That Time An Olympic Eventer Pulled Into WEC And Won The $20,000 Hunter Derby

Jan 13, 2021 - 7:58 AM

The way Will Coleman tells it, the idea to enter Tropics in the $20,000 WEC Hunter Derby wasn’t his. One of his customers, Gillian Grant, suggested it.

“Not long after she leased [Tropics] she said, ‘You know what? I think this horse can do hunter derbies,’ ” said Coleman. “I said, ‘OK, Jill, he might, but I don’t know a thing about hunter derbies.’ ”

But that didn’t stop the Olympic Games and FEI World Equestrian Games veteran from winning the feature class at the World Equestrian Center Ocala Winter Spectacular #1, held Jan. 6-10 in Ocala, Florida, aboard Tropics. It was his first formal hunter class (“I asked the nice guy at the in-gate if I should have on tails like everyone else, but he said that was just for ladies,” Coleman said), and aside from a warm-up show in December, his first hunter class in decades.

“My dad made me do some hunters as a kid,” said Coleman, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, but is based in Ocala in the winter. “He thought it was an important way to start jumping, just concentrate on rhythm and pace. But that was when I was 10, and I’m 37.”

WEB Will Coleman Tropics
In the first formal hunter class of his career, Olympic eventer Will Coleman rode Tropics to the top of the $20,000 WEC Hunter Derby. Andrew Ryback Photo

To prepare for the class Coleman shipped over to Aaron Vale’s farm, so his friend and longtime hunter/jumper professional could get his eyes on Tropics before Coleman went to WEC. But that didn’t mean he was completely prepared.

“I didn’t read the prize list, so I wasn’t sure what the format was,” Coleman admitted. “I had an idea of the [handy hunter round] just from watching. I just asked Aaron, ‘Do I go around that jump? Do I trot a circle at the end?’ I knew there was some decorum. I tried not to look foolish. Honestly, I just wanted to ride the horse like you want them to be ridden: relaxed, balanced and obedient.”

That 10-year-old Selle Français by Diarado may be a picture-perfect hunter, but he didn’t start out that way. Team Rebecca bought Tropics as a 4-year-old eventing prospect for Coleman. He competed successfully in the U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse classes and then went through training level under Coleman’s saddle.

“He just developed into a larger horse who’s definitely more suited for the show world than the event world,” said Coleman. “I talked to the [owners] about maybe shifting him to the jumpers, and we did.”

He switched to jumper classes as a 6-year-old. By the time he was 8 he’d won the $20,000 HITS Open Prix (Virginia) with Coleman, who competed Tropics through the 1.40-meter level. Last year Grant was looking for a jumper to lease, and Coleman immediately thought of Tropics. The two made their debut in July, alternating between the hunter and jumper rings.

Coleman realized that the event was run by the National Snaffle Bit Association, not the U.S. Equestrian Federation. He double-checked the December statement released by the USEF and the World Equestrian Center, which confirmed that Fédération Equestre Internationale riders wouldn’t be rendered ineligible for competing at an event that wasn’t sanctioned by the national governing body.

He drove into the gates of WEC the day before the competition for two warm-up classes and then trailered back the next day—the only ship-in at a facility where stalls are free. On derby day he got up and worked his event horses and let Tropics have time in his paddock before getting back on the trailer for the big class.

“He’s a very laidback guy,” said Coleman of Tropics. “He does like to show, and he likes atmosphere; it doesn’t hot him up too much. Jill describes him as a frat boy, and I could see why. He’s a bit of an entitled horse at times. He bangs on his gate when he wants to go to the paddock, and he’s very food-oriented. He’s lovely to ride, a very rhythmical horse who doesn’t like a lot of contact. Even in flatwork he works on a long rein with his neck out as much as he possibly can. I probably should have thought of [turning him into a hunter] sooner.

“I was glad it was at WEC—the place is incredible,” he continued. “I’d love to be show jumping in there. That’s probably my first love, but to do the hunter derby was equally cool. I’ve been lucky to show all over the world, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a facility like it anywhere. In atmosphere Aachen [Germany] is second to none, but the facility at WEC is in the same sort of class.”

Despite his success in the derby Coleman will be mainly focusing on his six event horses for the rest of the season, though he has a few jumpers in his barn as well. He’s eyeing the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5* for three of his mounts and the Jersey Fresh CCI4*-L (New Jersey) for another two.

“It’s an Olympic year, and we’ll have a couple horses that will hopefully be in the running for that, but it’s a competitive team,” said Coleman. “We’re just trying to do the best job we can, and we’ll see how everything shakes out.”

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