HITS Inc. continues to amp up the excitement in the hunter ring with the return of the $50,000 East Meets West Hunter Challenge, which will pit the most accomplished riders from the Thermal Desert Circuit against top talent from the Ocala Winter Circuit in Ocala, FL.
Staged on Fri., March 15 and Sat., March 16, the Challenge is newly added to an already packed Million Dollar Weekend that serves as the seven-week circuit's finale. The weekend's crescendo event is the AIG Million Dollar Grand Prix, for which qualifiers are underway to determine 40 participants.
For the East West Challenge, participants from each location will rotate rounds in a "battle of the coasts" that will be evaluated by two sets of judges, one in Ocala and one in Thermal. A live simulcast will connect the venues, with the judges watching on high definition monitors while the audience sees events play out on a super-sized scoreboard. Spectators will be encouraged to do a bit of judging themselves by texting in a vote for their favorite horse and rider combination with the winner receiving Audience Favorite awards.
The class reinvents the bi-coastal concept first employed by HITS from 1999-2001 when the company staged the industry's first simulcasts between in Florida and California, and when the HITS circuit was held in Indio.
"We did this ahead of its time, before the technology was really there," says HITS president and CEO Tom Struzzieri. "Now that Internet streaming is so advanced, the experience is going to be much more integrated. Combined with the interactive aspect of things like texting, it's
HITS has continually upped the ante for hunter riders in the past few years with the addition of the Diamond Mills $500,000 and HITS $250,000 Hunter Prix Finals, so it has come as no surprise that the Hunter Challenge has been met with excitement from coast to coast.
"It's a great opportunity for the West Coast riders to compete against the top hunters in the East, which we don't get to do very often," says Hope Glynn of Sonoma Valley Stables in Petaluma.
Hope is one of the West Coast rider-trainers who traveled with students to Saugerties, N.Y. to compete in the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Final in 2011 and 2012, as well as the all-new HITS Hunter Prix Final this year. The two classes anchor the hunter portion of HITS Championship Weekend and contribute to a horse show weekend record of nearly $2 million in prize money.
"I'm very excited about this East Meets West class," says Rolling Acres Farm's Mary Lisa Leffler of Brookeville, MD. "I rode in it in the previous iteration and I hope it's as much fun for the spectators as I know it is for the riders!"
Open to juniors, amateurs and professionals alike, with jumps set at 3'3", the East Meets West Hunter Challenge will be a qualifying event for the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Final that will take place during HITS Championship Weekend September 6-8 in Saugerties. As a pathway to the richest weekend in the sport, the East-West class joins the prestigious Devoucoux Hunter Prix qualifiers that take place throughout the year, including weekly offerings at HITS Desert Circuit I-VII.
The $50,000 East Meets West Challenge will include two rounds over two days with the top 12 riders from each coast returning on the final day. Scores from the first round will not carry over and riders will start round two with a clean slate. The two panels of judges will give each rider a score, which will then be combined for a total score.
New Outside Course
Rian Beals will design the courses on both coasts, taking advantage of the wide variety of options offered by HITS' new Outside Course concept. The Outside Course at HITS Desert Horse Park that will be home to the East Meets West Hunter Challenge is a newly configured competition space of approximately 300' x 300' in the space previously occupied by Hunter Rings 3 and 4. It incorporates fixed features
and landscaping that takes advantage of the natural terrain.
The decision to build the Outside Course was based on the overwhelmingly positive response to the Outside Course introduced in Saugerties at the 2012 Championship Weekend. Riders were thrilled with the chance to gallop over grass, up hills and jump banks - an environment that more authentically approximates the original hunter grounds, the foxfields.
"This draws on the days of my first farm in 1977, when the standard show ring had grass and permanent jumps made of logs or stone," recalls Tom Struzzieri. "We've updated that concept by including a few natural elements that will break-up the set course. The main features we are leveraging are the larger ring that will enable the horse to gallop between the jumps and allow the designers to set jumps far enough apart so the distances aren't absolutely related."
An Outside Course has also been added in Ocala. In addition to the high-performance hunter competitions, these intriguing new courses will host a variety of special hunter and equitation classes, including the weekly Devoucoux Hunter Prix, the HITS 3' Hunter Prix and a host of other divisions as well.
"They've made the hunter ring more entertaining," says Hope. "I think it's great that they're going to rotate the schedules so the junior riders will be able to get in there and try it to get a sense of what's in store at the more competitive levels," she adds, noting that the lower divisions will also be a great development opportunity for pre-green horses. "It gives them the opportunity to get the experience of jumping natural obstacles, or different types of fences, without waiting to get the height of a seasoned hunter."
In addition to giant strides in show jumping with the introduction of two $1 million classes, one on each coast, HITS has been a prime mover in key developments in the hunter world, including two areas of special significance: an increase in the amount of prize money offered and leading-edge course designs. Marrying the latest in technology with the best of the time-honored traditions of the sport, the $50,000 East Meets West Hunter Challenge takes things to a whole new level and offers HITS customers further assurance that the innovations aren't going to stop anytime soon.
For detailed specs on the $50,000 East Meets West Hunter Challenge, visit www.hitsshows.com.