Sam Walker had a decision to make. As the judges weighed who would win the ASPCA Maclay this afternoon, the 16-year-old needed to choose between doing a flying lead change to get the counter-canter as part of the last test, or avoiding a possible mishap with a less dramatic simple change. The question was, how much did he need to impress the judges, since he already was ranked first?
Let me set the stage. The class, which started at 7 a.m. with 175 competitors in the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena, was down to that final round late in the day. Sam was the last of six finalists to go in the test that required them to counter-canter over the third of five fences, which was the most telling part of the exercise.
Brian Moggre, who was the leader a few hours earlier when the top 25 were called back to ride again after the first round, had dropped to third following that trip when his horse hit the A element of a double and he then made a big move to get the counter-canter in order to jump an oxer that was the seventh fence on the semi-final course. (Judges Tim Kees and Chance Arakelian liked counter-canter tests.)
Sam, standing second going into that round, was moved up to first in the rankings when the extra test of the top six was mandated. Coco Fath, originally ranked second of the top six, was no longer in contention for the lead after her horse spooked dramatically in the middle of her round.
So Brian, who last month won another prestigious equitation classic, the Platinum Performance/USEF Medal, was in effect breathing down Sam’s neck after doing a beautiful flying change to get the counter-canter before that third fence as required. Sam weighed everything and decided on going with the simple change to protect his status.
It was the right choice. He did it well, the judges were impressed and his name will be engraved on the treasured silver tray that memorializes such historic winners as Olympic medalists Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot and George Morris, among so many other stars dating back to 1933.
The courses this time around, devised by Bobby Murphy with input from the judges, offered plenty of options for riders along the way. The look was interesting, with a lack of wings and use of an obstacle modeled on racetrack railing, which we also saw here last year.
The judges assessed the top two finishers as a close match. Judge Tim noted the boys were only a half-point apart.
“Sam was very smart in the final test,” Tim commented.
“Brian had to take a shot and he did; it was very good. He came back third and then moved up because he took a shot and made it happen. Sam was smart because he didn’t take a shot. He rode it beautifully, did a simple change and got a great result. It was beautifully done.”
Tim also was delighted to see male competitors at the top, noting it’s usually the girls who dominate. Sam is only the fourth boy to win since 1991.
A native of Ontario, Canada, Sam is a working student at North Run for Missy Clark and her husband, John Brennan, who train him along with his parents, Scott and Dee Walker, also professionals.
Missy was overjoyed with the way Sam figured out what to do about that crucial counter-canter, since the six riders were not able to consult with their trainers when they rode into the ring and were given the particulars of the final test. All Missy could do was keep her fingers crossed that he would come to the right conclusion.
“I was hoping he would play his hand like he did,” she said.
“I was so proud that he thought like a horseman. I would have done the same thing if I was sitting on that horse. I was thrilled with that choice.”
While Sam is only a high school junior, being a professional seems part of his future. For one thing, he handles pressure well, and pressure is synonymous with the Maclay. Winning it is a credential that will serve him well in the horse business, though he still couldn’t quite believe it even after his victory gallop.
“I think I’m kind of in shock more than anything,” he said.
“I didn’t expect for everything to come so soon and I’m really, really grateful that I got to experience this and ride in this class, let alone come out on top.”
You can hear more of his thoughts by clicking on this video.
Sam rode Waldo, a lanky gray who ironically came to North Run via Brian Walker—no relation, but a Canadian who won the 2001 Maclay.
Describing Waldo as “a really quirky horse,” Sam noted he has been “a little bit of a project.”
On the plus side, “He always wants to do well,” Sam said. “He’s a real winner in my mind and he always tries his hardest for me.”
Sam’s father has a delicate line to walk, because it’s tricky when a parent is also the trainer. Find out what he had to say about how he and Dee handle it by clicking on this video.
Brian didn’t go away empty-handed. In addition to the reserve ribbon, he also got an award from Wilson Dennehy, the 1955 Maclay winner, for being the highest point earner in the indoor equitation championships.
With another year as junior rider, Brian could try for a Maclay win again in 2019, but he wants to focus more on the jumpers (he’s already winning FEI classes) and isn’t sure about continuing in equitation.
In connection with his success this season, the Texan cited the support of trainers Mike McCormick and Tracy Fenney; Ken and Emily Smith and Don Stewart.
“Everybody was on my side and I’m really excited to see where the future goes,” he said.
ASPCA Maclay National Championship Results
Sam Walker, Nobleton, Ontario (CAN)
Brian Moggre, Flower Mound, TX
Paige Matthies, Lake Leelanau, MI
Mimi Gochman, Palm Beach, FL
Coco Fath, Fairfield, CT
Emma Kurtz, Hudson, OH
Cris Van De Helle
Elli Yaeger, Wellington, FL
Farah Rizvi, Greenwich, CT
Devin Seek, Ocala, FL
Sophie Gochman, Palm Beach, FL