When a rider has to terminate a partnership with a successful horse, it’s deflating. But when one is able to fill that gap with new blood, there is nothing but a newfound excitement.
Hilary McNerney feels that way when she gazes at her 14-year-old mare, Astilbe.
“Chuck 27 got hurt and is getting retired,” McNerney explained. “He’s carried me for the past six years, through my first three-stars, five-stars.
“She (Astilbe) got a little injured in November, took some time off and this is us getting going again. She stepped up in Vancouver (in early June), started in the metre-50. Her purpose is to do speed classes, two-star grand prix, three-stars. But now we’re doing five-star and she’s filling in well.”
In fact, Astilbe looked quite at home on Friday at the Spruce Meadows North American show jumping tournament, winning an 11-horse jump off in the $40,000 ATCO Cup in thrilling fashion. The final pairing to take to the course, McNerney and her mount needed to beat the time of 44.39 – which was being held by both Australian Katie Laurie and Canadian Mario Deslauriers – and she did just that, crossing the finish in 43.92.
“It was crazy that those two were tied,” grinned McNerney, as she described her plan. “Honestly, it was just going as fast as I can. She is a very fast horse. If I just get her into somewhat the right place, we can go clear. When we first got her, the purpose of her was to be a speed horse, to teach me to go fast, and she definitely does that. There was the option in the first line to do the nine and she got down easy. Then clear the skinny and go.
“Going last, you kind of know what you have to do so that is one of the nice things about going last. Kind of hard going last also because of the pressure. But it’s actually nice, because you just stick to that plan and try the best that you can, hope that it works out. Hopefully luck is in your favour.”
Ireland’s Jordan Coyle and Picador finished in fourth.
McNerney, 30, began riding Astilbe at the end of last year.
“My trainer Kent Farrington has told me this horse has a lot of heart and she teaches you to fight for it,” she related. “It’s awesome riding a horse like this. She’s a fighter.”
McNerney went to high school in Chicago – Farrington is also originally from Chicago – and is a graduate of Duke University. Upon graduation seven years ago, she decided to give the sport a full-time try. Her association with Farrington, one of the world’s top riders, has been integral to her progression as a rider.
“My mom introduced me to Kent and Kent introduced me to this world, honestly,” she noted. “Kent’s a great trainer, great program, great horses.”
She’s also become a fixture at this facility over the years.
“I’ve always loved coming to Spruce,” she admitted. “I bring six or seven horses. We come here every year. It’s the best show, the footing, the grass … you become a better rider, the horses become better horses. I’m a Spruce diehard.’’
Farrington, himself, was front and centre during the evening class in the International Ring, as he took the 1.50m $75,000 Scotiabank Cup. There were only three horse-rider combinations to advance to the jump-off and only two riders, as Farrington had a couple of mares with which to try and claim the competition: Orafina, 10, and the venerable Gazelle, 16. Katherine Strauss of Southampton, N.Y., and Fair Field were the only other adversaries.
First off was Farrington and Orafina and they calmly and coolly set a clean standard of 44.61 for Strauss to beat. But she and Fair Field took down a rail and had to settle for second. Farrington opted not to ride Gazelle into the jump-off, thus also copping third spot.
These two riders went mano-a-mano at the National tournament a few weeks ago, Farrington and Orafina beating Strauss and Fair Field in the RBC Capital Markets Cup class.
The $500,000 ATCO Queen Elizabeth II Cup grand prix is the focal point of Saturday’s activity. Last year’s winners, Canada’s Deslauriers and Bardolina 2, are here to defend as is three-time winner Farrington.