April 15, 2016 - Amid the quiet morning backdrop of the San Juan hills, twenty-nine entries took to the Grand Prix grass field to vie for the top prize in the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby. With esteemed judges Timmy Keyes, Rob Gage, Brian Lenehan and Frank Willard presiding in two panels, the class was a display of athleticism and scope in both the classic and handy rounds while everyone in attendance enjoyed a complimentary Hunter Derby breakfast.
Course designer Alan Lohman of Poolesville, MD, laid out a fluid track that filled out the expansive grass field with ample decorations atop and around the fences. A range of competitors, from up-and-coming juniors to seasoned professionals, showed off their hunter prowess as they rode in the classic round. Fourth to go in the order, John Bragg and new mount Early August (Ann Thornton, owner), impressed the judges and the audience, earning a total score of 180.
Despite a host of solid rides from the following other entries, the top spot didn't change until John French and seasoned Derby partner Center Court (owned by Hiller Farms) rose to the top of the leaderboard with a total score of 185.5. The pair's classic round score ultimately remained the one to beat in the classic round, with Bragg coming in second and Jenny Karazissis earning third and fourth aboard Legacy (Emily Sukert, owner) and Burrata (owned by Nicodemus Farms).
The top twelve returning for the handy round didn't disappoint, showing agility and making the most of the extra handy points over the intricately twisting track. Sitting ninth, and third to return, Katie Gardner and Maldini (owned by Starlane Farms, Inc.), exemplified scope and skill as they earned maximum high option points and excellent handy points to add to their second-round score, totaling out for the class at 351. Three rounds after Gardner, Buddy Brown and Derby Hill, LLC's Finally Ours laid down a smart and sharp handy round, earning a total score of 350.5, just half a point lower than Gardner's total.
Bragg and Early August put in a smooth second round to earn a total of 349.5, ultimately earning third, with final contender French and Center Court unfortunately missing a lead change, which secured Gardner's win in the class.
New this season, generous sponsor awards recognized other top rides and participants. The Arthur B. Hawkins Award of Excellence went to trainer Philip Cillis, of Westwood Show Stables in Rancho Santa Fe, for his numerous years and success as a professional rider and trainer.
Nick Haness was awarded the Romfh Leading Professional Award for the Spring Series. Top class awards included the Equitex Trainer Award to James Hagman of Elvenstar, Balmoral Farm Owner Award to Starlane Farms, Inc., and premier grooming company Shapley's presented the Best Turned Out Award to Legacy and groom Sergio Garcia. The Plaid Horse High Score Junior Hunter Rider Derby Award went to the up-and-coming Elli Yeager and the One K Helmets High Score Amateur Hunter Rider Derby Award went to Kaitlyn Van Konynenburg.
"Maldini was amazing today," Gardner said of the 2007 Swedish warmblood. "His main job is the adult hunters with his owner but we have brought him along from the baby greens to the big derbies. He is so brave and honest. I'm thrilled with the win today and so grateful for the opportunity to ride such a talented horse."
Gardner also commented on the benefits of showing at Blenheim and the hardworking management and staff, saying, "I really enjoyed the course. The jumps are always so beautiful at Blenheim, and they always make the classes feel special and important."
The showcase events continue this weekend during the Spring Classic IV horse show. The jumper highlights include the second Interactive Mortgage Horses 10&U Futurity qualifier and the $50,000 Spring Classic IV Grand Prix, presented by Davidson Communities, on Saturday, April 16th. The afternoon will include opening ceremonies by the Shea Therapeutic Riding Center and a special naming of the grass field that has hosted years of great sport. And as a final celebration, Leading Rider Awards will be presented to wrap up the Blenheim Spring Series on Sunday.