After several top finishes and a reserve championship at the 2015 Talent Search Finals, McKayla Langmeier finally led the victory gallop at the 2017 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East after climbing the ranks to overtake the early leader. As the day one frontrunner with a commanding lead, Taylor St. Jacques entered the second day of the competition with the early advantage and a target on her back, and though she easily nabbed a place in the final work-off, Langmeier proved the most consistent to triumph over her counterparts in the World Championships-style fourth and final phase. With her win, Langmeier can now add a new accolade to her resume and joins the ranks of past Talent Search Finals champions including international names such as McLain Ward, Richard Spooner, Charlie Jayne, Lauren Hough and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum.
The Phase III: Jumping course, designed by judges McLain Ward and Jimmy Torano, offered riders plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their flexibility and precision, but one obstacle proved to be the undoing of numerous pairs: the water jump. The Talent Search Finals is unique in that it is the only junior equitation championship that requires the inclusion of a water jump, and many horses and riders fell victim to the obstacle, most unaccustomed to encountering it. As the latter portion of contenders, those entrants that had placed in the upper ranks after the first two phases, took to the ring, problems at the water jump grew scarce, but even the slightest error had the potential to drastically affect the standings to determine the four riders who would move on to the work-off.
Of the four riders that entered the day atop the leaderboard, only two would retain their status. Langmeier was joined in the ride-off by St. Jacques, still the leader after Phase III, as well as Abigail Brayman and Taylor Griffiths, who ascended from the tenth and 12th positions, respectively, with their nearly faultless trips. For the fourth phase of competition, the remaining young riders would each be challenged to ride their mount over an abridged track, followed by a trip on each of the other three horses. Though catch riding is no easy task, the riders were presented with an elite group of horses up to the task.
Langmeier brought Linda Langmeier’s Skyfall, her veteran partner who is no stranger to the Talent Search Finals, having carried Langmeier to the reserve spot in the 2015 event on the East Coast and a respectable placing last year, to the final round of riding. He was accompanied by St. Jacques’ trusty Charisma, who is owned by Heritage Farm, Inc. and has campaigned with St. Jacques to the winner’s circle in numerous championships, as well as Catherine Tyree’s Corleone, a seasoned grand prix mount ridden by Brayman. Griffiths’ ride, Elvenstar Farm’s Caracas 89, was a fresh ride for her, but was the winning horse just two weeks ago at the 2017 Talent Search Finals – West in California with Halie Robinson in the irons.
Entering the final phase with clean slates, riders Langmeier, St. Jacques, Brayman and Griffiths began the work-off atop their own horses. Over the course of 16 trips, scores from Ward and Torano ranged from the low score of 63 to St. Jacques’ high score of 90 earned aboard Caracas 89, the only pair to break the 90-point threshold. Interestingly enough, each of the four young riders earned their highest marks on a different horse, and Brayman was the only rider to earn the highest of her four scores on her own horse. Unfortunately for St. Jacques, even though she garnered the highest singular score of the final phase with Caracas 89, a misjudged line on her own Charisma would cause her to ultimately lose the championship by just a handful of points. Langmeier, too, made a mistake with a swapped lead that led to a brief cross-canter during her trip aboard Corleone, but she piloted Charisma to her high score of 88, and when combined with twin scores of 86, made up for her low score of 71 with Corleone. Griffiths raked in an 83-point score, her highest of the afternoon, with the ride atop Skyfall, while Brayman’s top marks were in the saddle aboard Corleone.
Unlike the previous phase with the water jump, no specific problem arose during the final work-off, but one bending line, meant to be ridden in 9 strides, did produce unsatisfactory remarks from the judges panel. In nearly all of the trips, the contenders rode the line in a forward 8 strides, prompting a rushed appearance instead of the desired smooth ride. Learning from the mistakes of her counterparts, Langmeier laid down one of the only true 9-stride lines sought by Ward and Torano, helping to propel her to the head of the leaderboard after an elegant ride around their track. Ultimately though, it was the accumulation of various successes and mistakes across the board that determined the final standings.
Langmeier ultimately clinched the top honors with a cumulative score of 331 in the fourth phase, followed by St. Jacques in the reserve spot with a total tally of 326. Griffiths claimed third position with 306 points earned, and Brayman rounded out the top four with her composite score of 285. Heritage Farm, Inc.’s Charisma was awarded the Grappa Trophy, deemed by the judges to have been the best horse of the competition over the course of the two days. St. Jacques’ mount consistently pulled in top scores in each trip, and proved himself very adjustable, responsive and reliable with every turn in the ring.