It’s going to be a very exciting season for Julie Richards as she welcomes the 2012 Adelaide CCI4* winner Sandhills Brillaire into her barn. The coming 14-year-old Thoroughbred/warmblood mare catapulted herself into the spotlight when she won Australia’s CCI4* event in 2012 with Craig Barrett — at both of their four-star debuts, no less.
Now owned by Equine Olympic Investments, “Sparkle” has settled in beautifully at Julie’s farm in Newnan, Georgia, and they’re preparing to compete in their first event together at Rocking Horse Winter I H.T. in Florida later this month. As the new syndicate’s name suggests, Julie, a two-time U.S. Olympian and team bronze medalist, is hoping to make a run at qualifying for Rio.
It’s not every day that a CCI4* winner changes hands, so how is that Sparkle found herself in America? Rewinding to last fall, Julie wasn’t exactly in the market for an upper-level horse. She had just lost Sher Schwartz’s Beaulieu’s Cayenne to a pasture accident after successfully competing the mare through the CCI3* level and qualifying her for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
In addition, Asa Cooper’s Urlanmore Beauty, with whom Julie won the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI2* in 2014, sustained a tendon injury early in the 2015 season, which curtailed his chances at qualifying for Rolex last year. As Julie put it, “I started the 2015 season with two horses I thought would be qualified for Rolex the following year and ended the season with none.”
It was a very sad time for Julie’s team after Cayenne’s death, and it certainly wasn’t what she expected when the Richards family approached her and said they wanted to buy her a going horse to keep her dream of returning to the Olympic Games alive. “I hadn’t been actively looking for owners, so I was really surprised,” Julie said. “They told me to just see what was out there.”
A Winning Record
Not only did Craig Barrett win his four-star debut with Sandhills Brillaire — making history in the process — but he also bred her and successfully competed her parents. Sparkle is a standout testimony to the Sandhills breeding program, which Craig and his wife, Prue, run in New South Wales, Australia.
Sparkle’s sire is the registered Australian Warmblood stallion Staccato, by the KWPN stallion Salute, who sired multiple Grand Prix dressage horses in Australia, such as GV Stirling Stilton and Victory Salute. Craig competed Staccato at the upper levels of eventing, included completing the Adelaide CCI3* in 2002.
Staccato, now 24 years old, still stands at Sandhills and has sired many upper-level event horses, including another Adelaide CCI4* winner in Panamera, who took the title the year before Sparkle in 2011 with Stuart Tinney in the irons.
Out of the Thoroughbred mare Sandhills Glimmer, Sparkle is well bred to succeed in eventing, with nearly 80 percent Thoroughbred blood in her pedigree. Sandhills Glimmer’s sire Galverston is by Sir Ivor, a renowned sire of excellent jumpers, and she’s out of the Australian Thoroughbred mare Nijibuena, by Nijinsky’s Way.
In addition to winning Adelaide in 2012, Craig and Sparkle garnered numerous other top three-star and four-star placings in Australia, including placing in the top 10 at the Sydney CCI3* on four separate occasions, plus finishing third in a return trip to Adelaide CCI4* in 2013.
It came as no surprise then that Craig and Sparkle were long listed in 2014 for Australia’s World Equestrian Games squad. But an unfortunate bout of cellulitis and subsequent infection ultimately stymied the mare’s chance at representing Australia on the world stage in Normandy.
After giving Sparkle a lengthy period of time off to recover, she came back into work in early 2015, and Craig and Prue’s teenage son Oliver started riding the mare, even taking her to some local Pony Club events to stretch her legs. (Click here to see a video of Oliver schooling Sparkle on the flat.)
As Sparkle had already garnered the highest honor in Australia by winning Adelaide, her owners, Keith and Juliet Osborne, decided it was time to give another rider a chance to enjoy her talents, and that’s how it came about that the mare ended up for sale.
Phillip Dutton knew Sparkle was on the market, so when Julie mentioned her search for an Olympic prospect, it seemed like they could be the right match. “Phillip had never seen her but knew she was a quality horse. Since she was older, I wasn’t sure, but I looked at the video,” Julie said.
“I immediately liked what I saw right away. I like mares. My riding style isn’t dominant, and I can get along with any horse, but I can’t stand strong horses. I liked that she didn’t look strong on cross country at all. She would lope down to the jumps with a big loop in the reins, and you could keep galloping at the jumps.”
The next natural step was for Julie to get on a plane to Australia to ride Sparkle before deciding whether to buy her, and she had other decisions weighing on her mind, too. As an FEI Category D rider, Julie knew she would need to complete a very specific sequence of events with the mare in order to qualify to compete at one of the remaining U.S. Olympic selection trials in the spring.
In looking into potential flights to the U.S. for Sparkle with TRI, an equine transport company, Julie was told only two flights were available: one in October 2015 and one in January 2016. Julie knew that if she liked Sparkle and wanted to move ahead with buying her, the mare would need to be on that October flight in order to make Olympic qualification feasible.
With a plan in place, Julie prepared to travel to Australia. But then the universe threw a wrench into her plans: She suddenly came down with a terrible case of the flu, plus food poisoning, that left her barely able to get out of bed for 10 days. “I kept saying that I had to ride the horse before we bought her, but I also couldn’t stand the idea of getting on a plane for 16 hours in that condition,” Julie said.
Instead Phillip arranged for the mare to ship to Shane Rose’s base at Bimbadeen Park in New South Wales, where Shane could take additional video for Julie and offer another perspective on the horse. “Shane loved her and told us that she was super trained and sweet and quiet,” Julie said. “The bigger you asked her to jump, the better she went.”
A New Partnership
Sparkle passed her vetting, and that was that. The Richards family purchased Sparkle without Julie ever sitting on her or even seeing her, and the mare landed on U.S. soil the first week in October 2015. “It was a little bit nerve-wracking when she came to the farm and I sat on her for the first time, but she was great,” Julie said.
While her end goal is to qualify for Rio, Julie said her main focus right now is building a partnership with Sparkle. “I’m trying not to put a ton of pressure on myself or her because that never works. I’ve jumped a lot of big jumps and been around a lot of big tracks, and she doesn’t need a lot of practice doing that either. We just need to develop a good partnership.”
After making their debut at Rocking Horse in two weeks, Julie plans to aim Sparkle for Pine Top CIC2*, Red Hills CIC2*, Ocala Horse Properties CCI2* and, if all goes well, Carolina International CIC3*. Obtaining a qualifying score at Carolina would set them up to compete at one of the remaining U.S. Olympic selection trials at the CCI3* level.
In the meantime, Julie has been diligently building Sparkle’s fitness program. They’ve cross country schooled several times to prepare for Rocking Horse, and Julie said she’s excited to get out and compete the mare. Most of all, she’s thrilled that buying Sparkle sight unseen from the other side of the world worked out so well.
“It couldn’t have been a better experience. There were no surprises at all, and Craig and Prue were wonderful throughout the whole process. Sparkle was even better than I thought she would be, and Craig told me every tiny thing about her so I knew exactly what to expect,” Julie said.
“Having a horse like this keeps you going. We all work hard, especially this time of year, so when you have something special like that in the barn to wake up to every day it makes it a lot more fun. I’m lucky that I have such a good family and people behind me to support me and see where it goes.”