For the first time since its inception in 2012, the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at Upperville will take place “Under the Oaks”, in the Parker (Main) Ring, on Thursday afternoon, June 6, 2024. Prior to this year, this two-round test of the highest level in hunter competition has been held in the Grand Prix Ring on the Salem Farm (Jumper) side of the showgrounds, on Saturday afternoon.
The Hunter Derby Program, created by the United States Hunter/ Jumper Association (USHJA) in 2010 “to bring the tradition and art of horsemanship back to the show ring stronger and better than ever,” is an annual series culminating in six regional championships and a year- end championship. It was an effort by the governing body to “re-boot” the hunters after a seismic shift at the beginning of the new millennium which saw entries in the Green and Working Hunter divisions dwindling, junior riders leaving the pony ranks to follow a path towards equitation and jumpers instead of hunters, and fewer upper level riders crossing the discipline line between grand prix jumpers to high- performance hunters. It was a darker time for hunter horse showing, in such stark contrast to the prior hundred years when, beginning with Upperville in the late 1800s, hunters first made their way to the American show ring, when summertime horse shows served as fun competition and social gathering for local foxhunters and community members.
Throughout Upperville history, hunters have dominated the iconic, oak tree-filled rings of Grafton Farm, and by the 1970s and 1980’s, the Upperville Hunter Classic, as it was then known, was revered as one of the most prestigious- and challenging- of high-level competitions for hunters. “I can remember Superflash (ridden by Charlie Weaver), jumping his heart out over a great big oxer in front of the grandstand,” remembers Betty Oare, Board of Directors member, when asked about her favorite memories of hunters at the Upperville. In those days the class began and ended in the Main Ring and took riders out, over a large bank jump, built by Upperville resident and Olympic medalist Jimmy Wofford, to an outside course- or into Ring Two in the later years, and back in again, to a dramatic last fence, 4’6” in height and width, set before a crowd of spectators along the rail or on the edges of their seats inside the historic Upperville grandstand. At one point, as longtime show manager Tommy Lee Jones recalls, Pimm’s was the event sponsor. His favorite memory? “When an Appaloosa named Barban Court, won one year with a score of 98.”
By the end of the twentieth century, however, the landscape of horse shows was changing. Increased development meant fewer show venues and the ones that remained were smaller and more condensed. Hunter classics were still held, with higher entry fees and bigger prize money, but the level of excitement, challenge, and fanfare were never quite the same.
But the Hunter Derby Program was a hit right out of the gate and by 2012, at the height of “derby fever,” as Oare calls it, Upperville was making plans for its inaugural derby event. And while Grafton Farm was still very much the “hunter side” of Upperville, according to Jones, the newly- built bank jump and in the stone wall-lined Grand Prix ring on Salem Farm lent itself perfectly to the cause. Course designers were given a greater latitude to build challenging courses of ten or more obstacles from 3’6” to 4’ in height and even higher “option” fences. The addition of the “1853 Club” overlooking the grand prix ring increased spectator opportunities and by Saturday afternoon, all other hunter classes for the week would have concluded, giving the International Hunter Derby the total spotlight. And it worked, and has continued to work, every year bringing the biggest names in the sport to Upperville to compete for top honors and $7,500 in prize money. Past winners include Betsee Parker’s Inclusive (2012 & 2013) and Madeline Schaefer’s In the Know (2017 & 2019).
In 2013, a portion of the Grafton Farm show grounds was generously gifted to UCHS by Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith, guaranteeing the show a home for life. Increased fundraising has allowed for multiple capital improvements throughout the grounds, including updated water and electricity. Last spring, a complete renovation of the former food stand created a space which now serves as the secretaries show office, and the show office trailer beside the judge’s tower was removed for good. Following the end of the 2023 show, the 118 year-old grandstand overlooking the Parker Ring was completely renovated by B & D Builders, including several modern improvements. During this time, Upperville’s other special hunter classes like the Founder’s Cup with its Tiffany & Co. trophy donated by the descendants of Colonel Dulany, and the $10,000 Paul and Eve Go As You Please class sponsored by Fout Family, have remained under the oaks, and after much thoughtful consideration, horse show management and the Board of Directors were all in agreement; it was time to bring the richest in hunter competition, the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, home to the Parker Ring.
When asked why the switch to Thursday afternoon, Board of Directors member Kitty Barker explained that all regular classes for high performance hunters end Tuesday or Wednesday, meaning a horse also entered in the derby would need to remain on the grounds for another three days. She added that many horses come straight to Upperville from (the Devon Horse Show), meaning that many of them have already been on the road for over almost two weeks. Oare believes that trainers who have opted out of the Upperville Derby for their horses in the past (because of the previous schedule) will choose to bring them this year. She said looks forward to this exciting return of “good hunters galloping and jumping” under the oaks this year. “That, to me,” she said, “is Upperville.