Featuring among the star-studded entry list for this year’s Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, presented by MARS Equestrian, are several riders who are making their return to the five-star level after multiple years away. The process of producing a five-star horse is painstaking at best, and it’s not uncommon to see riders reach the upper levels with one horse of a lifetime before experiencing a lull between horses.
For Idaho-based Sara Mittleider, who is 35 this year, the return to the five-star level comes after a gap of 11 years, throughout which are scattered the memories of horses lost too soon, injuries, and setbacks that many riders know all too well. After reaching the top of the sport with the $300 off-track Thoroughbred El Primero, Sara found herself wondering if her success had been a flash in the pan, a one-off. As she looks to her first start in the Bluegrass in over a decade, this time with The La Paz Group’s La Paz (Otangelo – Dos Opera, by Drossan), she took a few minutes to reflect on the intervening time with us.
“It’s definitely been a big gap (between five-stars),” she said. “(El Primero) came to me when I was so young, so I was really going off that naivete of ‘Of course he can do it, why couldn’t he?’ So having the knockdowns in between him and now kind of tweaked my mentality and had me questioning if I could compete at the level again.”
El Primero, a crowd favorite in his own right, certainly set the bar high for Sara, who with “Tony” became the youngest rider to complete the then four-star Kentucky Three-Day at the age of 19 in 2005. The two would go on to complete Kentucky three more times, finishing in 12th as their personal best at the level in 2007.
Sara and El Primero would finish 18th at Kentucky in 2010, their final start at the level. In 2015, the diminutive gelding with a heart the size of the jumps he flew over passed away at the age of 20.
Young, talented horses would come up to fill El Primero’s shoes, but as the story so often goes, life got in the way. After the particularly untimely loss of her next rising star, Code Name, Sara found herself questioning her path in the sport.
“I was sure (Code Name) would be the next special horse,” she recalled. “Then I had another horse, Harry Houdini, who proved challenging to keep sound for the sport. So there was a lull there where it felt like setback after setback happened in the span of eight months. It really did a number on me and had me wondering if I wanted to do this still.”
Happenstance would bring Sara to southern California in 2015, to the home of Terry and Linda Paine at Kingsway Farm. There, their star mare, Gin & Juice, formerly piloted by Hawley Bennett-Awad, had initially been retired but at the age of 16 had shown no desire to hang up her horseshoes. The Paines floated an idea by Sara: would she like to take the ride on Gin & Juice? Starting out with just exercise and evolving into returning to the then three-star level, as it turns out, was the spark Sara needed to rekindle her love of the game, the antidote to the self-doubt that had crept its way in.
“‘Ginny’ came along in the twilight of her career and kind of transformed me,” Sara said. “I refound the love of the upper levels and the teamwork to be able to get there. That was really a turning point for me mentally, to dig deeper and get back there.”
Retrospectively, perhaps all of these experiences were setting Sara up for something bigger and greater. Something that looked a lot like a dark bay Hungarian Sport Horse named La Paz, born the year that Sara and El Primero completed their final four-star.
Imported as a four-year-old for a student, “Muki” was a powerful jumper in a smaller package. Proving to be more ride than the younger student needed at the time, Sara agreed to take him on to give him some mileage and move him up the levels.
The now 11-year-old gelding has a tricky personality, Sara says, and it’s taken some time to get his confidence brimming and ready for the top level. “He’s very emotional and insecure, and when he gets insecure he jumps bigger and bolder and he would get himself into tricky situations,” she explained. “So he had some blips through his career where we were wondering whether he’d be up for it or not. Funny enough, moving up to the Advanced level, where it was like the jumps and distances matched his scope better, things really clicked.”
Sara and La Paz have spent the last two seasons honing their skills at the Advanced and four-star levels, and she says her experience riding around Derek di Grazia’s courses on the West coast through the years has her feeling good about her preparation. In 2019, Sara and El Paz claimed the CCI4*-L victory at the Galway Downs fall international and followed up on that result with a trip to the East coast in 2020, where they finished in the top 20 in Tryon’s CCI4*-L last fall. “Of course, you never know with a rookie horse whether they’re a five-star horse until you’re at a five-star, but I feel that Muki is ready and feeling confident this year,” she said.
Though her path back to the Bluegrass has been long and winding, Sara says she’s feeling prepared and ready to make her return to the five-star level at long last. “It was super unexpected for it to be this long and this difficult getting back,” she said ruefully. “But we’re on track and Leslie Law has been helping us in our prep.”
It’s a family affair for Sara, whose parents are heavily involved in training and running the business in Idaho and whose husband, Attila Rajnai, is also an eventer. “I’m very lucky to have my family,” she said. “They really rallied behind me to allow me to pursue this goal with Muki, and it’s been a long road getting back to this point, so I’m looking forward to finally getting there after all this time.”