A Look Back at the $25,000 WCHR World Cup Team Hunter Challenge Presented by the AHJF
Diana De Rosa
On Saturday afternoon, April 23rd, in Las Vegas, NV, at approximately 3:00 p.m. in the Thomas & Mack Center the world witnessed the first ever $25,000 WCHR World Cup Team Hunter Challenge, thanks to the American Hunter-Jumper Foundation. That event had a long name but a new future for the sport of hunters in the U.S.
The Challenge pitted four of the top U.S. hunter riders against four of the top European jumper riders on world class horses that were on loan for this special occasion. The competition was added to the prestigious FEI World Cup Dressage and Show Jumping Finals, which was held concurrently in the same location for the first time in the history of the World Cup. These annual Championships showcase the world’s best show jumpers and dressage riders competing for their respective World Cup titles. Such an event was the perfect canvas to add a World Hunter Challenge to.
The Challenge was a face off on a dare made by Brazilian Rodrigo Pessoa. Although the European riders don’t compete in hunters, Pessoa believed that he could pull together a team of riders that could beat the top hunter riders in the U.S. So, he called Karen Healey and challenged her to organize this event. She approached the World Cup committee and the AHJF and Healey put in motion all the details needed to organize a successful event. The Challenge featured four top American riders (Louise Serio, Scott Stewart, John French and Peter Pletcher) to test their hunter skills against an all-Olympic veteran European team including the legendary British riders Nick Skelton and Michael Whitaker as well as German Marcus Ehning and Pessoa. It was clear that Rodrigo wasn’t taking any chances. In fact, Whitaker finished 2nd in the World Cup, Ehning was 3rd, Pessoa fifth and Skelton 22nd. So, even though he didn’t say it, he knew that the only way to win against the best of the best in the hunter world was to pull together a team of riders who were practically born in the saddle.
And so when the day finally came and the Europeans showed up with their stacked deck it was time to show what they were all made of. In the end the European show jumping team did beat the U.S., but only by the slimmest of margins. The Europeans totaled 518.1 to the U.S. score of 511.3. Not bad for a group of four show hunter riders who have never entered an Olympic arena to do so well against this team of Olympic veterans. And although the Europeans were gloating with their victory they also admitted that it’s not as easy as it looks but it is something they’d like to continue. Michael Whitaker earned the Leading Rider award and $5,000 with his combined score of 176.6. In Sync earned the High Score horse title with a final score of 177.6.
Rodrigo commented, “We didn’t know what to expect, because we’re not familiar with this kind of jumping. It started out as a bit of a joke, but it became pretty serious. But, I think everyone enjoyed it and it was good fun.”
Rodrigo added, “The horses were a good quality … they were probably not used to the atmosphere like this with the people and the lights.”
Pletcher remarked, “I think this event was great. I’d like to see more of it. I think the more we do the better it will become.”
ABOUT THE RIDERS AND HORSES
All of these riders have credentials that put them at the top of their league. Besides all being Olympic veterans, all but Whitaker are World Cup champions and Pessoa is an Individual Silver Olympic Medalist and Ehning an Olympic Team Gold Medalist.
If the Olympics offered hunter competition, the four U.S. riders would surely have added that prestigious event to their list of accomplishments. Instead their credentials showcase them as each having won the Monarch International Show Circuit Magazine WCHR Professional Hunter Rider title at least once (reigning champion Pletcher and Stewart have each won it twice). Pletcher and French have also competed in jumpers and at a past World Cup competition: Pletcher in 1992 in Del Mar, CA and French in 2003 in Las Vegas.
The horses they competed on equally deserve the limelight as their credentials match those of their riders. Those horses include In Sync, owned by Stephanie Danhakl; Chance, owned by Archie Cox; Country Grammer and Touchstone, both owned by o/Maryanne Weisberg-Perry; Ocean Park, owned by Lynn Walsh; Vanity, owned Becky Gochman; Historic Lane, owned by John and Tammy Williams; Carson, owned by Janie Andrew and Mandarin, owned by Jane Fraze.
The competition followed the Grand Prix of Las Vegas and while the course was being changed the audience was entertained with clowns throwing autographed t-shirts, videos explaining about the sport of hunters and the announcers giving them information about what they were about to see. The competition consisted of two rounds. In the first round each team of four riders competed over a 3’6” course and was judged by three pairs of judges. The lowest individual score was dropped for the team competition and the remaining scores added together for a single round team cumulative total. The second round was a handy course (on a different horse) where the rider’s interpretation of the course was rewarded and emphasis was placed on turns and promptness (again the lowest score was dropped). The scores of both the first and second rounds were combined. The team with the highest two-round score won.
Riders were judged by Brian Lenehan, Southern Pines, NC and Jack Towell, Camden, SC; Alex Jayne, Elgin, IL and Missy Clark, Warren, VT; and Hap Hansen, Encinitas, CA and Jimmy Torano, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The Show Jumping Manager for the event was Robert Ridland. Karen Healey was named Chef d’Equipe of the US Team, Ann Symes for the European Team and Louise Serio captained the U.S. Team. The course designer was Anthony D’Ambrosio, Red Hook, NY and announcer Peter Doubleday was joined by well known hunter trainer and rider Don Stewart as well as Olympic veteran Melanie Smith-Taylor, who regularly co-hosts the equestrian portion of the Olympics for NBC. Taylor and Stewart added some color to the announcements by providing the audience with details about the horses and riders competing and some of the things the judge was looking for.
French was pleased and later commented, “It was great with the commentary. Maybe people in some of the other disciplines will realize they have a hunter in their back yard. Hopefully this will educate the people over there and here as well about hunters.”
Jimmy Torano noted, “I can’t think of any time where we have gotten any hunters in that type of atmosphere. That was incredible. … It started out as a joke, but it came out to be a great class.”
The WCHR World Cup Team Hunter Challenge was made possible through the support of Monarch International/Show Circuit Magazine, Debbie Burrows, Sopranos Farm, Dean & Elizabeth Oliver, Kelly Straeter, Mr. & Mrs. Fred Bauer, Triple J Farm/Janie Andrew, Arwen Stables, PJP Farm/Peter Pletcher, Mary Manfredi, Peter Lutz/Davenport, Inc., Oscany, Inc., New Haven Farm, Inc., National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, Elizabeth Dickinson/HMG Farms, Archibald Cox III, Joie Gatlin/Morley Abby Show Stables and Edgewood Equestrian Enterprises.
ABOUT THE EVENT
It was truly amazing watching how a simple hunter competition suddenly became a must see event. It began with finding the right person to organize all the details. Karen Healey was chosen for the task. This involved finding quality horses to ride which the riders had never ridden before. And because these horses had never competed in front of a crowd of over 6,000 it also meant that there might be some unexpected spooking going on, but in the end that only added to the event, giving it some color and also making the audience aware of the fact that riding a hunter isn’t always as easy as it looks.
Once the horses were organized, and all the other details put into place then two tapes was made to intro the event. AHJF Executive Director Michele Perla spent a day in the editing studio helping to put together those tapes and Melanie Smith-Taylor and Ken Kraus helped with the voice overs. Those videos explained a bit about the sport and how it all started with hunting. Also included were some tips on what the judge is looking for.
The press conference was also impressive as it appeared that just about all the press present were there to hear what the riders had to say. And those riders were pleased. Rodrigo said he had more fun then in past years when he’d tried his hand in some rodeo challenges. The European riders agreed that they’d like to see more hunter competition in other countries. Las Vegas Events, which produced the World Cup, liked the competition so much that they’ve already given the AHJF the high sign that they want to run it again the next time a World Cup is held in the U.S.
So, congrats to the AHJF and the Las Vegas team for making this event happen. You may just have changed the face of the hunters and this may be the beginning of spreading this sport to countries across the world. Kudos go to Louise, John, Scott and Peter for being such good sports to take on such an awesome challenge. It ended up being the hit event of the afternoon and afterwards walking around the grounds there were some interesting conversations taking place about that class. No one likes to lose, but in this case there were no losers as this was a win-win situation for the future of the sport of hunters.
The AHJF was formed to further the development of the equestrian sport of the show hunter rider and show jumping competition by providing a national office to organize, coordinate and support hunter rider and show jumping equestrian competition. Programs of the AHJF include the World Championship Hunter Rider Awards, the AHJF Emergency Relief Fund, AHJF Educational Programs, the AHJF BSA Inc. 401k and Profit Sharing Plan, the AHJF/Dover Saddlery Junior Hunter Challenge and the Legacy Cup. With the help of the AHJF the perfect opportunity to showcase hunters in a world class international competition has now become a reality.
For more information about the WCHR World Cup Team Hunter Challenge, presented by the AHJF contact the AHJF (335 Lancaster Street, West Boylston, MA 01583-0369), Phone: 508-835-8813, www.ahjf.org, E-mail: AHJF@earthlink.net.