A Coincidental Coming Together of Talents

A bittersweet win ... Photo by Jenni Autry.

A bittersweet win … Photo by Jenni Autry.

As I think about Tamie Smith’s bittersweet win yesterday in the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI3*, I keep coming back to something William Micklem told me in an interview this past January about the state of U.S. eventing as a whole and how to get Team USA back on the podium.

William pointed out that the “coincidental coming together of talents” of riders like Mike Plumb, Jimmy Wofford and Bruce Davidson launched the golden period of U.S. eventing. Pairing those riders with horses like Plain Sailing, Kilkenny and Irish Cap — all names that now appear in the USEA Hall of Fame — secured numerous medals for the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.

That’s why “spotting and developing the really special once-in-a-lifetime partnerships” is so important, William said. Indeed, in a sport that’s ruled by fractions and inches, it seems appropriate that winning medals can come down to one special horse coming together with one special rider at the right moment in time to make history.

Neither William nor I knew at the time we had that conversation that Tamie was about to take over the ride on Mai Baum, a striking 9-year-old German Sport Horse gelding previously campaigned by her student Alex Ahearn, who owns the horse with Ellen Ahearn and Eric Markell.

Hugs all around from owners Alex and Ellen Ahearn. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Hugs all around from owners Alex and Ellen Ahearn. Photo by Jenni Autry.

In the past eight months since she started competing “Lexus,” Tamie successfully moved him up to the Advanced level and never looked back. They’ve now won three CIC3* events and one CCI3* event in a row, with this latest victory crowning them the Dutta Corp/USEF Three-Star Eventing National Champions.

Success like that doesn’t happen by accident. Tamie has logged countless miles through the air and on the road this year as she’s bounced back and forth between her base on the West Coast and the biggest events on the East Coast, racking up top placings on her ever-expanding string of talented horses like Fleeceworks Royal, Dempsey and Fleur de Lis.

She’s been cool under pressure, shown poise and polish in the tack, been gracious when she didn’t achieve the dreams she initially hoped to and fierce in pursuing the new goals she created as a result.

When I gave her a heads up early last week that EN was predicting her to win Fair Hill — Lexus’ CCI3* debut and her first time competing in the CCI3* at the event since 2007 — she said, “Well, I’d like to win and win by a lot, so bring it on.”

We didn’t know then that Tamie would ultimately end up competing during one of the toughest weekends of her life.

"A brother — not by blood, but by love and friendship."

“My brother — not by blood, but by love and friendship.”

Her dear friend Dylan Morris, who she grew up with and was always like a brother to her, was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer two years ago. Tamie regularly shared updates about him: “Taking Dylan to chemotherapy today!” “Doctors are trying a new drug, really hope it works.” “Brother isn’t feeling so great today.”

As Fair Hill kicked off last week, it suddenly became apparent that Dylan’s battle with cancer was coming to an end. Dylan’s sister Heather, who was entered to compete Charlie Tango in the CCI2*, withdrew before dressage and flew home to California on Friday morning to say goodbye.

Dylan told Tamie to “go and win.” That’s exactly what she set out to do with Lexus, taking the early lead in dressage on a personal best score of 38.5 and holding it with the second fastest clear round inside the time on cross country.

While we all hoped Dylan would hang on long enough for Tamie to make it back to California after the event to say goodbye to “Brother,” he passed away early yesterday morning before show jumping. He was 35 years old.

Love for the "Black Stallion." Photo by Jenni Autry.

Love for the “Black Stallion.” Photo by Jenni Autry.

Though they had a rail in hand, Tamie and Lexus didn’t need it. Despite the heartache, Tamie piloted the horse to a clear round to clinch the biggest win of her career. She accepted the resulting slew of ribbons, trophies and prizes through her tears.

A relatively new ride for her, the horse’s first CCI3*, an event that’s called “Mini Rolex” for a reason — Tamie and Lexus’ win would have been impressive without the added heartbreak. To lead wire-to-wire in the wake of gut-wrenching grief is nothing short of inspirational.

So much has to go right in this sport of highs and lows to achieve success, much less dominate in the way Tamie and Lexus did at Fair Hill. That’s why it’s so moving to watch one special horse coming together with one special rider at the right moment in time — the once-in-a-lifetime partnerships.

We witnessed something remarkable in Maryland.

In memory of Dylan Morris