Nick Haness and McQueen Dazzle in $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular

February 18. 2024

World Championship Hunter Rider (WCHR) Week at the 2024 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) came to a peak on Saturday night. The country’s best hunter combinations went head-to-head in the $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular with a win for Nick Haness of Temecula, CA, and McQueen, owned by Walkenbach Equestrian, LLC. 

Andy Christiansen (ECU) designed the two-round class that allowed riders to show off their horses over a classic first round and then a handy track. The panel one judges consisted of Mark Jungherr and Mary Eufemia, panel two was Chris Wynne and Shane George, and panel three held Mary Lisa Leffler and Wendy Peralta. Entries for the ‘Saturday Night Lights’ class qualified by winning the champion title in their respective divisions at the 3’6” height or above.

Nick Haness & McQueen, winners of the $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular. Photo © Sportfot

From a 33-horse field at 3’6”, 3’9” and 4’ heights, 12 returned for the handy round. Haness and McQueen, a 10-year-old Cornet Obolensky Dutch Warmblood gelding posted a first round score just shy of the 90 mark, but returned for the handy and impressed the judges to earn a 93. Their two-round average of 91.81 clinched the leaders spot in the victory gallop.

The WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular is the highlight of WCHR Week at Wellington International each year and is a title that eluded Haness until this week. 

To win this class for me is very emotional and very exciting. I had a lot of support around the country watching the live stream – my mom was watching which brought me to tears after the class,” said Haness, who collected five champion titles during WEF 6. “McQueen has been a horse the last year that's been a strong partnership with me and I'm thrilled to add this to his list of amazing accomplishments.

“This year’s course was very ‘hunter-friendly’, so the judges could really judge the horses,” continued Haness. “It wasn't trappy or tricky or hard, it was a nice flowing course where we could showcase our horses in the best way.”

Haness continues to split his winter season between California and Florida, and this week McQueen did the same. After flying to Florida from Southern California last week, McQueen took Reserve Champion in the High Performance Conformation before winning the Spectacular. 

Nick Haness on McQueen with owner Paige Walkenbach are presented as winners of the $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular by Kevin Price, USHJA Executive Director; Carl Weeden, WCHR Task Force; and Kristin Rosenberg, USHJA Awards Coordinator. Photo © Sportfot

“Honestly, the two of us are kind of jet lagged together,” laughed Haness. 

The jetlag didn’t show as Haness and McQueen rode to the top of the class. For Haness, the atmosphere in the International Arena played a big part.  “As a rider, to feel this vibe; it's buzzing, the turnout was great, it makes you feel like your dreams are coming true. You watch the movies, you watch the Olympics and you see those stands so full. For the hunter sport, it's so important that we have that same experience.”

Riding a horse that is normally a mount of Haness, Kate Conover of Ocala, FL, piloted Queen Celeste to second with a two-round average of 90.78 for owner Glade Run Farm, LLC. Conover took over the rider duties for the feature class on Queen Celeste after Haness piloted the 13-year-old Holsteiner mare (Cassini I) to a tricolor in the 3’6” Performance Division during the week. 

“I’m Queen Celeste’s backup quarterback,” joked Conover. “I've shown her a few other times and her owners were gracious enough to let me ride her tonight. It was a huge opportunity to reunite with Queen because she's a dream come true for me to get the chance to ride. She has such a big heart. She was tired in this last round, but as soon as I put my leg on her first jump, she was on it. She fights to make every jump spectacular, and you can depend on her.”

Kate Conover & Queen Celeste. Photo © Sportfot

Conover was pre-qualified for the evening’s class, which took some pressure off. “This is the first time I've come here where I didn't have to qualify. It gave me a different kind of pressure during the week. There's no other atmosphere than riding in this ring with this many people for us as hunter riders.”

Rounding out the podium, John French of Wellington, FL, guided 2023 National Horse of the Year, Paradigm, to third. The 12-year-old Carrico gelding owned by Meredith Lipke finished on a two-round average of 89.75.

“He keeps doing more and more and impressing all the time,” said French of his mount. “He came along so quick right out of the jumper ring after coming over from Europe. He's not a horse that needs to get in the ring all the time; you can pull him out for the big class and he's super brave.”

Paradigm was the horse that helped French recuperate from a broken leg that led to a hip replacement almost two years ago. “He was the only horse I wanted to ride because of how comfortable his canter is. He’s methodical, so even if you're kind of nervous, you just sit down and he relaxes you.”

South Florida horse fans poured in at Wellington International on Saturday evening, delivering one of the biggest crowds WCHR Week has recently seen. “I've never seen so many people here before ever,” noted French. “It's a super special class under the lights in this big ring, and It's so nice when we get a chance to experience that.”

John French & Paradigm. Photo © Sportfot

Special Awards

Champion Equine Insurance Trophy as High-Score Developing Pro: Jordan Lubow, 88 in 3’ Green Stake

Peter Wetherill Cup as 2022 WCHR Hunter of the Year: McQueen

UHSJA Kavar Kerr Distinguished Service Award: Louise Riggio

Mark Gregory Memorial Award for Best Conditioned Horse: Reign ridden by Christopher Payne and groomed by Enrique Elizondo

Kiara Barnette Rider Style Award: Kate Conover

Charlie Weaver Memorial Award for Highest Scoring Conformation Horse: Nottingham, ridden by Scott Stewart and owned by Dr. Betsee Parker

Final Results: $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular

1. McQueen & Nick Haness
Owner: Walkenbach Equestrian, LLC
Average: 91.81

2. Queen Celeste & Kate Conover
Owner: Glade Run Farm, LLC
Average: 90.78

3. Paradigm & John French
Owner: Meredith Lipke
Average: 89.72

4. Babylon & John French
Owner: Marnell Sport Horses
Average: 89.25

5. Circa & Nick Haness
Owner: Glade Run Farm, LLC
Average: 88.08

6. Magic Moment & Kate Hagerty
Owner: The Hagerty Family
Average: 88.83

7. Damas de Tannerre & Kate Conover
Owner: Autumn Janesky
Average: 88.44

8. Catwalk & Greg Crolick
Owner: Renaud Farm, LLC
Average: 87.69

9. Knowingly & Vivian Yowan
Owner: Partridge Hill Equestrian LLC
Average: 84.83

10. Acclaim & Parker Peacock
Owner: Parker Peacock
Average: 84.94

11. Lafitte de Muze & Amanda Steege
Owner: Cheryl Olsten
Average: 59.11

12. Nottingham & Scott Stewart
Owner: Dr. Betsee Parker
Average: 56.78