He’s never contested a four-star. He’s never represented the United States, let alone medaled for it. And he is, in actuality, “a bit of a jerk.” But in 2010, Cambalda was everything to his rider Jennie Brannigan, and he was undeniably the hottest horse in U.S. eventing.
Even in a world championship year, with a historic home turf advantage for U.S. riders at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.), it was a horse for the future—a horse with just one CCI*** start on his record—who became the talk of the country. The 9-year-old gelding beat every horse in sight from New Jersey to California, winning his first advanced horse trial and four Fédération Equestre Internationale events at the two- and three-star levels.
Cambalda also gave 23-year-old Brannigan—one of the heirs apparent to a U.S. team coat—a reason to keep going. Last December, she lost her exceptional partner Cooper after three grueling months of surgeries to repair a show jumping injury incurred at the Dansko Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.), then colic, then laminitis.
“I never wanted to quit,” Brannigan said firmly. “Losing Cooper made me want to keep going even more, oddly. So it’s meaningful to me that he’s now obviously a part of ‘Ping’ being successful, because I’m so much better now because of him.
“Ping’s definitely responsible for me feeling like I’m not a one-horse wonder, and that I’m capable of pushing through hard things,” added Brannigan, who works as an assistant trainer for Phillip Dutton at his True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa.
“But he also deserves a lot of credit for what he is on his own.”
In 2010, Ping gave the nation a taste of his burgeoning talent—and he managed to whet Nina Gardner’s appetite for upper-level ownership in the process. Gardner and her husband Tim felt em-boldened to rejoin the advanced ranks after an impassioned after-dinner speech by Karen O’Connor’s long-time owner Dick Thompson at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** about supporting the country’s up-and-coming talent. But they hadn’t had a top-tier horse since their House Doctor earned team gold with Dutton at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
“Phillip kept saying, ‘This is a rider for the future. She’s going to really be something.’ And when her horse was hurt at Fair Hill, I was there, and I know what she went through,” Nina said of Brannigan. She now sees the rider’s fortitude mirrored in Ping, and it’s among her favorite qualities in the horse.
“I think he’s tough,” Nina said. “That’s what I like best about him. He’s businesslike and talented and so tough.”
The Gardners, of West Grove, signed on as Ping’s owners just before he won the Jersey Fresh CCI** in early May, but it was Virginia-based Canadian rider Kelli Temple who first discovered the young gelding. Temple (who’d also found Cooper) and her agent Susie Pragnell spotted him as a late 4-year-old with British rider Jane Wilson, who’d imported him from Ireland.
“He wasn’t naughty, but he had a few little quirks to him,” Temple said. “He hadn’t really been off the farm or gone to any shows. I never really found him tricky or difficult to ride; he was just young. But you can’t look at him and not think ‘event horse,’ because he’s a beautiful type.”
“Aside from Cooper, who was actually mine, Ping was definitely my second favorite,” Temple said. “When Jennie said she was looking for a horse, I knew this was the one she should look at.”
But it took several months to actually convince Bran-nigan. And even after her grandfather, George W. Boase, purchased the gelding as a gift in 2008, she worried it might have been a mistake.
“He always ended up competing quite well, but I questioned whether we were really going to click as a big-time team together in the future,” she said. “I definitely came close to selling him when he was going preliminary. Obviously I’m very glad I didn’t!
“He’s taught me not to be so star struck by any one horse. Horses do change, and I should give every horse a shot and give them time to grow,” Brannigan continued. “He just transformed this season into such an amazing athlete.”
Until recently, Ping’s U.S. connections knew little about his breeding. But then Brannigan got a call out of the blue from an Irish reporter working on a story about top Irish horses in U.S. eventing. While the other horses she was writing about “were bred all flash and fancy,” the woman told Brannigan that Ping’s sire, Balda Beau, was comparatively lackluster.
“He stood at the same yard as Master Imp, but they called him ‘the stuntman,’ because if anyone was going to get kicked, it was going to be the stallion they didn’t rate,” Brannigan said.
Balda Beau has just six get registered with Eventing Ireland, and only one—Beechfield Queen B—has made it to top level; she has a lone advanced completion on her record.
“Balda Beau really isn’t that bad,” said Temple. “But the mare wasn’t even recorded on his passport.”
Brannigan and the Gardners now think Cathy’s Lady—a 15.3-hand S2 (a class not recommended for breeding)—was Ping’s dam, and she’s now listed as such on his FEI record. The dam sire is unknown, but Brannigan’s Irish informant did have one more entertaining tidbit before she hung up the phone: the identity of Ping’s granddam.
“An Appaloosa pony!” Nina exclaimed. “I think it’s hysterical. I don’t know if they were kidding her or not. It could have been a great gag. But we aren’t going to do his DNA. We like him just as he is, whatever he is.”
And whatever he will be.