Lexington, Ky. – Aug. 12, 2018 – The 2018 USEF Pony Finals drew to a close Sunday, but not before one more champion was crowned following the capstone event of the week, the 2018 Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal Finals. Nearly 200 young riders aboard small, medium and large ponies took their turns around the equitation track inside the Alltech Arena, and ultimately it was Tessa Downey aboard Hallelujah who outshone the large pack to earn the coveted winning title. Downey added to an already outstanding week with her new accolade, as the 13-year-old rider also earned the tricolor just one day ago in the Medium Regular Pony Hunters.
Riding 112th in the original order of go, Downey set the bar high for those that would follow her performance with a first-rate display of equitation riding, surpassing almost the entire herd of pony riders that had already jumped the 11-fence track. Designer Jasen Shelley’s winding first round course offered exhibitors a number of chances to display their skills, with a handful of inside turn options in addition to a trot fence and a required halt following the final obstacle to conclude the test before exiting. After watching more than 190 pony-and-rider partners tackle the course, judges Jeffrey Ayers and William Ellis awarded Downey the second slot on the callback behind Alexandra Lynn Willner, who had the reins on a medium pony, to emerge as one of the early frontrunner headed into phase two thanks to her precise and quiet riding.
Whittled down to an elite 20 riders, the second portion of the 2018 Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal Finals brought back the remaining contenders, with riders aboard small ponies trying their hands around the abridged pattern first, followed by the larges and finally the mediums in order to allow the leading pair to ride last. Of the returning crew, four duos were smalls, 11 were mediums and five were larges. Slightly shortened to nine obstacles, the second sequence of fences asked riders to halt after fence two and then immediately canter to the subsequent vertical only a few strides away. Though Downey was ranked second in the standings, she returned as the ninth out of 20 due to the larger group of medium pony riders that would ride last. As noted by Judges Ayers and Ellis, Downey improved upon first round performance to put her at the top of the scorecard with 11 left to ride, and ultimately overthrew the initial leader and leapfrogged to the top to claim the championship honors.
Adding to her impressive performance is the fact that Downey first took up the reins on Hallelujah just four days ago, and this week was her first time competing on a large pony. Based in Texas, Downey is trained by Peter Pletcher and made her fourth appearance at the USEF Pony Finals this year. Though the young rider had never made it to the winner’s circle before, Sunday’s win gives her double the reasons to celebrate after her divisional win earlier in the week.
Though third-phase testing was a possibility should the judges panel opt for it, Ellis and Ayers chose not to ask for a final work-off, citing that the creme of the crop was easily distinguishable. Of the original top five, only two entrants retained their status, with three riders moving up the ranks with their second phase performances. Advancing from sixth place, Reilly Gogul nabbed the reserve championship behind Downey, followed by Alexa Lignelli and Maddie Tosh, up from seventh, in the third and fourth positions, respectively. Alexandra Miller finished in fifth place, making the move up from 12th after the first round.
The 2018 Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal Finals wraps up the 51st year of the USEF Pony Finals. A new crop of riders will return to the Kentucky Horse Park next year for the anticipated 2019 competition.
FROM THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Tessa Downey – Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal Finals champion
“I’m super excited. Last year I was watching everyone in the final ten countdown and thinking ‘I wish I were in that,’ and this year I am. It was a lot of suspense out there, but it’s really exciting. This is my fourth year doing the medal. This year was my first time getting a call back ever.”
“I actually just got paired with him on Wednesday. It was my first time showing a large and jumping 3-foot. He came from Erin Stewart’s stables. He is amazing. His canter is so comfortable and he is just the best pony. I was originally going to show my medium in the medal and in the end we decided to do him instead.”
Peter Pletcher – Trainer to Tessa Downey
“Tessa has had an amazing week. No one deserves this more. Tessa is a very hard worker and a very dedicated rider. It doesn’t surprise me because when we were deciding which pony to use, I wanted to make sure that she had a good shot of doing well. We were luckily enough to use this pony. She rode him for only three days before this. She’ll ride anything.”
William Ellis – Judge
On the champion, Tessa Downey:
“To me, she came in and she rode to win, and was good not only in the first round, but the second round really proved to us that she was the winner. She was far enough ahead in our eyes from the second girl that we didn’t need to do any further testing. She was pretty much the clear cut winner.”
On the group of riders as a whole:
“We really had a wide range of experience. I would say that the children that were here for maybe their first time or maybe not quite as experience just need to keep at it. Keep coming back and over the years they will improve and hopefully be ribbon contenders in the future.”
Jeffrey Ayers – Judge
On the champion, Tessa Downey:
“She was soft and correct and all her distances were pretty good. She did some very nice turns, and her pony looked well-broke, so she could negotiate the course smoothly and correctly. The only thing I would have liked to have seen, I would liked to see her gallop to the first jump a little bit more. That would have really totally sealed the deal, but I still thought she was the winner.”
On deciding between the top riders:
“We could determine enough who we thought should win without doing any more testing. We thought the top four were pretty good, but we separated them pretty easily. After that there were some mistakes. Some of them had a little more novice position than the winners did. The top four had pretty nice positions and they looked like the spend a lot of time on horseback, which is really the only way to learn to do this correctly. Some of the ones that didn’t do so well were looser in the saddle and their position maybe wasn’t as correct over the jumps.”
Place / Horse / Rider
2018 Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal Finals
1. Hallelujah / Tessa Downey
2. Rock Star / Reilly Gogul
3. Ox Creeks Curious George / Alexa Lignelli
4. Bit Of Love / Maddie Tosh
5. Jennifer Grey / Alexandra Miller
6. Sunkissed / Jessica Guginsky
7. Not So Secret / Calder Trotz
8. Clovermeade Bunny Side Up / Emily Clee
9. Onyxfords Blue Magic / Leigh Ashby
10. D’Artagnan / Brynn Kuhnell
For more information on the 2018 USEF Pony Finals, please click here.