Ladies’ Day Out: Liz Halliday Seals the Deal in Carolina CCI4*-S

Liz Halliday and Miks Master C. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Ladies ruled cross country day in the Yanmar America CCI4*-S at the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International, leaving us with an all-female top five when the dust settled. Topping the board is your wire-to-wire 2024 champion, Liz Halliday riding Ocala Horse Properties’ and Deborah Palmer’s Miks Master C (Mighty Magic – Qui Lumba CBF, by Quite Easy) and finishing on her dressage score of 22.5. The pair improve on their second-place finish here in 2023, and decisively at that: 8.2 penalty points distance Liz from the rest of the field.

“I was really happy with him,” she said. “And he was very thoughtful and organized at all the questions and galloped well and came back to me, which was great. That was sort of the big question. He is always going to be a strong horse — we’re not going to take that out of him. But he did come back to me.”

Rideability has been a recurring theme throughout Liz and “Mikki’s” relationship, which began in 2022 after the Swedish Warmblood gelding bred here in the U.S. by Laurie Cameron came to her program, but Liz is feeling like she’s putting the pieces together, bit by bit. Literally, in this case: known for her affinity for bits, Liz explained that she had previously ridden the horse in an American gag bit with copper rollers that used a chain under the chin for stability. This year, she took the chain off after Ian Stark, who rode his incredible Murphy Himself in the same bit, advised her that it might make Mikki more comfortable and, therefore, rideable. That one small detail, she says, has made a big difference, in addition to the gaining of strength that comes with more time together.

“[Ian] told me he used to run Murphy Himself in this bit that I have, but without the chain. And that was a very strong horse, of course, a very famously strong horse. It’s a cherry roller American gag, so it’s actually a really nice mouthpiece. He’s actually a very sensitive horse, people probably don’t think that he’s got a very sensitive mouth. I know a lot about bits, and one of the most important things I always focus on is making sure the mouthpiece is right for the horses. This is actually it’s a big fat, single jointed [mouthpiece] with rollers on it, just with a bit of leverage, because he’s very strong, but he’s so much happier in this particular mouthpiece. I’ve tried others and he gets upset and then he doesn’t focus, so in this he still focuses so I was happy.”

Liz Halliday and Cooley Nutcracker. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Liz has her eyes set firmly on obtaining a selection to represent the U.S. at the Paris Olympics this summer, so her spring path looks a bit different than simply aiming at a 5*. Instead, Mikki will go back home to Liz’s main home base in Lexington and prepare for the 4*-S at Kentucky. “He doesn’t need to do extra runs,” she explained, noting how well he performed this weekend and how rideable he was in both jumping phases.

For finishing bang on the optimum time, Liz also collected the Antigua Cup, created in memory and honor of Will Faudree’s longtime 5* horse, Antigua.

Liz also finished in the top 5 with The Monster Partnership / Ocala Horse Properties’ Cooley Nutcracker (Tolant R – Ballyshan Cleopatra, by Cobra), who picked up 4.8 time penalties to finish on a score of 33.5.

“Nutcracker of course needs another run before he does his first five-star,” she said. “So he’ll go to Stable View. I do think he’s ready for a five-star, so I wanted to give him a very good ride today. I’d say I wanted to go quickly, but not at the risk of not riding every fence well. So that’s why I had four time faults, but I’m fine with that. It’s his first proper run of the year.”

Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Blake. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Moving into second with 2.8 time penalties and a finishing score of 30.7 are Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Blake (Tolan R – Doughiska Lass, by Kannan), who is owned by Mollie Hoff and Caroline’s mother, Sherrie Martin. This is a horse that has come up through the levels via the USEA Young Event Horse program as well as the US Eventing Pathway Program, which has sent him and Caroline overseas in Nations Cup competition as well as to the Pan American Games last fall, where they won individual gold and team silver.

“He’s like a little unicorn,” she said. “In warm up, I wasn’t nervous. I was just looking forward to riding him and just kind of looking forward to in my head. I don’t think I’ve ever had been in position my career on a horse that it feels like a schooling round at the four-star level. I think this is his third Advanced now and it feels like he’s been doing it for 200 years.”

Initially, HSH Blake was a part of Caroline and business partner Kelley Hutchinson’s sales program, but after a few prospective buyers passed on him and he won the Young Horse CCI2* at Virginia Horse Center, Caroline knew she was sitting on the real deal and enlisted the support of Mollie Hoff to come in as an owner so that he could remain her program.

Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Blake. Photo by Sally Spickard.

“A lot has changed,” Caroline laughed when I asked her how Blake has evolved over the years. “You’re gonna laugh: so my first Beginner Novice, I swung and missed and fell off of him. I mean, in show jumping, like really bad. I had hyped him up to everyone like, ‘come look at my new fancy import, I don’t want to sell him. I’m hoping keep the ride and get him syndicated, come watch him go!’ And I swing and miss and everyone’s gone. Like everyone just walked away.”

It’s certainly early days yet, but it’s difficult not to think that this pair (and a few others here this weekend, including of course our winner Liz Halliday) is firmly on the selectors’ radar as they deliberate over the selection of the Olympic squad. For Caroline, the pressure to peak at the right times and show the consistent competitiveness that bodes well for success on a team is immense, but, as she puts it, “I live for it.”

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Finishing up third in the marquee division are Meghan O’Donoghue and the off-track Thoroughbred Palm Crescent (Quiet American xx – Edey’s Village xx by Silver Deputy xx), who sailed around Ian Stark’s course with just 1.6 time penalties to wind up on a score of 30.9. It was exactly the confirmation she was looking for to solidify her plans to travel to Badminton for the first time in May.

“Palmer” raced 12 times in his first career, hitting the board with a win one time before retiring. He began his eventing career with Jan Byyny and later went to young rider Chase Shipka before Meghan eventually took over the ride and purchased the horse for the 2015 season. Now, nearly a decade later, Meghan and Palmer have contested five CCI5* events together, including a top-25 finish at Burghley in 2022.

As for the decision to take the 18-year-old gelding to Badminton this year, Meghan explained that she wanted to challenge herself a bit more than “being comfortable at Kentucky” (words I will definitively never utter, unless Kentucky decides to at a CCI-Novice one day). Her voice thickened as the emotions she feels for this horse welled up.

“He’s kind of the king of our stable because he is our only top horse and he genuinely appreciates it,” she said. “And I think that I feel like this weekend is just a relief because I feel like it’s a place he deserves. You know, he’s 18. And, you know, you sit back and you’re like, ‘Man, I wish I had like, five more years. I’m just lucky to be here and have this event with him, and whatever happens is icing on the cake.”

Rocket boosters, engaged! Photo by Sally Spickard.

“I feel like it’s taken a long time to pull three solid phases together,” Meghan continued. “And, you know, I think that today, I went out with the mindset that, you know, he’s aimed at a five-star. And I want him to feel good about himself. But I also haven’t been put in this position to be competitive too often in my career, so I kind of felt like I had something to go out and prove that, you know, I actually liked the pressure and thrive under the pressure. So I, without being too crazy, tried to make good choices, but let him have a good run and do as competitively as I thought was safe enough to do today.”

She credits her longtime care team of veterinarians, farriers and bodyworkers, as well as her grooming squad lead by Emma Tuit and aided by Abigail Fulmer and Lindsay McCormick, for helping keep the horse in incredible shape as he reaches his late teens. This consistency and looking after the horse instead of always chasing a result, she believes, have contributed to his longevity in the sport.

And hey — “How many Thoroughbreds do you see anymore, going at five-star?” she laughed. Indeed, the trek to England will be one OTTB fans will be following closely, and that includes team EN!

Sydney Elliott and QC Diamantaire. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Another member of Team USA for the Pan American Games last year, Sydney Elliott and Carol Stephens’ QC Diamantaire (Diarado – Lantana, by Sandro Hit), climbed the leaderboard steadily after starting the weekend in 10th place. They went on to finish with two clear jumping rounds and a speedy cross country that amassed just 1.6 time penalties to finish in fourth place. This is another seasoned pair making an earnest bid for team selection this year, putting their experience and longtime partnership to work to carve out a smooth ride around Ian’s cross country today.

“He’s just so wonderful and so reliable,” Sydney said. “I for one love Ian’s courses. I’m so, so sad that he is retiring this year, but [his courses] were made for me and Q and so I knew it was gonna be a fun day, as long as I didn’t, you know, do anything disastrous!”

“It is just going one step at a time, you know, over the years,” she described of their nearly decade-long partnership. “And he just continues to surprise us and we’re just so hopeful for what he has the last few years that he’s got going. So we’re very excited.”

Sydney is also aiming at what is shaping up to be a very competitive Lexington 4*-S the weekend of Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event at the end of April.

Doug Payne made us all envious of his positional stability with a trip through the massive water at the tail end of the course, which he did sans a right stirrup. To prove how unbothered he was by this, he and Quantum Leap (Quite Capitol – Report to Sloopy xx, by Corporate Report xx) — also a U.S.-bred horse, bred by Elizabeth Callahan — went on to collect one of two clear rounds inside the optimum time of 6 minutes, 28 seconds (Canada’s Waylon Roberts and OKE Ruby R also finished inside the time; they were also the sole pair to do the same at the Grand-Prix Eventing Showcase earlier this month). That was good enough to move the pair up into sixth after starting the week in 24th place.

Doug’s days in the sport of eventing are a bit numbered, though he still has several horses going as he slowly transitions over to full-time show jumping.

“Quantum, he’s done, what?, six five-stars now? And you couldn’t have a better, more fun horse to take out on cross country,” Doug said. “I mean, he doesn’t pull at all, he goes in a snaffle, and he reads things so quickly. He’s adaptable and sharp and so we took a chance on the time.”

Quantum Leap and Camarillo will head to the Kentucky 5* next, and Doug also has two horses he hopes to take in the Split Rock Invitational, which has been upgraded from a CSI3* to a CSI4* this year (but don’t ask me what that means).

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle finished in 7th place. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Looking at the numbers from today, as mentioned before two pairs made the time (in comparison, four pairs made the time over a very similar track in 2023): Doug and Quantum Leap as well as Waylon Roberts and OKE Ruby R. 29 out of 33 pairs jumped free of jump penalties for an 87.8% clear rate. This is a slight increase over an 84% clear rate over last year’s track. Three pairs encountered difficulty at separate fences (the Normandy Bank at 17, the B element of the main Yanmar water, and the final jump out of the coffin at 12). One rider, Sara Kozumplik, unfortunately parted ways from Rock Phantom after the horse just pecked on landing a bit at the final water, which sent her out the front door, but they were both unharmed.

Having also ridden in the Yanmar America CCI4*-S, Boyd Martin (who finished in 12th with Bonnie Stedt’s Miss Lulu Herself) stated that the course was, “a beautiful course. It was the right degree of difficulty. It was challenging enough without being punishing on the horses. I feel like all the horses here were sort of a using it as a stepping stone event as they fire up for the big goals of the spring.”

The final FEI day was bittersweet, as it also marked the last time Ian Stark would design a CCI4*-S course at the Carolina Horse Park. Sydney Elliott stated, “I just can’t even talk about it. I feel like Ian said, it is just so sad. He’s so influential in our sport. And there’s so many people that design courses, right? But Ian’s courses teach. They teach the horse how to gallop. He has mastered that art and so it’s very sad.”

Breezeway Sport Horse & Diagnostics CCI2*-S winner Ariel Grald expressed similar feelings. “Ian is an amazing course designer. I’ve been fortunate to ride around a lot of his tracks. So not only is he brilliant at that, but it’s sad as he did really grow the Carolina International into the spectacular event that it is now,” Grald said. “I know Ian as well through his cross country advising for the US team. So I just have the utmost respect for him as a designer, rider, coach, and horseman. He’s just an all around awesome person.”

Ian Stark finishes a clear round on HSH Persuasion. Photo by Veronica Green-Gott.

As an extra treat, Ian also took a spin on Kelley Hutchinson’s HSH Persuasion, a sale horse in Caroline Pamukcu’s program. We documented the fun:

It’s been another thrilling weekend at Carolina International and we’re very grateful to all who made the weekend so enjoyable. The action isn’t quite over yet as the National divisions have yet to wrap up tomorrow, but that wraps up our reporting from the event. Safe travels home to all and as ever, Go Eventing.

Carolina International CCI & H.T. (Raeford, NC) [Website] [Schedule] [Entries] [Ride Times] [Volunteer] [Cross Country Maps] [Live Scores] [Live Stream] [EN’s Coverage]

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