Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

Upolu Retires From Eventing In Style


When most people retire, they’d be exceptionally fortunate to receive a gold watch. But when Jessica DiGenova’s Upolu retired after this year’s CN North American Junior and Young Riders Championships, she took an individual gold medal and a team bronze medal back to Ontario, Canada.

“This is her last event,” DiGenova said. “I’ve had her for five years, and this is a nice way to finish.”
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When most people retire, they’d be exceptionally fortunate to receive a gold watch. But when Jessica DiGenova’s Upolu retired after this year’s CN North American Junior and Young Riders Championships, she took an individual gold medal and a team bronze medal back to Ontario, Canada.

“This is her last event,” DiGenova said. “I’ve had her for five years, and this is a nice way to finish.”

“Momma” never showed her age Aug. 1-5 in Lexington, Va. The 17-year-old, Dutch Warmblood-Thoroughbred mare gave DiGenova the best dressage test she’s ever had. It was clean, accurate, full of energy, and worth the division’s top score. After earning a 46.4, the only faults DiGenova and Upolu added were 4 cross-country time penalties.

“She’s not a fast horse no matter how fit I get her,” DiGenova explained. “Galloping is probably her weakest point. She just doesn’t move quickly across the ground like a full Thoroughbred does. I was more concerned with riding accurately so I could shave off as much time as possible because it all adds up in the end.”

Though her trainer Darren Chiacchia had suggested she take the long, 180-degree loop from jumps 8 to 9—two large top hats in opposing directions—DiGenova opted at the last minute for a razor-tight cutback.

David O’Connor’s course required  the kind of clever and aggressive ride DiGenova set out to run from the get go. The two-star show jumping called for the same strategy.

“The show jumping took an aggressive, powerful ride,” she declared. “She felt tired today and I had to get after her, but she gave me her all and I was really happy.” 

With rails falling in every direction before her trip, DiGenova tried not to think about other riders’ problems. “I just tried to think about what I was doing at the time,” she said. “I put it behind me and focused on my own riding. I know I had three rails in hand, but I wanted to go clear.”

And with that, Momma finished her decorated career with a faultless round. This gold medal joins their other milestones, such as their first two-star victory at the Florida CCI and the birth of Upolu’s first foal by Windfall. DiGenova’s mother Katherine couldn’t have been happier either.

“I cried!” she exclaimed. “She’s worked so hard for this. She’s trained and conditioned so hard, and this horse takes a lot of conditioning.”

While Upolu will surely enjoy a luxurious retirement, the DiGenvoas will still have their hands full. “We already have a Windfall baby from her,” Katherine said proudly. “She’s adorable! We did an embryo transfer and now have an 8-week-old filly.”

Musical Chairs

While DiGenova’s Ontario Canada team went from first to fourth to third throughout the weekend, it seemed the race for team gold and silver was up for grabs. With faults flooding the show jumping ring, the team gold came down to which squad knew their stuff best in the stadium.

The Area III/X combination of Brett Elise Handy and Promising Sportsfield, Georgia Gibbes riding Bounce Back, Kate Luce on Tia Lusso, and individual bronze medalist Kirsten Selvig aboard Ruse de Guerre, found the right mix of determination and camaraderie to stand atop the podium together.

That camaraderie especially came in handy for Handy. She was this year’s sole representative from Area X, but after she and her 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse bounced back and forth between teams, she finally landed with the soon-to-be gold medalists.

“I was originally supposed to be with Area VI. I don’t know exactly what happened,” she explained, “but I ended up with Area III, and here we are.”

But she had some familiar faces on the team. She and Luce both train with Chiacchia, and she had met Gibbes before. Shaking up the teams, however, left Handy on the opposite side of the Virginia Horse Center’s stables, which was a shame considering some of the extracurricular activities taking place at the hands of the Area III girls.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff together,” Selvig said with a sly grin. “Lots of jokes and pranking on the coach. My teammates covered his rental car in oatmeal. I think they used syrup to get it to stick because apparently it stinks quite badly. That was a little team bonding!”

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But when it came time to get serious, Selvig and Ruse de Guerre led the charge with the team’s top score. “I was kind of surprised that I qualified [this year],” she said, referring to her less-than-ideal performance at last year’s NAJYRC in the CCI* division. “This was only his fourth intermediate event and his first CCI. We weren’t expecting a whole lot.”

Ruse de Guerre did feel a bit spooky on cross-country, she said, “but it was more of a ‘look at it’ spookiness rather than ‘I don’t know’ or ‘no.’ But I liked the course. The Geronimo bank complex always scares the bejesus out of me, but it rode fine.”

Gibbes also liked the course. “It had its technical questions, but they were very much doable. If you kept going forward, you could work it out,” she said. “The hardest thing for us is coming from the South where it’s typically flatter and harder to find hills. Coming here it’s a bit difficult to condition your horse. Luckily, we could go up to the Bouckaert’s farm, and they have the hills there.”

She, Luce and Selvig cracked down and trained for two weeks at the Bouckaert’s farm in Northern Georgia before taking on O’Connor’s undulating courses at the Virginia Horse Center.

“I thought there were some tough questions out there, but they all just went straight through them,” O’Connor said. “I thought the riding was really good, and they all came off looking like they had jumped something. It’s a tough balance of trying to make it a real competition and trying to make it a good experience.”

He was pleased to hear, or not hear as it were, hoof beats around the course in light of the season’s bone-dry weather. Four days of aeration and watering seemed to keep most riders and horses happy.

When all four members of the Area VI/II team left O’Connor’s course fault-free they took over the lead, with Area III/X in second place. But Sunday morning’s horse inspection shuffled the standings more, since two horses from Area VI/II could not show jump. Alexandra Curtiss withdrew Carakat, and Jennifer Brannigan’s Kozmo was eliminated. Area VI/II was defunct, and Area III/X took over the lead.

Area III/X added 27 show jumping faults, and Handy’s unfortunate 44-fault trip became the drop score. “We always have a little bit of trouble in the stadium,” she admitted. “That’s definitely my weak point.”

“This day didn’t go as well as we would have planned,” agreed Luce, who added 15 faults. “But I think we all put ourselves in the right position yesterday and in the dressage where we had a little room to breathe.”

Despite the rails, the team’s 26.6-fault cushion over the silver medalists from Area VIII gave them the win.

It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over

Though Nate Chambers’ Area VI/II team fell out of the running, he and his 11-year-old, black Hanoverian Rolling Stone II still ended up with an individual silver medal to add their 2005 individual and team gold medals in the one-star.

“Rolly” put his best hoof forward for Chambers and produced one of the best cross-country rounds he’s ever had. “He came off extremely well,” Chambers said. “He’s fit and cooled down well, and each time we trotted him he looked fantastic.”

The pair galloped from fifth to third after a clean cross-country run. When Kozmo was spun in the third jog, he was bumped into the silver position just before show jumping. Selvig and Ruse de Guerre, however, still loomed only 1.4 points behind.

While most riders dropped multiple rails, Selvig and Chambers caught only 4 faults apiece. Chambers kept his silver and said he liked the course. “I tend to let him get behind my leg, so when the course requires you to keep a good pace to your distances, it really helps me give him a better ride.”

Training with Phillip Dutton has helped improve Chambers’ cross-country style and gave him an edge at the intermediate level this year after an initially difficult time coping with the step up from preliminary.

“I was riding backwards, pulling him to that close distance and shutting him down versus engaging his hind end and moving him up to that close distance,” Chambers said. “Now I’m jumping through coffins on the buckle. Phillip has been amazing.”

He traveled south to Aiken, S.C., this winter where he rented a four-stall barn from Mara Dean and trained. His original plan called for a single semester off from Shenandoah University (Va.), but at 20 years old, his young rider career is dwindling down. 

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A taste of life as a professional horseman has convinced him, “there’s nothing else I’d rather do,” he said.

First Time’s A Charm

Area IV managed to cling to their lead for most of the one-star competition with only three members after Edith Lee and Ballycormac Petrocelli were eliminated in dressage.

But at the last minute, four NAJYRC first-timers from Area IX pulled out the win as Anisa Tracy led the squad aboard Tigger VIII and eventually earned individual gold.

She was thrilled that she and her sister, individual bronze medalist Kendyl Tracy and her off-the-track Thor-oughbred, Mr. Incredible, qualified for the event and shared a team.

Anisa was elated after her 8-year-old Thoroughbred cross produced a winning dressage test. “It was the best I’ve ever had,” she said beaming.

But she didn’t quite stand alone. Nina Ligon and Pacific Storm, another NAJYRC first-time pair, shared that 48.1-fault score and weren’t going to hand over the lead without a fight.

Pacific Storm, a 17.2-hand, Westphalian gelding, blew through the cross-country course easily ahead of the optimum time but threw both of his front shoes.

“The course flowed well, and he jumped everything really well,” Ligon said.

Anisa was also happy with her trip. “Time has always been one of our weakest points,” she admitted. “But I’ve been learning how to gallop fences better for the last month.”

She and her Area IX cohorts spent the last two weeks training with Jan Byyny. “We got to be an actual team, not just four people who came to ride,” she commented.

Holly Hillenbrand, who rode Woodrow and finished 12th individually, added, “[Jan Byyny] knows a lot and is very positive. She’s given us a lot of advice throughout.”

With only three riders, the leading Area IV team had no drop score. Eventual individual silver medalist Cassidy Lundmark and What’s Shakin had 4 faults, as did teammate Hannah Ross and Fantasia. Area IV’s final rider, Jordynn Grace Sahagian on Nestor, accumulated 8 faults, and the team stepped down to silver.

All seemed well for Ligon until Pacific Storm jumped big into a combination and the pair suffered a heartbreaking fall. She hopped back in the tack and finished her round, but the individual gold would go to Tigger and Anisa after they finished without fault.

Her sister Kendyl jumped clear as well for Area IX, and the team, which also included  Sarah Huebner, won by 6 faults. They all hope to compete at next year’s NAJYRC when it comes to their area in Parker, Colo.

NAJYRC Eventing Tidbits

• The Field Style award was presented to the entire CCI* Area VI team (Meredith Ragno/Sentinal K, Tara McKenna Polkabla/Current Leader, and Maxance McManamy/Beacon Hill) for showing “Style throughout the week, not only when mounted, but also in the form of manners and their overall demeanor around the competition grounds and at the organized functions.”

• Frank and Stacia Madden, show jumping and equitation trainers at Beacon Hill Show Stables (N.J.), enthusiastically cheered on Maxance McManamy’s Thoroughbred gelding, Beacon Hill, during Saturday’s morning’s CCI* cross-country phase. The pair finished fourth individually.

• CCI* competitor Taylor Stephens rode Sarah McRae’s off-the-track Thor-oughbred, Goldship, who once jumped off the race track before Stephens bought him and introduced him to eventing.

• CCI** competitor Jennifer Brannigan’s Kozmo has endured two colic surgeries and has been hit by a car. The pair sat second after a clean cross-country trip but, unfortunately, didn’t advance past the final horse inspection.

Joshua A. Walker

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