Out of a starting field of 40 horses, the 24 highest-ranking pairs in the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, presented by the World Equestrian Center, advanced to take on the handy phase on Sunday afternoon March 4 to culminate the final day of the inaugural Deeridge Derby Weekend.
Riders tackled the course despite unusually cool and windy conditions, and it was Kristy Herrera who reigned supreme and was crowned the winner of the highly-anticipated class aboard Candid, owned by her longtime trainer and mentor, Jennifer Alfano.
The challenging and technical track was designed by Skip Bailey and featured bending lines, tight rollbacks, a trot fence to a natural log set on a tight angle and a hand gallop to the final oxer. There were endless possibilities for riders to show-off as they were given the option to jump any two of the white birch verticals as the first and second obstacles in their course that were positioned on a circle in the center of the Hollow Brook Wealth Management Grand Prix Field.
Herrera, of Wellington, Florida, experienced the sweet taste of victory yet again as she showcased her talents to capture the championship title. In August, at the Kentucky Horse Park, Herrera took the reins for Alfano on Miss Lucy to win the 2016 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship.
While Herrera qualified for the handy phase on both of her SBS Farms-trained entries, Candid and Miss Lucy, it was with Candid that she had the most success. The duo was sitting in second place going into Sunday afternoon's round, just narrowly missing the first place spot by 0.75 points. 'Sheldon,' as he is called back in the barn, has far less experience than Helen Lenahan's Miss Lucy, but that didn't stop Herrera from riding to victory.
"Candid was amazing today. This was only his second derby, and he stepped up like a champion. He was so awesome," Herrera said of her mount who typically campaigns in the High Performance Conformation Hunters.
Judges gave the 2008 Holsteiner gelding scores of 87 and an 86 plus three handy points. Herrera was so confident with her trip she chose to forego the four high options on course, instead focusing on implementing a smooth and flowing round. Over the course of both days, Herrera ended up with an impressive 364.00 points in total.
"Sheldon has a lot of personality, and he has a couple of quirks of his own, but what's best about him is he trusts his rider so that made today go really well," Herrera said.
Candid's owner, Alfano, is currently sidelined from a riding injury that occurred at the Devon Horse Show in 2016. She said, "[Kristy] and that horse—she's done things for me during my injury that have made it OK for me to be on the ground."
All of the riders unanimously agreed that while the course was quite demanding in what it expected of riders, it was thrilling and enjoyable.
"When I saw the course I was really excited," said Kelli Cruciotti, who placed second aboard Monterrey. "I've always ridden with my mom, Cindy, and today she walked it and said, 'This is such a great course for Ray,' because everything was a related distance."
Cruciotti was the sole rider of the class who took a chance and executed an inside slice from the white birch vertical (fence six) to the high option brown oxer (fence seven) in nine direct strides.
"It was very direct and I said to my mom, 'Are you sure it' s there?' said Cruciotti. "She said, 'It's there, just do it. Look and he'll be right there.'"
The ability to personalize their handy trips to show off their horse's strong points was also mentioned.
"It was a really interesting choice to be able to have so many options, and Jen and I talked a lot about the course," said Herrera. "We walked it and just chose something that was best for [Candid].
"Candid is a pretty good turner, and so we just did a couple of rollbacks versus trying to do a direct line anywhere," continued Herrera. "When I got to do Lucy, I chose something else for her so I think it was nice to have an option that was different for each horse."
The magnificent grounds of Deeridge Farms, owned by the Jacobs family, left all riders and spectators with a positive feeling as the show came to a close on Sunday. For these hunter riders, it was all the more special.
"It was beautiful. The venue--you can't get anything better. A huge thank you to the Jacobs and Robinson family. I have to say, it's one of the best venues we've been at all year," Cruciotti stated.
Third-placed Havens Schatt shared similar sentiments saying, "The venue is incredible and we are so appreciative as hunter riders to be able to be showcased in a place like this. We feel very important just like these grand prix riders do. I thought the courses were great. I loved the idea of the welcome class to get it going. Today's handy round was quite difficult. It was asking a lot of questions and there were a lot of good horses and good riders. I thought it was really good competition."
"I want to thank Katie [Jacobs-Robinson] and the Jacobs because having hunters go on this beautiful field and having a venue like this to showcase our horses is amazing. I'm thankful for that," Alfano said.
"Thank you so much for coming," concluded Katie Jacobs-Robinson, president of the Deeridge Derby Weekend. "It really meant a lot to me to look out and see so many old friends and new friends. You guys really brought a great competition and it made it really special; we would love to host another Deeridge Derby Weekend in 2018!"