I wasn't particularly eager today to cover hunter competition at The Stadium (aka the grounds of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival) after a late night yesterday at the $500,000 Rolex grand prix.
It was the wrap-up of Week 12, the end of the Winter Equestrian Festival, and I would have preferred that it concluded with the grand prix over at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. But then I got to The Stadium and became overwhelmed, as usual, with the beauty of the derby course on a perfect Florida day, and was glad I had come.
The course is removed from the main arena where the dressage takes place, and very different than PBIEC a half-mile away. Lots of palm trees and grass footing are a departure from the usual show atmosphere here. Spectators lounge on a hill with a great view of the course, and there's a picnic-like feeling about the entire scene.
It was, however, no picnic for the 25 starters who made the cut into this afternoon's handy round from yesterday's classic round in a ring at PBIEC, where Ken Krome did the designing. The first fence of birch rails in the classic caused havoc, and things also wouldn't go smoothly for some of the top contenders when they jumped in the handy.
Exhibitors had lots of options in the handy, designed by Bobby Murphy. They included being able to choose among jumps with an option of high or low heights. Another choice facing riders was whether to try a grob (sunken road) at the 10th obstacle, or earn less points there by taking an ordinary jump there. An additional derby-type jump was the bank, and two top contenders came to grief there.
Well, actually that's just an expression; grief is too strong a word. Let's just say that trouble there scuttled their chances.
Peter Wylde, best known as a show jumper, was aboard the stunning grey, Candor 15, coming into the handy in fourth place. That pairing recently had won a derby at The Ridge, which runs shows at various venues in the area.
They were having a lovely round until the two-part bank jump came up. Candor swerved slightly, looking as if he were going to run out, but Peter got him back on track. He lost points there big time, though, and wound up 11th.
It worked out worse for the leader after round one, Mindful, handled by master hunter rider Kelley Farmer.
The black gelding looked beautiful over the first two fences, but then he hit one hard and I said to myself, "Uh-oh." I had recourse to say it again a few fences later when Mindful was doubtful about the bank. He jumped up and then stopped. That dropped him out of the top 12.
Yesterday's second-place finisher, Say When, had been 10 points behind Mindful. Ridden by Canada-based Darcy Hayes, the 6-year-old normally shows in the 3-foot hunters with his owner, Danielle Baran. Darcy is a trainer in the stable of Chris Sorensen, best known as a jumper rider, who imported Say When from Europe when he was a 3-year-old.
He won the hunter derby at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair last year, but it's held indoors and this was a whole different deal. Darcy wasn't sure how he'd handle the troublesome bank, since he had no experience with that type of fence, but he went as if it had always been part of his life. He earned 182 points, giving him a total of 360 to hold his runner-up spot in the line-up.
Darcy, 53, found herself sandwiched in the ribbons between two teen players, but she certainly struck a blow for the mature female rider.
Listen to what she had to say.
Tori Colvin, the 2014 ASPCA Maclay winner who won the Hunter Spectacular at WEF earlier this season for the fourth time, was up on Vaillero. The Zangersheide gelding had been imported by Tori's trainer, Andre Dignelli, as an equitation horse with hunter possibilities.
"We didn't really prepare for this class in terms of jumping banks or on the grass, but he just keeps pleasing us," Andre reported.
"He really wants to walk in the ring. He doesn't seem to mind if there's people, or what ring we're in. He goes in a very agreeable way. He has real scope, a big stride, he's very expressive over the jumps, but not afraid. He seems to be real careful. I'm thrilled."
As well he should be. The 7-year-old moved up 20.5 points in the handy from his first-round score that had him lying third. It would be enough to win his first hunter derby with a total of 370.5.
Not everything went Tori's way, though.
Her other mount, the usually consistent Inclusive, hesitated when Tori chose to take him through the grob, and that dropped him from seventh to out of the ribbons.
Although she has had a great WEF, it's been a little bittersweet for Tori, who is in her final junior year.
"It’s like everything I do, it is the last time," she reflected. On the other hand, what's past is prologue, as they say, and Tori should move seamlessly into the adult ranks with the same success she has enjoyed as a junior.
Another rider from Andre's Heritage Farm, 14-year-old Coco Fath, made the biggest upward move. She went from ninth place to third on her equitation horse, Chemie Ancar, with a trip that added 191 points to her first-round total of 168 for a total of 359, just one less point than Say When's score.
"It has been a lot of great experience showing against Tori because she is such a great rider, and I think I have learned a lot from watching her and riding at Heritage," said Coco, who has a great eye herself.
Her effort with Ancar was a comeback, after her other horse, Shoemaker, who was standing 22d, stopped at a fence.
"I think he was a little afraid of it and I also just didn’t put enough leg on," she said.
It went better with Ancar, who "likes a soft ride with no hand."
Week 12 may be the end of the WEF, but the season is going full steam ahead. There's a Global Champions Tour in Miami Beach next week, with the World Cup finals in Vegas in both dressage and jumping two weeks later. Then we have Rolex Kentucky. And that only gets us through April!
So be sure to come back next month and look for more postcards, particularly from the World Cup and Rolex, where we'll have lots to tell you.