Lexington, Ky. – Nov. 3, 2019 – On the final day of its 136th anniversary, the National Horse Show welcomed junior equitation riders to the Alltech Arena for the ASPCA Maclay National Championship, presented by Chansonette Farm, the last of the four major equitation finals held each fall season. The National Horse Show has come to be known as one of America’s premier indoor equestrian events thanks to its rich history and classical traditions, one of which is the prestigious championship that is regarded as one of the most coveted equitation distinctions in the sport. Since 1933, an elite junior rider’s name has been etched into history as the annual champion, and this year the deserving victor was 18-year-old Ava Stearns, who topped the scorecard during her final junior year ahead of 175 athletes to capture the tricolor honors as the 2019 ASPCA Maclay National Champion and winner of the esteemed ASPCA Horsemanship Trophy.
Throughout the majority of the day, entries contested designer Bobby Murphy’s course one-by-one in attempts to showcase their abilities over the expertly created 14-effort pattern. The efficient course featured a diverse collection of fence types ranging from sturdy to airy, with the majority of the jumps not implementing standards, and was a nod to popular obstacles of the past as Murphy incorporated a series of fences that were reminiscent of those seen in previous generations. Exhibitors were offered fair opportunities to shine or fall short, with a forward 5-stride line, a collected 6-stride line, two in-and-outs and an obstacle jumped twice both directions all integrated into the course.
Faced with the task of whittling down the initial start list off 176 pairs to only the top 25 performers, judges Jimmy Torano and Tamara Provost ranked the collection of participants who had earned a callback into the next rounds of competition. As the 92nd to ride in the original order-of-go, Stearns, riding Acer K, proved to answer Murphy’s questions the best as they exemplified the pinnacle of equitation, completing a textbook trip to jump to the head of the standby list following the first phase of the competition. Headed into the under saddle and second over fences portions of riding, Stearns, Isabelle Song, Breanna Bunevacz, Emma Fletcher, Alexa Aureliano, Juliette Joseph, Catalina Peralta, Jordan Toering and Savannah Hemby were pegged as the frontrunners, all riding head-to-head in the same flat section.
During the under saddle phase, riders’ balance and strength, as well as their horses’ adjustability, were put to the test through a series of directives from the judges, which included lengthening of stride, flying changes and changes of gait, most of which was done without stirrups. Thanks to impeccable showings, both Bunevacz and Fletcher managed to usurp the early leader to claim the first and second positions, respectively, ahead of the final over fences phase. Hemby, Casas, Pielet and Griffiths also performed well and leapfrogged up the ranks to inch that much closer to the top spot.
Returning in reverse order of the standings for their last chance to display their skills, all of the top 25 contenders navigated the Alltech Arena once more in an effort to either win the competition or force a work-off. With the points too close to make a championship decision yet following the second jumping phase, the judges requested a final test for six riders, which included highest-placed Stearns, Fletcher, Casas, Hannah Hoch, Sophie Gochman and Elli Yeager. Originally outside of the top six, Hoch, Gochman and Yeager were each able to maneuver their way up the leaderboard to keep them in contention.
For their final ride-off, competitors were asked to canter directly to fence one, counter-canter fence 11, canter fences 12a and 12b, canter to fence 13 in six strides, halt, canter fence eight, hand gallop fence 5 and exit at the walk. The first five partnerships each turned in solid performances with no major errors, keeping the competition tight as the final entry walked through the arch for the last over fences trip of more than 200 throughout the day. As the ultimate challenger to ride, and with the lead to lose, Stearns jockeyed Acer K to an exemplary and seemingly effortless round, concluding the day’s activities on a high note with her precision, correct form and aid effectiveness. After waiting through the nerve-wracking announcement of results, Stearns was rewarded for her superior efforts with Acer K as the 2019 ASPCA Maclay National Champion.
As the 2019 victor, Stearns’ name now sits amongst some of the sport’s greatest athletes and icons, including past winners such as Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Lillie Keenan, Victoria Colvin and 2018 winner Sam Walker. Even more impressive is the fact that the junior rider claimed the championship aboard 8-year-old Acer K, North Run’s gelding who has just completed his first indoor season competing in the equitation finals. Though their partnership is relatively new, Stearns and Acer K have already achieved an incredible amount of success together, earning the reserve champion honors in both the 2019 Platinum Performance/USEFShow Jumping Talent Search Finals – East as well as 2019 Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation Final, in addition to topping the inaugural Dudley B. Smith Equitation Championship at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival during the summer. As the trainers of the winning rider, Missy Clark and John Brennan of North Run were also awarded a one-year lease of an Audi, courtesy of Audi of Lexington.
Hot off third-place honors in Saturday’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management $25,000 Show Jumping Hall of Fame Amateur-Owner/Junior Jumper Grand Prix CSI4*, 18-year-old Casas continued her successful weekend with the reserve champion honors. The 2018 Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation Final winner, 17-year-old Yeager added to her equitation reputation by earning the overall third place status. The 2019 Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final winner just weeks ago, Fletcher clinched fourth place, while Gochman earned fifth place and Hoch rounded out the top six.
Sunday’s competition concluded the 2019 National Horse Show, but the equestrian event will return in 2020 to once again host the ASPCA Maclay National Championship.
FROM THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Ava Stearns – ASPCA Maclay National Championship winner
On her reaction to winning:
“I could not think of a better way to go out. I was so lucky to have the support of North Run and everyone in this fall season. It would not have been possible without them. It was really exciting to come back from last week and have another strong finals finish.”
On the courses:
“I was very excited when I came and saw the course this morning. I thought it was very well done, interesting, challenging and the jumps were all beautiful. I really appreciated that it asked the same questions off both leads, I thought it was a course that would be very technical to ride, which ended up being correct. I would say that the whole thing was enjoyable and I really liked the opportunity to show the technical side of things but also to be able to get up and show a little bit more of the skills that you hone in at the end of the year in the test.”
On working with Acer K:
“I started seriously working with Acer K at the beginning of the summer. He is probably the smartest horse I have ever had the opportunity to ride in my life. He is only eight years old and he just started doing the equitation in March. He could not have impressed me more. He walked into every final and never put a foot wrong. He brought his ‘A’ game every single time and never let me down. I always knew I could rely on him and he took all the new things we threw at him in stride. I could not be more thankful to have the opportunity to work with him.”
Charlise Casas – ASPCA Maclay National Championship, second place
On competing in the jumpers and equitation:
“I started the equitation at the end of WEF this year and over the summer I really struggled with the transition from the jumper ring to the equitation actually and it was hard to find the finesse and the right balance. With repetition and going back and forth between jumpers and equitation I found myself relaxing, so from last night to today I just worked on getting on and feeling the horse.”
On her partnership with Conthacco:
“This is my second show with Conthacco, my first show was medal finals. I had never really ridden him before but he is such an incredible horse. We get along really well and he is always there for you whenever you ask him to do something. You can always count on him to give you good results, he is just one of the most incredible horses out there.”
Elli Yeager – ASPCA Maclay National Championship, third place
On her reaction to moving up the standings:
“I didn’t have my first best round but I knew that if I worked hard I could come back from it. Through the flat, I was flatting my butt off and I ended up moving up. In the second round and then the work-off I wanted to move up just as much to end strong and not finish on a silly mistake or anything that I could control. I just really went for it. I knew that I could do it with my horse.”
Missy Clark – Trainer to Ava Stearns
On working with Stearns:
“Ava has been such a hard worker for so long and she has really earned her moment here. She has worked with us for seven years and has ridden anything and everything that we have put underneath her. The horse that she has been riding this fall, Acer K, has never done the finals before and is only eight years old so the whole thing is incredibly impressive to me. In my mind nobody deserves it more.”
Jimmy Torano – Judge of the ASPCA Maclay
On judging the class:
“It was a great class. Ava came in the first round and had a super round and the second round, there was probably no one that noticed but there had been some lighting changing in the ring and it was trying to make a couple of little mistakes. Tammy and I really felt that they were not riding errors but that she dug in and got it done. For sure her horse was a little on guard and she really rode, and when she came back in for the final work-off she pulled out all the stops and nailed it. For me, the work-off was a clear cut winner. I have to say that all of the riders in the work-off got up out of the saddle and hand galloped! That was why we did the work-off the way we did, giving them the longest possible approach to that last jump because we really wanted to see the riders hand gallop.”
On the course:
“None of this would have been possible without Bobby Murphy! He gets all the credit. It is so nice to work with people that we have mutual respect for. Bobby and Tammy [Provost], we really worked well together and I think the courses were dynamite! Bobby put so much thought into the jumps and material and he had basically everything laid out. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better to work with today.”
Bobby Murphy – ASPCA Maclay National Championship course designer
On the courses:
“It was great! These two judges here made a perfect team together. Out of all of the years, I have been involved with course designing these finals, they were such a perfect match. They worked so hard on Friday night, they were up at it after midnight to get it done. It really took some teamwork. Although you guys are giving me a lot of credit, at the end of the day, it was their tweaking that fine-tuned the perfection of this course. Jimmy and Tammy both put final touches on it and we did it together. That is where perfection comes from. I am going to throw back the credit to them!”
On next year’s course:
“I think that, after walking around the Alltech Arena today and being at the National Horse Show, everyone was so happy for this throwback course. I was planning on changing it up after this year but I think we will return with this same style. I think what we are going to do is just throw in a couple more old throwback jumps. It seems like everyone enjoys it. I’m going to put a little more brush on the Churchill jump and add a couple more old-style fences. I think we can get a couple more with the 1940s and 50s look.”