Saturday, my husband and I finished up in the hayfield a little early and decided to head on over to the Kentucky Horse Park to watch the USHJA Hunter Derby Finals. The top 30 horses performed their Handy Round under the lights in the Rolex stadium, and it was a great event for spectating. Sadly, the crowd was disappointing, with a lot of empty seats, but those in attendance (or watching from home on USEFnetwork.com) were treated to a dramatic competition. Congratulations to winner Jen Alfano and Jersey Boy. [Winning round video] [Final Results]
Top 10 things I learned at the Hunter Derby Finals:
1. Hunter Derbies are not NEARLY as boring as the “Hunters” I used to show in. No such thing as outside/diagonal patterns here! The Handy Round showcased quite a few tight turns, jumping on angles even, and displayed the horses’ cleverness (or lack thereof). My favorite round of the night was Lillie Keenan on Monterrey, who took a very daring cut at the first fence, and continued on the course taking all the difficult options with impulsion and ease.
2. Those horses can JUMP. Yes, I know, that’s the point of a good Hunter show, to highlight the horses’ jumping style. But a few of those fences were on the large side (I’m guessing 4’6″?), and most of the horses who attempted the bigger fences showed an impressive, lofty technique.
3. Some of them almost, actually, maybe just a little bit, GALLOPED. Yes, a couple were still stuck in 4-beat canter gear, but several riders opened up the stride and “went somewhere” around the course. It is thrilling to watch a flashy jumper gallop fearlessly down the throat of a big oxer, sit on his hocks and snap his knees to his chin.
4. The obstacles were wanna-be cross-country jumps. Now that’s more like it! Bring on the bourbon barrels, stacked straw bales, white-plank fences (eek- a vertical?!), and big logs. It made me want to jump around out there! Most of them were jumps you’d actually want to ride at with some pace.
5. Judging is still political and subjective…sometimes Who You Are matters. Not gonna name names, but among the crowd you could hear (resigned) comments about big name individuals who seemed to benefit a few extra unearned points. Not sour grapes, just admission that “it is what it is.”
6. Despite the cross-country jumps, this was still a hunter show. There were a couple stops that just wouldn’t have happened if Bruce Davidson was in the irons! The aggressive eventer in me was thinking, “Your horse just stopped! HIT HIM! Don’t pet him! Why are you smiling? JUMP IT AGAIN!” (But that’s why I’m an eventer…get over the jump at all costs, style be darned. I realize it’s a different sport, with a different objective but there I was, twitching in my seat.)
7. FREE FOOD! And good food, too. Go get yourself a plate from the free buffet: tasty grilled chicken breast, au gratin potatoes, green beans, and salad. Not to mention the VERY yummy cookies and brownies. The spectators were quite well-fed, and it was a pleasant surprise. Hubby says he’ll come to more of these shows, if they all give out food like that! And asked, why don’t events do the same thing? (“Money, honey.”)
8. Apparently any and all problems were the fault of the lights and the atmosphere. An announcer briefly commented at the conclusion of each round, and if a horse stopped or had an awkward moment it was always due to the environment: the lights, the crowd (what crowd?), or the shadows. Nevermind these horses had spent an hour wandering around the arena, in hand with grooms, prior to the start of competition. Can anyone explain that to me? I was a bit confused when I arrived, seeing 30 horses fully tacked under scrim sheets, being led around like dogs, sniffing at the jumps. One groom even popped a squat in a decorative director’s chair beside the jump standards, while the horse stood snoozing.
9. The end was a bit of a letdown. Overnight leader Scott Stewart and Dedication were set to win it, but then Scott inexplicably yanked his horse up between the fourth and fifth fence (the middle of a 2-stride in and out). Seeing it live, we weren’t quite sure what happened…but then on replay there was no mistaking the rider leaned back and hauled the horse to a stop. He walked out of the ring, gesturing at something, looking quite irritated. The horse had a bad jump at fence 3, off a poor (tight) approach with no impulsion, and probably cost himself a few points there…but it jumped in fine to the two-stride, and had no earthly reason to pull up in that manner. I can possibly understand politely retiring if you know you’re out of the ribbons, to save your horse for another day…but why not complete the in-and-out first? It was bizarre, to say the least. [Video here]
10. I had a great time, and will be back for next year! Hopefully the trend of forwardness and brilliance continues, and judges reward it appropriately. It really is fun to watch horses jump well over a difficult course, and give a happy head shake with pride. While you feel bad for those who had problems, it does shake up the leaderboard and keep spectators interested. I’d love to give that course a try– and I know my eventer and I wouldn’t make it seem nearly as stylish as those riders, it looks like it would be a lot of fun to give it a go.
I’m working on editing a video now… coming soon!