The partnership between Jenny Karazissis and Michelle Cobb’s Really has been nine years in the making, and they’ve been nine memorable years for everyone involved. Though the pair has taken countless wins, Karazissis felt the win on Friday of Desert Circuit 5, presented by Premier Equestrian, was an extra special one.

A top field came in for the big occasion, the $49,900 USHJA International Hunter Derby, sponsored by Premier Equestrian, on the grass field. Karazissis was up against the best, as she always is, but she secured the highest score in round one with the 15-year-old gelding, putting her in prime position to confidently take the win.

Jenny Karazissis and Really. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Up at the top with the pair were other elite hunter contenders, including Jamie Sailor with Salito 13 in third and Nick Haness in second with Cavaletto Loma Z. Karazissis had a two-point lead over Haness and a 10-point lead over Sailor, so when Haness ended up having an unlucky rail, Karazissis knew she had some wiggle room.

“It was nerve wracking; I can’t sit and watch everybody go,” she said of waiting in the warm-up while the rest of the field put in their handy rounds. “They do have the screen but it’s hard to tell whether they’ve done an inside turn. You can listen to the scores. But I knew I didn’t have to be crazy handy which I was grateful for. There were places I might’ve gone inside that I didn’t because I felt like I didn’t have to be crazy to keep my lead and it paid off.”

Her second-round scores came in and were even better than the first, scoring a total of 187 in round two for a combined total of 373. Sailor took second with a 358.5 score, and Matthew Sereni and Kanndarco were third on a score of 354.5. Hope Verschleiser was the Butet U25 champion, aboard Higgs.

Jenny Karazissis and Really in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“Before the class started I was sitting with the owner, Michelle Cobb and her daughter, and we were talking about when I first started riding him, which was nine years ago,” Karazissis said of back in the day with Really. “The first experience was on a grass field and it didn’t go great, but you could clearly see all his potential, and I can’t even describe his ride. Everything about it – he melts in your hands, he doesn’t take that much leg, you know he can confidently jump every fence, and he has no spook. It’s just such a privilege to ride him.”

Though the relationship has been steady, the horse has changed quite a bit and come a long way since those early days.

“Even when he wasn’t as broke as he is now, I still loved riding him,” she shared. “He didn’t have the best lead change in the beginning and now it’s a lot better, but he’s very ambidextrous. I can just plan to land left or right. I didn’t need a single lead change both rounds. Most of the time that’s the case. It’s very easy to figure out angles on him. I know exactly how to make it happen and it worked in my favor. I love when they give you options and you can suit it to your horse.”

Hope Verschleiser and Giggs in their U25 winning presentation, pictured with Ecole Lathrop on behalf of Butet. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Earlier in the day, Karazissis took another victory with Big Shot, another long-term partner of hers. When she was reminded that she scored two big wins on her two most reliable mounts, she had to reality-check herself.

“When somebody mentioned that [I won both], I felt like it was so long ago when I won the National Derby that it almost feels like a different day,” she joked. “Wow what a day. It’s been incredible.”

The decision to place Really in the big derby and step Big Shot down was a very practical one. While both the horses have the scope and the brilliance to do both jobs, she knew which horse would perform better in which environment.

“Really has no spook; he’s been out on this field a number of times and performs well,” she explained. “Big Shot I have taken out here probably on two occasions and it hasn’t gone well. I don’t know why because he’s good on grass, but for some reason here he just doesn’t feel like himself. The horse owes me nothing, he’s tremendous. Why make him do something he might be fretting about? I’m more interested in doing the hunters in the Grand Prix Arena next week and the [WCHR West Coast Hunter] Spectacular, and he loves that ring. Thank goodness I had Really for this event and [Big Shot] for this morning.”

Jenny Karazissis and Big Shot. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Big Shot’s glory came in the $5,000 USHJA National Hunt & Go Derby – Open, sponsored by Vogel. Dulcie Lou Morris’ 13-year-old Holsteiner gelding took the top position in a very competitive field, putting in back-to-back rounds and nailing each one, scoring 91 and 92 for a combined total of 183.

“He was amazing, and actually I was so pleased with the way he jumped the smaller jumps,” Karazissis said of Big Shot’s performance. “He did the International Derby here a few weeks ago and was second, and the jumps are not as significant, so I hoped he’d give it some effort and he did. It was the only class I did this week, so he felt a little fresh in a good way. He was so happy to be out there and it was a very good feeling.”

Karazissis unseated Dustin Goodwin from the lead, and he eventually claimed second with Reputation, owned by Kalli Heffner Gay. Nick Haness claimed third with Casalluno, owned by Karle Dickerson.

Jenny Karazissis and Big Shot in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Karazissis had a draw right in the middle of the pack, so she was able to watch a few rounds and formulate a plan for her approach. “There’s no true starting marker; there was a long way between the last fence of the first round and the first fence of the handy,” she explained. “So my plan was to land and just start galloping which I did. He’s such a good horse at handy rounds so then he totally got into it. He was soft as could be, just like butter.”

The hunt-and-go format has been gaining popularity, and Karazissis is enjoying the chance to mix up the hunter derby experience. “I like it and the course designers are getting really good at it,” she said of the format. “The course was lovely; they really incorporated derby aspects in both rounds and it felt long enough. Sometimes you feel like it’s too short to show off your handiness but it’s turned out to be a great format.”

It was a very happy day for Karazissis, but she’s also getting joy from so many other things at the moment.

“I have backed off quite a bit with the number of horses that I ride and I’m really happy with the string that I have,” she reflected. “I couldn’t be more proud and thrilled. I’ve got Lisa Hankin doing the 2’6” and gearing up to possibly do higher on her horse Picnic, which is a horse I used to ride and I’ve done Derby Finals on him before. I’m so proud of him for the way he’s taking care of her and how far she has come in confidence because of him. that’ s a thrill for me too, helping my clients do so well. My daughter is here and she’s pregnant, due next month, so I’m really excited about that. I’m having a great time.”

Hailey Eynon and Can Do This VA in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

There was another winner in the Main Hunter Ring later on Friday, and it was Hailey Eynon who took victory in the $5,000 USHJA National Hunt & Go Derby, sponsored by Platinum Performance, aboard Can Do This VA, owned by Hermosa Sport Horses. The pair rode to scores of 91 and 92 for a 183 score, repeating history from Karazissis just a few hours earlier. Violet Tatum took second with Totoka Fuji, owned by Ingenium Farm, and Jayme Omand claimed third with Mister Carrera.

Lillian Thomas Takes One-Two Finish in $5,000 USHJA Pony Hunter Derby, Sponsored by Kickapoo Ponies

Lillian Thomas and Page 6. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Lillian Thomas had a big day as well in hunter derby action, taking the top two spots in the $5,000 USHJA Pony Hunter Derby, sponsored by Kickapoo Ponies, on the grass field. Thirty ponies went head to head on the field, and it was a well-earned victory aboard a pony that’s been in her family nearly as long as she’s been alive.

Page 6, known as “Fire” in the barn, is now 22 years old, which is almost double Thomas’s age of 12. The small Welsh Pony cross and Thomas went early in the day and had stellar scores of 85 and 82, and they couldn’t be caught, posting the highest score of all the ponies.

“Fire is really special to me because I’ve had him for so long,” Thomas reflected. “He’s taught me a lot. I’ve had him for 11 years or something like that. He’s really sweet. He’s sensitive too but he’s really sweet. He doesn’t do much at home since he’s old so we just ride him sometimes.”

Thomas was well prepared for the challenge, even though she had never been on the grass field before. She captured first with Page 6 and second aboard Whatdoyasay?, also known as “Blue”.

Lillian Thomas and Page 6 in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“Blue I’ve had for about a year,” she said of the 17-year-old Welsh Pony gelding. “He’s so kind and always wants to do the right thing for me. They’re both really fun to ride.”

Thomas was all smiles following her awards presentation, leading the victory gallop on the grass field for the first time the ponies had ever had a chance to compete there.

“I feel really good. I’m really happy that I was first and second,” Thomas continued. “I was really happy that I just had good rounds and pretty good scores. Doing the trot jump right facing the big screen was hard because my ponies were looking at themselves on the screen. I think they handled it pretty well.”

She has inspiring goals, despite still being very young. “This is my last year on smalls so I just want to do really well on Fire, and Blue I just want to stay consistent on,” she said of her goals for the rest of the year. “I also want to win big classes in the jumpers and the hunters,” she said of eventual riding goals.”

Until then, she’ll be chipping away at the Pony Hunters, returning to Pony Finals, and being the one to watch in Pony Hunter Derby action.