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He was talking about winner Ashlee Bond, who couldn’t keep her eyes dry as she recounted delivering her first child just four months ago.
Ashlee had good reason to tear up, and so did the show promoter. Talking about second place finisher Audrey Coulter and third place rider Lane Clarke, Tom recounted how he felt each was part of the HITS family.
He remembered Ashlee as a 7-year old pony rider at his shows, Lane and his farrier parents as long time HITS supporters and sitting at press conferences with Audrey and her younger sister Saer several times.
“How lucky am I?” he asked. “This is an interesting group we have sitting here.” Ashlee stated when described as a “kid,” but she and Lane are early 30-somethings, Audrey is 25 and they represent a generation of Jumpers that’s come of age at the HITS Desert Circuit in California.
“This place catapulted my career,” said Ashlee, describing the experience of tackling her first big league tracks against big league riders on her first big league horse, Cadett 7.
“I went to my first World Cup Finals (in 2009) off of that, and that propelled me to Europe.”
She cried then, too, but Saturday’s win may be more emotional.
In 2015, Chela was brought to death’s door by a staph infection in both hocks. She was nursed back to health, but without an indicator whether she would ever be sound again, let alone return to the international level.
As Chela emerged from her health crisis, Ashlee was out of the saddle for happier reasons: her first pregnancy, and the birth of her daughter Scottia. Within two weeks, she was back in the saddle again. “Don’t tell my doctor!” she pleads.
But with so little time back riding, she came to Thermal thinking “We’d just be getting our feet wet again.”
Riding first in a field of 23, she and Chela were clean and conservative, slightly exceeding the initial time allowed until it was expanded after the third pair tackled the course.
Audrey and Lane were also clean, as was a fourth West Coast young gun, 27 year old Karl Cook. Ashlee returned first in the four-way jump off, again riding clean and conservatively. That wound up holding up for the win as Audrey and Alex took down a fence and Lane, Balu, Karl and Tembla each took two.
Asked if motherhood might curtail her international riding career, Ashlee said the opposite would be true. “I want to show my daughter that women can do anything!”
Little Scottia seems destined to be the next generation to grow up on the HITS Thermal circuit. She has already sat atop some of Ashlee’s steadier mounts, along with her golden lab, and a dependable pony, Skittles, is already on loan from fellow grand prix rider Mark Watring.
“She seems to really like it!” Ashlee asserts. Smiling in the background at that comment is Ashlee’s dad, Steve Bond, an accomplished horseman himself and the reason that Ashlee’s horses stayed in form throughout her pregnancy.
As the World Cup qualifier win was beyond Ashlee’s wildest expectations this season, a return to the World Cup Finals this year is not in the cards. But young Californians will be well represented at the Omaha Finals by Audrey Coulter and Karl Cook, carrying the flag for the region that launched their successful but still young careers.
Text by Kim F. Miller
Images by Amy K. Dragoo