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John French Takes Center Court to the Win Once Again
San Juan Capistrano, CA - The high-performance competition was hot in today's $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby. Earning scores in the nineties from both judging panels in both rounds, derby veteran John French rode Hiller Farms' six-year-old Center Court to a royal win.

John French and Center Court

Twenty-nine pairs galloped around the Grand Prix Field over a forward flowing course on a gorgeous afternoon in southern California. The esteemed panels of judges sat on either side of the field, with Christina Schlusemeyer and Cindy Merritt as Panel One, and Panel Two consisted of Lisa Forman and Liz Adler.

Seven top professionals and one amateur earned solid scores in the Classic Round to return for the Handy Round. French had three entries in the top twelve - the gorgeous bay Center Court came back in the lead with an excellent score of 191. The handsome grey and previous derby class winner, Soldier, as well as the flashy chestnut Maritime, both owned by Elizabeth Gabler, were sitting second, and fourth, with scores of 183.5 and 175 respectively.

From Elvenstar, Katie Gardner rode the lovely Starlane Farms entry Maldini to third place in the first round with a score of 179. Riding for John Bragg's Bridgeport Farms, Jennifer Jones came back on two entries - the handsome dark bay West Street, who was sixth with 173, and Deanna Sage's Trousdale, a cute chestnut with lots of chrome, came back in the eighth position with a score of 170.

Returning in the fifth spot with a score of 174 was Leslie Steele aboard the classic bay hunter Deal Maker (owned by West Coast Equine Partners, LLC). Rounding out the top twelve were Jenny Karazissis and Hope Town Farms' Undeniable, Gretchen Lof aboard Corduroy (King Wood Farms, LLC, owners), young Amateur rider Conor Perrin on his own Gelato, Tara Metzner on High Five (Tammy Williams, owner) and Joie Gatlin on Lugano (owned by Alexis Meadows).

Leslie Steele and Deal Maker

More often than not the challenges of the International Hunter Derby Handy Rounds end up substantially changing the final standings. With options to make tight turns, a trot jump followed by a hand gallop to a single oxer, a combination away from the in-gate and a spooky wall as the final element, several top spots shifted as minor mishaps from rails to awkward trot jumps, affected the scores. Taking risks that paid off, several horses impressed the judges with their style, manner and handy ways.

Steele and Deal Maker stole the handy show, winning the round and jumping from fifth to second place overall with scores of 95.5 and 96 plus four high options. Also earning a set of sensational scores in the eighties added to nineteen handy points, Jones moved up five places with Trousdale.

Jennifer Jones and Trousdale

The crowd was quiet as French and Center Court entered the ring for their Handy Round. Choosing to take his time with the young but brave horse, the pair had a flawless trip. French commented, "After he jumped the first jump, I thought, 'Wow, he's jumping well.' I think he gave a great impression because of that first jump and then the last jump with the spooky wall he just jumped it slow and curled over it. First and last impressions are important and because of those two things, I felt pretty confident they were going to like it."

With a calm demeanor and a lovely expression, the horse is a natural. Six months into his first year in the show ring, with French in the irons, he's earned an impressive list of accolades, including five High Performance Hunter Championships, tying for third in the WCHR Hunter Spectacular and a win at the Ranch & Coast USHJA International Hunter Derby.

Center Court is by Stal Hendrix's KWPN stallion Ustinov, who is known for a powerful canter and outstanding jump. Ideal for derbies, French recognized this talent in a video of the horse when he was just four years old. Taking it slow, but letting him shine, the equally talented yet experienced rider explained the potential plan. "He's only six and he is really a First Year horse, but it's almost too easy for him. I don't quite think he's ready for Derby Finals - I know he would jump all the jumps but he's still in the training process. Not quite ready to smoothly turn and jump, I still take my time getting the lead change," French said. "When I go back to the Finals, I want him to be really ready, so I think we'll probably just wait. At the end of the year, we will take him back east and show him at Indoors in the High Performance."

Jeff, Mary and Kristen Hiller, along with Jason Haas and Lexi Shaw (l-r), join John French and Center Court in celebrating the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby

Tomorrow's highlights in the Grand Prix Field include the final $7,500 CashCall Mortgage Futurity Qualifier before the Final in July, and the $30,000 June Classic Grand Prix, presented by Michael & Kenzie 1911.


$10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby

Place - Number - Horse - Rider - Owner - 1st Round/2nd Round/Total
1. 233 - Center Court - John French - Hiller Farms - 191/199/390
2. 641 - Deal Maker - Leslie Steele - West Coast Equine Partners, LLC - 174/199.5/373.5
3. 861 - Trousdale - Jennifer Jones - Deanna Sage - 170/194/364
4. 857 - West Street - Jennifer Jones - John Bragg - 173/189/362
5. 562 - Corduroy - Gretchen Lof - Kings Wood Farm, LLC - 169/172/341
6. 462 - Maldini - Katie Gardner - Star Lane Farms, Inc. - 179/159/338
7. 862 - High Five - Tara Metzner - Tammy Williams - 166/168/334
8. 887 - Lugano - Joie Gatlin - Alexis Meadows - 165/164/329
9. 268 - Gelato - Conor Perrin - Conor Perrin - 166/157/323
10. 123 - Soldier - John French - Elizabeth Gabler - 183.5/138/321.5
11. 119 - Maritime - John French - Elizabeth Gabler - 175/141/316
12. 733 - Undeniable - Jenny Karazissis - Hope Town Farms - 171/101/272

Photos by McCool



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