Hat Trick for John French and Babylon in $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge

October 4, 2023 - Upper Marlboro, MD

John French and Babylon
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
John French and Babylon
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
John French and Babylon are joined in their winning presentation by Louise Serio, Gary Duffy, Kit Atkinson, Whitney Allen, Ariana Marnell, Kim Davidson, Leonardo Vasualto, and Jennifer Hinman.
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Halie Robinson and Leisure
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Abel Davila, Stephanie Engle, Martha Ingram, Rachel Kennedy, Whitney Allen, Jennifer Hinman, and Chris Sorensen joined Halie Robinson and Leisure in the winner’s presentation.
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Nick Haness and On Call
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Nick Haness and On Call
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Jennifer Hannan and Frosted
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Nick Haness and Pavlova
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Geoffrey Hesslink and Drumroll
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography
Nick Haness and McQueen
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography

It was a three-peat victory for John French and Babylon, owned by Marnell Sport Horses, in the $25,000 World Championship Hunter Rider (WCHR) Professional Challenge, sponsored by The Gochman Family, during the 30th anniversary of the Capital Challenge Horse Show. The class was the highlight of the schedule on Wednesday, October 4, at Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, MD. Rounding out the evening’s competition, Halie Robinson of Santa Barbara, CA, and Leisure, owned by Stable Assets, triumphed in the $10,000 WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, sponsored by John R. Ingram Fund.

Earlier in the day, Nick Haness and On Call, owned by Brad Wolf, won the $25,000 KASK/Vogel Green Hunter 3’ and 3’3” North American Championship, sponsored by the Wheeler family.

Riders qualified for the $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge by finishing in the top four in professional hunter classes at the show or ranking in the top 10 nationally. The class consisted of a first round for all 24 competitors and a second round for the top 12 horse-and-rider combinations.

Judging the class was three panels of two judges, such that each panel provided a score, and the average of those three marks yielded the rider’s overall total. Peg Seals and Chris Wynne made up the first panel, while Brian Lenehan and Eric Dirks sat on the second, and Mark Jungherr and Mary Eufemia represented the third.

Entering The Show Place Arena in the middle of the order, all eyes were on the 2021 and 2022 WCHR Professional Challenge winners, French and Babylon. After landing from the final oxer in front of the in gate, cheers erupted from the crowd.

“I was a little nervous in the warm-up area because he felt a little fresh today, but I knew when he went in there that it’s his job,” recalled French who has brought Babylon along since he was a four-year-old. “I don’t know if it’s because I started him from the beginning when he was really green, but he’s my kind of ride. I wake him up a little bit, but then try to be really soft with no pressure in front of the jump and let him use his head and neck. Because I’ve had him for so long and he is my kind of ride, once I’m on him and in the ring, I’m like, ‘We’ve got this.’”

With an average score of 93.33 in round one, French and the eight-year-old Oldenburg gelding by Crumbie went straight to the top of the leaderboard. Last to return in round two, silence filled the arena as spectators waited with palpable anticipation for each jumping effort. Once again, the duo did not disappoint, delivering an impressive 94.33 for a two-round total of 187.66.

“Tonight’s class went well,” stated French. “I think he was super relaxed. The course was very good for him. He’s kind of a ham at this show. He’s won it three times, and he’s only eight years old.”

It’s no secret that French and Babylon are a formidable pair, and their strong partnership was on full display from start to finish.

“It’s still nice to win, and he’s such a special horse,” expressed French who has now tallied six victories in this class. “We just have a special bond. He likes this horse show, which is nice because it’s a special show and all the best of the best are here.”

While most riders had campaigned their mounts in previous classes in the week, French had a different plan for Babylon.

“I just brought him in last night,” he shared. “I wanted him to be at the farm, be turned out - he didn’t need to be here. He has the Junior Hunter division to show in this weekend. You have to make them love their job and want to do it for you. That’s the thing about him. He loves his job and is the happiest horse. You’ll never see him pin his ears back; he just never does that.”

The win in itself was exciting but winning at Capital Challenge is even more significant for the Maryland native.

“Being from Maryland makes this even more special,” said French, who is now based in Wellington, FL. “Show Manager Oliver Kennedy and I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, at the barn cleaning stalls. It’s great seeing people from growing up here and also my family who all still live here.”

Though he was happy to celebrate the victory, it was a bittersweet moment for the decorated professional.

“He’s the kind of horse…we go on a lot of trails and if I’m having a bad day or whatever, I take him out on the trail and we have a lot of conversations,” explained French of his mount. “I’m a little emotional because he will be for sale at the end of this year, so I think this could be my last class with him. Knowing that, at least we went out on a good note.”

Riding to second place with a total score of 182.99 was Nick Haness of Temecula, CA, aboard the incredible Queen Celeste, a 12-year-old Holsteiner mare by Cassini I, owned by Glade Run Farm LLC. Maria Rasmussen of Royal Palm Beach, FL, and Worthy, Sunset View Farm LLC’s 12-year-old Holsteiner gelding by Cannavaros, completed the top three with a score of 176.66.

Halie Robinson Leads the Way in $10,000 WCHR Developing Pro Challenge

With the high score in both rounds of the $10,000 WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, sponsored by John R. Ingram Fund, Halie Robinson led the victory gallop aboard Leisure, an eight-year-old Hanoverian mare by Comte owned by Stable Assets LLC. Their 180.32 total came from a first-round score of 89.66 and 90.66 in the second round.

Despite their short relationship together from the beginning of 2023, Robinson and Leisure have made the most of their show year together.

“I flew across the country in the middle of the night to try her, and we have never looked back since then. She is the most incredible little horse in the world. She’s only in her Green Hunter 3’3” year right now. I think she was one of the only horses out there that was still doing that. She’s never been anything but absolutely spectacular. This is really just our fourth or fifth show with her this summer, and she has improved and impressed us every single time.”

Robinson was unsure what to expect of the young mare with the bigger atmosphere of a night class. “She was a professional out there, so she didn’t really need too much. I just tried to give her the best performance I could so she could have a special night,” said Robinson.

This was Robinson’s third time in the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, having finished seventh in 2022 and 11th in 2021. Capital Challenge is Robinson’s favorite horse show of the year, so to win this prestigious class stood out in her professional career.

“Tonight was finally the night so I was really happy,” admitted Robinson, who also won the 2017 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – West at the age of 21. “It’s also so great to win on a horse that we have in the barn and have gotten to know over the past couple of months. She is just as spectacular as we could have ever hoped, so hopefully we get to keep working with her. I think she is really a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

Robinson affirmed the support of her team, as well as from Canadian grand prix rider Chris Sorensen. “I’m so thankful for the team that I have. I get so many of my horses from Chris, but he’s overseas most of the time. I mostly do everything by myself and so getting to have him on the ground and have him to bounce ideas off of, even though we do that on the phone most of the time, was such a joy.

“I think anyone who knows me knows that I could not do it without Abel Davila and our help at home,” she continued. “I leave the horse care completely to them. They take the most amazing care of all the animals. Abel flew all the way from California for this horse, and I can’t thank them enough. To have Leisure’s owner Stephanie Engle here and the girls from the barn was really special.”

Second in the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge went to Haleigh Landrigan of Ocala, FL, who scored 88.83 and 90.33 for a total of 179.16 for second place on In The Know, a 14-year-old Warmblood gelding by Arkansas owned by Madeline Schaefer. Kelly Lorek of Manchaca, TX, and MTM Campedu, a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding by Cloney owned by Emersales LLC, were third with scores of 87.53 and 88.50 for 176.03.

On Call Is on Top With Nick Haness in the $25,000 KASK/Vogel Green Hunter 3′ and 3′3″ North American Championship

Earlier in the day, 32 horse-and-rider combinations entered The Show Place Arena for the $25,000 KASK/Vogel Green Hunter 3’ and 3’3” North American Championship, sponsored by the Wheeler family. With an impressive overall score of 179.66, Nick Haness and Brad Wolf’s On Call were victorious. Samantha Schaefer of Westminster, MD, and Cordial, a nine-year-old Westphalian gelding by Cachassini, owned by Carol Stillwell, finished in second place with a total score of 178.32. While Holly Orlando of Wellington, FL, and Macallan, an eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding by Typhoon S, owned by Privet Farm LLC, finished on the same total score, their lower second round score saw them finish in third.

The class was overseen by three panels, each with two judges. Chris Wynne and Eric Dirks
sat on the first panel, while Brian Lenehan and Mary Eufemia made up the second, and Peg Seals and Mark Jungherr were the third. Each panel awarded a score with the average representing the rider’s overall mark. Horses competing at either the 3’ or the 3’3” heights were scored equally, and the top 12 returned for the second round.

Haness guided “Howard” to an impressive first-round score of 90.33 and followed that up with an equally stunning second-round trip, earning an 89.33.

“Howard is a really, really funny horse,” said Haness of the eight-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding by Untouchable. “He’s got a big, big personality. He is very capable of jumping beautiful jumps, and he’s got a huge, round, scopey, athletic way of going. We have high hopes for his future as well. He’s very seasoned at this point, so he’s familiar with the pressure this class brings. He’s very comfortable indoors, and I think his big jump and big open stride really proved to be what the judges were looking for today.”

Haness was actually unaware he was slated to compete with Howard in the Championship class until he saw the start list in the morning. Though Haness knew they had qualified, he expected Howard to be focused on competing with Wolf in the 3’3” Amateur Owner Hunter 36 & Over division. After a positive outing with his owner in the Outdoor Arena, Howard was ready to take on The Show Place Arena with Haness in the irons.

“There was really zero preparation involved in planning for a win today,” admitted Haness. “It kind of just fell into place as we like it to happen. As I got on Howard today, I knew that he had already shown and was already warmed up and ready to go. He went in the ring and was quite excited about the newer jumps inside, which brightened him up a bit, and he went beautifully.”

While Haness has picked up numerous accolades at Capital Challenge, this particular title had previously eluded him.

“Today marks my one-year anniversary from when I met Howard for the first time,” shared Haness. “I showed him last year at Capital Challenge in the Green Hunter 3'3" division as a catch ride, and he was champion. He loves this horse show. I’m just thrilled to come back here and win this class. I’ve actually never won this class, so this is a first for me. I’m super happy and excited about it.”

For his win, Haness was presented with the Beverly Brooks Solter Memorial Trophy, donated by Hilary Scheer Gerhardt and Zan Martin Dillon.

Tim Goguen, of Lexington, KY, was the recipient of the William “Bill” Ellis Sportsmanship Award, dedicated in memory of Bill Ellis for his exceptional commitment to horsemanship. The award is presented to the rider of the best turned out horse in the $25,000 KASK/Vogel Green Hunter 3’ and 3’3” North American Championship.

Grand champions were awarded throughout the day as follows:

Grand Champion Green Hunter 3’ and 3’3”

Sponsored by David Belford and Christopher Payne, New Hope LLC
Frosted, ridden by Jennifer Hannan and owned by Rindy Dominguez

Grand Champion Green Hunter 3’6”
Sponsored by Memorial Park Hunters
Pavlova, ridden by Nick Haness and owned by John & Stephanie Ingram, LLC

Grand Green Hunter Champion
Sponsored by Carleton and Traci Brooks, Balmoral
Drumroll, ridden by Geoffrey Hesslink and owned by Meridian Farms

Grand Champion Conformation Hunter
Sponsored by Snowfield Farm
McQueen, ridden by Nick Haness and owned by Walkenbach Equestrian LLC

Grand Hunter Champion

Sponsored by RSB Farms Inc., Rob Bielefeld, and Chrystal Knight
McQueen, ridden by Nick Haness and owned by Walkenbach Equestrian LLC

The 2023 Capital Challenge Horse Show continues Thursday, October 5, with the North American League (NAL) Children’s Jumper Final, presented by EquiFit and the NAL Adult Jumper Final, presented by SmartPak, along with grand champion presentations in the Amateur Owner Hunters 3’3”, Amateur Owner Hunters 3’6”, and Adult Hunters.