thinking about the scores when I went in; I just wanted to have the best performance. You just go in and ride the course the way you think your horse will go the best.”

And French did just that.

He mapped out his handy plan intending to show off Rumba’s beautiful movement and classic jumping form. He picked up a strong canter from the start, and Rumba jumped the first three fences with room to spare, smoothly executing the rollbacks.

When they approached the double brush fence midway through the course, the skinny fence that had caused two previous run-outs, French rode it confidently.

“He didn’t even bat an eye at those double brushes,” said French with a smile. “There I could have turned tighter, but I had to get the lead change and I didn’t want it to be too tight.”

The last major test on the course included the final three fences, which allowed riders to choose the options of heights, lines and approaches. Here, French wasn’t conservative.

“I did want to jump the big post-and-rail this time, and he felt like he jumped it great,” said French. “And then the turn back to the squirrel [fence] worked out very well. Then, going to the last jump I could hear everyone clucking and whistling, and I’m thinking, ‘Rumba don’t listen to them!’ ”

Rumba focused solely on French and cleared the final cordwood fence with ease to the resounding cheers and whoops from the enthusiastic spectators and to the appreciation of more than 30,000 viewers who watched the live feed on www.EquestrianLife.com.

Their handy round scores were good enough to clinch the victory by 6 points over Alfano and Jersey Boy, with junior Laura Pfeiffer and Foreign Encounter leapfrogging from ninth to third with a spectacular handy round.

In the end, though, it was Rumba who made the biggest impression.

“He’s a fabulous jumper and a beautiful mover and was magnificently ridden. What else can you say?” noted judge George Morris, who presided over the class with Danny Robertshaw, John Roper, Jimmy Torano, Linda Hough, Jim Clapperton, Julie Winkel and Ralph Caristo.

Rumba Rolls On

The inaugural derby finals drew 54 starters to the Kentucky Horse Park on Aug. 21-22. The format included a qualifying class on Friday morning in which the top 25 were invited back with a clean slate for the classic round on Saturday evening. Then, the top 12 from the classic round contested the handy class later that night, with the two scores combined for overall placings.

The derby finals were held in conjunction with the Kentucky Hunter Jumper Association Horse Show, and some riders chose to compete during the week while others saved their horses for the derby finals. French was of the latter mindset. 

“We flew in on Tuesday, and then I just hacked him around this week,” said French. “He went in [the stadium] for the qualifying round super relaxed and jumped great.”

Indeed, Rumba wowed the crowd and judges to earn 367 points with a 90, 93, 92 and 92 with no bonus points offered in the qualifier.

“I thought it was certainly the most outstanding trip of the class,” said judge Ralph Caristo. “From his jumping style to his smoothness, it was just what a hunter should look like. It was a well-ridden and breathtaking round, and as you could see from the scores we all agreed.”

French, Redwood City, Calif., has ridden Mountain Home Stables’ 9-year-old Danish Warmblood in four derbies with two victories this season. He said Rumba always rises to the occasion.

“He has a slow rhythm and gets the striding so easy, and he jumped the jumps really well,” said French. “As I was going around I could hear the people in crowd going, ‘Wow!’ So I thought, ‘It must look as good as it feels.’ ”

Five points separated Rumba from second-placed Early Applause and Maggie Jayne, with junior Jessica Springsteen and Tiziano taking third with 357 points.

“There were a lot of nice rounds in the top 10,” said Caristo. “There was very little that separated them. It was a very nice course, very rideable and the riders had options, which was nice.”

Course designers Bobby Murphy and Patrick Rodes received rave reviews for all three of their derby finals courses.

“I did really like the courses,” said French. “They didn’t make them so trappy so that you had to have a horse that was more suited to equitation or jumpers. You could still have a really good hunter. As long as he didn’t mind the natural jumps and was good in the handy, you could do well.”

There were few surprises in the qualifying round, although Alfano and Rock Star, who had nine derby starts and two victories over the season, weren’t in sync and didn’t make the cut.

After the qualifying class, the riders of the top 25 horses drew for the following day’s order of go. Because Peter Pletcher (four) and Maggie Jayne (three) each had multiple mounts, they drew first, then riders drew in the order in which they’d finished in the qualifier.

On Saturday afternoon, the top 25 horses jogged for soundness in front of the ground jury and veterinarian. Although several handlers were asked to represent their horses, all passed.   

Classic Performances

As riders walked Saturday evening’s classic round course, rolling clouds spritzed rain, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm felt for what many people considered the first true “grand prix championship” for the show hunters.
 
Ron Danta, chairman of the USHJA High Performance Hunter Committee, reveled in the atmosphere of the first
derby finals.

“Throughout our lives there are moments that as they are happening we know they are truly special,” he said. “I believe that years from now as we look back on this weekend this will be one of those moments where hunters were raised to the highest level, and in fact history was made!”

At the class began, the sky cleared, and the gleaming hunters showed off under the lights before an appreciative crowd.

And once again they went wild for Rumba, who rose to the top with a stellar performance that earned scores of 90, 90, 93 and 90 from the eight judges sitting in pairs around the stadium with bonus scores of 10, 9, 9 and 9 for style and movement.

“I loved the course; it was a big, long flowing course with lots of room to gallop to show off his stride,” said French. “There was one jump that was coming down, the option of the dark rails [at fences 5 and 6]. I opted to jump the coop in so as not to take a chance and then jump the bigger fence out of the line. And I think it was a good plan; it was safe. The rest of the course he went so well.”

Rumba absolutely wowed the crowd over the final fence, the USHJA signature oxer.

“To the last jump, for a minute, I wasn’t really sure. I thought, ‘Hmm. I’m not seeing anything,’ ” admitted French. “But Rumba had such a big stride that I said, ‘Oh oh, we’d better do something here. I think there’s another gear here.’ And when we got there it just felt amazing.”

Tammy Provost and Stephen Martines’ Peridot also impressed the judges as they clinched second place with impressive bonus points, including a perfect 10 from the first set of judges.

Alfano and Jersey Boy were in ideal stalking position in third with scores of 89, 89, 90 and 89 and bonus points of 6 across the board.

“In the first round, maybe the first two or three jumps I could feel him be a little nervous,” said Alfano of Jersey Boy. “Then after the third jump he just took a deep breath, and then I knew he was on. I was really happy with how he went in the first round.”

Curtain Call and Courtney Calcagnini, a relatively new face on the national hunter stage (see sidebar), took fourth in the classic round. Their lovely performance, which showcased the chestnut’s beautiful form, was highlighted by Calcagnini’s relaxed and loose style.

The Handy Showdown

Now, it was down to serious business.

The handy round offered riders many opportunities to showcase their mounts’ specialties. With rollback turns, angled approaches, optional lower and higher fences and different paths to choose, the course offered something for every horse.

Several fences caused riders pause, if not consternation, during the course walk including a skinny double of brushes, an option of two squirrel tail fences (borrowed from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****) and the dark brown post-and-rails that fell many times during the classic round.

The skinny double brush was also part of a second test. After jumping the fence the riders were asked to roll back around to the right, come back to a walk and slip between the two brush elements they’d just jumped.

Returning in reverse order, Ebony and Rachel Kennedy, Brookeville, Md., who stood 12th, provided a hint of things to come as they had a refusal at the skinny of brushes.

The following three competitors, Pletcher on Camira, Mary Lisa Leffler with Sam Adams and Hardin Towell aboard Castello, had no difficulties there, however.

Leffler, Brookeville, Md., and Sam Adams had a beautiful round that was marred by a fallen log of firewood at the final fence. Only one judging panel saw the mistake, however, but that score of 45 prevented Leffler from moving up dramatically in the standings.

Laying ninth after the classic trip, Pfeiffer didn’t have an opportunity to watch the first few competitors take a stab at the handy round before her turn aboard Foreign Encounter. But that situation didn’t prevent her from nailing a bold ride that included finessing an almost impossibly tight turn back to one of the squirrel tails. The judges rewarded her with bonus scores of 8, 8, 9 and 7, propelling her to second in the handy and third overall.

“When I made it to the top 12 I knew I would either ride to the top or go down swinging,” said Pfeiffer, Temperance, Mich. “I completely trust him. He just puts his heart in your hands and says, ‘Let’s go! Let’s have fun!’ If [trainer] Polly [Howard] had told me to turn tighter, I would have turned tighter.”

Jayne, Elgin, Ill., and Pony Lane Farm’s Early Applause, who followed in the order, also jumped up the standings with their handy performance. Although slightly conservative, Jayne allowed the talented gelding to show off his elegant form.

Jayne explained that she knew the leaders would be hard to beat going into the handy round, and she chose to give Early Applause a good round without pushing the young horse too far. 

“I kind of knew where I was going to end up because I was so far behind in points, and he of course jumped amazing, so it was really fun,” said Jayne with a smile. “I didn’t go too fast or do anything too handy. I just wanted to be smooth and for him to have a good experience.”

Springsteen, 17, Colts Neck, N.J., and Tiziano, one of the class favorites, were well on the way to an impressive performance when Tiziano bucked and played after a superb effort over the USHJA oxer. Springsteen had to make a wider turn to the double brush fence, and the resulting scores in the 70s left them in sixth place.

After Pletcher, Magnolia, Texas, and Dominick received a solid score, Curtain Call and Calcagnini returned to the ring. After a lovely start, they misjudged the third-to-last fence, the post-and-rail, became discombobulated and had to cross their path for a technical refusal leaving them 11th.

Alfano, Buffalo, N.Y., and Jersey Boy made it perfectly clear as to why they’d won the derby series money-won title this season. She knew she had nothing to lose when she returned for the handy class. And her incredible riding and Jersey Boy’s scope and jumping efforts didn’t go unrecognized from the judges—Jersey Boy earned the most bonus points in the handy—8,8,8 and 9—to take over the top spot with two horses remaining.

“I just went for it,” said Alfano smiling. “He was unbelievable. In the handy I felt like I really galloped from the beginning. The jumps felt spectacular.

“Once his mind was on business—if his mind isn’t on business you know you’re a little bit in trouble—I knew he’d be right there with me,” she said laughing. “In those handy classes you can really gallop and turn, and know he’s there for you.”

Owner Susie Schoellkopf agreed: “I thought she was amazing. It was so much fun to see her out there and to know that I’ve kept [Jersey Boy] for her for just this moment.”

Provost, Westfields, Ind., had a heartbreaking moment with Peridot when they dropped from second to 10th after he took a dislike to the skinny brush fence.

Then there was one—Rumba.

All eyes were on the pair as they cantered under the archway on the way to the first fence. Did French feel the pressure? 

“People say that [I’m good under pressure],” French said with a laugh.

“But it’s not like I don’t get nervous. I do get nervous, but I do have to get into the zone. Once I get on the horse and start riding it’s easier. It’s hard when you’re thinking about it all day. That’s the thing about Rumba, he has such a relaxing stride. His rhythm is relaxing, and it relaxes you.”

Rumba and French won both hunter derbies on the HITS Desert Circuit (Calif.) and two circuit titles, then the Danish-bred with the registered name Mosegaardens Caramba (Carano—Brandibah) showed lightly through the summer with owner Taylor Seibel in the small junior division and with French in the second year green division.

Just prior to the derby finals, Rumba won the $10,000 Grand Hunter Challenge at Menlo Park (Calif.) and was the show’s second year green champion. But French didn’t prepare him specifically for the finals.

“I knew he was really good over natural jumps and super brave,” he said. “I thought maybe there would be opening and closing of a gate, then I thought, ‘Please don’t let that happen because I never did practice that!’ ”

French considers Rumba one of the best horses he’s ever ridden.   

“With a lot of horses I’ll go in and feel like I help them out,” said French. “With Rumba, I know that he’s going to help me too. I don’t go in there thinking, ‘Oh, I hope I find all of the distances.’ He can help me out, and with his relaxing way of going, it’s a great feeling.”

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