Lillie Keenan piloted Clearway to the 2013 ASPCA Alfred B. Maclay Finals Championship. Shawn McMillen Photography.
Lexington, KY – November 3, 2013 – In many ways, it came as no surprise when the champion of the 2013 ASPCA Alfred B. Maclay National Finals was announced as Lillie Keenan of New York, NY. The young phenom has been at the top of the sport since she was a pony rider, and this has been an exceptional year for her career. It began with the 2013 North American Junior and Young Rider Championships Show Jumping Gold Medal, followed by her first grand prix victory at HITS-on-the-Hudson and a win in the USEF Junior Jumper Individual Championship. Just a few short weeks ago, she won her second big equitation championship, the Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Medal. Today, after three rounds of competition, presented by C. M. Hadfield’s Saddlery, at the Alltech National Horse Show, she earned her third major title, all before turning 18 years old.
“For a really long time I wanted this, along with wins at other finals, more than anything,” expressed Keenan. “I am glad to say that I do know the history of this class, and every rider on the trophy is extremely well respected and extremely successful. Being on a trophy with them, I am over the moon, but also what that entails for my future is very exciting. I am at a loss for words.”
The competition got underway at 7 a.m. with 148 riders competing over a challenging track designed by judges Robert Ridland and Susan Humes, as well as Bobby Murphy. Precise lines were used to make riders showcase adjustability and style over gates, fan jumps, combinations and walls. At the end of the opening course, the judges invited the top 30 riders to return and showcase their skills in the flat phase. Sophie Simpson led the way, followed by Sydney Shulman and Keenan.
Riders had to complete an extensive test on the flat, where they worked their mounts at the walk, trot and canter. They had to show collection and extension, as well as perform the counter canter and sitting trot. The judges also requested that the riders perform half-passes at the trot and canter throughout different patterns.
“I have to give my wife, Hillary, credit for shoving Debbie McDonald’s book in my face on the plane, which is how the half-pass ended up on the test,” explained Ridland. “When we boil things down to basics, controlling the horse, the forward movement, the extension, lengthening and shortening the strides – all the tests that we asked on the course were basically that. There were adjustments, extensions, collections on course, and of course directional accuracy was a test that we wanted to reward. The number one thing we were trying to test was that-basically being able to control your horse, forward and back, with lateral movements.”
After the three sections were complete, the top 20 riders were invited back for a final test with Keenan leading the way, followed by Simpson and Kelli Cruciotti, who jumped up from eighth in the rankings with a solid performance. The final test began with three oxers and a bending line that could be done in six or seven strides to the signature ASPCA jump. Riders then had to canter an oxer away from the out gate before trotting a gate and cantering in seven strides to an oxer. A left turn led to a double wall combination without standards. The riders had to get the counter canter and jump a fan fence followed by another bending line and a triple bar to a vertical-oxer double combination and a final oxer just past the in gate.
The test was certainly a proving ground, as Simpson dropped down to eighth place with a few rubs and a round that lacked brilliance overall. Michael Hughes and Spencer Smith had been ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, but they dropped out of the standings entirely when Smith had two refusals and Hughes had an awkward trot fence and a rail at the final fence.
There were rounds that were excellent though, including those of Gabrielle Bausano and Shulman, who ended up fourth and fifth, respectively, after keeping a solid pace throughout their rounds and easily answering each question that was asked.
Charlotte Jacobs of East Aurora, NY, had a standout round aboard Patrick, owned by Catherine Tyree. The pair had a direct approach through the first line and also excelled during the trot jump and the counter canter, jumping all the way up from eleventh in the standings to capture the third place award.
“I was in eleventh, so I kind of knew that I didn’t have anything to lose,” admitted Jacobs, a freshman at Southern Methodist University. “I did some inside turns and put it all out there, and it definitely helped me.”
Cruciotti, of Elizabeth, CO, continued to showcase her consistent style with Monterrey. They also had a direct approach in the bending line and were able to transition to the trot before the gate smoothly before exhibiting the counter canter. Her efforts throughout the day were rewarded with the second place prize.
“When I walked the course, I knew that there were a lot of different tests within it,” said Cruciotti. “The first line could either be done up in six or out in seven. I decided to do the out in seven. The hardest part to me was the canter to the trot out because my horse gets very excited when he gets in the ring. I was just very thrilled with how he jumped. I just wanted to go in and give him a positive ride.”
The best test of the day came at the very end from Keenan and Clearway, owned by Heritage Farm. Keenan’s flawless style gave her the lead going into the test, and the talented young rider was not about to let it slide through her fingers. She landed the counter canter and made it smoothly through each of the combinations, demonstrating everything the judges were looking for: style, accuracy and effectiveness. After she left the ring, there was no question that she was the winner, adding another championship title to her resume to conclude a stellar year.
“I was nervous coming back last,” admitted Keenan. “I knew that the other riders in the top 20 were definitely very capable. I didn’t really decide what my complete plan was until I walked into the ring. The course rode differently than how it walked. I think that is the wonderful thing about a challenging course for a championship; it is very much about going in and starting your course and being able to negotiate as you go. It is not just about having a plan and thinking that you are going to execute the whole thing. I knew that my horse could do it, but I have to say that I was the most nervous because I didn’t want to get in his way.”
With three equitation titles to her name, Keenan will begin focusing her efforts on the jumper ring next year. “Throughout this year, I have been trying to make the step up to some of the bigger classes. I am going to plan on going to the Talent Search Finals next year. Andre will obviously be the person helping me move up, but I don’t think I am done with equitation yet. Equitation finals are important to me; they always have been. I think I am going to keep moving up, competing in the open divisions, working with a younger horse that I have. I am slowly trying to work my way up.”
Keenan added, “I am not unrealistic though. I am aware that after this year it is not like I have accomplished everything. I think having this as one of the titles I have been able to accomplish is exciting, thrilling and is going to help me move forward, but it is not the end, it’s just the beginning.”
Ten years ago, Keenan began riding with Andre Dignelli and the team at Heritage Farm, and it is a partnership that has flourished over time. “Conrad Homfeld started this relationship, and this show is a full circle moment for us,” said Dignelli. “He was designing the courses, and Lillie was showing here in the open jumpers, so it was a magical moment. We would be remiss in not thanking Lillie’s mother. Nobody has been more supportive of this whole experience than Pam Keenan. She rode; she understood what this was all about. They gave up every vacation; they were at every show. They just spend more hours at Heritage than anyone ever has in 25 years of my training.”
Dignelli concluded, “Today, I thought we won in a magical way. I thought the round was stunning. It was polished; it was relaxed; it was everything that we have worked for since she was 7, so it has been a long road.”
The ASPCA Maclay Horsemanship class has been held since 1933, and it is one of the most prestigious competitions for junior riders in the United States. Its winners are some of the biggest names in equestrian sport. Previous winners include: William Steinkraus in 1941, Frank Chapot (1948), George Morris (1952), Leslie Burr Howard (1972), Stacia Klein Madden (1987) and Nicole Shahinian Simpson (1992). The 2011 ASPCA Maclay National Championship winner was Sarah Milliren of Sapulpa, OK, and in 2012 Jacob Pope of Columbia, MA, won the title.
Founded in 1883 at the original Madison Square Garden, the National Horse Show is America’s oldest indoor horse show, firmly established as a major fixture on the national and international sports and social event calendars. The National Horse Show Association’s primary activity is the annual production of the National Horse Show and all ancillary events. Over the years, the National Horse Show has provided financial aid to many worthwhile charities.
For more information on the Alltech National Horse Show, please visit www.alltechnationalhorseshow.com.
Rebecca Walton for Phelps Media Group, Inc. International