World Championship Hunter Rider (WCHR) Week, sponsored by Kask, at the 2023 Winter Equestrian Festival came to a peak on Saturday, Feb. 18. The country’s best hunter combinations went head-to-head in the $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular. For John French, it was a night of firsts, as he finally captured the win at an event that has been eluding him throughout his career.
Patrick Rodes, hailing from Texas, designed the flowing track that offered riders several areas to show off their mounts. The panel one judges were Chris Wynne and T. Whitehead, panel two judges were Mark Jungherr and Tom Brennan, and panel three judges were Mary Lisa Leffler and Mary Eufemia. Entries for the night class qualified by winning the champion title in their respective divisions at the 3’6” height or above.
From a 42-horse field, 12 returned for a handy round. French guided Milagro, a 2015 Hanoverian gelding owned by Kent Farrington LLC, to the high score of 94 in the opening round to return for the handy with a few points in his pocket. They impressed again and scored a 93.5, finishing on a score of 187.5 and the victory.
“I think riding in this kind of atmosphere brings out the best in all horses,” French said. “They were all jumping so well tonight, and I think the lights, the crowds and the jumps really showcased the hunters. There aren’t a lot of these classes left, so we get excited for nights like this and so do our horses.”
A former West Coast phenom in the hunter ring, French never had the opportunity to point a horse in his regular string at the WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular.
“I was usually flying in and borrowing a horse,” he said. “Coming in on a horse I know so well was a nice feeling. I’m just grateful to have a horse like this; he’s the most easy going in the barn and so scopey in the ring. We knew the 4’ height was going to be his calling. When Kent found the horse, we could have sold him, but I didn’t want him to leave the barn, so we have him still for special classes like this.”
August Iwasaki, 18, left no room for error as she improved a first-round score of 90.83 with a 93.66 in the handy, the highest of the evening from that round. She and Small Love, owned by Iwasaki & Reilly, took second place.
“I think it’s really nice there’s classes for great division horses,” she said. “There are a lot of derbies that you can take your derby horses in, but there are not a lot of classes like this that really showcase your division horses.”
Iwasaki is enjoying her first year as an amateur after a storied junior career. She is currently a freshman at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she competes on the equestrian team. She flew to Florida for WCHR Week. “It’s a lot of flying, but I had a really great week in my third time showing as an amateur,” she said.
Another rider racking up the frequent flyer miles who rode his way onto Saturday night’s podium was California’s Nick Haness. He and Queen Celeste, owned by Glade Run Farm, LLC, combined scores of 90.33 and 90.08 for third place.