Riding in his first-ever $25,000 World Championship Hunter Rider (WCHR) Professional Finals, sponsored by The Rein Family, Nick Haness of Temecula, California, triumphed for victory on Friday, October 7, at the Capital Challenge Horse Show held at Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Haness beat six of the country’s top professional hunter riders in six rounds of competition.
The $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge, held on Wednesday, October 6, counted as the first score toward the WCHR Professional Finals. The top six riders in the national WCHR professional standings brought forward their scores from Wednesday into Friday’s class in the Playoff Round. The riders included Scott Stewart, competing in his 22nd WCHR Pro Finals, John French – who received a wild card to compete due to his win in Wednesday’s WCHR Pro Challenge – Elizabeth Boyd, Michael Britt-Leon, Nick Haness, Geoffrey Hesslink, and Amanda Steege.
The seven riders competed in the opening Playoff Round over a handy hunter course on the horse of their choosing. The top four riders following that round then advanced to the Final Four, where they took turns riding unfamiliar horses. They competed in front of judging panels that included David Beisel and Tom Brennan, Shane George and Bobbi Reber, and Gavin Moylan and Dale Pederson.
French, Haness, Stewart, and Britt-Leon started on a clean slate as they returned to each jump four courses, rotating turns on horses generously donated by their owners. An honorable mention goes to Elizabeth Boyd, who had the highest score in the Playoff Round of 91.66 with Rebekah Warren’s MTM Hand Him Over, but who couldn’t overcome her WCHR Pro Challenge score of 80.41 to make it into the Final Four.
In his first-ever WCHR Professional Finals, Haness took the lead in the first rotation with a score of 90.66 on Elise Iafrate’s Etiquette and never let up. He piloted Iafrate’s Nabisco in round two to a score of 92.66, Daniel Bedoya’s Singani to 90.16 in round three, and Laura Shatzko’s Kynaz to the highest score of the night of 94.33 for a four-round total of 366.65 and victory. Haness was the only rider to receive scores over 90 in every round.
“This is absolutely an incredible feeling,” said Haness. “I feel very honored to be here amongst this group of guys and in this type of finals. My expectations tonight were low. I really hadn’t thought this could be my outcome but obviously I’m very excited, and it's a dream come true.”
Along with the WCHR Professional Finals win, Haness finished as the WCHR Professional National Champion. It’s been a banner year for the 34-year-old, who also picked up the Grand Hunter Championship at the Devon Horse Show.
“This has been an extraordinary year for my career absolutely,” expressed Haness. “I had this [WCHR] armband on all week long. I just wanted to maintain that throughout the week. I was very fortunate to have a great string of horses at this show that helped secure my position, which was really exciting.”
He continued, “Obviously it takes a lot of teamwork, great horses, trainers, owners, and sponsors, so I definitely have to thank all of them for their support leading up to this moment because without them this wouldn’t be possible.”
Stewart was pleased with the quality of the horses provided at this year’s Finals. He moved up from fourth place in round one and two to second place in round three after a score of 90.66 on Nabisco, the horse that handed him his seventh win in last year’s class. Another high-scoring round of 91.33 on Etiquette kept him solidly in second place with a total of 358.98.
“I thought they were actually some of the best horses,” said Stewart, “and thanks to all of the owners for letting us use them. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to ride in the class still and to have a group of great horses and customers to get me here. I’m really thrilled to still be doing it.”
John French, who was pleased to have even qualified for this year’s Finals, slotted into third place with a total score of 345.48, including his high score of 91.66 on Etiquette.
French admitted, “I didn’t really think this year I had a chance because I did break my leg and had a hip replacement, so I came in really low [in the national standings], and I didn’t even know that there was a wild card. I had a great week here with Babylon and with Milagro in the Playoff Round. It’s one of your goals of the year to come back here to this show and make that final four.”
Michael Britt-Leon, riding in his second Finals after a win in 2020 in a shortened format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, placed fourth with a total score of 321; his high score of 89 came with two horses, Singani and Nabisco.
“I was super excited to do this format,” said Britt-Leon. “I came to this horse show really hoping to make the final four. Getting on at the gate and walking into the ring and the first trot step you take on the horse is in front of everybody and in front of the judges – it definitely tests us and can prove to be a little bit difficult.”
Britt-Leon leaned into the camaraderie between the top four riders, which made it one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening.
“What I loved about tonight is the group of gentlemen that I’m sitting with, was that everyone helps each other,” he said. “We are communicating with each other on what we felt out there, and what horse you’re going on next, and watching them.”
Fifth place went to Boyd with a two-round total in the Playoffs of 172.07, while Amanda Steege and Cheryl Olsten’s Lafitte de Muze scored 169.37 for sixth place. Geoffrey Hesslink and Trademark, owned by Shadowfax Equestrian LLC, placed seventh with 162.82.
For his win in the WCHR Professional Finals, Haness was presented with the All The Way Perpetual Trophy, donated by Elizabeth Busch Burke and Lisa Burke Horkan.
Nabisco, a nine-year-old Zangersheide gelding owned by Elise Iafrate of Oakland, Mich., was honored with The Far West Farms Perpetual Trophy, donated by The Karazissis Family as the horse with the highest cumulative point total in the four rounds of the WCHR Professional Finals, which came from scores of 89.16, 92.66, 90.66, and 89.
Final Results: $25,000 WCHR Professional Finals, sponsored by The Rein Family
1. Nick Haness – 90.66, 92.66, 90.16, 94.33 – 366.65
2. Scott Stewart – 88.33, 88.66, 90.66, 91.33 – 358.98
3. John French – 89.16, 91.66, 82.33, 82.33 – 345.48
4. Michael Britt-Leon – 89, 88, 55, 89 – 321