01 Dec Counting Down To Center Court
John French rode Center Court to the top of the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at the National
Sunshine Series II. Here’s a quick look at the details behind this special horse and his connections.
7: CENTER COURT’S AGE. Despite his tender years, Center Court has garnered more championships and derby wins than most horses do in a lifetime. “Somebody had contacted me once and asked me for all his championships and reserve championships and derby wins in his three-year career, and I was shocked when I put that on paper,” said his owner, Kristen Hiller. By Hiller’s count, in three years competing in the high performance division Center Court has racked up 15 championships, seven reserve championships, eight international derby wins and three international derby reserve finishes.
6: YEARS HILLER HAS TRAINED WITH FRENCH. Hiller and French enjoy a tight knit and comedic relationship. “He goes, ‘You should show Center Court; you’ll make him wake up and pay attention,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ ” Hiller recalled. “And he said, ‘Well you’ll stick him at bad distances, and then he’ll have to focus!’ ”
Hiller clearly doesn’t hold the joke against French. In fact, he’ll be spending Thanksgiving with Hiller and her family this year. “I’m very lucky to have these horses, but I’m even luckier to have this long-standing relationship with John over the years,” Hiller said. “I think for anyone to be with a trainer these days for a long time it just speaks volumes of the trainer. John has done everything so perfectly in our lives together with so many horses and with both the successes and the failures. We’ve lived and died together, and we will continue to do so.”
5: DAYS PER WEEK CENTER COURT GOES SWIMMING. Yes, you read that correctly—Center Court is a hunter who spends more time in the water than under tack. “We have to keep him interested in the work, and I don’t jump him hardly at all at home, so after [the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Ky.)] to keep him fit for this [Sunshine Series derby] we sent him to this facility to just swim for like five weeks, no riding,” French said. “They sent me videos of him, and he just loved it. He would just march into the swimming pool.”
4′: HEIGHT OF THE FENCES CENTER COURT JUMPED AT AGE 6. Most hunters crawl their way up the divisions by three-inch increments, but not Center Court. French figured out early on he needn’t bother with the smaller fences. “I’ve never had a horse that just went straight into the 4′ high performance and doing derbies right off the bat, only him,” French said. “And then to go east as a 6-year-old and be champion in the 4′ [high performance] at [the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.)]? He’s special that way. He’s been able to do it all so young.”
3: NUMBER OF BARNS FROM WHICH CENTER COURT’S BEEN EVICTED. “I’m laughing because I told John that I wouldn’t tell this story,” Hiller said. “He’s been kicked out of three barns, and he doesn’t do this at all anymore, but he loves his paddock time, and he doesn’t like coming in from paddocks. So when someone would try to bring him in he would walk out the gate, and 10 feet from the paddock he would rear up and get away from the handler and try to kick them. It was so bad.
“They would tell us, ‘Sorry, your horse has an issue,’ ” Hiller said with a laugh. “He’s just very opinionated!”
2: RIDERS CENTER COURT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE. Hiller purchased Center Court with the intention of eventually showing him in the amateur-owner division, but for now she’s scrapped that plan. “I was just going to do him for a year and then maybe the occasional derby, and I keep saying, ‘You’re going to do him after this or after this,’ ” French said. “And she says, ‘No, you keep doing him. Take him to this one. He’s your horse.’ ”
Hiller would like to show the horse someday, but there’s no date set yet. “I don’t think that horse has been given a bad distance in three years,” she joked. “He’s perfectly happy without an amateur bouncing around on his back.”
1: A ONE AND ONLY HORSE. Hiller and French buy a lot of horses together with the intention of selling once they’ve reached a certain level, but Center Court isn’t one of them. “I would like to be able to say that in his career he’s won the derby finals, and I’d like to take him to some different shows like Thunderbird [British Columbia] and just really special derbies where they make a special class out of it, because I might not ever have another derby horse like him,” French said.