Jessica DiGenova Wins Debut CCI** at Florida Horse Park
By Shaneen Kohler

OCALA, Fla. (April 25, 2006) —

At just 16 years old, Jessica DiGenova now has an accomplishment on her resume that most people will never achieve: She not only won a CCI**, she placed above such names as Olympians Karen O’Connor, Darren Chiacchia and Ian Roberts and other well-known eventers such as Bruce "Buck" Davidson, Nathalie Pollard, Kyle Carter, Colleen Loach and Karl Slezak.

And this is only her fourth year in the sport of eventing.

The event was the Florida International CCI*/CCI**, a.k.a. the Festival of the Horse, held at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala, April 20-23. The one-star and two-star were the first internationally-recognized three day events to be held at the park.

Jessica DiGenova and Upolu winning the CCI** Festival of the Horse at Ocala Florida Horse Park

"I don’t think about the fact that I am competing alongside Olympians," said DiGenova. "In eventing, it is all about the horse and rider partnership. You have to have the horse that you just click with." With Upolu, DiGenova said she knew right away that they would click. "The moment I got on her back, I knew right away I had to get her. I love her."

DiGenova and her horse Upolu, a 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred mare, clicked all the way through the competition, starting with Day 1. "My dressage test was really good; the best I’ve ever had," said DiGenova, who was tied for third following her test. "At this event, I reflected what Darren (Chiacchia) has taught me over the past three months: Really go in there and show off! Dressage is more than just sitting there and having an obedient horse and doing movements."

The cross county went even better. "She kept the same pace throughout the course and jumped everything perfectly," said DiGenova, who was especially pleased that Upolu made the time. "At The Fork (Horse Trials in North Carolina, April 14-16), we didn’t make time" and received six time faults, "so I have been spending a lot of time conditioning her." Upolu was still ready to run the next morning, too. "She was perky and spooky, just the way I like her to be," said DiGenova. "It lets me know she is OK."

Upolu proved she was OK when she put in a clear round in the stadium jumping, one of only seven clears in the class of 43. They had been tied for first with Nathalie Pollard and Icarus going into stadium jumping, but an unfortunate 12-fault round dropped Pollard to fifth.

DiGenova’s overall score or 43.5 points was 8.2 points lower than second, which was Stephanie Butts’ 51.7 points, followed by Karen O’Connor’s 52.

Confidence Counts
DiGenova has had Upolu for three years, following an eventing hobby that got started aboard a 22-year-old Training Level horse that had been in retirement for nine years. Formerly a pleasure rider, DiGenova can’t place her finger on what inspired her to switch to eventing four years ago. "I used to think it was so dangerous and I was such a chicken," she laughed. But, now her aggressive style is what is rocketing her to the top of the charts. "Upolu takes a very aggressive rider, just because she is a very careful jumper," explained DiGenova. "She is not an easy horse…If your confidence falters, her confidence goes way down, too. Or, she’ll take advantage of me. That is why I always have to be on the ball with her, all the time."

Lately, Chiacchia has been helping her with that, as well. DiGenova started training with Chiacchia on Feb. 1 and will be at his farm in Ocala until May 1, when she will head back to Norval, Ontario to continue her training with Leahona Rowland.

"My parents and I heard about him and heard very good things about how he was good with young riders," said DiGenova, who has since formed her own opinion: "I really like his teaching style. He really gets to the point and doesn’t let you stop until you get it right. He goes through a lot of yelling and screaming, but it gets through my head and I love it."

She said his words even resonate through her head when she is competing. "Activity, more activity, impulsion, energy, more energy," are in the back of her mind when she is riding her dressage tests. However, the most important one is "show off." He knows I have the potential to get higher marks if I show off, said DiGenova.

During cross-country and stadium, the words are more along the lines of, "Growl at her, be aggressive, do whatever you have to!" DiGenova said he also reminds her to keep her head up.

"I can’t express how to thank him. He really got me to this point. He brought me so far in three months. I wouldn’t have done it without him," said DiGenova in a hastily thought-up speech she was requested to give following the presentation of her ribbon, prizes and $800 check. She also thanked her parents, Mario and Katherine, for supporting her.

But, upon returning to Canada, DiGenova may be putting head down, back into her school books. A home schooled 10th-grader, DiGenova has a lot of studying still to do if she is going to pursue one of her other goals: medicine.

The next time you’ll probably see the talented Jessica DiGenova competing in the States will be the North American Young Rider Championships, Aug. 1-6. "I am hoping to work my way to the Young Riders in Virginia for the two-star," she said.

Student, Trainer Claim 2nd and 3rd Place

Stephanie Butts of Laytonsville, MD on Zydeco Second in the CCI**
Karen O’Connor of Ocala, FL and Mandiba Third in the CCI**

Stephanie Butts, 22, of Laytonsville, MD and Karen O’Connor of Ocala, FL claimed second and third place in the debut CCI** at the Florida Horse Park.

Riding Zydeco, a 14-year-old Canadian Sport Horse, Butts just returned from England after spending a year training with Judy Bradwell, an FEI eventing judge. For the past three months she has been training with David and Karen O’Connor at their Ocala farm. Zydeco used to be her mom’s mount (Gretchen), said Butts. "She did Rolex on him twice and Burghley, as well." Butts is not aiming for either of those competitions in the near future, but she is hoping, "if everything goes perfectly between now and then," to compete at Fair Hill International, Oct. 19-22. "He has an amazing jump and he is a machine on cross country," said Butts, who has also trained with Phillip Dutton in the past.

Karen O’Connor not only earned a third in the two-star at the Florida Horse Park, she also claimed the top spot in the one-star and second place in the Advanced Combined Test. "I was lucky," she explained modestly.

Her "luck" had her and Mandiba in the lead following each portion of the one-star and earned her the overall win by almost a full 10 points. In the Combined Test, she and Upstage came in second by about a quarter of a point, and in the two-star, she and Lets Make A Deal were only three-tenths of a point behind second place.

"You should talk to Teresa (Loughlin), she does all (Lets Make A Deal’s) conditioning and schooling," said O’Connor with a smile. And, "Teresa is going to take the reins back at some point here and carry on." Loughlin owns and competed Lets Make A Deal up through Intermediate, before turning him over to O’Connor in February for a spell. She debated riding him at the Florida Horse Park CCI**, but had her decision made for her.

"We played Paper, Rock, Scissors on Monday to see who was going to ride him," laughed O’Connor. "I won."

O’Connor said Loughlin "is exceptional at finding horses that need retraining and then retraining them," and Lets Make A Deal was no exception. An American Thoroughbred, Lets Make A Deal is a former racehorse a friend in Chicago found for her. "I bought him sight unseen," said Loughlin, because my friend said, "this one had a face like a princess, an ass like a washer woman and a walk like a hooker. That is a saying by Woody Stephens, a famous Thoroughbred trainer."

Karen O'Connor of Ocala, FL

He is a really special horse, said O’Connor. He is a beautiful mover, a scopey jumper, fast on the cross-country track and he has a personality that expects attention. "He is not a high-maintenance horse, but he is highly expressive and wants to be part of everything. He is a great personality to work with; very smart and personable and loving. You’d want to marry him if he was a person," she laughed. "He’d make a great husband!"

O’Connor complimented the course designers at the Florida Horse Park, as well. "They have made a huge effort trying to build complexes that involve an undulation of the ground," which is not easy, considering it is Florida. "Between the two of them (David O’Connor and Capt. Mark Phillips), they have done a great job. Frankly, kudos to David for designing the original courses that Mark has continued to use now that he is in the driver’s seat in the course design," said a proud wife.

The two-star course was 4,537 meters (2.82 miles), featured 25 obstacles, many of which required multiple efforts and had a time limit of 16 minutes 30 seconds.

For full results of the Florida International CCI**/CCI* 3-Day Event, visit www.flhorsepark.com.

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