By: Kendall Bierer
Lexington, KY - August 12, 2015 - It was nearly one year ago that Jennifer Alfano spotted Castle in a schooling ring in Houston, Texas. Fellow professional rider Tracy Fenney was aboard the bay gelding, and after Alfano saw him take two jumps, she knew that she wanted to be the rider in his saddle. Her instincts proved correct as she topped the 2015 USHJA Pre-Green Hunter Incentive leader board Wednesday with the warmblood, owned by Sharon O'Neill of Snyder, New York, on the second of the three-day championship event.
"He was great, he is just so easy and so fun to ride," Alfano said. "He has been an easy horse right from the start. He is quiet, and he doesn't look at anything. He is just so straightforward. Today he was awesome."
Alfano rode Castle to the scores of 86.5, 89 and 91 to not only take the first place as the high scoring round of the day, but also guaranteeing a return spot in Thursday's championship round.
"Castle was great both days, he is really consistent. He is one of those horses you can really count on. You can really depend on him," Alfano described.
Her cumulative score of 527.55 points from the two days of competition allows for them to return as the 10th horse and rider combination of the class on Thursday. Alfano nearly duplicated her effort with The Exchange, who she placed third with on the opening day, yet an unfortunate lead change would drop them from the top 30 qualified for the championship round.
"I was trying to redeem myself from the other round," Alfano laughed. "It is hard in a class like this when you are just trying to get to the top 30, you put so much pressure on yourself. I just hope for the best, but I know I can always count on him."
Castle's owner, O'Neill, was thrilled with Alfano's ride. "Jennifer picked him, she found him, she rides him, although I jumped every jump with her today," she smiled. "I don't know how he got us both around, but he did. It was thrilling, and it is something that you think about, but you never count on."
Alfano has been a proponent of the USHJA Pre-Green Incentive program since its inception in 2013. Over the last three years, she has watched it continue to grow exponentially, and is thrilled with the increase of owners and riders at the 2015 Championship.
"I think it is great to see this many Pre-Green horses, and for the owners it is spectacular," Alfano said. "It makes people want to own Pre-Green horses, it makes them want to invest in young talent. Look at how many people are watching this championship. It makes the owners really want to do this, and want to be involved."
O'Neill commented, "It means a lot to see Jennifer finish at the top today. I have been in this business for a long time, and it is nice to have a good horse and a good rider, it really is."
Going into the championship round on Thursday, Alfano and Castle will have their slate wiped clean. She is relying on his consistency to help her clinch the victory, a feat which has narrowly evaded her in the past.
Alfano concluded, "I feel good [about tomorrow]. He has been great for two days, so hopefully we can pull it off again, if not, then we have today!"
Scott Stewart continues to lead the overall ranks with Evermore, returning as the last contender of the event. They hold the lead with a total of 529 points, but Thursday will become anyone's game.
"Evermore was good," Stewart said of the 6-year-old gelding. "I thought he was almost as good as yesterday. He landed right after the outside line and he is a perfect lead changer, it was weird that he landed right, and I think I was a little rough forward, just being nervous, but I thought the rest of the round was as good as yesterday."
Stewart also qualified Wish, owned by Rivers Edge, ranking fifth during the second over fences phase, and tied with Hunt Tosh and Liberty Road, owned by Betsee Parker. Although Stewart took the second position with William Hill during the second round, their first-day rail will keep them from the final phase of competition.
"Evermore is so laid back, I hope he has some energy left, but I think he will be good," Stewart smiled.
The 2014 USHJA Pre-Green Incentive Champion said of defending his title with his two mounts, "It is the same as always. There is pressure, but I am just hoping to do well."
Third place was awarded to Kelley Farmer and Clever Conversation, owned by Kensel, LLC. Farmer qualified five mounts for the final round, holding the best odds as the busiest rider of the class. Tosh finished in fourth place with Valhalla, owned by The Wheeler Family, qualifying three mounts for the concluding round.
The 2015 USHJA Pre-Green Incentive culminates Thursday with the third and final round of the competition, where the top 30 horses from Tuesday and Wednesday's rounds will compete in a final over fences round. The final round will feature a "clean slate" format, meaning the scores from Tuesday and Wednesday will not carry forward.