BY LAUREN MAULDIN
It’s been an impressive two days of hunters in horse country. There were fantastic jumping efforts that made you gasp, adult amateurs and juniors as young as twelve learning and doing their best in a field of professionals, and so many perked ears from horses happy to be doing a job that they love.
Tori Colvin and El Primero stood at the top of the podium in first with Nick Haness and Verdict second, and Patricia Griffith and Diamante third. Tonight, they were the three best hunter riders in America, but this event is about a lot more than results.
Yes, Tori Colvin is That Good
As of tonight, Tori Colvin has won this championship three different times on three different horses. Her picture is all over the marketing material, jumps and signage, and next year will be no different. Her 2018 partner, Private Practice, was consistent but it was El Primero who wowed the judges this evening.
“In the first couple of jumps I was holding his hand a little bit, and once I felt that he was comfortable I just went with it and tried to be as handy as I could,” Tori said of her winning trip. With scores in the mid 90’s, all four high options and handy points as high as 9, it’s no surprise she solidly clinched the win. What’s almost as impressive though, is how little time she’s spent with her winning mount.
El Primero, who Louise Serio has ridden to many accolades of her own, may be new to Tori, but she’s a quick study. “I did ride him once for like ten minutes, but she [Peggy Gehman] did everything. I got on and Louise [Serio] helped me in the schooling ring, and we kind of put it together in the ring,” she explained.
Even though Tori is an old pro on this particular victory lap, the win doesn’t get any less thrilling. “The crowd and winning is the same feeling every time. It never dies down. Today was as special as the first time.”
Derby Riders Aren’t That Different From The Rest of Us
During the course walk today, I heard riders coo to their horses, “You can jump this! Don’t be nervous! You’re going to be great!” Even though my derby efforts have been literal feet below even the smallest jump on course today, I felt very seen over-hearing this. Horses were hand walked up to fences, where they cautiously tested to see if the fill was edible, and suddenly this fancy, high profile class seemed a lot more familiar. Everyone was out there making a plan, trying their best, and hoping it would all work out.
The Hunters Are Thriving
Let’s be real, the hunter rings don’t always get the best reputation for being the most exciting place to be at the horse show, but Derby Finals are certainly an exception to that rule. Crowds amassed in the stands, by the ingate, and in golf carts lined around the Rolex arena to watch the top 36 riders come back for the handy. A hard rub or unfortunate rail got a sympathetic “Aww” from the crowd just like it would at WEG or any high profile jumper class. When Tori Colvin, the final rider, was on course you couldn’t hear a sound except for the rhythm of Primero’s hooves and the quiet of everyone holding their breath.
California Riders Aren’t Messing Around
With factors like traveling, climate and more, large championships like this can feel a bit more challenging for riders coming from the west coast. But California had a great showing with Nick Haness and Jenny Karazissis, who came into the handy round sitting in 2nd and 3rd.
Jenny, who was awarded the Rider Style award, put in a solid trip with handy scores in the high 80’s on Michelle Cobb’s Really to end up in fourth overall.
Fellow Southern California rider, Nick Haness, came in ready to give it his all with the brave and scopy Verdict. “We’re here, the horse is great. We have everything here to prove, and we have to go for it to try and win it,” he said during the course walk. And go for it he did. Taking all four high options with handy scores as high as 9, Nick made sure he was one to beat.
You’re Not Crazy if You Thought the Trot Jump Looked Large
I have a habit of thinking every jump is about 10x higher than it actually is, and trot jumps are not immune to that phenomenon. Tonight as Tori explained the early parts of her round on El Primero, I realized I wasn’t the only person who might feel this way on occasion. “Having the trot jump early I think relaxes every horse,” she said. “They get to trot a nice little jump…”
“Little?” Nick interrupted. “That trot jump was huge!”
See fellow riders? We aren’t totally alone here.
Diamante is Both Loved and Ready for Love
Patricia Griffith rode Callie Seaman’s Diamante to a third place finish after an excellent handy round brought him up from 7th in the classic. Owner Callie, who has competed in this championship herself in the past, handed the reins to Patricia while dealing with an injury. “I haven’t done this class in a very long time, and what a great horse to aim at those fences with the feeling of no leg needed. I’m very thankful for her for giving me that opportunity,” Patricia said.
The hunters are relatively new to Diamante, but he’s clearly figuring it all out. “Sometimes towards the gates if the jumps are big he thinks ‘Like okay, Jump off! Pressure’s on,’ and he’ll fire—almost too much—but I think he’s really got the idea of […] keeping it all even and still putting in his extravagant jump,” Patricia said.
That extravagant jump has a lot of people paying attention. Diamante, a stallion by Diarado, has quite the calling card of interested breeders, so is heading to Spy Coast Farm for some post-derby dates. “I told him if he was that good, that was his treat,” she laughed.
It Truly Is One Jump at a Time
When asked about his strategy today, Nick Haness reminded me of something I have to re-learn every time I horse show: you have to take things one jump at a time. “My strategy today was to keep calm and really put the course together like it was a puzzle. Just one piece at a time,” he said.
There were many perfect jumps to be seen tonight, but there were also moments every amateur rider like me can relate to. Sometimes your horse has to poop at the trot jump and peters out. Sometimes that distance you thought looked perfect maaaybe wasn’t as ideal as it seemed three strides out. But every rider, from professional to amateur to junior, kept going with poise and determination. That’s a mark of excellent horsemanship in any level of class.
There is Still Plenty of Joy to be Found
It’s been a turbulent summer for our sport, and I don’t have to tell you why. But even at a big championship like this, I realize that “the joy” is still everywhere. Around the tough competition and huge amounts of money on the line, I saw riders playing with their horse’s droopy lip. I saw huge smiles for getting to compete in that ring. I heard, “That was so much fun!” and it wasn’t because someone just laid down a trip in the 90’s.
We are people who love talented horses, and top competition. We work hard with the best animals we can find, and lay it all out in pursuit of twelve perfect jumps. While I’m watching that, I can forget everything else for a while. With that in mind, the Derby Championships were overflowing with joy.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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