James Alliston – in depth

I wanted to interview James for a couple of reasons; I’d spoken to the three other Brits competing at Rolex, and certainly didn’t want to leave one out, and until this week he was something of a dark horse.  Now having finished Rolex, his first four star, with two horses, also debuting at this level in the top 20, you can expect everyone to be talking about him. 

First things first; how does a nice Gloucestershire boy end up in California? 
James:   “Well, I came here to America for my gap year to work for Bruce Davidson, and then I went back to college, but every holiday I kept coming back to Bruce’s.  I’d wanted to travel, I don’t really speak another language very well, so America seemed logical, and Bruce is probably the most well-known American rider there is.  When I graduated I worked there for a couple of years, and now I’m in California, I’ve been there for a year and a bit.  I’m really fortunate, I’d never met the people who own the place where I’m at right now, but they rang me up and flew me out to look at the facility which is pretty unbelievable. They’re very supportive and help me out however they can, they like to come to these big shows, and things like that, so I feel very lucky. In England there’s a hundred, or probably more, people like me trying to make it in the sport, and it’s just very competitive, and tough to make it there because there are so many good people; whereas in California there’s a smaller pool of riders so it probably is easier for me to make a living out of it.  I got a great start with Bruce on the east coast, I got to ride a lot of horses, and compete, and got plenty of mileage under my belt.” 
It’s a big move for a 26 year old to be breaking out on his own halfway across the world, and I asked James if that had made him nervous, to leave Bruce for the West Coast.
James:  “It’s nice, I like it a lot, the people are really friendly. Obviously you have to do a bit of traveling to get to the events, that’s one downside of it, because California’s such a big state, but it’s fun.” 
James had a good spring preparation for Rolex, finishing 3rd at the Galway Downs CIC 3* on Jumbo’s Jake, and winning the Advanced on Parker. Jumbo’s Jake, belongs to James’ girlfriend India McEvoy, and finished 17th. 
James:  “I was a bit gutted that we had a stop going into the water for the last time, I was kicking myself about that, because he was going really well, pretty quick for him, and I think I would have been somewhere near the time.  India is from California originally,but I knew her from the East Coast. She moved to vet school, to Davis, so I guess that was another reason for me to go out there! India still rides Jake, and after Rolex she’ll ride him this summer, and when she goes back to vet school I’ll take over again probably. It will be good for him to do a  few lower level shows because he’s a very careful horse, and those were big jumps for him yesterday, so it will be nice just to get his confidence back a little bit.”  
James’ other horse Parker jumped clear and quite fast cross country (2.8 time faults) but had two rails down on sunday. 
James:  “He’s only 9 years old, so I think the dressage will still improve over time, he’s not a wonderful mover but he’s a great jumping horse.” 
I asked James to describe his base in California, Gracelands Equestrian Centre. 
James:   “It’s set on 90 acres, and there’s a hundred stables; I have 50 of them and a hunter/jumper trainer has the other 50 of them. We have a riding school with ponies, which is the main source of income, but there’s also the breeding programme, and we sell most of our horses – a lot of them I haven’t really wanted to sell but you have to try and make ends meet.  We have a little bit of turnout but the breeding operation takes most of the fields, so we don’t turn them out much, but it’s also a little different from England and the East Coast in that there’s really no grass in the summer and they’re just turned out on dirt, so we don’t really do it that much.  We’re going to get a horse walker, which will help. I have a two minute, pretty steep gallop, so that’s almost perfect. I wish I’d gone up it a few more times with Jake actually! You don’t really know until you come here, I guess…He did his 3* at Galway which was flat ground, and he did it really easily, but I’d never been to Kentucky so I didn’t realise it was up and down as it was, I had no idea. I expected it to be more flat parkland a bit like Badminton, but not at all, it’s quite deceptive, when you ride it you feel like you’re going up hills for a lot of the way. Next time we’ll have him a bit fitter.”
At the completion of Rolex, Chuck Moore, who owns Gracelands Equestrian Centre with his wife, Peggy, saw me talking to James and came over afterwards to chat. He wanted to say how impressed they are with James as a rider, a professional and a young man. He told me they had been looking for some time for someone to fill the position at Gracelands, and that James was a perfect fit; that as much as he enjoys competing successfully himself, he derives equally as much pleasure from seeing his students do well. Chuck said that, of course, James works very hard, usually at least 12 hour days, but probably eats dinner with him and his wife five or six nights a week.  While I had Chuck right there, who has no horsey background, but whose wife has ridden all her life, I had to ask him how on earth he came to name his stables Gracelands? 
Chuck:   “When my wife and I acquired the property, it may sound silly, but we wanted something with a spiritual background. Everyone says, ‘Oh, Gracelands, that’s Elvis’ place!’, but the place was a church at one time, and we support church camps for kids. My brother is the team Chaplain for the Oakland A’s, and we just believed that Gracelands adds a bit of a biblical experience to it.” 
Chuck maintains he will never ride, but loves to support James, and his wife at shows,  and develop the breeding programme.  Rolex was the first big event he and his wife had attended, and of course they came away impressed.
Chuck:  “I loved the atmosphere. So many of the riders embrace the younger competitors coming up the ranks. I didn’t hear a negative comment from one rider who was approached for an autograph, or a picture. I’d never met so many of the riders, like Phillip Dutton for instance, but you hear people talk about him all the time, and so many times I saw young kids and fans go up to him, asking him for autographs, and he was always incredibly gracious. It’s so enlightening to see riders, and the sport get that kind of exposure. Rolex is just amazing.” 
James brother Mike, a shade older, is completely non-horsey like the rest of his family and works for lawyers in London back in England, but was doing a super job grooming at Rolex, despite nursing a broken foot and tubigrip on his elbow.
James:   “He’s been great! Actually one of the first horses I bought, he was a partner in. We both put in five hundred pounds, I bought the horse, and I told him we were going to make some money – we never did! He doesn’t know much about horses, but he likes to come along and enjoy it.” 
Mike, and James’ parents remain in Minchinhampton, Glos, a stone’s throw from Gatcombe, and although James admits he misses them, professionally he’s glad he’s in California, and he tries to visit them once every couple of years or so; he was home for Christmas last year. 
James has some nice young horses coming up the grades; Luke Skywalker who won a prelim just before James left for Rolex, and who James thinks will be really “fancy”,  a horse he hopes to do a 2* on at the end of the year, and a few nice four year olds, and younger horses.
Although they had no firm plans for an autumn campaign as yet, they have a three day, or more truck journey home to California, stopping in Virginia en route to pick up a couple of extra horses, and don’t be surprised next time you hear all about James Alliston cleaning up at one of the major three days, I certainly won’t be. 
I’d like to thank James, his brother Mike, (seemingly tireless and endlessly cheerful!) and their parents for speaking to me, as well as Chuck Moore. Thank you for reading, and go eventing!

This article is also published on SamanthaLClark.com.


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