Ninety-five contenders in three Challenge divisions took center stage yesterday with show jumping in the Grand Prix Arena as the final phase, just as the Galway Downs International contenders had done the previous afternoon. The fences were a tad lower, but the excitement was still high as national riders enjoyed an unusual spotlight.
Hatched 12 years ago at the Preliminary level, the Challenge format created by Robert Kellerhouse is designed as a transition between levels and as a special showcase. It functioned as intended this weekend spotlighting horses under professional development and young riders and amateurs testing their readiness for new levels and/or fulfilling year-long training goals.
"The lower levels are the bread and butter of our sport and everybody who competes in them is always so excited about doing something new," noted Erin Kellerhouse. She is organizer Robert Kellerhouse's wife but her perspective is more that of a top rider with a training barn full of junior and amateur riders and owners. "Robert is always finding ways to make the lower levels exciting."
O'Neal Tops Modified
Seattle-based professional Karen O'Neal was thrilled with Cafe Noir's 22 dressage score on Friday and his flawless rest of the weekend. The 7-year-old Holsteiner/Thoroughbred is owned by Leonie Padgett, who was also riding in the division. O'Neal has been riding Cafe Noir since last October, but between the Northwest rains and COVID show closures, the pair has not done much. There were bright spots at Rebecca Farms and Woodside earlier this year "and this weekend everything just kind of came together," O'Neal said.
She made the most of an opportunity to work with Phillip Dutton the week before the show, when the Olympic veteran was in town to contest the International that concluded Saturday. "Cafe Noir is a very capable horse with a lot of raw talent. So, it's just a matter of putting the training on him."
It was reserve champ Amanda Boyce and Mercury's second M-T Challenge. Their first was at Woodside in the summer, when they were again 2nd. Riding the 14-year-old Welsh Cobb, Boyce was the top junior rider in the 46-pair field. Mercury was the highest placed among horses who hadn't yet contested above Training level, and both designations were noted in the awards presentation. "I really love the new format," said Boyce, a student of Sabrina Miller's The Riding Academy in Salinas. "The step up from Training to Preliminary is so big, it's nice to have a stepping-stone in between."
Grateful to be double clear in the final phase to finish on their 24.10, Boyce admitted cross-country was her favorite phase and the one in which she was most proud of Mercury. "He tends to be quite spooky so I was proud of how brave he was."
Galway Downs legend Bill's Midnight Magic and Whitney Tucker-Billeter were also double clear on cross-country and stadium, to move into third place. They were winners of the Training Three Day event here last year and continued a long, strong partnership to finish on a 25.80.
Hallelujah DF continues a remarkable young horse trajectory with her win of this division under Dragonfire Farm's Jennifer McFall for owner Cheron Laboissonniere.
The mare was the champion yearling, 2- and 3-year-old in the USEA Young Event Horse Championships on the West Coast in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and McFall is thrilled to see that promise fulfilled under saddle. "Obviously, that's the goal." "Hally" is a half-sister to Illuminada, who finished second in the Novice Beginner-Novice Challenge with Earl McFall.
Jennifer McFall and Hallelujah DF finished on their 31.50 dressage score while moving up from an initial third standing thanks to clear sailing over the jumping phases.
Kiran D'Souza and Peter Parker were also double clear over cross-country and show jumping to make a big jump from tied for eighth to second.
Fault free over-fences work launched a bigger leap for junior rider Lauren Crabtree and the Selle Francais, Nabouco De Lessay, a CCI4* veteran. The 14-year-old student of Auburn Brady-Excell admits she was a little nervous about cross-country and jumping and thanked her "fantastic" horse for helping her out. "I thought I was going to get a rail on one of my jumps, but he put his feet up a little higher and we didn't."
Novice Beginner-Novice Challenge
Erin Kellerhouse closed out a happy weekend by riding Sonata GWF to first and LukeAtMe to fourth in this division. Both flashy and talented, Sonata finished on her 25 dressage score. The show-closing win followed finishing fifth in the CCI4*-L yesterday afternoon in her horse Woodford Reserve's first run at that level.
Sonata was bred by Laurel Ritter and Elizabeth Jenner and the only drawback of the 4-year-old doing so well is that she's now been sold, Erin Kellerhouse reported. "She is super fancy and a great jumper. She really surprised me today by doing so well in that ring." Liverpools were the only element taken out of the ring after yesterday's international show jumping and the VIP berms, tents and grandstands make for an electric atmosphere no matter what height the fences are. "There's a lot of atmosphere going on there and she was a superstar."
Fellow professional Earl McFall was thrilled with Illuminada's second place earned by sticking to their 26.40 score. The mare is owned by client Ann Patton, who purchased her specifically to develop through the Young Event Horse pipeline. Like her half-sister and Training Novice Challenge winner, Hallelujah DF, Illuminada dominated the young horse divisions, and "we are very excited for her future," Earl McFall said.
"She looks like a big girl, but she can really move and jump and fly," the Northern California trainer explained. "Show jumping may be her toughest phase because she has those big Irish feet and she' can't always get them moving in the right direction." That was no issue today, however, as their double clear effort resulted in holding onto their second-place standing.
Earl and Jenn McFall are big fans of the Challenge format. "(Organizer) Robert Kellerhouse always has great ideas and this one is a fun way to give the lower levels a championship to work toward."
There were 95 entries this year across the three divisions, and Jennifer predicted it will be even bigger next year as word spreads of its success. Staging at the FEI venue and concurrent with the International competition was ideal, Jennifer added. "Plus, it's cool that the West Coast has this unique competition out here: something cooler than they have on the East Coast!"
From CCI4*-L winner Boyd Martin to competitors in the entry level divisions, the Kellerhouse Presents team received high praise and appreciation. Participants complimented the footing in all phases and the suitable challenges of the cross-country courses and show jumping tracks. East Coast visitors who had not been to Galway Downs in several years described it as a virtually different place from what they remembered. Martin described it as a premiere American competition and venue said he hoped to return every year.
"We are grateful to all exhibitors, our sponsors, my team, Galway Downs' owner Ken Smith, our hunter/jumper friends at Nilforushan EquiSports, the USEF, USEA, and many more stakeholders and supporters for making the event a success," said Kellerhouse. "It's been a difficult year for everyone everywhere and having everything go so amazingly well closes the West Coast eventing season on a very high note."
As they hiked through the Galway Irish countryside, Shelley Bridges and John Whelpley soon found themselves amid a herd of curious Irish Draught mares grazing calmly around them. Bridges, an endurance rider extraordinaire with a well-known, educated eye for all things horse, noticed one of the mares in particular and said, “What about that one?” and our unlikely story began.
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