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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The 2011 Maclay Finals

If you recall, I was very high on the winner of the Regional/Zone 5 Maclay finals held here in St. Louis. Sarah Milliren was the young lady's name and I thought she was a terrific rider, literally from the moment her horse set foot in the ring. I've found a video of her Regional ride here. There was no question that I'd be rooting for her at the National Championship along with Bethany Bolen, the nice girl I'd spent time talking to before she took her turn (she finished third).

So you can imagine that I was bit disappointed when I was finally able to lay my hands on the order of go for the first round of the Maclay, and realized I would not be able to watch Sarah or Bethany's trips:
Sarah was #44, and Bethany came shortly after at #48. My problem was I would be over at Wendy's barn when they rode. I had dropped in to the Arena long enough to get the sheet, take a look at the course map and watch a couple of riders' trips, but then Wendy picked me up. All I could do was cross my fingers and hope the young ladies did well with this very, very tricky course:
Sorry for the lovely grease stain from my lunchtime cheeseburger. The food was really good :-).
I do not think you will be surprised to hear that the one-stride "fan" jump, #10a and 10b, was the bugaboo of about 95% of the riders this day. Horses smacked into one or both of these jumps practically every time through. Here's a look at someone jumping in:
I must admit to never having seen a jump set-up like this before. I'm wondering how many of these kids practiced them, either, given the number of issues I saw. Probably it was just the fact that they had to approach the fences off the wicked, bending line which started back at Fence #8. It was waaaaaaay too easy to not get yourself set up right. And yes, in case you are wondering, they DID have the option to take the bounce route through the inside/lower part of the vee. Out of all the riders I eventually watched go, only two did that. Personally, I found that a little puzzling; I'm not sure if it's because they thought that way was too easy, or too hard (unlike me to not have asked someone). Besides, I like bounces. I am anxiously awaiting what I hope will be a written analysis of this course in an upcoming issue of one of my magazines!

If you can make out some of my dotted lines there on the course map, you can see the riders also had many options when it came to finding routes to the jumps. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen any kind of hunter course, Big Eq or not, with quite that many options. It was truly mind-boggling! For example, there were three different routes you could take just from #2 to #3a, and then they could pick which side of the "3" jumps they wanted to do. I think virtually everyone did the lower pair (as seen on that map). Once out of there, they had three choices of how to get to #4a!

Before you get any more confused, here's a video of someone's ride in Round 1. This youngster is maybe 13 years old, and in her first year of showing at 3'6", so her trip is not the smoothest. In comparison, here's someone else who did a really nice job. BUT, she didn't make the flat phase, either.

Who did? Hee hee hee... when I got back to the Arena after Wendy dropped me off, they were on about #138 in the order of go. I asked someone how Sarah did, and what do you suppose was the answer? She was first in the callbacks so far! FIRST! I nearly fell off my chair. Sure wish I could have seen that ride, and unfortunately, I am unable to find any video of it. Oh, well, I couldn't be two places at once and I certainly enjoyed meeting Ollie and Toby.

I settled in and began watching rounds. One rider I was anxious to see was Kalvin Dobbs. His name was familiar and I'm still not sure why; it's either because I saw him here at a Regional, or because he was a top rider in a previous Maclay Final. This time he didn't do too well. Megan Bifano, who came in second here, had a very good trip. Another girl who I recognized from our Regional, along with that "poker-face" girl, did not have good rides (I was not too sorry about the latter, I'm afraid: she was just as odd here as she had been at home. Can we say "Stepford Rider"?). Neither did either of the boys from here who I thought had no business finishing as highly as they had. Interesting.

Round 1 finally ended at about 3:30 PM (it had started at 7:00 AM), and the preternaturally fast crew was back zooming around collecting the jumps and dragging. The riders came back for the flat phase in three waves of 12, in reverse order of preference from the judges. Guess who was still in first place?? That's right, Miss Sarah. I was incredulous and delighted!

Notable in their absence during the flat phase were Lillie Keenan, who won the International Hunter Derby Finals over her trainers and who has done extremely well in other Big Eq classes this year (and finished 5th in last year's Maclay), and a certain young lady who was the owner of those five horses I saw show in the local Hunter Derby. Notable in their presence were four boys, all of whom made the top group. I'd say this is statistically significant because only 14 of the original 198 riders were male (as far as I can tell from the list - some of those names are a bit ambiguous, like "Hasbrouck." I just happen to know she was a girl.) What is the deal with the boys? Let's just say, I was not impressed with two of them. At all. Another one looked pretty good, and one I liked very much, but I'm sorry, the boys just tend to have crummy posture and that drives me crazy.

The flat classes went by pretty quickly - the usual deal of w/t/c/lengthen trot/lengthen canter - and we all waited to see who'd make the final 18. I wound up being quite pleased with myself, because all three of the riders I liked best from Group 2 advanced to the final round (nobody from Group 1 went all the way up). This included Megan Bifano, so I had someone else to root for.

The jumps were reset in a new course (I am sorry, but I didn't get a map), and I'm sure the riders were not thrilled to see their old friend the fan jump was back... and the first element had to be trotted. They were coming from the other direction, though. Here are some kids and trainers checking it out during the course walk:
After this jump combination, the riders were supposed to hand gallop to the next fence. I say "supposed to" because unfortunately, I didn't see very many true gallops. In my humble opinion, they also had had the chance to gallop to the final fence in Round 1 and practically no one did - I know from reading past Maclay summaries that judges are favorably impressed when a hand gallop is offered, so why not? Guess most people are afraid they won't be able see a good distance. Anyway, it was a "required" element of the Final Round course here and still not all of them did it. A slightly faster canter ain't cuttin' it kids, I want to hear those hooves thumping in the dirt! It really was rather frustrating. I found myself leaning forward in my seat trying to urge the horses on!

I kept very detailed notes on all 18 trips in the final round. Once again, the riders were called back in reverse order. The first rider performed her gallop admirably; I thought the rest of her round was good, too. And luckily, here it is for you to see! Most people did really well. A few probably left the ring and burst into hysterical tears (I know I would have) like the boy whose horse decided that now was the time to be pissy and nearly refuse a jump. It was NOT rider error. Poor Megan from my Regional rode 7th and had one of the worst rounds, with a bunch of sticky fences.

Speaking of boys, there was a big roar from the crowd when the one who I really didn't care for (initials CB) entered the ring for Round 2. Clearly he was a favorite and I actually did recognize his name; he finished 2nd in the Maclay in '09 (was not in the top 10 last year), and has a string of major Big Eq wins under his belt. I'm sure he is a perfectly nice young man and he did put in a lovely round, but I just cannot forgive his bent back and dare I say it, heavy seat. This is again, my humble opinion - maybe I'm crazy and I don't want a Googling posse on my tail, so that's why I'm just using initials here!

Another boy, Michael Hughes, who I did like very much, was called back on top for this round. Sarah was second and by the time she rode, let me tell you, I was a nervous wreck. However, her round, along with those of two other girls who were called back third and fourth, was clearly superior to Michael's. My nerves were then not helped when the judges announced that there would be further testing for the three girls...  apparently only one point separated them. Surprise, surprise, they were asked to switch horses and re-ride the Round 2 course. Grooms were allowed in the ring to help and I had a friend who was following online exclaim on FB, "Since when are grooms invited in there to do the tack and give a leg up???" I guess that is a relatively new wrinkle. My friend (along with some other folks) thought it was pretty stupid, considering this is supposed to be a horsemanship test and they should be able to tack and mount from the ground by themselves.

Elizabeth Benson went first aboard Sarah's horse, and I thought that although she did a great job, there was room above her. Come to find out she actually lost a stirrup - I didn't see that, but apparently Terrapin Station put in a big jump she didn't expect. Demi Stiegler went next and I felt was not quite as good, especially in the gallop. Then came Sarah. I was practically hyperventilating at this point and could hardly stand to watch. I held my breath... good pace... good jump... good trot through the fan... good gallop... SHE NAILED IT!!! There were a couple of knocks but boy, did she ever perform! Here is video of all three final rides.

Here's another look at Sarah's final two rides (watch your volume control!): I hope you will agree that she did a phenomenal job!

When they announced Demi in second place and we knew that Sarah had the win (though I'd really had no doubt), I went completely nuts. I mean, tears pouring down my face, screaming my head off nuts. I ask you, what are the chances that the one rider I knew about first-hand, the one rider I'd been so wowed by, would actually win the whole darn thing, out of 197 people??  I still just can't believe she won. I don't know how to find the exact statistics, but I don't think too many Region 5 riders - from Oklahoma, no less! - have taken first place in the past. Sarah is also not one of the "big names" in Big Eq, and according to several people I asked, certainly was not considered a favorite. Like it or not, we all know that reputation definitely has an impact on horse show placings, so I think it is just extra-marvelous that she won. Here she is getting all her goodies:
A group of people sitting behind me were yelling and carrying on just as loudly as I was. After all the hoopla had died down a little bit, I talked to one of them and found out she was the wife of one of Sarah's trainers. I was delighted to learn that Sarah is wonderful, polite down-to-earth kid who has not been spoon-fed expensive horses her whole life. Oh, no: this was a boot-strap operation to some extent, with her whole family including Grandma pitching in to help. She truly earned these accolades. In a news article I found, her (I think part-time) trainer Don Stewart said, "Any horse I put her on, she gets the job done... she really is a natural." From what I've seen, I completely agree. :-)

Happy Thanksgiving, All!


  1. That must have been really exciting to watch! What nice horses... I hope someday I get to jump around a horse that nice!

  2. I think it's great that Sarah won! I completely agree on your statement that many riders are "spoon-fed expensive horses". well said! it really does bother me that people who work hard to get far don't get credit like the people who have lots of money, even in 4H!


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