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The ride of her life

Camden’s Boyd, Brunello capture USHJA International Hunter Derby crown

Posted: August 20, 2013 6:25 p.m.
Updated: August 21, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of Shawn McMillen Photography/

Liza Boyd and Brunello clear a fence en route to their win in last week’s $170,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington as part of the Bluegrass Festival Horse Show.

Nothing beats hours of practice and preparation for an athlete as they prepare for a competition.

When that event brings together the best in that particular sport, well, having a little help from above and beyond the field or arena does not hurt one bit.

Not a superstitious person by nature, Camden’s Liza Boyd was given a good luck charm on Saturday before the final round of the $170,000 United States Hunter Jumper Association’s (USHJA) International Hunter Derby Championship at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The gift, a four-leaf clover, was presented to Boyd by fellow competitor Jen Alfano, the defending champion of this event which Boyd was trying to win for the first team in a stellar riding career.

As if that symbol of good luck were not enough, Boyd also wore a necklace which her mother gave to her prior to this event a year ago. Inscribed on it were the words “Make it count when it matters most,” a line recited to her by her father and taken from a Robin Hood movie.

With things seemingly having been taken care of outside the show ring, once inside Boyd and her mount, Brunello, did what they did best as they used a near-flawless performance in the Handy Hunter Round to overtake Scott Stewart and Garfield for the crown.

Boyd had Brunello at the top of his game coming into the show -- propelled by a win in a $25,000 Derby at Blowing Rock, N.C., in what amounted to a tune-up for the main event -- but Boyd was not one to object to having a little luck on her side once in the Bluegrass State.

“It’s really nice when your competitor is your friend and that there is that kind of sportsmanship,” Boyd said of Alfano’s token of luck. “Jen was out in the field and found a lot of four-leaf clovers and gave one to me. I think that, in her heart, that she thought it was my turn (to win) this year.

“We try not to get too superstitious, but I think any athlete, in any sport, you have your little superstitions that you have to go with.”

In this same event a year ago, Alfano and Jersey Boy edged Boyd and Brunello by .25 of a point. The defending champs were not a factor last weekend.

The bond between Brunello and Boyd, who is a part-owner of the 15-year-old Hanoverian, was forged in 2007. For many a rider and horse, that is an eternity given the way in which a horse could be sold to another owner or, could have any one of a series of ailments which could send it to the sidelines.

The ability to move in sync with one another paid off handsomely Saturday night.

Boyd and Brunello trailed Stewart and Garfield by 10 points following Friday’s Classic Hunter round. But Boyd said she felt confident that the best was yet to come from her horse, which used jumping over larger fences earlier in the week in a Meter 30 jumpers’ class and was prepared for the fences he would be asked to navigate in the Handy Hunter round two nights later.

“I did one warm-up class with him, which isn’t typical for a hunter,” the Camden High and College of Charleston graduate said of the Meter 30 class. “There were 89 or 90 horses in the Derby class and I was, for sure, the only one who did a jumper class with my horse. Everyone else either didn’t show or, prepared for hunter classes.

“My strategy going into it was to get (Brunello) a little bit sharper by showing him some really big jumps. When he went into the class two days later, after jumping the meter 30s, which are quite larger than the Derby class was going to be, I felt that it would sharpen him up and tune him up a little bit. Also, for me as a rider, it would be easier going into the Derby where the jumps seemed a little smaller.

“That strategy really paid off the second day in the Handy round. You really needed a horse which could jump big jumps. You needed what we call scope. You needed a careful horse that wasn’t going to hit the jumps, but you also needed an extremely ‘scopey’ horse.”

At the end of Friday’s 59-horse Classic Round, Boyd and Brunello found themselves trailing Stewart and Garfield by a sizeable, 10-point margin after having a light run on one rail. Alfano and Jersey Boy were right on their heels, sitting in third a point behind Boyd and her mount.

“Ten points is a lot,” Boyd said of her confidence level going into Saturday’s 30-horse Handy Round. “I knew that if Scott went well, that he was going to beat me.”

Boyd also knew that, thanks to competing in the Meter 30 jumpers’ class, Brunello had an ace up his sleeve heading into Saturday in going over what Boyd said were the tallest jumps she could remember having to go over in her four years competing in the prestigious event. And, as she watched her fellow competitors and the scores they received from the judges, Boyd knew that she had to take a passive-aggressive approach if she was going to make up any ground on Stewart who took to the course last, one slot after Boyd and Brunello.

“In the Handy Round,” Boyd said, “the judges really wanted a forward pace; they seemed like they were looking for a really brilliant gallop to the first jump and tight turns. I had to be careful that I didn’t turn too tight or, jump too much because a lot of rails were falling.

“I knew that I had to be bold and be forward. But I also knew I had to be a little bit safe, not knock a jump down and just hope that Scott made a mistake.”

In the schooling area prior to taking to the main ring, Boyd said she had to perk up Brunello who, by nature, is quite reserved before his turn.

“I had to, sort of, wake him up in the schooling area … enthuse him,” Boyd said of the final minutes before her turn. “The horse definitely feeds off of me. I think he knows when he needs to step up to the plate. He definitely felt the energy, felt the atmosphere there and I think he felt that I really wanted it this year.

“He has a lot of desire. You can train a horse a lot of different ways, but you can’t give him that desire and that heart to want to go in there and win. This horse always comes through.”

Calling Brunello her “horse of a lifetime,” Boyd and Brunello gave the performance of a lifetime, scoring 301.75 points after clearing the large final fence with ease. The final obstacle was the downfall for many a team. Alfano and Jersey Boy clipped a rail and were out of the championship picture leaving Stewart and Garfield as the lone pairing remaining.

Stewart and Garfield got off to a solid start, only to see the horse start jumping too high and then, struggling when arriving at an in-and-out, two-stride jump dropping the pair from the top six as Boyd and Brunello finished the event with a 577.75 point total to easily outdistance runner-up Kelly Farmer and Mythical.

While the trophy will have Boyd and Brunello’s name inscribed on it, the rider said there are many people who have contributed to the success of the pair. There is her father and trainer, Jack Towell. From there, the line extends to Camden veterinarian Dr. Jeff Witwer of South Carolina Equine Associates; farrier Scott Poole; Diane Schiereck and his groom, Alberto.

“It’s quite a team effort,” Boyd said of Brunello. “Not only do I know him well, but our entire team knows him well. We’re just so fortunate to have such a good team.”

On a mid-August Saturday night in Kentucky, everything came together for Team Brunello. Two days after the championship, Boyd said that she was still trying to soak in everything which had happened.

“I’m still on cloud nine,” she said. “All I can say is ‘finally.’ I’m really proud of the horse; he really deserves it. He’s 15 years old and feels better than ever, but you just never know how much time you have left with him. His name truly deserves to be on that trophy.”

All this year, she said, Brunello’s schedule centered on his being right for the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship. And, last week, it all came together with the perfect end result.

“We, basically, planned our whole year around that class,” said Boyd, who now has a first, a second and a third in her four appearances at the event aboard Brunello, who was given a week off to relax and freshen up for the Kentucky show.

“Every day there was some kind of talk or planning about it going through my mind. Then, probably about a good two months before the class, I really started getting him even fitter; getting on him twice a day.

“We planned out his shows and mapped out every day so we had him peaking for that exact class. You can always have a plan but with horses, like anything, there are always bumps in the road. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and it all came together beautifully.”


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