The top riders in the 10-hour marathon that was the National Horse Show’s ASPCA Maclay “were so, so close,” observed judge Jimmy Torano, but in the end, it was hard work that won the day and the coveted championship for 18-year-old Ava Stearns.
“She’s a fighter and gets it done,” said Jimmy, who officiated with Tammy Provost in the class that began at 7 a.m. yesterday at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena, ending with the prize-giving after 5 p.m.
The judges agreed on what it takes to win the prestigious trophy, which has been in play since 1933. “In the end, it comes down to really wanting it. That girl really wanted it.”
Ava, who received financial assistance to compete from the show’s Leo Conroy Grant, led the roster of 25 culled from the 176-rider field after the first round. Those trips were run over what course designer Bobby Murphy called “a throwback” route that featured some “old-style fences,” including the first obstacle, a coop as part of an oxer that led to a number of refusals. Logs balanced on the ASPCA wall gave it an extra dimension, while box jumps topped with floating rails were inspired by a European fence from the 1920s, and a white gate oxer was reminiscent of the fox hunting field.
The flat phase that followed turned out to be revealing, and we’re not talking about the command to switch to the counter lead in front of the judges, or lengthening the canter stride. It was the part that involved riding without stirrups—a favorite test of Jimmy’s.
“We did a lot of shuffling in the flat phase, because there were a lot of weak riders. I thought we went easy on them,” said Jimmy, noting the test only involved one direction. “I was a little shocked people weren’t more prepared for that.”
Following the flat phase, Ava was third, behind Emma Fletcher, the winner last month of the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals, and Breanna Bunevacz, who led the way. In the second round, Breanna’s horse had a hiccup at the gate oxer, dropping her out of the ribbons. But the other placings weren’t so easy to decide, so six were called back for another test. Ava was at the top of the list again, despite her horse, Acer K, being wide-eyed in the second round when the lighting changed after someone opened a curtain behind the judges’ stand. She just kept going and “really rode,” said Jimmy. Even so, he and Tammy thought another test for the top six was necessary. It ended with a long hand-gallop to the final fence, where Jimmy appreciated the fact that the riders got up out of their saddles and went for it.
When 18-year-old Ava came back in for the final work-off, “she pulled out all the stops and nailed it,” said Jimmy noting that made her “a clear cut winner.”
Ava, who is trained by Missy Clark and John Brennan’s North Run (which also took the Maclay with Sam Walker last year) is an Auburn University student from Massachusetts, whose mother, Sarah Doyle, runs a small stable and gives riding lessons to clients who show locally. Sarah noted Ava has never had her own horse and specialized in catch rides early on. “She didn’t care what she rode. She just rode,” said Sarah.
“Everyone has contributed to this,” Ava’s mother continued, citing her friends and giving a shout-out to her husband, Bret Stearns for his support.
Acer K, owned by North Run, is only eight but he has been Ava’s special project since he started doing equitation with her in March. “He is probably the smartest horse I have ever had the opportunity to ride in my life,” she said. “He could not have impressed me more.”
The reserve champion was Charlise Casas, trained by Heritage and Andre Dignelli, while Ellie Yeager, mentored by Beacon Hill and Stacia Madden, made the biggest comeback, going from fourteenth after the first round to tenth following the flatwork and sixth after the second round, before winding up third.
Brian Moggre Wins Saturday’s $225,000 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Lexington
Saturday night’s featured $225,000 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Lexington amazingly also belonged to another 18-year-old, the youngest person to win the show’s grand prix since it was the Grand Prix of New York in 1969. Brian Moggre had the biggest win of his short career when he and MTM Vivre le Reve took the measure of a 40-entry field that included three World Cup finals winners, three Olympic gold medalists and many others with distinguished resumes.
Brian, who is grateful to trainers Mike McCormick and Tracy Fenney for their efforts on his behalf, beat a mark of 34.44 seconds set in the National’s eight-horse jump-off by Karen Polle, who rides for Japan, aboard Kino. Brian had his work cut out for him, but he pushed his partner of four years to finish in 34.22 seconds. Last to go, former World Cup champion Beat Mandli on Simba, seemed to threaten Brian’s lead until he crashed through the final fence and fell off.
Brian was understandably emotional about his achievement with the horse he has ridden for four years, wiping away tears as the Star-Spangled Banner was played in his honor.
“I love that horse. Over time, we both grew up and kept rising to the occasion for each other,” said Brian, who goes to the barn every day to ride and groom his three horses. Being involved in their care “makes you a true horseman. I feel no one is too high a standard to not care for their own horses because they do a lot for you and you should do something for them.”
This year, Brian bowed out of equitation to focus on the jumpers. “After a win like this, I know I’m exactly where I want to be and I’m glad I’ve taken the steps I have to get me here,” he said.
Brian, who just finished high school, is second in the standings of the North American Eastern Sub-League in the race to qualify for next April’s Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final in Las Vegas.
“I found out about a week ago that I got into Toronto next week for the Royal Fair, so I will do that and hopefully it will keep going as it is going and we will be in Las Vegas for the finals,” he said.
But that isn’t his only ambition.“Tokyo [the 2020 Olympics] is a bit soon, but I would love to represent my country in a few senior Nations Cups in 2020,” said Brian, who was on the winning Young Riders Nations Cup team in Belgium this year.
Martin Moggre, Brian’s father, recalled about his son, “Ever since he could walk, he wanted to go the barn and see the horses.” It got to the point where they had to use a different route when taking the family’s kids to school so they wouldn’t go by the barn and have Brian ask them to stop there.
Amanda Steege Takes the $50,000 Hunter Classic Title
The show’s Friday highlight was the $50,000 Hunter Classic, where Scott Stewart—the show’s Leading Hunter Rider for the thirteenth time, was in with two horses. But it was Amanda Steege who took the title on Laffite de Muze. The option to hand-gallop to two jumps of the riders’ choice in the handy round was key in deciding the class, and Amanda went for it. Laffite's score over two rounds was 175, to 173.5 for Scott on Private life and 172.5 for Worthy, ridden by Maria Rasmussen. The show's grand champion hunter, Lucador, also ridden by Scott, was fourth on 169.75.
The National has special meaning for Amanda, who recalled visits to Madison Square Garden to watch it there during its glory days. In 2001, its last year in Manhattan, she got a chance to compete at the venue on a second-year green hunter, Unseen.
“It was amazing. I don’t think there’s anything quite as exciting as showing in New York City and showing in the Garden, although this venue does feel so much more horse-friendly for everybody. But certainly the crowds and the buzz of the city was a total thrill,” she said.
The grand prix drew a good crowd, but fans were sparse in the stands for other classes, including the Classic. “It is so nice that people can watch online, but I think a lot of people choose to go home and watch on the computer,” mused Amanda.
On the plus side, she observed, “more people are getting access to the class, but you wish you could have more of a crowd. I do, however, think the way they have VIP set up here, out over the ring, made it feel nice.”
The National, which has been in several different locations since leaving its New York City home for good, has a year left to run on its lease at the Horse Park. After that, there’s a possibility it could hit the road again. But in the meantime, show chairman Mason Phelps would like to see it become a five-star (it’s now a four-star), if the money can be found to insure the promotion.
Classes filled well, but becoming a five-star would be a nice boost for a show that has changed so much in this century. Whatever happens, the silver trophies that date back many decades will remain a big part of its cachet, reminding everyone that the show has hosted the greatest names in U.S. hunter and show jumping history through the generations.