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Now in its ninth year, the eagerly-awaited 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship brought many of the nation's most talented horses and riders to Kentucky to compete for the most prestigious hunter title of the year. The International Hunter Derby Program recently hit a milestone, having awarded more than $10 million in less than 10 years to competitors, and this year's championship significantly added to that total, offering one of the highest payouts in the program's history. With the total purse topping $268,000, each of the 84 competing pairs were motivated to lay down brilliant performances Friday in the classic round in order to earn their places in Saturday's championship handy round. John French, the inaugural 2009 champion, ultimately stole the show ahead of the field, riding to both first and second place aboard Skyhawk and Center Court, respectively. 

As the 15th in the order-of-go, French and Center Court, owned by Hiller Farms, LLC, set a high standard for the entrants that would follow them 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. Also taking the four high options, Victoria Colvin and Cuba, owned by John and Stephanie Ingram, LLC, gave French and the 7-year-old bay gelding a run for their money a handful of trips later but fell just short with a score of 275.25. As the class progressed, it became clear that French and Center Court were the ones to beat. Though the top 12 cut-off continued to climb, ultimately reaching a lofty 265.50 as horse-and-rider combinations repeatedly scored respectably, none were able to top the leading pair until French returned to the Rolex Stadium with his second mount. 

Armed with the knowledge from his previous trip around designers Alan Lohman and Danny Moore's course, French returned to the judges' scrutiny aboard Skyhawk, owned by Laura Wasserman, and outdid himself with marks of 89.50, 89.50 and 91.00 in addition to the 12 bonus points for a total score of 282.00 to capture the one-two lead. French and Skyhawk's score of 91.00 was the second-highest score awarded throughout the day, and they, along with only two other pairs, Colvin and Cuba as well as Kristy Herrera and Candid, were able to break the 90-point benchmark. Twenty more pairs chased down French's top two positions to no avail, leaving the 2009 champion in prime position headed into Saturday's finale to claim top honors once again.

Competition was fierce with frequent scores awarded in the 80s, but Colvin and Cuba retained third position behind French and his mounts, followed closely by Geoffrey Hesslink aboard his own Cadoretto with total marks of 273.00 as one of the first to go in the class. Hesslink is among good company in his first International Hunter Derby Championship, as nearly half of the competing riders were also making their debuts in the elite class. Only one-quarter of a point behind Hesslink, veteran rider Liza Boyd, the three-time champion from 2014 through 2016, navigated Stella Styslinger's O'Ryan to fifth position with their score of 272.75. Jennifer Alfano rode Sharon O'Neill's Miss Lucy, the 2016 champion horse, to a score of 271.80 to claim sixth place. Last year, Alfano was forced to give up the ride on the chestnut mare to Herrera due to an injury, but the catch-rider performed spectacularly, earning the 2016 championship honors. 

The 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship will return to the Rolex Stadium Saturday afternoon, with horses and riders pegged to compete in either the derby challenge or the coveted handy hunter round, which will determine the new champion. The top 20 highest-scoring pairs have qualified for the Section A portion of the prize money, representing the largest percentage of the pot, while the top 20 tier two duos, determined by money won throughout the year, from the classic round will vie for the Section B prize money. Ultimately, the horse and rider with the greatest composite score from the two rounds of competition will be crowned the newest champions.

Photo by Barre Dukes / Phelps Sports