August 13, 2009 -- By midday August 9, the Kentucky Horse Park began to look vacant. Ponies were unbraided and cooled, loaded trailers rumbled toward home and the usually lively vendor row was filled with merchants striking their tents and packing their wares.
After four days of fierce competition in the Pony Hunters and Jumpers, the whirlwind that is the 2009 USEF Pony Finals was spiraling to a calm. Still, the day was not done and all eyes were focused on the one remaining prize: The Equisport Insurance/USEF Pony Medal Championship Final.
Over 200 starters in the three size divisions (small, medium and large)--all of which had to earn 30 points during a designated period to qualify for the class--gathered in the park's covered arena to vie for the ultimate equitation challenge, which concluded a marathon 11 hours later.
In the end, it was Ailish Cunniffe, 12, of South Salem, N.Y., astride her medium pony Major League, who found herself draped in the winning honor.
Round one consisted of 10 fences and 12 obstacles. Riders were required to make a handy halt after the 8a-b combination and then trot to fence 9. The course's clear trouble spot was the combination at 5a-b, a natural obstacle set along the arena's spooky outside wall that caused numerous refusals.
By late afternoon, the first round had finished and the top 25 riders--one small, 10 larges and 14 mediums--were called back for a second challenge. Cunniffe and second place finisher Madelyn Keck ended the round neck and neck, and so the judges put forth a last test to see just who had enough mettle for the medal.
"I'm so very excited," said a Cunniffe after finishing her victory gallop. "I've been to Pony Finals many times since my mom and dad are both trainers, but I have never actually shown. This is my first time competing."
Major League, on the other hand, is a "medal veteran," according to trainer (and Mom) Bonnie Cunniffe and co-trainer Cullen Latimer. The 14-year-old Welsh pony has won numerous ribbons and medals. "We own him, but I lease him out," added Bonnie. "Ailish really never gets to practice on him. But my deal with leasing him was that she could use him for this week at Pony Finals."
Ailish had no trouble navigating the courses, which she described as "a little challenging," and she had no qualms heading into the troublesome 5a-b. "He's not spooky at all," she said. "I wasn't worried. He was the best boy today."
Earning second place and reserve champion honors was Madelyn Keck, 11, of Allamuchy, N.J., who piloted her medium Connemara/Welsh cross Tango, and third place went to Victoria Colvin of Loxahatchee, Fla., and her medium pony Promise Too.