A little time off has proven to be no issue for Ace Of Hearts, expertly piloted by Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet to the win in Friday’s $38,700 La Quinta Resort & Club CSI3* 1.50m Speed. At 13 years old, the Estonian Sport Horse gelding is hitting his stride after a nearly four-year break from the competition ring.

Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Ace Of Hearts. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Wathelet has already taken international victories at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP) and is back in winning form for Desert Circuit V, advancing this horse from National to FEI competition.

“My plan was to do a few jumps with him yesterday and go in the Grand Prix Sunday, but I didn’t want to go straight in the Grand Prix because he has less experience,” he explained. “I know that with him I can go a little bit for these classes. I don’t normally ruin the control and everything for the grand prixs; that’s normally not a big problem. And then I saw the ones before me there that were quite fast. To be in front I had to at least try and make good turns.”

Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Ace Of Hearts in their winning presentation, pictured with Candace Bengtson of La Quinta Resort & Spa. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Over Bernardo Costa Cabral’s (POR) single-round speed course, Wathelet unseated leader at the time, Kyle King (USA) with SIG International’s SIG Chiari. King took second in the class while Karrie Rufer (USA) claimed third with Mr. Europe, owned by Morning Star Sporthorses.

Brought into Wathelet’s string as a 5-year-old, Ace Of Hearts wowed him early on and is continuing to do so eight years later. “He was jumping amazing,” Wathelet said of the horse as a youngster. He had not done any shows when we bought him. A dressage rider, and friend of mine, saw him and said we have to buy him. And I even didn’t really try him.”

Kyle King (USA) and SIG Chiari. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The horse had scope from the beginning, and almost too much scope. “At the beginning, when he was six and seven, he was always jumping too high and too careful,” Wathelet continued. “I didn’t really have the time to ride him myself, which is why he didn’t do too much. At seven and eight he did some shows but still not many. And then he was a bit unlucky with a small injury that took him out. It kept him out of the shows for almost four years.”

Now back in the show ring for about a year and a half, Ace Of Hearts is finding his time to shine. ”I brought him here just to give him some experience, good experience, to step up a bit and hope he can be ready when they go back to Europe to do some bigger things,” Wathelet said.

Karrie Rufer (USA) and Mr. Europe. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Ace Of Hearts hasn’t followed the picture-perfect trajectory for a winning FEI show jumper, but Wathelet believes that doesn’t matter. “It doesn’t matter the age, we do what we think is best for the horse,” he said. “We try to find the best plan, the best program, and they are all different, which is a good thing in our sport. There are no rules for what they have to do when they are six or nine. I work a lot with the feeling and then feel what they need, what they can do, and what they have to do.”

Earlier in the day, James Chawke took the win, plus second place, yet again in the $7,500 Interactive Mortgage 10 & Under Futurity Series, this time aboard Vanessa Mannix’s Ikonic PB. the pair took the win with a jump-off time of 29.87 seconds, just one tenth of a second faster than himself aboard Whitney Walker’s Jevaro. With an all-Irish podium, Robert Blanchette claimed third with Bartok Diamond, owned by Lisa Setzer.

Show jumping continues Saturday with the $38,700 Pomponio Ranch CSI3* 1.45m Classic and the $50,000 Hygain Feeds National Grand Prix.

James Chawke and Ikonic PB. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Final Results: $38,700 La Quinta Resort & Club CSI3* 1.50m Speed

1. ACE OF HEARTS: 2010 ESH gelding by Aliandro B x Ra Ex Romanov ESH
GREGORY WATHELET (BEL), Gregory Wathelet: 0/62.29

2. SIG CHIARI: 2012 OS gelding by Cristallo II x Landadel
KYLE KING (USA), SIG International: 0/63.91

3. MR. EUROPE: 2009 KWPN gelding by Mr. Blue x Cassini
KARRIE RUFER (USA), Morning Star Sporthorses, LLC: 0/63.91

4. BONITA VH KEIZERSHOF Z: 2011 ZANG mare by Bustique x For Pleasure
ALI RAMSAY (CAN), Ramsay Equestrian Inc.: 0/64.97

5. CADEAU Z: 2013 ZANG gelding by Carmena Z x Quattro B
MANDY PORTER (USA), Risen EQ Holdings LLC: 0/66.01

6. KARDENTA VAN’T MEERHOF: 2010 BWP mare by Cardento x Concorde
ELISA BROZ (USA), Hidalgo LLC: 0/66.08

7. GRANDEUR WP: 2011 KWPN gelding by Whistler x Vainqueur
BRETTON CHAD (CAN), Stone Ridge Farms LLC: 0/67.81

8. CLOCKWISE OF GREENHILL Z: 2007 ZANG stallion by Clearway x Caretino 2
UMA O’NEILL (NZL), O’Neill Showjumping LLC: 0/68.10

9. LAVALLINO TER KLOMP: 2011 BWP stallion by Clearway x Coriano
JENNIFER WAXMAN (USA), Lost Lake Farm LLC: 0/69.33

10. CALIFORNIA SUNSHINE: 2013 DSP mare by Captain Z x Bollvorm’s Lauriston
SUSAN ARTES (USA), Alix Fargo: 0/72.37

11. LIMBOSSINI RC: 2011 Holsteiner gelding by Guardus Limbus x San Patrignano Cassini
MARK WATRING (PUR), Mark Watring: 0/74.12

12. CACTUS DE COSNIERE: 2012 SF gelding by Padock Du Plessis x Flipper D’Elle
ERIC KRAWITT (CAN), Eric Krawitt: 0/76.54

Nicole Bourgeois and Tic Tac Toe Take Flight in $10,000 National Hunter Derby – Open

Luckily for Nicole Bourgeois, no birds played a role in Friday’s $10,000 Amberway Equine USHJA National Hunter Derby – Open at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP).

The decorated hunter rider has a fear of birds, but she has no fear when it comes to riding Amy Bean’s Tic Tac Toe, also known as “Pigeon.”

“His owner really likes birds,” Bourgeois said. “I actually don’t like birds so it’s a joke between us. I’m terrified of birds. When I was younger my neighbor had pigeons and one of them attacked me once, so now I think all birds are going to attack me. I don’t think at this point I’m not going to get over it.”

Nicole Bourgeois and Tic Tac Toe. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

The partnership is strong despite the horse’s connection to the aviary world, and it turned out to be their day, taking sky-high scores of 95 and 99 in the two rounds, respectively, and the win with a total score of 194. Just barely in second was Nick Haness with Reese’s, owned by West Coast Equine Partners LLC, with a score of 193.5. Skylar Wireman and Emma Woodworth’s Fine By Me claimed third with a score of 184.5.

“I was most nervous, actually, about the turn after the first jump,” Bourgeois said of her handy round. “I knew Nick would do it no matter what, so I had to do it. That tight turn was definitely the hardest thing out there. The rest of the course rode very smoothly; I was really happy with my horse and the course. It was really fun. Sometimes you don’t get the options to do really tricky things like that.”

Nicole Bourgeios and Tic Tac Toe in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Bourgeois knew she was up against top competition, but her long-term relationship with Pigeon helped her out in terms of putting themselves out on the line for the top spot in the class.

“He’s been with me for about four years,” Bourgeois said of Pigeon, a 16-year-old gelding who is in good company among Bean’s elite line-up of bird-named horses, including himself, Goose, and Ducky. “He has done lots of jobs in his life. Amy Bean has owned him all four years and he’s shown in the Amateur-Owner Hunters with her, he’s done international derbies, the WCHR [West Coast Hunter] Spectacular, my sister has shown him, and now Amy’s daughter is riding him in the 2’6” here. He’s a true unicorn. He will do whatever you ask him to do. We are very fortunate to have him in our barn. He’s never going anywhere.”

Later Friday, Caroline Ingalls and Concerto won the $10,000 Kubota USHJA National Hunter Derby – Junior/Amateur with scores of 92 and 96. Greenley Achuck and Arvantos claimed second place, while Sara Simpson and Einstein took third.

Hunter action continues Saturday with Junior and Amateur-Owner Hunter riders vying for WCHR titles and Sunday features the $50,000 Butet USHJA International Hunter Derby on the grass field.

Final Results: $10,000 Amberway Equine USHJA National Hunter Derby – Open

1. Tic Tac Toe / Nicole Bourgeois / Amy Bean / 95 + 99 = 194
2. Reese’s / Nick Haness / West Coast Equine Partners LLC / 96 + 97.5 = 193.5
3. Fine By Me / Skylar Wireman / Emma Woodworth / 92 + 92.5 = 184.5
4. Lift Off / Daphne Foran / Mandy Hosford / 91 + 93 = 184
5. Jembey Van’t Eigenlo / Rodney Tulloch / Christine Maclean / 90 + 92 = 182
6. Maryville Sir Henry / Skylar Wireman / MZ Farms LLC / 89.5 + 88 = 177.5
7. Gold Coast / Kylee Arbuckle / Alexa Collins /n 90.5 + 86 = 176.5
8. Clooney / Shauna Pennell / Ilene Kurtzman / 94 + 59 = 153
9. Bailando / Shauna Pennell / Laura Day / 89 + 50 = 139
10. Crowd Pleaser / Nick Haness / West Coast Equine Partners LLC / 93 + 44.5 = 137.5
11. Barclay Square / Erin Duffy / Volant Stables / 88 + 49 = 137
12. Bourbon De Mars / Samantha Lubrant / Judith Hasko / 89.25 + 46 = 135.25