August 20, 2016 — Going into the handy round at Saturday’s International Hunter Derby Championship, Kelley Farmer was sitting pretty. Her mounts Baltimore and Kodachrome were sitting in first and second place after Friday’s opening classic round of the competition, and she held a commanding 17-point lead over her nearest challenger, Kristy Herrera riding Miss Lucy. It looked like the veteran derby rider would finally score her first derby championship.
But that’s when a bit of bad luck kicked in.
Baltimore knocked a block off the very last jump—a big wall—on the course, giving Miss Lucy the win the 2016 championship with a brilliant round of her own. The 14-year-old chestnut mare scored a 90.5, 90.5 and 92.50 from the three judges panels, for a combined two-day score of 587 and prize money of more than $44,651. She edged out Kelley on Kodachrome, who took second place with a two-day score of 582.
“I still can’t believe it, it’s obviously a dream come true,” Kristy said. “It’s unbelievable—the feeling on a horse that knows what it is to be a show horse,” she said. “Every jump felt unbelievable, really unbelievable, especially the last. Really awesome.”
It was a fairy-tale ending for Kristy and trainer Jennifer Alfano, who had injured herself in a fall from Miss Lucy, her long-time partner, earlier in the year. Jennifer had trained Kristy since she was 9, knew her riding ability and made the strategic decision to put Kristy on Miss Lucy just two weeks ago for the derby at Saugerties, New York.
“Everybody knows that horse has such a special place in my heart, for a lot of reasons,” Jennifer said. “It was hard for me to be here not riding. But I was in tears, I had goose bumps. It was so beautiful, the two of them together, I am so proud of both of them.”
Kodachrome’s second-place finish had fairy dust of its own. The 8-year-old chestnut gelding had been ridden by the late Russell Frey, who wanted to bring the horse to the championship finals—which just happened to fall on Russell’s birthday. After Russell’s passing in May, owner Nina Moore honored that request and sent Kodachrome to Kelley to get ready.
“That horse had to carry the weight of the world for the last month, and he has done nothing but to get better and better,” Kelley said, choking up a bit. “For a first-year horse to walk out there and go like that, I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s an incredible animal.”
Liza Boyd took third place on Stella Styslinger’s 14-year-old gelding O’Ryan with a composite score of 578. She said she was “a little bit sad” to be riding in the derby without her legendary mount Brunello, who won the championship in 2013, 2014 and 2015. “I drove out of the driveway and gave Brunello a kiss, and said I can’t do this without you” she said, sharing that she was also carrying a little bit of Brunello’s hair in her jodhpur pocket.
Course designers Bobby Murphy and Danny Moore served up a challenging handy course under the lights at the Rolex Stadium in the Kentucky Horse Park. The course was designed to reflect the natural fences of the hunt course, but the 11 fences included enough pizzazz to keep even the most experienced derby horse interested. The final high option was a cordwood wall fashioned in the shape of a resting horse, set at 5 feet, 1½ inches tall. “The only reason we stopped (building it higher) is because we ran out of blocks,” Danny said, laughing. “The hunters jumped bigger than the grand prix horses tonight, which is a big step forward for the hunter derby program.”
As a first for the derby, the course also included several custom-built sand sculptures flanking the fences. Bobby said that building the course was “the biggest challenge of my career, logistically.” It required more than 125 pounds of sand to create the ornate sand sculptures, which were then sprayed with a sealing agent to protect them from the intermittent rain storms that plagued the two-day competition.
As an active derby competitor, Kelley has collected more than $1.3 million in prize money from the derby program to date. But she has yet to win the championship final and placed second in 2013 and 2015. She ruefully said she was getting “a little bit tired” of winning red coolers but that despite yet another second-place finish, she wouldn’t have ridden Jane Gaston’s Baltimore any other way.
“Look, he is an amazing horse. And Kristy went beautifully,” Kelley said. “It’s not my nature to take the easy way out. So as she went great, she had big scores, and I would be kicking myself if I didn’t jump the big options. And I got beat doing that.”
“That horse did nothing to let me down tonight,” she added. “It just happened to be a little bit of bad luck.”
The USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship is the culmination of qualifying events throughout the year. Since its inception in 2008, the program has paid out more than $8.5 million in prize money. In 2016, 254 horses were enrolled in the program in 32 states and Canada.
For the 2016 championship, 66 horses competed in the classic round on day one with the top-25 horse-and-rider combinations advancing to the Section A handy round, including 20 Tier I riders and 5 Tier II riders. Scores from both rounds are counted toward the championship. Details on the USHJA scoring and tiering system is available at www.ushja.org/programs/ihd/finals_default.aspx.