Credit: Lenore Philips / Phelps Media Group
Sam Walker crowned ASPCA Maclay National Champion
Celebrating its 135th year, the National Horse Show has come to be known as one of America’s premier indoor equestrian events thanks to its rich history and classical traditions, with the ASPCA Maclay National Championship, presented by Chansonette Farm, adding even more prestige as one of the four major equitation finals held each fall season. Since 1933, an elite junior rider’s name has been etched into history as the annual champion, and this year the competition tested 175 horses and riders over a series of challenging phases to determine the deserving victor. The culmination of a week at the Kentucky Horse Park, the 2018 National Horse Show concluded with a dream realized for Sam Walker of Ontario, Canada, now the newest champion of the ASPCA Maclay National Championship and winner of the esteemed ASPCA Horsemanship Trophy.
Over the course of the day, the initial field of participants took turns tackling Bobby Murphy’s (USA) expertly designed equitation track, which looked deceptively straightforward at first glance. Incorporating most jumps as part of lines, the efficient course offered competitors multiple opportunities to either spotlight their talents or fall victim to the design’s tests, with distances between fences varying and requiring riders to lengthen or collect quickly within the same series of obstacles. Structurally, the fences presented a different type of challenge, with Murphy’s creative collection of jumps including plenty without standards in addition to a handful of skinny jumps, a gate and an airy triple bar. As the 39th in the order-of-go, Walker and North Run’s Waldo exemplified the pinnacle of equitation, completing a flawless trip to jump into the first standby list.
Separated from the rest of the pack as the creme of the crop, 25 partnerships were hand-selected by the judge’s booth, which was occupied by esteemed horsemen Walter T. Kees and Chance Arakelian, to return for the second phase of the contest after top-notch performances over fences. Headed into the under saddle and second over fences portions of riding, Walker, Brian Moggre, Ava Ellis, Emma Kurtz, Catalina Peralta, Paige Matthies, Daisy Farish and Coco Fath were pegged as the frontrunners, all riding head-to-head in the same flat section.
During the under saddle phase, horse-and-rider combinations’ adjustability, balance and connection were put to the test by the judges, who asked for a series of skill demonstrations such as the counter-canter, extended canter and sitting trot, among others. With one final chance to prove their abilities, the top contenders returned to the Alltech Arena for a second trip over Murphy’s track, this time consisting of almost no fences with standards, a hand gallop, a counter-canter, a trot fence and an airy fence jumped in both directions.
Returning in reverse order of the standings for the second over fences phase, Moggre had the advantage as the last entry to ride, with Walker, Farish, Fath, Kurtz, Matthies, Ellis and Alexandra Worthington sitting in second through eighth positions, respectively, and all aiming to knock him from the top of the leaderboard. Following the completion of the top 25, the judges needed one last look at the top six, and asked for testing from Walker, Moggre, Fath, Kurtz, Matthies and Mimi Gochman, who leapfrogged from 12th place into the work-off. Of the remaining contenders, Moggre was the only one to have been victorious in a national equitation final previously, having won the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show earlier this fall, but it was Walker who had moved to the top of the standings headed into the last display of riding. Sunday afternoon’s test asked riders to canter fence 7, canter fence 2, counter-canter fence 6a, canter fence 6b, canter fence 4, halt and return to the line.
As the last to ride in the work-off, Walker capped off the day’s championship with an exclamation point, navigating a textbook trip aboard Waldo seemingly with ease and displaying high levels of precision, correct form and aid effectiveness to secure the championship tricolor and the prestigious honor of ASPCA Maclay National Champion. As the 2018 victor, Walker's name now joins the ranks of past winners that include some of the sport's icons such as Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot and George Morris, as well as recent superstars Lillie Keenan, Victoria Colvin and Madison Goetzmann.
Sunday’s distinction for Walker is one of the highlights of his competitive equitation career, although he has come close to the top call more than once. This year alone, he has placed within the top 10 in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show as well as the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation Final. A multi-talented equestrian, Walker also campaigns in the upper level jumpers, having won U25 and High Junior/Amateur-Owner Jumper classes across the United States and Canada under the tutelage of his trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan from North Run. For training the winning rider, Audi of Lexington donated a one-year lease of an Audi to Walker’s trainers.
The men represented well this year, with Moggre capturing the reserve honors behind his peer, Walker. Moggre rode Efendi, owned Donald Stewart over the course of the contest. Jacob Pope was the last male athlete to claim the top honors in 2012, and prior to that was Brian Walker in 2001. Coincidentally, Sam got paired with Waldo partly with the help of the previous winner that shares his namesake. Jumping from sixth place after the second over fences phase, Paige Matthies piloted Barbara Smith’s Blurred Lines to third overall thanks to her standout work-off test to round out the podium finishers.
FROM THE WINNERS CIRCLE
Sam Walker - ASPCA Maclay National Championship champion On his win: “I think I’m kind of in shock more than anything. I didn’t expect for everything to come so soon and I’m really, really grateful that I got to experience this and ride in this class, let alone come out on top.”
On the courses and test: “I thought all three courses were very fair for the group of riders who were in the class. I thought that right off the bat, one of the most challenging parts of the course was the forward four [strides] to the short five [strides] in the first round, and I think that definitely was what separated a lot of people from moving into the last group that was taken into the second round. I thought that the second course was amazing. There were so many different options and numbers, like where you would do your flying change, where you would land the lead. There were so many different options of what you could do in the second round with where the jumps were placed. The test, for me, I had everything to lose in the test. For me, playing it safe was the best thing I could do to hope to come out on top. My horse was amazing today. I have to thank Missy [Clark] and John [Brennan] for helping me prepare him, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.”
On his partnership with Waldo: “Well, it’s a funny story. The [announcer] said it a little bit in the ring, but Waldo actually came from Brian Walker, the previous  Maclay champion, who is from Canada as well. This is my second indoor season on Waldo. He’s a really quirky horse. There’s only three or four people in the barn who ride him, because sometimes he can get a little confused.I think he likes to have his rider. When John rides him, he knows it’s John and when I get on him and go to the ring, he knows it’s me. He’s so sweet in the barn. He always wants to do well. He’s a real winner in my mind and he always tries his hardest for me. I’m really grateful for Missy and John’s training with him because he’s been a little bit of a project I will call it.”
Missy Clark - Sam Walker’s trainer at North Run on Sam’s win: “I was so pleased with how it turned out, John and I. We talked to Sam a lot about being a smart horseman, and that test was difficult to land the lead and hold it or even have the time to orchestrate and set up a flying change. We were gambling as he was leading the whole way through. I think at one point, he was in second, but he was definitely ahead at that point. I was hoping he would play his hand like he did. I was so proud that he thought like a horseman. I would have done the same thing if I was sitting on that horse. I was thrilled with that choice.”
On being a working student at North Run: “He has been with us for four years; time flies. Sam is great. He is such a talent. His parents, Scott and Dee Walker, are professionals from Canada and we connected however many years ago. You couldn’t help but see Sam’s talent, so it’s always fun to work with a kid like Sam. A little anecdotal story is his mom was my former student, so it’s a little disturbing to have her child as my student, but to work with the family [is great]. They’re such a great family. It’s been a great collaboration. His talent has shone through and he is such a hard worker. He’s a really great student of the sport and disciplined in his riding. It’s wonderful to work with him.”
Brian Moggre - second place on his plans for the future: “I have another junior year. I would say that the plan is, with my amazing support system of my family, and Mike [McCormick] and Tracy [Fenney], and even Ken and Emily [Smith] and Don [Stewart], who helped this year, to really further my jumper career and get into more ranking classes on the jumpers. I had a great season in the equitation this year and I was very well-mounted. Everybody was on my side and I’m really excited to see where the future goes. I don’t know what the plan is as of now. We will see. I would like to do the equitation next year, but I would definitely say my main focus is doing more grand prix classes on my jumpers.”
On the one-day format of the class: “I would say that the one-day format relieved a lot of stress. It was great because as a rider who is naturally very hard on themselves, I had one day to not necessarily have the first round clustered into a day where you have other classes going on, like the junior hunters or the jumpers. It was great to have the whole day to really focus on the equitation and what you are doing, and have everyone here focusing on what matters most in the world to most of us kids.”
Mike McCormick - MTM Farm, Brian Moggre’s trainer on Brian’s success and future: “I’ll be the first one to tell you that his work ethic is what is responsible for his success. He loves horses, he loves to ride, and it shows up. The results are right there for him. It has been a really, really wonderful year.”
Paige Matthies - third place on her thoughts about the day: “I’m very grateful to my trainers, my family and, of course, my horse. The first round was very well-designed with the moving lines to the waiting lines. It separated the top 25 very well. The second round, I really liked that it started with a hand gallop and incorporated a counter-canter and trot jump that really played to a lot of people’s advantages. In the test, I came in fifth, so I knew that I had to go for it to move up. I did the flying change and I did the inside turn to the first jump. I couldn’t be more thankful to my trainers and horses for getting me here.”
Melissa Hirt – Northern Pines Farm, Paige Matthies’ trainer on Paige’s success and future: “She is really dedicated to her horses and riding daily. She started doing the High Junior Jumpers this year and has done exceptionally well. She is planning on continuing this year with Ashland Farm. Ken and Emily Smith have been instrumental in furthering her career. This year I think she is still looking to maybe do U25 and continue with the equitation throughout this year as she has one more year, so we are looking forward to that.”
Walter T. Kees – Judge on judging the class: “It was a thrill and an honor to judge it to begin with, but an even greater thrill for both Chance [Arakelian] and I was that there were boys at the head of the class. It’s always fun to judge, but the best part about it was the courses. The first course had to be prompt to keep the class all in one day, so the course did it’s homework. I think the initial thought was that it was going to be a soft course, but in fact it did its job well and it separated them nicely. In the second round, it really did it’s homework and we were really tickled with that. The test, again, separated them. The two boys were a half of a point apart. It was really exciting for us to judge and, of course, it’s one of those things where you are fortunate enough to be able to judge and, more importantly, you really feel like you did the right thing at the end.”
On deciding between the top two: “Sam was very smart in the final test. Brian had to take a shot and he did; it was very good. He came back third and then moved up because he took a shot and made it happen. Sam was smart because he didn’t take a shot. He rode it beautifully, did a simple change and got a great result. It was beautifully done. We were pleased with how both of them rode.”
2018 ASPCA Maclay National Championship:
Place / Rider / Horse
1. Sam Walker/ Waldo
2. Brian Moggre / Efendi
3. Paige Matthies / Blurred Lines
4. Mimi Gochman / Kaskade
5. Coco Fath / Class Action
6. Emma Kurtz / Cris Van De Helle
7. Elli Yeager / Copperfield 39
8. Farah Rizvi / Jarinka
9. Devin Seek / Startin Monday
10. Sophie Gochman / Contelido