The 2009 ASG Software Solutions/U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) International Hunter Derby Finals can easily be summed up in one word: incredible. The inviting natural fences, horses and riders turned out to the nines (including some with quarter marks), formal shadbellies and even a red Team USA show coat all added to the significance of the weekend. It was a beautiful marriage of traditional hunter competition with the future of our sport. The best hunter riders and horses from across the United States traveled to Lexington, Ky., August 21-22, to compete for the title of 2009 Hunter Derby Champion and vie for a portion of the $100,000 prize money offered.
The International Hunter Derby was the brainchild of the USHJA High Performance Hunter Committee with the goal to bring back the hunters from days gone bye. It was to be a program that also could bring the hunters to an international level, develop sponsorship, increase spectators and bring tradition and riding principals back to the show ring. After 18 months of Derby competitions across the country, the horses who earned the most money were invited to compete at the Finals in Lexington.
The first day brought 56 horses into the ring. There were several lead-change issues, one fall (horse and rider were both fine) and the occasional missed distance, but mostly trip after trip of good riding. The course was inviting with natural brush obstacles, coops, logs and post-and-rail jumps, all derived from the hunt fields. The course also allowed for riders to show off their horses: Options included jumping larger fences, taking tighter turns or hand-galloping. Most riders played it conservatively in this first round hoping for the opportunity to come back into the ring for the Saturday finals.
A little past the halfway point, a gorgeous gray gelding entered the ring. He had such presence; you could tell he just knew he was something special. And special he was. He jumped every jump hard and round, his knees square and up to his eyeballs and a metronome-like tempo. Horse and rider made a challenging course look effortless. The judges agreed as Rumba and John French moved to the top of the leader board. It had been 36 trips since there was a change at the top. Rumba raised the bar, and the trips after him rose to the challenge with rider after rider moving into the second spot. At the end of the day, however, no one could out-dance Rumba.
With the top 25 horses moving on to Saturday's round determined, USHJA held a draw party with each of the returning riders selecting a silver tumbler to determine their order of go. In addition to the keepsake tumbler, they each received goodies from the sponsors including a Hunter Derby saddle pad and a $1,000 check.
The top 25 horses trotted for soundness in front of the ground jury on Saturday afternoon. All passed, and it was game on for the final two rounds.
I had the opportunity to walk the course with Derby Finals qualifier, Sean Steffee. It was an inviting and challenging course--the kind that made me want to come back when no one was watching and ride it myself. Round 2 was the hunter round--the first two jumps were straightforward rides and, as Sean predicted, presented no problems. It was an easy six strides between Fences 3 and 4, the first line on course, as riders headed to the first option at Fences 5 and 6. Riders were faced with a line, heading toward the in-gate, where they could chose to jump a 4-foot post-and-rails, which were airy and light, or a 3-foot-6 coop with rails. This was also the first distance question where riders could move up for the six or hold for the seven.
Sean told me the distance question would be easy for nearly all the riders, but there would be rubs by those who tackled the post-and-rails, and he was spot on. However, riders earned bonus points for trying the harder options. A small majority took the post-and-rails and you could hear the rubs, and occasionally a rail fell. All but one rider jumped the straight line; John French brought Rumba in over the coop on the right and out over the post-and-rails on the left. He caught everyone by surprise, and you could hear the crowd's excitement by his choice. It was an excellent example of how the Hunter Derby allows riders to show off their mounts.
There were two other options left on course: Riders could jump the high or low side of a log pile, with most opting for middle or the high side. The next option was the squirrel tails (which are a fixture on the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI**** course at the Kentucky Horse Park) set near each other but on slightly different angles, creating a bending line, to a choice of jumping either a 3-foot-6 or 4-foot oxer. Not one of the horses batted an eyelash at the squirrels (another of Sean's predictions), but most of them jumped it hard and, at this point, with the course nearing the end, riders went for bonus points at the big oxer. Finishing up the course was an easy two-stride, and the last jump was the USHJA oxer.
There were a few horses who found the unseasonably cool Kentucky evening, bright lights of the outdoor area and the electricity in the crowd a little exciting. The horses who were soft and fluid on Friday were now jumping flat and trying to get a little quick. They didn't have bad trips, but it was apparent their riders were working hard. Most horses seemed to enjoy the change of pace, and those who liked the fences and the crowds were cracking their backs. Again, Rumba who was the 14th horse to enter the ring came out on top with a perfect score of 400.
The top 12 riders after the hunter round entered the ring for ribbons and then headed out to warm up and return in reverse order for the round three "handy" phase. The handy phase is a rider's chance to really show off his horse by making tighter turns, hand galloping a fence and jumping the bigger options--whatever he can do to show his horse's scope, ability, style and bravery to earn bonus points.
Riders cantered straight to the first fence and then made a quick rollback followed by another rollback to a brick wall set between two ducks (also a fixture on the Rolex Three-Day course). During our course walk, Sean mentioned that the way the tree/shrub decorations were strategically placed would make for a tighter rollback and eliminated the easy line from Fence 3 to 4. Fence 5 proved to be the tricky one, however. It was a narrow natural brush oxer set at the far end of the ring. Two horses put on the brakes at it. After the oxer, riders made a right rollback and entered a chute where they had to walk their mounts between the front and back of the brush oxer they just jumped.
The next tricky part on course was back at the post-and-rail/coop option. This time it was a single fence, and riders could choose which jump and then headed to the squirrel tails. There were several ways to get to the squirrels, and I think we saw every one of them. Several took the long option around both squirrels, many cut between the squirrels for a really tight turn and only one rider went directly to the squirrel without rolling back around. A hand gallop to the last fence completed the course. Again, no one could touch Rumba, although they all tried. His style over the fences, handiness in the turns (his jumper background really paid off), ability to hand gallop without ever changing his rhythm and his presence in the ring made him the clear-cut winner.
I am so excited to have witnessed the inaugural Hunter Derby Finals. It was the best display of consistent riding in a hunter class and the deepest field of talent I have ever seen in one place. I am a better rider and horseperson for having been a part of it. This is the future of hunters, and it is exciting! You could hear it in the cheers from the audience after riders took a difficult turn or option. Yes, cheers during a hunter course--this is a spectator sport.
If you haven't yet witnessed a Hunter Derby, visit www.ushja.org to find one in your area. You will thank me for it, I promise.
As for me, I'm off to find a winning lottery ticket: I want a Hunter Derby horse!
Hunter Messineo is a member of the Practical Horseman advertising sales team and is the associate publisher of USHJA In Stride magazine. She competes in the hunter divisions with her Thoroughbred Bourbon Street.
Read about John French's winning strategies in the article "Hunter Derby Dynamo" in the November 2009 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. You can also view Hunter's Hunter Derby photo galleries at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.