The year was 2014. The eventing season was winding down for the year, and young rider Alex Ahearn called her coach at the time, Tamie Smith. Would Tamie like to join her and her mother, Ellen, for dinner?
While at dinner, Alex laid out her grand plan.
“I want to go to college,” Alex, who was 19 at the time, told Tamie. “And you need a great horse.”
That “great horse” was a tall, lanky black German-bred gelding, originally sourced by Alex’s family via Michele Pestl. His name was Mai Baum (Loredano – Ramira, by Leoni), and now, a few years later, on a dazzling Sunday afternoon in Lexington, KY, he and Tamie Smith captured the victory in the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, presented by MARS Equestrian, becoming the first U.S. winner since Phillip Dutton’s victory in 2008 and the first female winner since Mary King (2011).
Alex had competed the gelding herself through what is now the CCI3* level, climbing from the Junior Beginner Novice ranks onward. He also was a graduate of the USEA Young Event Horse program, having competed with Michelle Pestl to begin his career in the U.S. first. Now feeling her priorities and focus shift, she made the offer of a lifetime to Tamie.
“I actually tried to talk her out of it several times for a couple months,” Tamie recalled. “I was like, ‘No, why don’t you just pump the brakes. You don’t know what you’re saying to me right now!’ She actually said ‘America needs this great horse.'”
Mai Baum was qualified for the Advanced level by the time Tamie took the reins, and within a few months they’d already collected a string of wins at the Intermediate and Advanced levels. A year later, Tamie definitively put Mai Baum on the international radar with an emotional and emphatic win at Fair Hill’s then-CCI3*. One would be forgiven for assuming that from there, Tamie went on to take “Lexus” to his first CCI5*. But in fact, the gelding’s debut at the uppermost level would be delayed, set back by injury that would keep him from competing at the Advanced level for three seasons.
As a result, it wouldn’t be until 2021 that Mai Baum made his long-awaited debut at the level — and he may have even won there in his debut, had it not been for an ill-timed frangible pin penalty on the latter third of the cross country course. Tamie regrouped and aimed for Badminton in 2022, where she finished ninth overall. The pair were subsequently named to the U.S. team for the FEI World Championships for Eventing in Pratoni del Vivaro, where they contributed to a team silver medal.
But Tamie knew there was more to come.
“I wasn’t certain whether it would ever happen, but I just wanted him to have his moment in the sun a bit, and today he did,” Tamie said. “He’s missed out a few times even though he’s been very competitive on the world stage. I feel like it eluded him, and I’m just more happy for him because I think he is unbelievable; he’s an unbelievable creature.”
Tamie admitted on Saturday that she was more nervous that she typically is ahead of today’s show jumping finale — and for good reason. For the first time in 15 years, a U.S. rider was leading the charge following cross country — but while she had the lead, it wasn’t by much. Just 3.6 penalties separated her and second-placed Tom McEwen (GB) and JL Dublin — and then Tom cantered in and laid down a fault-free round, and the pressure was on.
“To be completely honest, I was quite nervous going into the show jumping with him today, because I had an uncharacteristic two rails at the World Championships,” Tamie said. “I was in bronze medal position at that moment and ended up losing that and moving down to ninth. When you’re on a horse that show jumps as well as he does, and then you have two down, you just know that sometimes the odds are just a little bit against you — I mean, he hadn’t had a rail in a few years.”
Here, Tamie credits her show jumping coach, Scott Keach, for his help to get her into the right space to go in and perform under the crushing pressure. “Scott Keach, who I show jump with, has been instrumental in the progression of myself — [he helped me with] just kind of keeping my cool and understanding how to stay in the moment, and to care enough but not care too much. I think he helped me learn that it was my job to ride him in the right way, and it was his job to jump the jumps, and I’m just glad he did. I’m glad he felt really healthy and strong and full of it, and I think he knew the crowd was there. I feel like everybody carried me over that whole show jump course.”
She needn’t have worried. A pin could have been heard falling in the sold-out Rolex Stadium as Tamie and Mai Baum ticked off fence by fence on Steve Stephens’ challenging track that had elicited more than a few heartbreaker rails. As she cleared the final oxer, she punched the air. The stadium erupted — and a new U.S. champion was born. Tamie added no penalties to her initial dressage mark of 24.2.
“I think all of us have been rooting for an American to win the Land Rover Kentucky Five-Star for a very long time,” Tamie said. “Phillip brought it here in 2008 and we’ve been so close so many times — I know Boyd, a few times — I think everybody’s just so grateful. I’m so happy an American won, because I’m so tired of the Europeans coming over and taking our national championship! We all have our own struggles in this sport, and we’ve all had our own ups and downs in anything at elite level — I envision that picture of the iceberg and the little tip is poking out but the bottom underneath is massive — and the struggle is a lot. In this sport, as everybody knows, you take a beating, and the resilient ones just keep coming back for more. You hope that one day it pays off, and today it did. I’m honored, and I’m elated, and I’m so excited, and I’m a bit speechless, honestly.”
International Stars Hit the Board
Tom McEwen enjoyed a fruitful first trip to the Bluegrass State with former Nicola Wilson ride JL Dublin (Diarado – Zarinna, by Cantano), who added just some time on cross country to his starting mark to finish second in his first CCI5* completion on a score of 27.8. For Tom, the weekend has been proof and validation of the hard work Nicola Wilson put into the 12-year-old Holsteiner gelding owned by Jo and James Lambert and Deirdre Johnston. After the 2019 European Champion had a bad accident at Badminton in 2022, prompting her retirement from the sport, JL Dublin was transferred to Tom’s Gloucestershire yard.
“He’s the most phenomenal horse,” Tom said after his fault-free show jumping round. “I’m delighted. It’s sort of a bit of a dream, but the next step is to come back and go one better which for sure we can definitely do.”
“It’s all thanks to Nicola’s amazing training and the partnership they’ve had,” Tom had told us earlier in the week. “With Dubs, he’s been so beautifully trained — everyone’s been such a help; we’ve stuck with the same trainer, so everything stays the same as everyone knows him — so it’s basically just following on, because with the amazing training I’m just going to pick up the reins. It has of course taken a few months — but actually it’s been since Boekelo, so however long that’s been — and a bit of winter training, so we’ve gotten to know each other definitely, we’ve learned to understand each other, and also what makes him tick at a show.”
Finishing fourth in her first trip to Kentucky with Pratoni mount, Nikolaus Prinz von Croy’s Viamant du Matz (Diamant de Semilly – Heralina X, by Voltigeur le Malin X), is 2014 World Champion Sandra Auffarth, who also finished on her dressage mark (30.4) after adding no jumping or time penalties in the final two phases.
“It was a super round for my horse in super atmosphere — it was very cool to ride here in the stadium,” Sandra said after her round. “He’s a good jumper, and so I’m very happy that he can hold that at the five-star level as well. I need to train a little bit more dressage, I would say! I do step by step, so I wanted to see how he does at this competition. Maybe we go to Aachen next.”
With this competitive placing, Sandra isn’t quite thinking ahead to this summer’s European Championships at Haras du Pin yet, but Viamant du Matz has shown his prowess for a challenge. Sandra should find herself well-mounted with both this horse as well as the worth-watching 10-year-old Polish Sport Horse, Rosveel — with whom she was ninth at Boekelo in 2022 — should the German selectors call her name come August.
French Olympian Maxime Livio climbed the board after initially starting in 20th position to finish the weekend in sixth place with the second-time CCI5* starter Carouzo Bois Marotin (Kannan GFE – Orchidee de Mai, by Flipper d’Elle). This was Maxime’s first trip to Kentucky since he finished second here with Qalao de Mers in 2017.
“I am very happy because he’s a super jumper, but this time he really stayed with me, even with the great atmosphere,” Maxime told the media. “When he’s connected to me, then he’s quite easy to ride. My feeling was, ‘don’t worry, I won’t touch any fence’ — it was a really great pleasure.”
The 11-year-old French-bred gelding debuted at the 5* level at Pau in 2022, where he finished seventh overall. “One day I will have a super score in dressage and I will be at the top of the list at the end because he’s got the ability in the three phases. I think with more and more experience, he will start to be a crazy top eventer and I’ll go back home with the feeling that I can even do more and more and better and better with him. [This gives us] plenty of confidence, and I’m very thankful to my owners [S.C. Soixante Seize Et Compagnie, Gilles Saiagh, and Celine Fronteau], who trust the horse and my work since a long time with him. They know how difficult it was at the beginning, so it’s a big success with them.”
Liz Halliday-Sharp and Miks Master C Step Onto the Podium
I’ve written a lot this week about the concept of bringing a talented prospect to its first 5* event, and the fact that one doesn’t really know they have a 5* horse until, well, they have a 5* horse. Liz Halliday-Sharp came to Kentucky with debutant Miks Master C, owned by Ocala Horse Properties and Debbie Palmer, with a plan in mind to be as competitive as she could be. And once she got out on cross country on Saturday, she knew she was sitting on a horse she could ask just a little bit more of.
“Oh my gosh, he is the most amazing horse,” an elated Liz said after show jumping concluded. “For him to come in here and do his first five-star and finish as he did — so strong and and fresh and everything — I think he’s a Burghley, Badminton horse as well, and I hope he will be my Olympic horse. I very much hope. I just think the world of him, and he’s such a kind, generous horse and gave everything.”
It’s an impressive feat for Liz, who received a call from “Mickey’s” breeder, U.S.-based Laurie Cameron (who had not just one, but two horses competing in this weekend’s CCI5* — Sydney Solomon’s Early Review CBF was the other), in 2022.
“I was really excited to see [Laurie] and give her a big hug when we finished,” Liz said. “We were joking, because it was less than a year ago that she called me out of the blue and said, ‘Hi, my name is Laurie Cameron. Do you know my horse Miks Master C?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know who he is.’ She said, ‘I wonder if you’d take the ride on him?’ and that was the start of my partnership with him. She had ultimately wanted to sell him, and I was extremely lucky to have my wonderful owners who made it possible for me to keep the ride on him. It’s hard to believe it’s less than a year ago, still.”
Their partnership got off to a cracking start, with Liz winning her first start aboard the Swedish Warmblood gelding in Bromont’s CCI2*-L last June. At that point, Liz noted, the gelding needed to build some strength in his body in order to keep progressing to the top level. And at each event, Liz has remarked on his progression and his strength. It’s difficult not to imagine where this partnership will be in another year — which, incidentally, will be around the time Paris Olympic selections are happening.
Liz credits show jumping coach Peter Wylde with much of her recent success in the final phase, as well as Erik Duvander for his help on cross country and with general development. “[Peter is] amazing. I have the Dream Team — between him and Erik, and Shelly Francis helps me on the flat now, I’ve just got a really great group,” she elaborated on Saturday after cross country. “They really fight for me too, and that’s important. They believe in me, and we work as a team and that makes it that much better.”
Tamie Smith was quick to also sing the praises of former USEF Eventing High Performance Director Erik Duvander, who has continued to help riders such as Tamie, Liz, and Boyd Martin since vacating his post in 2021. When asked about what it meant for two U.S. riders — with a 17-year-old horse and an 11-year-old horse between them — to hit the podium in this National 5* Championship, she said: “I think what it says is that Erik Duvander came into our our program going on six years ago now, and he put blood, sweat, and tears into U.S. eventing. I think it’s a culmination of his dedication and hard work. I think what you’re seeing is kind of the fruits of his labor, and ours as well. He came to our sport and there was a lot to fill in. I said to him today — when he first met me six years ago, I was kind of this gruff… you know, we won’t talk about it — I said, ‘Did you ever think…?’ and he said, ‘I always had faith.’ We kind of joked about it, but honestly, that man — for what he has done for our country in our sport, we really have a lot to thank him for.”
Other Notes: Z Has a Banner Weekend; Chin Tonic is a 5* Horse
Phillip Dutton was elated about the performance of the Z Partnership’s Z (Mighty Magic – Qui Lumba CBF, by Quite Easy), who jumped two nearly fault-free rounds (he added one second of time on cross country Saturday) to wind up fifth overall. “I am thrilled with that,” Phillip said of his show jumping. “He just keeps getting better and better with age, like some of us!”
This is Z’s sixth 5* event, and Phillip says the 15-year-old Zangersheide gelding knows his job better than ever now. “He kind of knows his job now. Even today, it was unheard of for him to be able to trot into the arena like that. Not long ago, he would’ve been cantering sideways. So he’s starting to be a really great horse, understanding each phase and what they’ve got to be. He’s really understanding that now.” Phillip says he wouldn’t mind getting selected to go to CHIO Aachen at the end of June as a potential next goal for 2023 with Z.
The Off the Record Syndicate’s Off the Record (Arkansas VDL – Drumagoland Bay, by Ard Ohio) lowered one rail — “I was the only one in the top ten not to jump clear!” Will Coleman lamented after the show jumping concluded — to finish seventh on a score of 35.6. “I think a lot of them; after yesterday they’re not their normal selves. The atmosphere can make some of them a little fractious, and he was one of them. He was just a little tight and not quite as loose and comfortable in his jump as he can be. I just got into the triple a little quieter than I wanted to. It’s not the end of the world.”
Looking to Will’s 5* debutant-no-more, Hyperion Stud’s Chin Tonic HS (Chin Champ – Wildera, by Quinar), a clear show jumping round moved the pair into 11th overall — a stellar result for a first-time attempt, particularly given the fact that Will opted not to push to get close to the time on Saturday’s cross country. “I think he grew up a lot in there, even from fence one to fence twelve,” he said. “High hopes for him in the future, and I’m really proud of both horses. I thought they both had great weekends. I think it was a pretty serious five-star for his first one, and the fact that he kept fighting all the way around bodes very, very well. We have work to do, but it’s a tremendous accomplishment for him at this stage of his career.”
This One’s for the Girls
Of all the Kentucky Three-Day Events I’ve worked in my tenure at EN, this might take the cake as the best. It’s one of those weekends you’ll be thinking about for weeks and months to come, and it’s one you use as the inspiration to be your best, at whatever endeavors you may choose.
During the final press conference, EN writer Veronica Green-Gott asked Tamie how it felt to be the newly-crowned idol for the young girls watching this weekend. Tamie thought for a moment before responding, as always taking the opportunity to crack a joke or two.
“That is the thing, it’s hard when you’re at this level. I don’t ever like to say that I’m weaker than a man — which most of them think I’m not — but there are the disadvantages of being a woman at this sport. Physically, men are stronger, but I think it’s even more special to show all of those little girls and women that it is possible. I mean, it wasn’t too long ago we were barefoot and pregnant in the field picking vegetables! It wasn’t that far ago. Not me! Anyway, it’s awesome. I think it’s super, but it just shows that anybody can do anything.”
>EN’s coverage of LRK3DE is brought to you thanks to support from Kentucky Performance Products and Zoetis Equine.