The earlier rumors of Brunello's retirement were officially laid to rest on October 21 in Mill Spring, North Carolina, when the 18-year-old chestnut gelding galloped off with the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby victory.
"People were shocked to see him, and so many people thought he was retired," said rider Liza Boyd. "Alberto paraded him around the show before the derby, and it was so great to see how much he enjoyed it all. I think the Breyer ceremony here in June, where his model was unveiled, maybe confused people, but he's not retired yet!"
After the pair won the Derby Classic Round, they returned last for the Handy, and that's where Liza said Brunello knew it was time to shine.
"I think he won it at the first jump," she said with a smile. "I couldn't believe it, but he jumped the first jump like that last jump at the 2015 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships in Kentucky. It was one of those 'wowowowow' jumps. Once he did that, it was like that line in the movie Jerry McGuire: 'You had me at hello.' He reminded the judges who he was at the first jump!
"I was in the air so long I could have had a cup of tea," added Liza laughing. "He jumped so high and beautifully. He typically likes his left lead, but this time we were turning right, and he landed right so easily, so I thought, 'OK, I’m good. I can be safe in a couple of other places because he was so amazing there."
In the end, the pair topped the class over Kelley Farmer and Kodachrome. "Kelley went all out and rode great," said Liza. "She had nothing to lose, and it was close. I took one low option and skipped one inside turn in the Handy, and she did them all. That's what makes these classes so much fun for us and for the spectators, though. There's a lot of strategizing. I was almost too conservative!"
Liza brought "Ike" to Tryon, his first outing since the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at HITS Ocala (Florida), to try out the new grass grand prix field at the Tryon International Equestrian Center and also because Brunello's co-owner, Janet Peterson, lives nearby.
Liza kept her plans with Ike on the low down, not knowing exactly how he'd come back after his seven-month break from the show ring. Veterinarian Diane Schiereck had prescribed a different fitness program over the summer that incorporated more trotting and less jumping, so Ike had only one jump school between showing in February and October.
"I decided I'd see how he was in the 1.10m jumper class on Wednesday," said Liza. "Part of me was thinking if things aren’t perfect he wasn’t going to show, but he jumped great. He jumped one of the last oxers and soared probably 1.30m over it. He landed on both leads and was so happy to be in the ring. He was better than ever, and I didn’t question showing him. Diane knows this horse better than anybody, and we followed her program and it was great."
Even while the Finally Farm staff was preparing to leave for Tryon, Ike seemed to know something was up.
"When the trailer got there the night before, he went crazy in his stall, banging and kicking," said Liza laughing. "He really told me he wanted to go to the show. I thought, 'This is a sign.' He’s just the smartest horse I’ve ever been around in my life. He knows what people are thinking. He really wanted to go, and he got there and was in the best mood. He doesn't want to be retired yet!"
Liza was thrilled Ike had so many adoring fans greet him at the show, cheering him on in the ring and stopping by his stall to visit. "It's so neat he has such a fan club and so many people appreciate watching him," she added.
Liza credited Finally Farm Assistant Trainer Max Mandell for keeping Ike fit and happy at home while she was on the road showing. He reported in regularly to keep her updated on Ike's progress and spent ample time with the gelding doing trot sets and working through cavaletti to keep him fit and strong.
"About a month out from Tryon, I started riding him," she said. "If I would be at a show, I’d ride him on a Monday to see where he was. Even though it's typically my day off, you have to do that if you want to be prepared. Max really did a great job with the fitness flatwork. If it weren't for Max, Ike wouldn’t have been fit enough to show."
Ike will now have another lengthy break since he's not a fan of palm trees and beaches. "He gets cranky in Florida," Liza joked. "He likes to ship in, show and go home. He's set in his ways. He’ll stay in work, because at his age I think he should keep moving around even if it's just 30 minutes of trotting or tack walking. He'll get all fuzzy, grow his mane out, and he’ll look like a scruffy old man."
Finally Farm's great performances continued in the hunter and jumper rings throughout the week with Maddy and Kelsey Thatcher dominating in both rings in the amateur sections.
"Maddy was on fire this week," said Liza. "She was really accurate and was competitive on every single horse she showed."
Maddy and Like I Said earned the 3’3" Amateur-Owner Hunter Championship and Maddy took he reserve as well with Jewel. Sister Kelsey also earned a tricolor in the section (California split) aboard Escalante.
"It was fun to have Kelsey join the Finally Farm team for the weekend," said Liza. "She did an excellent job on him. He’s a Pre-Green horse, and she gave him great rides. He’ll be a lovely First Year and Junior/Amateur hunter in the future."
Maddy and Sterling jumped up to place second in the combined Amateur-Owner Hunter Classic for a great finish, giving all three of Maddy's 3'3" Amateur Hunters and her 3'6" Amateur horse Summer Place top ribbons and tricolors.
"Like I Said is finishing up her First Year Green career and it's so nice to see that she’s turning into an amazing amateur horse," said Liza. "She and Maddy have really meshed, and the mare has figured out this hunter life and is going to be one to watch in 3’6” amateurs with Maddy in Florida this winter."
Maddy and Kelsey also jumped to excellent placings in the Amateur Jumpers, with Maddy and Skilliane De Varnel wrapping it all up with the blue ribbon in the Classic. "It was impressive. You don’t see a lot of amateurs ride smooth and soft in the hunter ring and then walk right over to the jumper ring and win out of 32, like she did in the Classic. Both Maddy and Kelsey were blazing fast over there, and it was fun to watch."
Elly Fica and Quatrain continued their momentum from the Capital Challenge and collected the 3'3" Junior Hunter reserve championship and won the combined Junior Hunter Classic out of 12 entries.
"Elly's been taking lessons and home, and their partnership is getting stronger," said Liza. "It's wonderful to see her become more educated and polished in such a short time. Coming off a pony to a Junior Hunter is challenge, but it didn't take her long to get consistent on him, and it was great for her to finish out with the win in the Classic."
Ruby Sloan and Look Again also returned from Capital Challenge for more successes, earning tricolor honors in the Children’s Hunter, 14 and under, section. "I think doing so well at Capital Challenge in the WCHR Challenge gave her a big boost in confidence, and she was really consistent and rode well here."
Elegance and Zola Thompson also earned to ribbons and the reserve championship in the Medium Pony Hunter section. "Again, Zola is on a roll," said Liza. "She keeps staying consistent, and returning home from Central Park and Capital Challenge with such great results really gave her a new found confidence. It's been wonderful to see her feel so prepared and confident in the show ring."
Next up, Finally Farm riders and horses will show at the Washington International and at the Tryon Fall 6 shows.
To read more about Brunello's victory at Tryon, please see The Chronicle of the Horse article: "Brunello's Still Best in Tryon $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby."