Liza Boyd may have missed her defending champion Brunello when she left him back at Finally Farm in Camden, South Carolina to attend the $280,500 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship in Lexington, Kentucky on August 19-20. But she carried a part of him with her—she clipped a small piece of his tail and kept it in her pocket this week.
Maybe the magic of the three-time winner of the Championship worked, because Liza guided Stella Styslinger's O'Ryan to the top scores in the Handy Round (base scores of 91, 90 and 92, all four high options and handy bonus scores of 9, 8 and 10) to leapfrog up the standings from 12th into third place overall with 578 points.
In a fairytale ending, Helen Lenahan's Miss Lucy won the Championship with Kristy Herrera riding in place of Liza's good friend Jennifer Alfano, who is out of the saddle due to an injury. Powerhouse Derby rider Kelley Farmer placed second aboard Kodachrome.
“I'm so happy to be here," said Liza, laughing, during the press conference. "I just had fun on my Junior Hunter, and he stepped up for me, and I shed a little tear when I drove out of the driveway and gave Brunello a little kiss. I told him, ‘I can't do this without you!’ It's been six years, but tonight that horse O’Ryan stepped up for me, and I couldn't be happier."
Liza described her situation Saturday night as quite different from that of Herrera and Farmer, an interesting juxtaposition to her previous experiences aboard Brunello.
“I had a huge advantage not riding under pressure,” she explained. “I didn’t envy them. I’ve been in their shoes, and, to be honest, it was a relief not to be there. Kelley being on top and wanting it so badly for herself and her owners, Jane Gaston and Nina Moore, and all of those emotions at play. Then, Kristy had to try to fill Jen’s shoes, and those are some huge shoes to fill!
“I had it easy, and it was a very fun night for me,” she continued. “Of course I was nervous, but it was an exciting nervous. It’s such a fun class to ride in. Jen made a comment to me that really hit home; I couldn’t expect too much because most of the successful combinations in this class have strong partnerships—Jersey Boy and Jen and me with Brunello, for example. So I went in there believing in my horse and just rode the very best I could. O’Ryan is a game horse and was really amazing out there.”
Liza competed O'Ryan in two derbies earlier in the year to qualify for the Championships, but she'd never jumped him over all of the high options. Nevertheless, she knew his background, his talents with Stella as a Junior Hunter, and trusted that it would all work out.
"I really had to say, 'You can do this, and I just didn’t question it at all," said Liza of her mindset going into the Handy Hunter Round. "I went into the ring thinking, 'This horse can do this.' And I believed in him 100 percent. The horse was imported by Mike Zuckerman as an equitation prospect, and then trainer Don Stewart saw him and bought him as a hunter. Knowing the horse’s history, I'm sure he’d jumped plenty big in Europe. From the Classic Round to the Handy Round, he jumped every fence better and better."
Entering the Handy Round, Liza and O'Ryan stood 12th, so she knew she had nothing to lose and everything to gain by tacking chances. In the end, she was rewarded with a round that she'll now cherish as a personal favorite.
"It was one of those that everything came up out of stride," she reflected. "I always like to say a few rounds stand out in a rider's mind throughout a career. Obviously, last year’s round on Brunello was the top, and then Like I Said's Handy Round at Devon this year will always be up there. It's the same with this round on O'Ryan. It's definitely in the top five of some of the best rounds I've ever had.
"Usually, you come out of the ring and we as riders are so critical of ourselves," Liza explained. "You think, 'I could have done this better or that better.' But for O'Ryan's Handy I wouldn’t have changed anything. He landed on every lead, followed through over the fences and every distance was out of stride. And, for me, that’s as good as it gets.
For Liza, the Championship may have been bittersweet without Brunello, but it ended on a sweet note. "I feel at home in that ring and in that class at night. It was a fun feeling this year," she said. "The only thing I questioned a bit was, 'Can I do this without Brunello?' It was nice as rider to know you can—yes, I missed him terribly, but now I know that I can still go on without him."
Liza also competed Pony Lane Farm's Coronado and Like I Said and Billie Steffee's Maggie May in the Derby Championship and had several catch-rides in the USHJA Pre-Green Incentive Championship, where she earned the Pre-Green Incentive Style Award.
In conjunction with the USHJA Championships, Finally Farm riders also enjoyed success during the concurrent Bluegrass Festival Horse Show.
In between his Derby Championship rounds, O'Ryan carried Stella to excellent ribbons in the Junior Hunters. Maraschino and Lily Bennett topped the 3'3" Junior Hunter Championship, while Parkland and Maggie Hill won the competitive NAL/WIHS Children's Hunter Classic. Maggie also placed fourth aboard Co Co Chanel.