Geller Takes Her Chances In Blenheim Spring Classic Hunter Derby

It’s not every day you go up against your trainers and win, but junior rider Morgan Geller got to enjoy that experience with Fabricio on April 15 in the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby during Week 3 of the Blenheim Spring Classic series in San Juan Capis-trano, Calif.

Geller, 16, trains at Frontier Farm in Lake View Terrace, Calif., with Peter Lombardo and Katie Gardner, and she came back in second place for the handy round competing against both of them. Gardner returned in first place as the defending champion with Carolyn Miguelez’s Parker.

Geller felt butterflies as she prepared to enter the expansive grand prix field. The previous 11 rounds had resulted in numerous refusals and knockdowns. Then John French, a frequent hunter derby champion, almost fell off one of his mounts, Clooney, due to a spook at the first jump, a tall coop with big shadows on the backside.
Color commentator Robert Ridland even remarked that the Scott Starnes course design was the winner instead of any of the competitors.

Fabricio, however, was brave and unfazed by the shadows and spooky jumps.

“I was really nervous,” Geller confessed. “But [Fabricio] does a lot of the USET and equitation classes, and I knew he’d be really brave. I could do the inside turns, and I could make it a little more complicated and get away with it because he’s so practiced. He’s really not too spooky with any of the jumps or the shadows.”

In fact, Fabricio has a bit of an arrogant side according to Geller. The 10-year-old Czech Warmblood’s previous owner, Katie Kelso, had an animal psychic visit to make that assessment.

“The psychic said he had a really big ego, and he thought he was the best, most handsome horse in the barn, and that he liked to be called Champ,” Geller said with a laugh.

With the knowledge that she could take risks, Geller piloted her mount to all the high option fences, including the 4' fence leading out of the grand prix field into the adjacent west grass field, an ambitious choice that few of her
fellow competitors took. Geller rode a daring inside turn from the first fence, an upright coop that rolled back to a high option fence. For the third fence, a two-stride combination, Geller took another inside turn. To finish off their brilliant ride, Geller had a solid hand gallop to the final fence, a 4' oxer, high option fence.

“I did the inside turn from fence 2 to 3 because he was so good in the equitation. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t really have to, but it’s good practice to just go out and do it, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work,” Geller explained.

Geller had confidence that her horse would easily negotiate the 4' height, as they’d entered the high performance hunter division the previous week.

“He’s so scopey, so he just pops right over it,” Geller said. “He does it all; abso-lutely he’s the best.”

Gardner wasn’t so lucky—she incurred two refusals with Parker to drop to 11th place. However, she was proud of her student’s win.

“Morgan is a great student, a really hard worker and always takes our advice when we make her do tough stuff,” she said. “Their partnership has really come a long way.”

Lombardo agreed, saying Geller, who has been his student since he opened Frontier Farm three years ago, has what it takes to become a professional if she decides to pursue a career in the field.

“She accomplishes anything she wants to do,” Lombardo said, adding that Geller has been accepted to the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Emerging Athlete Program in the 1.20-meter class this year after making the cut to the national level of EAP last year.

Geller not only won the derby, but she also took home a championship in the large junior hunter, 16-17, division with first-placed finishes in all of her rounds.

Galloping Into Second

Nick Haness and Carolyn Mittler’s Havana had to settle for second place, but the pair came close to catching Geller, finishing only 2 points behind the winning score. The young professional from Hunterbrook Farms in San Clemente, Calif., had a spectacular handy round, and he earned a pair of 10 bonus points for handiness for displaying consistently forward pace, sharp turns and taking each high option fence.

Haness also had a gasp-inducing hand gallop to the final fence.

“She was totally on the end of her stride,” Haness said with a laugh. “But nothing can really spook her; you know you can trust the gap. I saw the distance about 20 strides away, and I knew I’d be long, so I just squeezed harder.”

Returning in third place for the handy round, Haness knew there’d be some challenges ahead of him after seeing the previous bobbles from other riders, but he trusted Havana would be brave to all the jumps.

“After watching, I knew if I could manage the first inside turns by those weird bushes at the beginning of the course, I’d be home free,” Haness explained. “I could tell she was focused. She doesn’t mind pressure; she always rises to the occasion.”

Havana, an 11-year-old Hanoverian by Escudo I, was imported from Europe in 2010, and she’s won tricolor ribbons every time she’s contested the first year green division. At the HITS Desert Circuit in Thermal, Calif., Haness and Havana smoked the first year field as they won champion or reserve championships every week of the circuit, and the circuit championship.

Haness took Havana in the Devoucoux Hunter Prix classes at HITS Desert Circuit, where they placed in the top 10 of each class. The jumps are set higher in the USHJA International Hunter Derby than the Devoucoux Hunter Prix, but Haness knew the 4' option jumps would be a piece of cake for the mare, who previously competed in the jumpers.

“She has a great character, and she’s built perfectly for hunters,” Haness said. “You don’t have to touch the reins; she goes in a rubber snaffle and no martingale. She’s just easy and magical and perfect.”

Davis Adds To Her Collection

One win might be luck and two could be coincidence, but when Lucy Davis collected the top check in the $50,000 Royal Champion Grand Prix, her fifth grand prix victory in two months, she proved she’s on a hot streak with no end in sight.

Davis and Old Oak Farm’s Nemo 119 earned their win on April 16 by laying down a jump-off round that shaved 1.5 seconds off the time of second-placed finisher, Canadian Samantha Buirs and Total Touch.

Davis’ bright smile lit up her face as she waited by the in-gate for the victory gallop and Nemo’s blue ribbon. It wasn’t her first victory gallop of the day either. Only a few hours before, she took the top check in the $10,000 1.35-meter classic with her other horse, Hannah.

Davis explained that part of her strategy for riding in the grand prix field at Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park was taking into account the expansiveness of the arena. She said the large field is deceivingly hard and rides “bigger and scopier” compared to other venues.

Davis won her first grand prix last May at the Memorial Day Classic in Burbank, Calif. Nine months later the 18-year-old from Los Angeles arrived at the HITS Desert Circuit on a mission and cleared four grand prix wins in two weeks, culminating in the $200,000 Lamborghini Grand Prix on March 13 with Nemo, a 12-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Cambridge—Zullia, Cantus) whom she got from Nick Skelton.

She attributed her recent accomplishments to a new training regimen with Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Markus Beerbaum and Gaby Salick.

“They, especially Markus, have really helped me get comfortable in bigger classes,” she said. “They’ve taught me so much about riding and really allowed me to be involved with the whole pro-cess of getting to and from the ring. I think learning more about the care of my horses and becoming involved with more of the details of the behind-the-scenes work has translated positively to my riding.”

Although there is pressure to win due to her achievements this season, the soft-spoken competitor said it doesn’t bother her too much, because she tries not to think about it.

“If I just remember to ride and not worry about the ups and downs and the hot streaks of the sport, then I think, I hope, it’ll be all right,” Davis said. “But I actually don’t mind a little pressure.”

Up next for Davis is the Del Mar National Horse Show in May, where she will aim to qualify for the $100,000 Grand Prix of Del Mar, open to the top 30 competitors of the $25,000 Surfside Grand Prix.