Carleton Brooks told Nick Haness two words to manifest Friday: Balance and Simplicity. Brooks always chooses his words wisely, and Friday of Desert Circuit 10, presented by La Quinta Resort & Club, was no different. And Haness believes those two words carried him to victory with Balmoral’s Golden Road in the $100,000 Irene Neuwirth WCHR West Coast Hunter Spectacular.

“I am on cloud nine right now,” Haness said of his emotions after winning the class, earning a two-round average of 93.25, a nearly four-point lead. “I’m honestly just thrilled. There’s just a great amount of excitement around this horse right now. He’s by far the most inexperienced horse on my roster, and the newest to this environment in the hunter ring, so for him to come into this class tonight and win it under the lights with this much pressure is just incredible.”

Nick Haness and Golden Road. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Haness impressed the judges at first during the day, coming in for round one as one of the 55 competitors to try their hand at the track, designed by Meghan Rawlins. He secured the highest score, also guaranteeing him the final spot to return in round two.

“Carleton had words of wisdom for me. Those words were balance and simplicity, and that’s all we practiced the whole day,” Haness said of his preparation for a class of this caliber. “It was just keeping the horse balanced and keeping it simple. He’s an incredible athlete. We’ve had a great build-up of momentum throughout the circuit. He was champion this week. We feel like we really peaked this week and had a great outcome earlier in the week being champion in the green 3’6” division.”

Golden Road, an 8-year-old Selle Francais gelding by Cornet Obolensky, grew wings when he went in for the second round. The judges rewarded it with a 94.5 average, awarding Haness and the Balmoral team the win. In second was Michael Dennehy with Dana Vollbracht’s entry Hulla-Balou, who took an early lead as one of the 3’9” competitors. Geoffrey Hesslink captured third aboard Monarchy, owned by Shadowfax Equestrian LLC and Lacey Howell.

Nick Haness and Golden Road in their winning presentation, pictured with Irene Neuwirth, Carleton Brooks, Traci Brooks, and Ryan May. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Golden Road was expertly prepared for the occasion and it showed. Haness felt extremely confident despite the horse having recently turned hunter and being under the lights for the first time.

“Last week we practiced being in this arena in the International Derby so coming in tonight we felt prepared,” Haness explained. “After the first round, I knew this horse was a contender to win the class. The way the class unraveled there was certainly a lot of pressure and I just kept reminding myself of Carleton’s words: balance and simplicity.”

Managing horses and mastering the art of hunter riding is not a simple task, but Haness has managed to make his approach a fairly simple one, and it’s paying off in spades. He has now won three consecutive times in his three most recent appearances, winning last year’s $100,000 WCHR West Coast Hunter Spectacular and this year’s $100,000 Peter Wetherill WCHR Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular in Wellington.

Michael Dennehy and Hulla-Balou. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“Winning this class ever in your career is amazing,” Haness reflected. “It’s what dreams are made of. It’s honestly what you wake up in the morning and strive to one day achieve, and for me, my whole life I have dreamed about being in this moment and this spot in my life. I’m so blessed and fortunate to be here.

He’s won three in a row, but he’s won four editions of the class in total.

Geoffrey Hesslink and Monarchy. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“Winning four of these $100,000 Spectaculars now my career doesn’t seem real but I’m very grateful,” the Temecula native continued. “I don’t really think about it too often. Each day is a new day and you have to come to each show with a different mindset and be prepared for that moment that day. You really focus on what your horse needs, and again, you just [focus on] balance and simplicity.”

With the Balmoral team alongside him, Haness celebrated like it was still his first win. “I am so thrilled to have a fourth win under my belt in my career,” he beamed. “It’s an incredible feeling. I work really hard and I love my horses. I take a lot of pride in them and their performances, so to win another one tonight is just an incredible feeling.”

In addition to winning the feature class of the night, Haness was also recognized for another special achievement: Leading Hunter Rider of Desert Circuit 2024. For his victory across the 10 weeks of Desert Circuit, he won a Palm Springs vacation, including a three-night stay at the Parker in Palm Springs, plus dining credits at the Colony Club, Workshop Kitchen and Bar, and Bar Cecil, as well as a spa credit and Joshua Tree Jeep Tour for two.

“California is my home base, so I’m always proud to be here on the West Coast,” he shared. “I wasn’t here for a few of the weeks, so it was a very close call. My good friend Morgan Thomas was the leading rider going into this week. He has a string of fabulous horses here in the desert. He’s a great rider with a great program. I was ready to accept second place to him to be honest.

“I had a really good week this final week in the desert and I think I barely caught up,” he continued. “But I’m very excited to be the leading rider again; it makes me very proud. I’m proud of all the horses that helped to get me here, all of the owners, all my clients, and the trainers that have been involved. I’m grateful for the horse show here, so to end this week with leading hunter rider for the circuit and a win tonight, I couldn’t be in a better place.”

In addition to Haness’ award, Morgan Thomas accepted Reserve Leading Hunter Rider, with a vacation at the La Quinta Resort, plus dining credits at their property restaurants, a spa credit, and golf for two.

Two WCHR awards were given for the week as well. Geoffrey Hesslink was awarded for being WCHR High Score Professional, earning the highest score of any professional hunter throughout the week. Kylee Arbuckle accepted the award for WCHR High Score Developing Professional.

Nick Haness and Hush Money Secure the Bag in $20,000 Adequan® Young Hunter Championship

Nick Haness and Hush Money. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The rain on Friday morning of Desert Circuit 10, presented by La Quinta Resort & Club, caused a few changes in the schedule throughout the day, but it didn’t keep Nick Haness from revealing a star in Hush Money, a 7-year-old owned by Glenda Monkarsh. The pair rode to the win in the $20,000 Adequan® Young Hunter Championship to conclude young hunter action for the season.

Haness is a frequent competitor in the Young Hunter Championship, which takes place at the beginning and end of each season to showcase how a horse is performing at two points of the show season. He always brings exceptional talent into the class, and Friday’s occasion was no different.

“He’s actually a brand new horse for me, I rode him for the first time this week, so I’m very excited for the success we’ve had together so far,” Haness said of Hush Money, a Hungarian-bred by Lasino.

Nick Haness and Hush Money in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“He is a really beautiful horse and we’ve been getting to know each other this week,” Haness continued. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect for this big class being that it’s the final [edition] here in the desert, but this is a horse who’d had a lot of success in the past with his previous trainers and for his owner, Glenda Monkrash. I think he was horse of the year last year as a 6-year-old so this is a really talented and nice horse. I’m very happy with how he went today.”

Scores of 91 and 92 in the two-round class put Haness and Hush Money in the lead, where they stayed through the close of competition in Main Hunter. Nicole Bourgeois and Nickname, owned by Barbara Lovre, captured second place, while in third was Jamie Sailor and Ornella B, owned by HLF Equestrian LLC.

The rings were slightly wet Friday morning, but the class went late enough in the day that Main Hunter had dried significantly. That didn’t change the fact that preparation for hunters was affected early in the day.

“We had some rain last night here in the desert so we weren’t really able to prepare a young horse as we would like to,” Haness explained. “But sometimes we just have to go with what we’ve got, and hope for the best, and the horse was beautiful. He went great.”

The course introduced challenges that the Young Hunter divisions typically don’t see, but the horses handled them with grace, especially Hush Money.

“The course was nice; it was a long course for young horse,” Haness said. “We had to really put the horses together and remind them that there’s more to come. I think it was a class that showed and showcased the horse’s qualities. It really showcased if the horse was a good mover and how they looked through the bridle, which is something you look for in a young up-and-coming hunter.”

Haness rides a variety of young horses from the beginning stage all the way up to the highest levels for a hunter, and he appreciates talent in any form, any step of the journey of development.

“I always support and really appreciate horse shows that support the young hunters,” Haness continued. “It’s the future for our sport, the up-and-coming young talent. It’s really fun to scout in Europe and produce them here in the States. Now we have such great programs that encourage owners to want to own and watch young horses develop.”

Stars Align for Gregory Wathelet and Kristalic in $12,000 Horseflight CSI4* 1.45m Speed

Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Kristalic. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Kristalic, the Morning Star Sporthorses-owned stallion, had yet to compete in FEI action beyond Young Horse levels. The team behind him, with Gregeory Wathelet (BEL) aboard, chose Friday of Desert Circuit 10, presented by La Quinta Resort & Club, to be his first week to give it a shot. The instincts were right, as Wathelet and Kristalic took top honors in the $12,000 Horseflight CSI4* 1.45m Speed, proving the horse is progressing into something very special.

“Of course I’m very happy he has done so well,” Wathelet remarked after the win Friday. “I planned to ride him in the four-star because on the grass he was not so steady. I thought he should try the 1.45m because it would be a little easier, but the horse is really nice. He’s really a fighter in the ring, so careful, he really tries hard all the time, and is very competitive. Today he did what he did every week in the end because he’s been good every time.”

Wathelet came in at the tail end of the class and took over the lead, pushing Ali Ramsay (CAN) into second, where she ended up at the close of competition with Conrado 12, owned by Ramsay Equestrian Inc. Laura Hite (USA) took third with Aviator Z, owned by HF Farms LLC.

Wathelet has taken over the ride of several Morning Star Sporthorses entries, and he’s seen a great deal of success with them. The ultimate test will come Saturday, in the $182,000 La Quinta Resort & Club CSI4* Grand Prix under the lights, the final major event of the season.

Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Kristalic in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“We always hope for the best for sure,” Wathelet said heading into Saturday’s feature event. “[Stern Dei Folletti is] a horse that has done really good things during the season; he even surprised me with what he did and what he could do. I just need to manage him because he rushes a bit to the jump. I think the last Grand Prix he didn’t touch any pole so I’ll give my shot tomorrow.”

Recently, Morning Star Sporthorses became the leading owner within the United States Equestrian Federation standings, with points stemming entirely from performances at Desert Circuit so far for the year.

“It’s incredible,” said Karrie Rufer, owner of Morning Star Sporthorses. “I’ve gotten really lucky with my agent, Carl Hanley. He’ll call me and say, ‘I think I found the one.’ They’re not always the obvious ones that people would pick, but he just knows the characters of the horses I love to buy.”

Rufer has had to take a back seat this season, but she’s still thrilled by the performances her horses put in day in and day out. “I’m not the one riding them but it’s been rewarding that the horses that I love and that love me back are also really good horses on their own,” she continued. “Fitting the right horses with the right people, and the whole management side of it is fun. I can always retire from riding and just do this. Choosing who was going to ride each horse was a challenge but it’s been so fun to watch them succeed even without me.”

Show jumping resumes Saturday with the $75,000 Aleron LLC Grand Prix on the grass followed by the $182,000 La Quinta Resort & Club CSI4* Grand Prix under the lights.

Michael Dennehy and Paloma Primavera Score USHJA National Hunter Derby Wins

Michael Dennehy and Vasilios. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Michael Denney got his day off to a great start Friday, taking the win in the first of several major hunter classes, the $7,500 Horseflight USHJA National Hunter Derby – Open, with Vasilios, owned by Michaella Gallina. Having just shown the horse for the first time the day prior, Dennehy put on a show with the 12-year-old Luxembourg gelding, taking the win.

“He’s a very new horse,” Dennehy explained of their nascent relationship. “Michaella, who owns the horse just literally moved to us right before the circuit and Toni [Hrudka] had been showing him, and then she had a fall early this series. This is the second time I’ve shown the horse. I rode him yesterday in two classes and then today. He’s a wonderful horse. He has a great canter to see the jumps on and he’s super handy and very scopey.”

Coming back for round two, Dennehy was able to move up a few spots in the final placings after laying down a very impressive handy round. “I really tried to just make it very smooth and symmetrical and not try to make a really tight turn; just make it more graceful,” he explained of the strategy.

Michael Dennehy and Vasilios in their winning presentation, pictured with Michaella Gallina. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Dennehy has topped several major events as the season has progressed, including International Hunter Derby action on the grass field and $10,000 Under Saddle action. “We’ve had a great circuit both with this horse, and my other horse, Hulla-Balou, and a couple of others. We’re hoping that we have a good finish today because I’ve got one in the Young Hunter Championship and then two in the Spectacular later today. We’re just hoping we can finish the day solid.”

Dennehy, along with other hunter professionals, is grateful to have so many opportunities across all levels for the hunters in the desert.

“It’s great because they have something for every horse,” he remarked of DIHP’s schedule. “From starting hunter with the Young Hunter Championships to the very top end, it’s great to have so many opportunities with special classes to get them in the ring. It’s great for me because I get nervous and it’s been great to just be able to walk in and practice.”

Even as a seasoned pro, Dennehy still has moments when nerves kick in, but he’s developed coping mechanisms to not only hide the nerves but to prevail.

“I try to just think about the fundamentals of riding because it really boils down to a handful of things,” he explained of his tactics to handle nerves. “If you just do those things – you have to do them consistently – then you’re busy thinking about those and not so worried about it all working out.”

Jenny Karazissis ended up second with Classic Hit, owned by Heidi Kane, and Simon Schroeder was third with Balounito, owned by North Shore Farm.

Paloma Primavera and Corochino Z. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Paloma Primavera had a very special day as well with her beloved mount Corochino Z in the $7,500 Voltaire Design USHJA National Hunter Derby – Jr/Am. Securing a score of 88 in the first round, the duo came back as the leading pair, and laid down a trip worthy of a 93 score for the win.

“He is just one of a kind,” Primavera said of the 14-year-old Holsteiner gelding. “He’s the handiest horse I know, and he’s so big that he just makes it down the lines so easily. He’s very adjustable too so that makes it very easy and nice for the handies and he’s good at just holding his cute expression.

These pieces were enough to put them atop the leaderboard, securing another derby win for the pair to add to their resume as a partnership.

“I’ve had him for about two years, and when we started, I had just moved up into 3’6”,” Primavera explained. “Last year was mainly my eq year to get into college but I’m excited that this year we’re going to be focusing on hunters, because that’s what I’ve always actually loved to do.”

It’s apparent the pair loves to shine in the hunters, and their results say so as well. “In Paso Robles last year we won a derby and I was reserve at Sonoma Horse Park with a 95,” she said of her recent results with Corochino Z. “We’ve done plenty of derbies and we were here Week six during Hunter week too.”

Paloma Primavera and Corochino Z in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The young rider is committed to ride at Fresno State in the fall, and until then she’ll keep campaigning Corochino Z and showing him off.

“My plan is just doing some of the bigger derbies and just getting even more handy,” she explained of what’s next. “I want to just keep surprising people with what he can do with his size.”

Lily Sonneborn took second-place honors with Juan Carlos, owned by Andesite Equestrian, while Daphne Gretton and All The Talk, owned by Dana Le, claimed third.