November 3, 2013 -- Exactly four weeks ago, Lillie Keenan seemed to be in a great position to win the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East. She was in the lead going into the third phase of the competition, and then something completely unexpected happened.
Her usually reliable horse, Clearway, spooked and stopped at the third fence on the Sunday morning show jumping course, then stopped again two fences later. A dazed Lillie--the North American Junior and Young Riders Championship gold medalist--was eliminated.
That incident certainly gave Lillie pause, but the 17-year-old junior at the Spence School in New York regrouped and last month, won the Pessoa/USEF Medal finals. Today, she followed that up at the Alltech National Horse Show by taking the ASPCA Maclay title, the most coveted in the world of hunt seat equitation.
Her nane will be engraved on the silver tray trophy that lists such legends of the sport as Billy Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, George Morris, Bernie Traurig and Conrad Homfeld.
It also enabled her to earn a relatively rare double, taking the two most prestigious horsemanship championships in the same year.
"It's definitely something I wanted desperately, and to think I completed it before my final junior year is really exciting," she said.
"I don't think this is the end, this is the beginning."
The class, judged by Susie Humes and U.S. show jumping coach Robert Ridland, utilized two intriguing courses designed by the judges and Bobby Murphy, a regular at the Kentucky Horse Park. It amazed me how few horses and riders in the field of 148 were fazed in the first round by the likes of a narrow stone wall, an odd-looking "bar-way" triple bar (a bar-way, Bobby told me, is used to put up a barrier in a fence opening, and he replicated a 1932 National Horse Show jump in creating this), a two-stride double of white racetrack rails and a white curving "swoop" gate between faux stone pillars. There were the usual runouts and refusals, of course, but no mass hysteria.
Just a word about Bobby: I found his enthusiasm contagious. He showed me his collection of old horse show posters, from which he replicates various jumps. But the first fence, utilizing what he called a "pole gate" is something he dug out of his grandfather's barn (he said it was buried behind 37 other fences), cleaned up and installed next to a water wheel.
Back to Lillie. Back to Lillie. She started out in third place after the first round. Leading the way was Sophie Simpson (daughter of Olympic gold medalist Will Simpson and Nicole Shahinian Simpson, who won the class in 1992 when the show was at New Jersey's Meadowlands). Sydney Shulman stood second. But Lillie rose to the top after the flat phase, where her work was flawless. The judges, who worked three groups of 10 riders, asked for extension, collection, counter-canter and a half-pass, so they could see lateral work. That's all part of what a show jumper needs to do, pointed out Robert.
He said as he got on the plane, his wife, Hillary, gave him Debbie McDonald's book, "Riding Through" to read on his flight, and that's where he came up with the half-pass. I thought that was especially neat, because I wrote the book with her.
Following the flatwork, Sophie was dropped behind Lillie in the standings, followed by Kelli Cruciotti, who had been eighth before the flat segment.
The final test, for the top 20, utilized much the same fences as the first round, but in a different order. Challenges included a trot fence, a double of wingless skinny faux stone walls and and approach to a fan fence on the counter-lead.
As Susie Humes noted, the class pinned itself; there was no need for a final work-off.
Talent Search Finals East winner Michael Hughes, who had been standing fourth, found trouble with the trot fence, failing to come down to a trot from the canter in a timely fashion, then lunging over the fence. He also had a knockdown at the final fence and did not get a ribbon.
Kelli turned in a fancy trip, but Sophie had a green horse and wasn't able to sustain her first round brilliance. She wound up eighth and Kelli moved up to second. Charlotte Jacobs, who had been 11th, got promoted to third. But Lillie didn't give up her lead and was at her best in the Alltech Arena, putting in a flowing, harmonious trip on guess who--Clearway, who also was her mount for the Medal. The horse was selected for her by her trainer, Andre Dignelli of Heritage, who enthused about his elasticity.
I talked to Lillie after the show, wondering how she had overcome what had to be deep concern about her horse. She did mention that she rode defensively in the first round of the Medal, but after that she and the bay gelding were back on track.
Here's what she said about how she handled a situation that could have ruined all the finals for her.
Andre was emotional about the victory. That was understandable, because he has coached Lillie since she was seven years old. It's obvious both he and she practically consider themselves family.
Andre was recommended to Lillie's mother (a rider herself) by Joe Fargis and Conrad Homfeld, and Andre noted the Keenans in effect have come full circle, since Conrad was the show jumping course designer here. And Andre mentioned that Lillie will stop doing the hunters and focus on jumpers (she's already a grand prix winner), as well as trying to win the Talent Search next year.
"I'm overwhelmed," said Andre, as he summed up his reaction to her triumph.
"I thought today we won in a magical way. I thought the round was stunning, it was polished, it was relaxed, everything that you work for for years. If you're the best rider on the best horse, you win both the equitation finals. I had to get this done. So, I did it, and I'm thrilled."
Look for my postcard on one of my favorite shows, Toronto's Royal Winter Fair, next Sunday afternoon. I'm particularly looking forward to covering the rabbit jumping. Really.