California Riding Magazine • March, 2008

The Gallop:
Redemption In The Desert

Excellent footing and special events
make the first half of Thermal’s
sophomore season a big success.

by Kim F. Miller

Show jumpers Rich Fellers, Richard Spooner, Joie Gatlin, John Pearce and others were among the equestrian stand-outs after the first half of the HITS Desert Circuit at Thermal. The real star of the show, however, was HITS management and the venue itself. Addressing a long list of their own and competitors’ complaints following last year’s debut, HITS, by all accounts, addressed footing and other issues effectively.

Skeptical scuttlebutt that swirled around the Circuit’s official start exploded when footing consultant Bart Poels announced his resignation during a week of warm-up competition, the DC Premiere. The HITS staff remained calm and asked exhibitors to try the venue before passing judgment. From Richard Spooner’s praise of the outdoor Grand Prix footing during the Premiere, all subsequent winners in the jumper rings made a point of speaking very enthusiastically about the riding surfaces, both in the big outdoor ring and in the brand new covered ring.

Mandy Porter was among many who were wary about returning to Thermal this year. Encouraged by positive reports about the footing from West Coast Active Riders and USEF officials, and motivated to maintain her momentum in the West Coast World Cup league standings, the San Diego-based rider decided to go and is now glad she did.

“I am very positive of the direction they’ve taken,” says Mandy, who is on the board of directors of the new United Horseman’s Group. “They’ve made giant strides of improvement and they need to continue on that path.” A winner with her up and coming mare En Fuego in a $25,000 Ariat Grand Prix and, with her 2007 World Cup Finals partner Summer, a second place finisher in the $50,000 Purina Mills class and the fifth finisher in the first of Thermal’s four World Cup qualifiers, Mandy had jumped in the Grand Prix ring, the covered ring and two outdoor rings over the course of several days. “I am especially happy that they are maintaining the other rings as well.”

As week three closed and the circuit took a one-week break before its four-week finish, the weather was warming back up to more typical desert temperatures. Frequent watering and dragging is considered a key to maintaining the outdoor rings and even more so in hot weather. Mandy and others seemed confident HITS would come through on that front. She noted that the whole HITS teams should be credited, and gave special mention to course designer Anthony D’Ambrosio. He is doubling as a jumper liaison throughout the circuit and has played a key role in maintaining the right riding surfaces.

Mad Mother Nature

The weather was beyond management’s control and it was downright freakish during moments of weeks 1 and 2. The circuit’s first big Grand Prix, the $75,000 EMO class on Jan. 27, had to be cancelled because of excessive rain. It was rescheduled for the following Sunday, and folded into that day’s original $50,000 class, creating a total of $125,000 at stake for Sun., Feb. 3. There was a good crowd in the newly-revamped VIP area, and in the “regular people” seating, but the winds were bigger and eventually stole the show.

The wind blown jumps at Thermal on Feb. 3rd.

Sand-bagged jump standards were no match for the gale-force gusts that caused four contenders to stop on course and wait for blown-over fences to be reset. And that was all before Mandy, riding 15th in a field of 39, entered the ring. She and Summer jumped the first fence before being whistled to a halt. One by one, every fence on the course blew over. Porti-potties near the warm-up ring blew over. Debris flew through the air while show officials conferred about what to do. HITS technical supervisor Dale Harvey said they could not reschedule the class because it had already started.

Riders were brought into the discussions and Mandy confirms Dale’s comment that there was solid consensus for resuming the class when the winds allowed. “One option was to pin the class as it was, but for those of us who hadn’t ridden, that was a lot of prize money to not be able to ride for.”

By 4:40 that afternoon, the wind lessened enough to continue the class, much of which was conducted under the lights. As to the fairness of some competitors coping with extreme winds and others with night riding, Mandy dismissed it as the luck of the draw. “There’s nothing management can do about that.”

At the end of a very long day and evening, Joie Gatlin and Molly Talla’s Camaron Hills Shan Roe wound up the winners of the class’s $37,500 in prize money. Canadian John Pearce, Ashlee Bond, Jill Humphrey and Richard Spooner were hot on Joie’s heels in the final five.

Spooner Logs Milestone

With a deep string of talented horses, Richard Spooner continued his reign as king of the jumper rings. He was in the prize money for most of the big classes during the circuit’s first half and he started with a bang: his 100th Grand Prix win, which came aboard the mare Ezrah in Jan. 25’s $25,000 Ariat Grand Prix. Margie Engle is the only other American rider to have won 100 and Richard was feted appropriately with a ceremony in the VIP area’s Oasis Club.

It’s fun to see Richard earn this distinction, and fun, too, to get a glimpse of why he is so popular with contemporaries and spectators alike. During the $25,000 Ariat class on Feb. 7, Richard patted his horse, Quirno 3, after being just a fault shy of beating Canadian Kim Farlinger. His first words out of the gate were sincere and repeated congratulations to Kim, who had fallen off in the same ring during the previous Sunday’s big event. Having finished second with Quirno and third with Ezrah, he had his own accomplishments to smile about, too.

Oregon-based rider Rich Fellers had a lot to smile about. He and Flexible won the Circuit’s first two World Cup qualifiers. Adding these points to his November victory in Los Angeles gives Rich an excellent pole position for the Finals, which take place in Gothenburg, Sweden in late April. Rich joked last year that he was probably the oldest rookie at the 2007 Finals, but he seems to be making up for lost time now.

Rich was high on the footing and the atmosphere in the EquiBase™ Arena Systems ring, built in response to rider demands that World Cup qualifiers be held in indoors. “The footing was as good as it gets,” said Fellers after his first victory. “I can’t say enough about it. There was no slipping and everyone was able to make sharp turns. It was the best footing I have ever ridden on.”

Mandy Porter spent seven years competing in Europe and reports that Thermal’s covered ring does a good job of simulating the indoor settings on that elite circuit. “The arena size is similar and the place feels pretty special,” she says. The main difference in ambiance comes from less spectator space. But, until American show jumping draws crowds similar to those in Europe, small but full spectator areas may be the best option.

Zone 10 Young Riders, from left, Karl Cook, Aurora Griffin, Katie Harris,
Saer Coulter and Callie Laylan pose with the rider many consider a hero and idol, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. A California native and student of Foxfield,
Karen Healey and George Morris, Meredith has been living and competing in Germany for the last 17 years. Earlier in the day of this West Coast Active Riders clinic at Thermal, she learned that she’d returned to the top spot on the
FEI’s World Ranking for show jumping.
Photo: © 2008 Flying Horse Photography

Superstar Surprise

The world’s number one ranked rider, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum was a surprise star at the circuit. Not as a rider, but as an excellent clinician in an event quickly organized by West Coast Active Riders. The association had been working to get the native Californian to give a benefit clinic for some time. After securing a second place standing in the Western European World Cup league by early February, Meredith took a break from her home in Germany to visit her parents, who live in Pasadena. The timing allowed for a Feb. 7 visit to Thermal, where members of Zone 10’s winning North American Young Riders Championship squads were invited to ride with the superstar.

HITS Thermal Grand Prix riders sign autographs for fans during the recent
Kids Day. From the top of the photo down are John Pearce, Mandy Porter,
Kim Farlington and Ashlee Bond and a friend.
Photo provided by HITS

Attentive fans packed the bleachers of the Equibase™ arena to watch Meredith work with these talented youngsters. Her main mission was to encourage riders to think for themselves, to not be afraid of doing things differently, and above all to be thinking about what they are doing every second that they are schooling and competing their horse.

WCAR did a lovely job of presenting the clinic and DVDs of the super instructive and inspiring session should be available soon through

The new USHJA International Hunter Derby seemed on track to be another circuit success. Staged on the Grand Prix field on Sun., Feb. 10, the class attracted top riders including John French, Jeff Campf and Richard Spooner, as well as juniors and amateurs. One of those was our own columnist Zazou Hoffman. She piloted Oscany, Inc.’s Clocktower Optimist nicely through the competition’s two rounds, choosing the four-foot options every time, to win seventh. Hunter veteran Jenny Karazissis won the $10,000 class’s $3,000 in first place prize money aboard El Campeon Farms’ Swoon.

“The riders, particularly the professionals, loved the class and thought it was great fun,” says Zazou’s mom Winter. “Jeff Campf rode with amazing pace and boldness.” She predicts the class will get better and better as riders become familiar with the format. “I can definitely see some riders and owners who don’t normally take an interest in the Hunter classes entering a horse that is brave and beautiful and maybe winning the Derby,” Winter observes.

Zach sings Maroon 5 and takes first place in the HITS Thermal Equine Idol.
Photo: © 2008 Flying Horse Photography

The Equine Idol Judges - Mark Bone as Randy Jackson,
Kathy Hobstetter as Paula Abdul, and John French as Simon Cowell.
Photo: © 2008 Flying Horse Photography

The first ever HITS Thermal Equine Idol competition was held on Sat., Feb. 9. Thirty competitors sang for “judges” Mark “Randy Jackson” Bone, John “Simon Cowell” French and Kathy “Paula Abdul” Hobstetter. A highlight earlier that day was a Kids Day agenda of activities, including an autograph signing with Feb. 10 Grand Prix winner John Pearce and fellow big ring contenders Mandy Porter, Ashlee Bond and Kim Farlinger.