A year and a half ago, world champion hunter rider John French couldn’t get his mount Center Court to do a lead change. Now, they’re in second place going into the Handy Round of the 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship.
Revealed the California-based rider:
“I got him as a four-year-old-based off an Internet ad from England. I brought him over after I just liked him on the video and it took a year and a half before he would even do a lead change.”
It would be another year and half before he felt the horse was up to the challenge of a Derby Final.
“I hadn’t brought him [to the International Hunter Derby Finals] in the past because I didn’t think he was quite ready or that I could count on getting the changes done out there in the big field,” he continued.
Last year, the late blooming bay gelding started to live up to his potential.
“At six years old, I did take him to indoors and he was champion at the Washington [International Horse Show],” said French. “This year I felt he was ready to come and that’s basically been our goal all along with him—to bring him here—because I always knew he was a derby horse.”
Center Court proved French right in yesterday’s Classic Round. Fifteenth in the order-of-go, the pair set the standard with scores of 89.00, 89.00 and 88.50, plus an additional four points from each of the three judges panels for taking the high options, for a cumulative tally of 278.50.
The only combination to beat them: French on his second mount, Skyhawk, who turned in a total of 282.00.
The inaugural 2009 champion of the USHJA International Hunter Derby now leads the field in first and second going into the handy round—despite a rocky start to their week.
“I showed them [on Thursday] and they weren’t really good,” said French. “Skyhawk tripped and almost fell down after the trot jump and Center Court was so asleep, but in a way it was good for me because I knew we had to step it up here a little bit and it made me wake them up a little bit more.”
Today, he’ll attempt to seal the title for a second time. The top 20 combinations in Tier I return to contest the ever popular handy round in the Rolex Stadium at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Just don’t expect French to get excited about the trot option.
“I hope there’s a lot of inside options and I love single jumps. I hope there’s not lines that you have to run down,” he shared. “I’m sure there will be a trot fence—it’d be nice if there wasn’t. Sometimes you never know what’s going to happen at the trot fence.”
Watch today’s Handy Hunter Round on EQSports.net. (For a fee. Sad face.) Opening ceremonies start at 6 p.m.