After three previous appearances in the $170,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship and a second- and third-placed finish, Liza Boyd was hoping for a little luck this time. And, today, it came in the form of a four-leaf clover given to her by Jen Alfano, last year's winner.
The good fortune carried through and Boyd and Brunello, her 15-year-old Hanoverian gelding, jumped to the top of the $120,000 Tier I section of the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
"I'm really happy for the horse. He deserved it," said Boyd, of Camden, SC. "He's an amazing horse."
Scott Stewart, who held the top spot after yesterday's Classic Hunter Round with Garfield, couldn't quite repeat the performance tonight under the lights and placed eighth. Stewart didn't go home empty handed, however, as he guided Fashion Farm's Declaration to victory in the $10,000 Consolation Round held earlier today.
Boyd and Brunello placed second in the Classic Hunter Round yesterday with 276 points, 10 points behind Stewart and Garfield. Brunello's Handy Hunter Round tonight was brilliant and scored 301.75 points, giving them the win.
Tonight's competition at the Kentucky Horse Park featured a beautiful Tier I and II Handy Hunter course by acclaimed designer Steve Stephens. The fences and decorations created a feeling of cantering through hunt country, with natural jumps of planks and logs, abundant trees and shrubbery and decorative elements such as carriages and barns. The fence heights ranged from 3'6" to 4' and offered riders an opportunity to pick up bonus points by taking any one or all of the four option fences set at a minimum of 4'3".
The 11-obstacle course featured several areas where riders could show off their handiness with tight turns and rollbacks, a trot fence at 4, and for the grand finale riders could choose the safe route over a 3'6" oxer or an impressive 4'6" higher option set in the center of the arena, which offered spectators in the stands a beautiful view.
The final fence became an influential part of the course, with multiple rails down. Boyd and Brunello had a light rub there but otherwise their performance was spectacular.
"I tried to listen when Steve was talking about how he wanted the course to ride," said Boyd of her strategy. "He said, 'This is a jumping contest, and I don't want the course to win. I want the riders and the horses to win.' There were no traps; it was really well done, and I took that to heart. He designed it, and he knew what he had in mind, so that helped me. You needed scope and careful, which is what these derbies are supposed to be."
Kelley Farmer and Mythical, co-owned by Kenneth and Selma Garber and Larry Glefke, won the Tier I Handy Hunter Round and leapfrogged up the standings from sixth to second overall with 571.75 points.
Farmer, of Keswick, VA, was thrilled with the First Year Green hunter in his first Derby Championship. "What about Mythical? He's mythical, isn't he?" she said with a smile. "For a first-year horse, he's an amazing animal. He's done everything. He tries to step up on the biggest stages. I moved up from sixth to second. He's an amazing horse who doesn't let you down."
New this year was the Tier I and Tier II Handy Hunter Round format. The top 30 pairs returned for action in the $120,000 Tier I Handy Hunter Round, with 14 Tier I entries qualified and 16 Tier II entries qualified. The $40,000 Tier II Handy Round included a field of 25 riders, with nine jumping for Tier II money only. The scores for the 16 Tier II entries in the Tier I Handy Hunter Round carried over to the Tier II Handy Hunter Round and Overall standings.
The judges included Rick Fancher and Jimmy Torano (Panel 1), Danny Robertshaw and Don Stewart (Panel 2), and Carleton Brooks and Ralph Caristo (Panel 3), who were placed in strategic positions around the Sheila C. Johnson Ring at the Rolex Stadium.
Kelsie Brittan, 17, of Westlake, TX, rode Argentum, a 12-year-old warmblood, to top honors in the $40,000 Tier II USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship with a gorgeous Handy Hunter Round, under the watchful eye of trainer Peter Pletcher.
"I've just been doing juniors on him this year, and every now and then there would be derby in Texas or Michigan and I'd do it," she said. "I've been a little bit of a chicken; I've been doing the small ones and playing it safe. Since I was here, of course, I thought I'd be like all the top riders and do all the big jumps. I really trust him, and yesterday, too, I just let him show off and tried not to ride him like a junior hunter anymore and more like a derby horse. It's a big adjustment for me."
Judge Danny Robertshaw was impressed with Brittan's partnership with Argentum and praised her after the class.
"I saw her in the pouring rain in Florida [this winter], and I was talking to her mother. And I said it then, and I said it yesterday and today. It's fun when you see a horse that loves his rider as much as Argentum loves her."
Shawn Casady, 19, of Harriman, TN, guided HJ Group LLC's Ascot to second place in the Tier II USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship.