Ben Asselin knew Baton Rouge was going to be a special horse from day one. As Desert Holiday came to a close, he had a chance to show everyone just how special, as he jumped the sole clear round in the $50,000 Whittier Trust National Grand Prix.

Peter Grant had set difficult tracks all week and throughout the day Sunday, so the Grand Prix course was no exception. As the class went on and more and more riders accumulated a rail or two, it became clear a jump-off might not happen. As Asselin and the 12-year-old gelding (Banderas x Karandasj) stood atop the list alone, the final rider pulled a rail and they were named champions without having to jump another fence.

“The National Grand Prixs have been tough the last couple weeks and last week was tough enough too,” Asselin remarked on how the courses have jumped through the 2023-2024 season so far. “Last week there were only five clean and I was second on this horse. It’s been a great two weeks and he jumped fantastic.”

Ben Asselin and Baton Rouge in their winning presentation, pictured with Katherine Wiechmann, Devin Wikke, Charlie Normandin, Heidi Bitterman, and Kyle Destiche of Whittier Trust. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Asselin and his family, as well as Attache Stables, who owns the horse, has seen great potential in Baton Rouge since the beginning.

“It’s really special [to win this],” Asselin continued. “I’ve only had this horse for about a year and a half. A great Canadian young rider, Samantha Buirs, brought him all the way up from a foal until he was 9 and finished her career with him in the Nations Cup in Calgary. She did a brilliant job. It took me a little while to figure him out but I feel like I’m on that track now. It’s really special to go from second last week to winning this class. He deserves it and I’m just happy I could ride him properly.”

Grant’s course was not causing terrible errors, just unlucky rails down here and there that caused everyone trouble except for Asselin. Jamie Gornall was the fastest four-faulter with Opus Sporthorses’ Nordic van de Fruitkof taking second, and Mariano Maggi was right behind in third with Quantico 23, owned by Mary Francis Looke.

“Peter Grant is a fantastic course designer,” he continued. “I’ve jumped a lot of his courses and he’s learned from top-notch course designers himself. I think the jumping today was quite delicate. It wasn’t overly massive but just technical enough that it caught some riders and horses in specific spots. The time allowed was just tight enough that you really had to continue and have an efficient track but still maintain the carefulness. It was a great field of horses and riders today and luck was just on our side.”

Ben Asselin and Baton Rouge. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The horse proved himself in the Grand Prix Arena Sunday and Asselin thinks he will continue to rise the ranks until he gets as high as the sport allows.

“I think he’s everything, I really do,” Asselin remarked of Baton Rouge. “I think he’s a championship horse. My parents and Attache Stables all saw that from the very beginning. We’ve always been a half owner in the horse since he was a foal and we’ve all thought that, come the time and the age, he’s going to be a championship horse for Canada. I’m really looking forward to the future and stepping up into the FEI next year and building towards the summer.”

After two great weeks at DIHP, Asselin is thrilled with the horses and the experience of jumping at all levels and producing horses at the facility.

“The team at Desert Horse Park is second to none,” he shared. “They are so hospitable and caring. It just goes to show the amount of time and effort and money they put into the facility every year it goes to show. It’s a pleasure to be here and congratulations to them for producing such a great venue.”

Winning the U25, sponsored by the Surrey, was Cameron Trimino with Firewall.

Nicole Ghersinich and Ladybug Fly to Victory in 2’6”-2’9” Child/Adult Hunter Derby

The final day of Desert Holiday began in Hunter 3 with rising hunter stars participating in the 2’6”-2’9” EquiFit Essentials Child/Adult Hunter Derby. Nicole Ghersinich proved consistency could rise above all, putting in two solid rounds and securing the win aboard Ladybug, owned by Carrera Horses Inc.

“Ladybug is 10 and I bought her last year,” Ghersinich said of her relationship with Ladybug. “I’m bringing her along to be a hunter. She’s a lovely girl. She’s come a long way in the last year and I’m really proud of her.”

Nicole Ghersinich and Lady Bug. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The pair’s first round score of 83 put them into the lead as round one came to a close, so they were last to return for the handy, but they didn’t let the pressure get to them.

“She was really relaxed in the first round,” she continued with the mare’s performance. “I was really proud of her because it’s a new ring and she’s never been in that ring before. She can be a little spooky, but she was really good today. She was brave, she listened, she was confident, and I was really proud.”

Hailing from Calgary, AB, Ghersinich and her team are thrilled to be away from the winter weather and are enjoying the chance to move horses like Ladybug into bigger challenges, like these lower-level derbies.

“Hunters is a new thing for us, but we decided we wanted to go for it,” she said of her choice to enter Ladybug in the class. “We started in the 2’3” last year and now we’re doing the 2’6”. We’re probably going to move up to the 2’9” and maybe even the 3’.”

Nicole Ghersinich and Lady Bug. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Despite her easygoing nature in the ring, Ladybug can be a bit of a diva in the barn, but it’s part of what makes her a special horse. “She’s definitely a drama queen. She likes all the attention. She’s a typical mare; she’s a little sensitive but the biggest sweetheart with a heart of gold. She will win for you if you work,” Ghersinich described.

Raising and producing young horses is a passion for Ghersinich, and it’s one she hopes to take to the next level with her own breeding operation as she continues in the industry.

“At home mostly I just help run my family’s farm,” she explained. “I’m going to get into breeding my own horses so that’s my plan for the next 10 years. I’ve always liked to ride young horses and have always had a passion for developing young ones. I think I’d be really good at it.”

Escaping the cold is an ideal scenario for Ghersinich, who plans to attend all of Desert circuit to continue getting valuable miles in and out of the show ring with her horses, Ladybug included.

“We’re here until the end. It’s warm, we’re from the arctic so it’s not snowy,” she said of the climate in Thermal. “And it’s a really good environment; it’s consistent, it’s fun, it’s safe, it has good footing and weather. We get lots of good experience and then we can go home and do well over the summer.”

Placing second in the 2’6”-2’9” EquiFit Essentials Child/Adult Hunter Derby was Hailey Thompson and Just One, owned by Matty Ringel. Ginvino and rider Sophia Smith took home third place.