The lights were bright in the Rolex Stadium as the onlookers cheered on their favorite horse and rider combinations in a highly competitive 14-horse jump off. It was the $25,000 Hagyard Lexington Classic that took center stage yesterday night, seeing a field of 50 entrants vie for the top prize and valuable series points. Shane Sweetnam and Amaretto D'Arco jumped to the fastest of only four double-clear efforts, leading the night's victory gallop. Kaitlin Campbell was just a hair shy of Sweetnam's time, finishing in the second place spot with Rocky W.
The class was the fifth of seven grand prix events that make up the Hagyard Challenge Series, sponsored by Hagyard Medical Institute and presented by Pfizer Animal Health. The rider accumulating the most points throughout the series will be presented with the bonus during the $50,000 World Cup Qualifier at the Kentucky National Horse Show in September 2012.
Allen Rheinheimer designed the track, utilizing standalone verticals, rollbacks, technical lines, an oxer-oxer double combination, a vertical-oxer double combination, and a tight oxer-vertical combination leading into a daunting oxer. Riders had to navigate the course within the tight time allowed of 95 seconds, treading carefully with the agility to leave all the rails in their cups.
"I thought it was a fair course tonight, Allen always does a good job," eventual winner Sweetnam stated. "There were some really nice clear rounds in there, and since it was $25,000 you couldn't make it too massive. Whether you are a veteran of the sport or rising in the ranks, the course rode fair. He did a good job with it."
The short track became the true adversary, with 14 riders competing over seven obstacles in an attempt to take the winning title. The course began over a natural oxer and then demanded a left turn over a new vertical, from there riders had to make a sharp right turn and take the oxer-vertical double combination and then make a hard left rollback to the Hagyard vertical. Pace became crucial when heading toward the "L" shaped gate where riders took the vertical and then made a right rollback over a second vertical, finally progressing forward to break the beam after landing from the final oxer near the in gate.
Rebecca Conway and Twister, owned by Blue Hill Farm, were the first to post a faultless second round. Conway had seen three other riders find fault, and took a more conservative approach as the fourth in the return order. She piloted Twister to a time of 46.529 seconds, eventually claiming the fourth place honors.
It was Rachel Udelson and VDL Wardolette who set the pace for the remainder of the contenders. Udelson rode VDL Wardolette to a brilliant round, making a fantastic turn to the vertical and galloping to a finish in 41.316 seconds. Her reign was short lived, however, as Kaitlin Campbell and Rocky W followed with a faultless round in 40.235 seconds. It seemed as though Campbell would take the lead for the second consecutive event, but Shane Sweetnam and Amaretto D'Arco were prepared to give it their all for the victory.
"Rocky is pretty good in the jump-offs," Campbell explained. "He knows it's a jump-off, so I can really focus on speed. As long as he gets his legs in there, I just go for it. He's trustworthy and knows his job, and we have been working together for so long that we know each other by now."
Sweetnam moved veteran mount Amaretto D'Arco over the opening oxer at an angle, catching a speedy pace into the following vertical. Similar to that of Campbell, he sliced the turn to the Hagyard vertical and used his mount's natural speed on the ground to his advantage. Sweetnam crossed the finish line in 39.947 seconds, only two-tenths of a second faster than Campbell to take the lead.
Campbell laughed as she explained her professional relationship with Sweetnam, "I don't know if it was a good or bad thing that he beat me tonight, especially since he used to be my trainer and helped guide me through my entire junior career. It was one of those bittersweet moments, but I am so thankful for everything he has done for me. That horse is amazing for him, and he had a great round."
"Amaretto is my best horse, we have done a lot together," Sweetnam explained. "Recently he was reserve for the Ireland Team for the Olympics, and he just came off of some top earnings at Spruce Meadow. I decided to compete with him in two classes this week to prepare him for the Hampton Classic, and the Rolex Stadium also provides such great practice for jumping under the lights."
Udelson took the third place award for her efforts aboard VDL Wardolette, with Conway taking the fourth place. David Biesel and Ammeretto, owned by Equine Holdings, earned the fifth with two time faults factoring into their finish. Andrew Welles and XM, owned by Peter Welles, rode to the sixth place finish with the fastest four-fault effort in 40.596 seconds, lowering the final oxer as he tripped the timers.
"I thought the course was great tonight," Campbell remarked. "Rocky loves going under the lights, and I think that kind of brightened him up a bit. Tonight all of the weight was on him since he was my only horse for the evening, but he did great and we are trying to get as many wins as we can to maintain the lead in the Hagyard Leading Rider Series Standings."
In addition to competing for the winning title, riders had the opportunity to win $2,000 in bonus money as a part of the SSG Riding Gloves 'Go Clean for the Green' promotion-riders wearing the SSG 'Digital' Riding Gloves with the SSG horse head logo clearly visible during all rounds of competition in designated events are eligible for the bonus. Tonight Sweetnam was wearing a pair of the SSG 'Digital' Riding Gloves, and collected the bonus. He admitted that the gloves may have had some play in the way the results panned out.
"I have been using the SSG Digital Riding Gloves for quite a while, and I have really grown to like them. They have a really good grip, are comfortable and work no matter what the weather is like," Sweetnam explained. "I would like to think that my riding was the real cause for tonight's victory, I know my horse very well and we were able to make a lot of tight turns, have a strong pace and be quick everywhere. We maneuvered the course great, and I am thrilled to have earned the bonus money again."
Riders will have the opportunity to compete for the highly desired bonus money this Sunday during the $40,000 Bluegrass Festival Grand Prix. Sweetnam will also be a contender, and someone who will wear a target on his back for his recent victories during the Kentucky Summer Series.
Tomorrow, the exciting line-up of events will continue at the Bluegrass Festival Horse Show. The Final Round of the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals will get underway at 8 p.m. in the Rolex Stadium, with the Consolation Round taking place at 4 p.m. On Sunday, the competition will come to a close after riders compete in the $40,000 Bluegrass Festival Grand Prix.
Source: Press release from Phelps Media Group, Inc.
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