Kentucky in the Rearview: Team EN Reflects on their Rides of the Week

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I vividly remember bumping into a much-heralded rider at a competitors’ party a few seasons ago, mere weeks after he’d notched up the biggest result of his career. It was likely the first time he’d really had a chance to celebrate – after all, no matter how great a success you are, if you ride horses for a living then you’ve still got to be up with the sun the next day to take care of your string. Success doesn’t put the hard work to bed – but the pursuit of it offers up a jolly good reason to jump out of bed each day. It gives direction and purpose to that unique, unquenchable hunger. It’s an anchor when the sea gets rocky. But finally getting a taste of it? Well, it’s not, perhaps, what you’d expect.

Though the rider was passed from friend to friend all evening for congratulatory hugs, spins on the dance floors, slaps on the back and, of course, another round of drinks, I crossed paths with him for a while for a beer and a catch-up about what life looked like having ‘made it’. What he told me caught me by surprise with its candour, but in the months and years since, it’s begun to make so much more sense.

“I’ve never felt worse than I did in the week after,” he confessed. “I felt like I’d spent my life sprinting towards the edge of a cliff and suddenly I reached it – and the only thing left to do was fall off.”

Does this seem like a bit of a downer to start off what’s actually a pretty uplifting collaborative effort? I hope not. What I want to stress here is twofold: firstly, that that weird, heavy, emotionally bereft feeling – that eventing hangover, as we all call it – is normal and universal; secondly, that having had so little to focus on for so long, all of us — riders, grooms, owners, sponsors, event organisers, members of the media, lovers of the sport – have had a cliff to run towards, and if you’ve headed home from Kentucky (or, indeed, closed your laptop on it) feeling as though you’re tumbling over the edge, it’s always a pretty smart idea to aim for a soft landing, at least.

Maybe you watched every second of Kentucky and now feel as though there’s nothing on the horizon to look forward to. Maybe you’ve worked for months, or years, or decades to ride at the event and now that it’s in the past, you feel as though your hunger has no direction – and maybe you don’t even quite feel like yourself without that singular point to fight towards. In any case, I think we’re all in the same funny old spot on this quiet Wednesday after Kentucky. And so I want us to prop ourselves up with glory – in all the ways it manifests itself.

Through the week at Kentucky, as we worked the days away in our various locations, the Eventing Nation team Slack was buzzing non-stop with quick-fire reactions to everything that unfolded in front of us. We might have been cheering, shouting, and occasionally crying from hidey-holes around the world, but really, our hearts were in one place. Plenty has been been written celebrating the extraordinary continued success of eventual winner Oliver Townend, whose remarkable Ballaghmor Class — now on six top-five finishes at five-star from five attempts – must be one of the greatest event horses we’ll ever see. But I wanted to celebrate some of the other rides that lit our fires over the week; the moments that threatened to crash our Slack app and break or rebuild our well-worn, horse-loving hearts. And so – as a soft landing and a gratuitous dip into what already feels like nostalgia – here are Team EN’s top rides of Kentucky.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Shelby Allen: I love our five-star veterans, but I’m a sucker for the rookies. Because alphabetically my name comes first, I’ll take the enviable role of gushing over our girl Ema Klugman. Riding for Australia, Ema is the Editor for our sister site, Jumper Nation. At just 23, she was the youngest rider in field and was paired with one of the oldest horses, the 18-year-old Bendigo. Ema, who has been eventing for less than a decade, and ‘Ben’, who didn’t run his first horse trial until age 11, might not have been likely favorites, but they put in one of the classiest cross country rides of the day before going on to be the Highest Placed Young Rider. In a sport with so many purpose-bred horses (and riders?) it’s a treat to hear a ground-up fairytale story. What does one do after a brilliant five-star debut? Ema’s plan is law school at George Washington University this fall.

Harry Meade and Superstition. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Tilly Berendt: Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around me knows that I’m the eventing equivalent of that lass in Mean Girls, who shows up to another school’s therapy session because “I just have a lot of feelings.” You can catch me at the big ones crying over, well, everything, and I’m a sucker for an underdog, a comeback, and a fairytale finish. So while there were several riders this week who did me proud in proving my convictions (Kevin McNab and Jesse Campbell, notably — I’m looking at you!), there was one in particular that really got the waterworks going for me, and that was Harry Meade‘s sterling week with Superstition. As a British-based reporter, I’ve been lucky enough to watch this horse for several years as he learned the ropes at four-star with New Zealand’s Lucy Jackson, and he’s always been impressive and exciting. When the transfer was made in the latter part of 2019, it was quite a sad prospect — but Lucy and Harry are great friends and she’s remained instrumental in helping her four-legged best pal find his feet in his new home. Harry and Superstition went to Poland for the CCI4*-L at Strzegom less than two weeks after teaming up (an out-of-character move from Harry, who’s generally much more of a slow and steady type when campaigning new rides), and they won it handily. They seemed set for a thoroughly exciting 2020 to come, though they, too, ended up having to make the best of it as a jam-packed Olympic year dwindled down to a handful of events in the latter part of the season.

But then disaster struck: Harry and another mount fell early on course at Thoresby, home of the British young horse championships in October, and Harry’s foot got caught in the stirrup. He was dragged for what felt like endless minutes at a gallop, his head repeatedly kicked and his helmet eventually dislodged in the tumult. Since then, he’s been battling numerous complications: the trauma to his brain’s vestibular system meant that he was faced with spinning vision, vertigo, slurred speech, balance issues, and neural exhaustion, which meant that he’d need to sleep immediately upon being struck by fatigue. There were physical complications, too – Harry had had a horrific accident years prior in which both his elbows were badly broken, and his right arm had been particularly difficult to heal, requiring multiple surgeries over the years to try to keep it cobbled together. In his Thoresby fall, that elbow was sliced open by a deep stud wound, shattering the patchwork joint apart and forcing dirt and debris deep into the wound. There was an enormous risk of catastrophic joint infection, which the assembled medical team worked miracles to avoid.

Since then, Harry and the great people around him — notably his wife, the always-sunny Rosie, and head girl Jess Errington — have moved mountains to make last week’s super result happen. It’s a testament to the power of positive thinking, to the enormous fortitude a resolute support system offers, and to the motivation that one wonderful horse can provide. I’ve been so fortunate to work with Harry on a number of projects — whether writing up training features for magazine clients or chatting to him at events I’ve been covering — and he’s a real gem, who is always so generous with his time, his endless repertoire of knowledge, and his easygoing smile, for which all of us are always grateful. To see him get his moment in the sun (erm, drizzle?!) was incredibly special and I couldn’t be more delighted for the whole Meade team. And that attacking, bold, stylish cross-country round? It was next-level Harry: we’re used to seeing him write the textbook — literally and metaphorically — on riding, but the fight and gumption we saw out there on course, when he recorded one of just four clear rounds inside the time, was of a level we’ve not seen before, and it was pretty magical to watch.

Tamie Smith and Mai Baum. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Maggie Deatrick: I think it’s no secret that I’m very much moved by the competitive aspect of the sport, and having grown up with titans like Tim Duncan, Vince Young, and David O’Connor leading my respective favorite sports teams (San Antonio Spurs, Texas Longhorns, and US Eventing), I was very used to cheering for top teams. Sadly, all three of those franchises have faded in recent years and while the Spurs and Longhorns seem a ways away from re-gaining their winning ways, US Eventing seems on the rise after this weekend.

Watching Mai Baum absolutely tear up the course at his first 5* after a very, very long wait just made my heart swell and I’ll be honest that I thought it was particularly unfair that his 11 penalties [for activating a frangible pin] wasn’t removed. We can argue all day about how he hit it pretty hard, and he did, but it was entirely on the downward trajectory of his jump and if it hadn’t been pinned he would have slid over it without falling. The only consolation is that in the end, it didn’t keep him from winning the entire event; it’s nice to know he gave the performance of his life and a debatable penalty didn’t keep him from winning.

Aside from Mai Baum, I was also blown away by all the freshman horses who skipped so well around a difficult cross-country. Off the RecordQC Diamantaire, and Mama’s Magic Way were all on my radar prior to the event and all three put in strong dressage and cross-country results before having a tired rail or two on the final day. Palm Crescent and On Cue weren’t totally on my radar but also looked strong for the future while Stella Artois really impressed me despite an unlucky peck and subsequent fall into the water. I think the quality of the horses in this country is starting to come through as our riders focus more on jumpers who are strong on the final day and patient about having the dressage scores come through. With the removal of the dressage coefficient, the focus has to be on horses who can finish on a reasonable dressage score. All of these horses have shown improvement in the first phase and come WEG, I think the field will suddenly be wide open for US team slots.

Jonelle Price and Grappa Nera. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Abby Powell: When the EHV-1 outbreak in Europe was in full swing a month or two ago (Is that right? What is time?) I was 1) super concerned and felt horribly for everyone dealing with it, and 2) selfishly super bummed because I thought that Tim and Jonelle Price wouldn’t be able to bring horses over for Kentucky. Being in the media I’m probably not supposed to play favorites, but even so I can’t deny that the Prices are some of my favorite riders to watch. I was absolutely delighted when it turned out that they would manage to come (and were bringing a total of 5 horses at that!) and they really gave us a masterclass this weekend.

Watching Jonelle go out on course as the trailblazer with her youngest ride, Grappa Nera, and make it look like she was skipping around a Prelim course was jaw dropping. And then for her to emulate that on her other two horses and be the only 3-horse rider to complete with all 3? What. A. Boss. Both Tim and Jonelle are beautiful riders and whatever they are doing in their program is working. Having completed with all 5 of their mounts — 4 of them being in the top 20, and 3 in the top 10 — they are the picture of good form and consistency and are a real pleasure to watch.

I also have another new favorite after this weekend. Now in no way do I mean to snub our amazing colleague Ema Klugman, who had a ridiculously impressive weekend as well, but another five-star first-time pair that stood out to me was Fylicia Barr and Galloway Sunrise. I’ve known of Fylicia’s inspiring story with her $500 Craigslist mare, but since I just hadn’t seen them in action all that much in person or on live streams they had been flying a bit under my radar. I so enjoyed watching them this weekend, though — “Sunny” just had the most delightfully floppy ears and looked so relaxed and in-tune with Fylicia in the dressage and then she had the keenest expression with those little ears pricked all around the cross country on Saturday. I simply loved watching their partnership and it really made me want to hug my own pony.

Emily Hamel and Corvette. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Kate Samuels: Kentucky this year was such an emotional experience, not only because we missed so much last year, but because the weeks leading up to it were such a rollercoaster. Even though we didn’t have spectators this year, I feel like the community at large was almost more invested and more attentive than ever before, and the swell of enthusiasm could be palpably felt even through a computer screen.

It’s hard for me to pick any one standout performance, but I think I can safely say that I think the level of performance from riders has grown enormously in the past few years, and maybe even due to the extra time at home training and working on small details that we all forcibly enjoyed last year. The top 10% of riders at this level are just on a completely different playing field, and it’s just mind bending to watch. Jonelle Price is an absolute girl boss, and I was particularly enamored of Grovine de Reve, but to be the only rider to finish with three horses clear and competitive is an unbelievably enormous accomplishment that defies simple words.

The cross country course on Saturday was probably the hardest one I’ve ever seen at Kentucky, and Derek really put the riders through their paces. Standout performances for me were ones that made it look fun, such as Harry Meade with SuperstitionWill Coleman with both Off The Record and Tight Lines, honestly both Tim & Jonelle Price, and Bolytair B looked like he was having an absolute blast, whether or not Dom Schramm agreed with the striding he had chosen for the two of them.

I always love the ones that quietly work in the background, and the single horse partnerships always get me in the heartstrings. Meghan O’Donoghue has worked for six years to be back at this level, again with a very talented OTTB who performed graciously in his first run at this level. Fylicia Barr had an outstanding debut with her little mare, and the pair looked confident and professional all weekend long. I also absolutely cannot leave without mentioning my love for Corvett, who has perhaps the most….unconventional jumping style of any horse since maybe the indomitable Opposition Buzz, and Emily Hamel somehow stays perfectly in balance with him, which is proof of a wonderful partnership.

Tamie shares a hug with Alex Ahearn, Mai Baum’s owner and former rider. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Sally Spickard:

What a special weekend this was! First and foremost, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to the people who helped make this year’s LRK3DE happen when it was all but doomed. To Sara Kozumplik Murphy, Dorothy Crowell and the hundreds of people who reached into their pockets to help save the event: thank you. While I do not believe that the duty should have fallen to stakeholders to save the event, I am at the same time happy to do what I can to help as I understand that sometimes things like this need some grassroots support to get off the ground.

It’s hard to describe how it felt being at the Horse Park again. I came here as a part of the EN team for the first time in 2014 and have returned every year except one since in some sort of professional capacity. If younger, starstruck Sally watching Buck Davidson and Titanium inhaling the steeplechase knew that a decade later she’d be sticking a camera in a ever-gracious Buck’s face and asking him endless annoying questions — well, she might just keel over and die. Sometimes it’s hard to be so close to the sport and see its uglier side (as you would with any sport). But at the end of the day, how lucky are we to have the opportunity to do this for a living?

Yesterday after most people had gone home and the sun had peeked its head out just in time for golden hour, I pulled my golf cart over next to the steeplechase track, climbed through the fence and went for a wander on the course. Thousands of dandelions spread out before me, and the only signs remaining of the greats who had galloped around just the day before were the hoof prints left in the grass. I followed the track for awhile, wondering whose hoof prints I was walking in.

It’s really impossible to pick out my favorite rides of the weekend, but I’m going to give my “moment of the week” nod to Tamie Smith and Mai Baum. I first fell in love with Mai Baum when he was still competing at the Intermediate level with his former pilot (and still his owner) Alex Ahearn. Real talk: Alex is a Chinese adoptee, and when I saw her riding Mai Baum, I just wanted to know more about her. I wasn’t used to seeing many other Asian riders, and so I tend to latch onto those I find and follow them with unabashed admiration. Alex is one of those riders. It was my first event reporting for EN, and I was definitely in over my head. But that black horse and that girl who looked just a smidge like me made me believe that this was where I truly belonged. Now, nearly seven years later, it’s been a big honor to follow Mai Baum as his career progressed with Tamie – and I’m just so proud that they have their long-awaited five-star completion (and not just a completion – a top 10 finish!) under their belts. This isn’t intended to be a brag, but I remember telling a friend that Mai Baum was one of the best horses in the world several years ago, and as much as I pick my “favorites” based on feelings, I’m glad to see that inkling coming to fruition. Hats off to both Tamie and “Lexus” for giving us lots of reasons to cheer.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a rider here. I’m not so sure that’s a goal anymore, but I will never cease to be amazed, awed and inspired by these athletes. It’s a huge privilege to attend an event like this, and an even bigger one to call some of my childhood heroes friends now. Above all, I feel grateful to have experienced a very special Kentucky with some very special people and horse. With any luck, we’ll have a bit more company next year.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Leslie Wylie:

Sorry/not sorry but I’ve got to double-down on Shelby’s pick: Ema Klugman and Bendigo. If Ema had any trepidation about tackling the course, she sure didn’t show it — the girl has ice in her veins, and I KID YOU NOT she refused to take any time off her job as editor of Jumper Nation before, during or after the event. AND she just got into law school. What were YOU doing when you were 23?

It’s like Ema just gets better the bigger the obstacles are in front of her, and I think you could say the same for her horse as well. They had such a cool, positive round, making the direct routes look effortless and seamlessly navigating obstacles that felled giants. They kicked on to every single jump, and their crystal-clear focus and mutual “I know you better than you know yourself” vibe was apparent.

I kept getting little twinges of deja vu throughout the week, like “have I seen this movie before?” Finally it clicked — oh yeah, Libby Head and Sir Rockstar … Woodge Fulton and Captain Jack …  hard-working young riders who forged special relationships with horses who were getting up in age, and as a grand finale they went overseas and had the rides of their lives.

I think Burghley would suit Ben, just sayin’….

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