Zach Brandt Reflects on Finishing First 5* + Earning James C. Wofford ‘On the Rise’ Memorial Trophy

Zach Brandt and Direct Advance. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Obtaining that coveted first CCI5* completion is an accomplishment many riders dream of. But in between the formation of that dream and its actual realization come many things: setbacks, delays, and unexpected decisions, to name a few.

Zach Brandt knows these feelings all too well, which makes his most recent achievement — completing his first CCI5* event at this year’s Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and also earning the inaugural James C. Wofford “On the Rise” Award — that much sweeter.

First, let’s rewind: en route to making his five-star debut, it wasn’t Direct Advance, his Kentucky ride, with whom Zach thought he might tick the box. Instead, it was the freakishly athletic Cavallino Cocktail who would be the horse Zach, then still living in California, put forward as his first Kentucky entry. But injuries would put the damper on these plans, leaving Zach to set about finding another elusive partner that could be “the one”.

Zach Brandt and Direct Advance. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Enter Direct Advance, originally found via Zach’s longtime mentor and friend Jon Holling. ‘Roscoe’ was certainly not without his quirks or his training gaps, but Jon was convinced that this would be the next big thing for Zach. Patience was a virtue as Zach and the striking and strong chestnut Irish gelding by Night Cruise struggled with rideability.

“I would say that partnership with your horse is everything,” Zach said when asked what the key ingredient was to the success he’d found with Direct Advance. “There’s nothing that can take the place of that.”

This year’s start at Kentucky came with a few fresh demons to lay to rest; last fall at the Maryland 5 Star, Zach and Direct Advance were held early on cross country, and the gelding suffered a nosebleed at the most inopportune time. While there were no major issues or residual effects diagnosed, the pair understandably opted to retire and try for that 5* completion another day.

Zach Brandt and Direct Advance. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“Honestly, I went into the weekend [at Kentucky] with expectations,” Zach said. “Those expectations were, at the very least, to finish. It sort of feels like a five-star has been this elusive, fleeting thing that every time I get really close, it doesn’t work out for one reason or another.”

Here Zach pauses before continuing candidly. “So you end up building it up in your head as this unattainable goal. I honestly went in trying to keep my head as level as possible, just thinking of it as another weekend. But then you get there and it’s hard to do that, because it so obviously isn’t.”

Once competition began, it became easier for Zach to focus his energies on one phase at a time. Cross country loomed large and testing, and Zach took the advice of Jon Holling as well as Boyd Martin and Buck Davidson as he walked the course. “They told me that once you get up to the top of the hill at the Hollow, that’s when [the horses] start to feel a bit tired. So you’re supposed to let them cruise down the hill and let them get their second wind.”

Zach once again credits Roscoe with his sheer grit and athleticism. “Galloping up the hill, I’m waiting to sort of feel him get tired. And I landed off that oxer at the bottom of the hill and he just grabbed the bit and galloped up the hill. It was just the most incredible feeling, feeling like he was just dragging me the whole way home.”

The elation one feels when all of those little bits and details come together at once is indescribable: you’re finally accomplishing that one thing you’ve been working on to the point of obsession, and you’ve done it so thoroughly that you can feel the payoff of the fitness work in how your horse takes to task.

“My excitement of finishing and the feeling of just knowing that your horse is such an incredible animal, and the partnership you’ve worked so hard on, the years you’ve put in, completely overshadowed my disappointment and frustration for not being better and having two runouts.”

Zach Brandt accepts the James C. Wofford On the Rise Memorial Trophy. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

To see Zach after he went on to produce a clear show jumping round on Sunday was to witness the pure joy and relief of finally ticking that very big box. Adding to that elation and feeling of accomplishment was one very special award: the James C. Wofford “On the Rise” trophy, presented in remembrance of and homage to the late and loved Jimmy Wofford to a rider completing their first CCI5* event.

“When I found out [about the ‘On the Rise’ trophy], it was surreal,” Zach recalled. “I rode in a clinic with Jimmy when I was sixteen, and it was one of the most special and fun clinics I’ve ever had. He’s given so much to the sport and so many of us have learned from him. I’m grateful to be one of those people, and to be the first person to receive this award feels incredibly special.”

Many happy returns to Zach for getting his first (hopefully of many!) 5* finishes. We’re sure Jimmy would be proud.

Go Eventing.

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