On Sunday, September 9th, a friend and I took what I call a “horse holiday” and drove up to Saugerties, NY for Championship Sunday at HITS-on-the-Hudson. We were looking forward to seriously indulging our horse addiction by watching some of the country’s best hunter and jumper riders compete in two stellar events, the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix and the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix.
We arrived at the HITS campus, were met by HITS staff at the gate, given our credentials, shown to the special parking area (they said it wasn’t VIP but it sure seemed that way to us!) and ferried over to the press tent via golf cart by a very friendly and accommodating HITS staffer. (“You ladies travel far to get her? Want me to swing by the lady’s room?”)
In the press tent the HITS marketing staff made sure we had our Orders of Go, programs, wireless access, and refreshments. I travel for business in a regular basis, and have to say it was a bit like service at an upscale hotel in that respect. I know, the geek side is coming out. What can I say? I’m new to this “reporter” stuff, and getting to wear a press badge, sit in the press tent, learn from the pros, and ask questions while sitting 10 feet away from my idols is a total rush for me.
The $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix is considered by many the premier event for American Hunters. Top juniors, amateurs, and pros come from all over the US to vie for an unprecedented payout. Since the inception of the Pfizer Million in 2010, Tom Struzzieri and the HITS team have been striving to create additional classes that will give riders a significant year-end goal to work towards. To that end, in 2011 they created the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix, and this year, with the intent to offer juniors and amateurs in the hunter world a shot at big money, they created the $250,000 Hunter Prix Final.
The marquee hunter event, the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix, offers 75 qualified riders, 5 invitees and 1 wild card a chance to duke it out over 4 rounds over 3’3″ fences with spreads not to exceed fence height. The fourth and final round was held over a shortened course, complete with handy elements, in the Grand Prix ring amongst the Pfizer Million Grand Prix fences. One by one, riders like John French, Kelly Farmer, Ellen Toon, Jimmy Torano, Hope Glynn, Nick Haness, Tracy Fenney and Joie Gatlin trotted into the ring and negotiated their way around the course. Libby and I could not believe what we were seeing! These riders Do Not Move! They are so smooth it almost looks like they and their horses are on autopilot. I would give my eye teeth to be able to sit so still and give such invisible signals.
The early leader was Amanda Steege, a professional out of Bedminster, NJ, which happens to be my neck of the woods. Steege and her mount, Lisa Arena’s Balou, don’t have the Derby mileage that many of the others in the class do, not that you’d know it. In fact, this was Balou’s first Derby. The pair overcame a bobble in the first round and laid down copybook trips in Rounds 2 and 3 to qualify for the final. They led for most of the class with scores of 91, 91, and 87 until junior phenom Lillie Keenan entered the ring on 2011 $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals champ C Coast Z. In typical fashion the pair floated around the ring, scoring a 90, 92 and 94 to take the lead from Steege. Keenan didn’t hold the lead for very long, as her trainer Patricia Griffith was next in the ring on Lexi Maounis’ Sienna.
Griffith and the chestnut mare cruised around the ring as though they were just taking a walk in the park and not vying for a top-placed check worth $150,000. As they finished, Griffith smiled and patted the mare, who was clearly well pleased with her efforts as well. After a pregnant moment Griffith’s scores were announced: 92, 93 and 93! Griffith’s smile widened into a grin as she realized she’d won.
It was a good day to be in Hunterland, fellow Horse Junkies, especially for Team Heritage Farm. Congratulations to all!
Thanks for reading!