Lillie Keenan and C Coast Z jumped an ivy-covered curved wall next to the farm entrance gate, cantered through a narrow opening to a brown stone wall set next to a barn, over a hay wagon, then to a blown-down tree. She galloped to the next field, past a pond and boat, across a creek, over a hedge lane and exited the farm over an iron gate.
While it might sound like she was out foxhunting across grand open landscape, Lillie was actually on her way to winning the 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals, presented by Dietrich Equine Insurance, at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, August 20. Course designers Patrick Rodes and Bobby Murphy transformed the Sheila C. Johnson Arena into a barnyard during the final rounds, constructing a farm entrance, lane, barn, fields, hedges, gates—and even brought a fox and hounds (at least wood cutouts of them).
Under the bright arena lights and in front of the crowd of nearly 1,000 enthusiastic spectators, the 14-year-old from New York, New York, outrode seasoned professionals to take top honors. The original starting list of 58 top horse-and-rider combinations from across North America even included one of Lillie's trainers from Heritage Farm, Patricia Griffith.
This was Lillie's second year competing in the Finals on the 11-year-old gray Zangersheide gelding. The former grand-prix jumper was originally purchased as an equitation horse before he became a hunter. "I was definitely surprised. I didn't think it was likely that a Junior could win," said Lillie. "I knew I was going to have to give it my all. My horse was ready, but I needed to make it clear to him that I was ready, too, and that I needed him to shine at that moment."
Coming into the top 12, Lillie said, "Scott Stewart was ahead of me, so I knew I needed to take some risks." Scott had won the previous two rounds on another former grand-prix jumper, Carlos-Boy, a 16-year-old Holsteiner gelding. Unfortunately, when it came to the final round, the second of the day, Carlos-Boy became overly excited when he thought he was heading into a jumpoff, earning a score that dropped them to fifth in the final standings.
Eight judges in four teams of two scored each horse-and-rider pair. Riders received an extra point per judging team for each high fence option that was taken (up to 16 points). Each pair could also award up to 10 "handy" points for each rider based on the difficulty of the track, turns, and so on. Scores from the final handy round were added to the scores from the classic round, and the total decided the outcome.
Of her plan for riding the handy course, Lillie explained that most of the longer lines walked pretty open. "Going in, I thought I would just have to ride off my eye and trust that what I saw would end up being the right distance. As it turned out, the lines got a lot easier. It was a challenge to have them walk long and go in and suddenly [ride shorter], but I think that's a place where you need to know you can trust your horse, trust your eye and just ride what you feel."
Judge Julie Winkel said of Lillie's ride, "She rode to win. The horse was consistent and beautiful, and you could see the teamwork. It looked like they had been together a long time." Overall, the judges agreed that it was Lillie's great hand gallop and collection to Fence 6 that locked in her win.
Here is a fence-by-fence breakdown of the course, as planned by the two designers, along with Lillie's thoughts on how she rode each obstacle.
Fence 1: Curved Ivy Wall
Height: Just over 3-foot-6
Construction: Curved wall covered with ivy and flanked by two pillars. Wall had breakaway caps and a brush ground line.
Course Designer Notes: The horses cantered into the arena and rode directly to the first fence. "The curved wall zooms the horse in," explained Bobby. "It's still a little bit spooky because they have to go between those pillars, which are over ten feet tall and four feet wide."
Lillie: Going into the ring, I was clear with my plan. On C Coast Z, I have a habit of not guiding him enough to the first fence, so I almost overcompensated and overprotected it. I think he was a little bit surprised, like, "Oh it's dark, and there's lights and lots of people are screaming and this is a funny-looking fence," so I may have overreacted just a hair.
It didn't look so much like a fence; it looked more like a decoration. It was a little shadowy and the light was hitting it a little funny, so I had to tell him, "This is the first fence, we have to get going."
The first fence was easy, so it was fine. He landed left, and then I knew I had to get going if I really wanted it.
Fence 2: Kentucky Horse Park Foundation Wall
Construction: A solid, brown stone wall, composed of three tiered boxes. It was set perpendicular to a prefabricated barn that had a saddle rack constructed from recycled arena fence boards, an old wheelbarrow with feed and other items that would be seen in a barnyard.
Course Designer Notes: "With it being busy in front of the barn, we didn't want to make anything too complicated," said Bobby. "It was fifteen feet wide, so horses could hit it at different angles to be handy from fence one to two. A lot of them jumped it at a pretty good angle, so they were almost jumping into the corner of the barn."
Lillie: Riding toward the second fence, I had to guide him a little bit through the gap [between the farm lane and two angled gray walls used in the top 25 classic course]. I was afraid he was going to swap off if he looked too much to the right at the gray walls. I jumped fence 2 at quite a [left-to-right] slice, and I made sure I allowed him to land and finish his jump and then turn.