Alexis Helffrich has honed his horsemanship skills in Andrew Nicholson’s stables in England and at the National School D’Equitation in Saumur, France, so he’s definitely not afraid of a little travel.
But when he pondered taking London Town from his California base to the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.) on the East Coast, he had to think about finances. That’s why he applied for the Jacqueline B. Mars National Competition and Training Grant on a whim at the last minute, and he was pleasantly surprised when he got it, along with fellow West Coast riders Tamra Smith and Jordan Lindstedt.
Now he’s using the money to bring a special U.S.-bred horse to the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI*** this weekend, and he’s excited to tackle his first East Coast event.
“I thought, ‘Why not give it a go?’ It’s amazing,” said Helffrich. “For me to come here was a huge financial stress. It was expensive to fly the horse, so getting the grant will be a huge help. I’m extremely grateful. It takes a lot of stress off.”
Helffrich will ride London Town, a 10-year-old warmblood-Thoroughbred gelding (Laitin—Kildara Baylee, Rising Fortune), in the horse’s first CCI***. Bred and owned by Pamela Williams, “Luke” just moved up to advanced this year, but he’s had top-10 finishes at his last three events, including placing fourth in the CIC*** at Rebecca Farm (Mont.).
Luke came to Helffrich when he was 4 and has stayed in his barn ever since.
“He turned out to be too big and strong for [Williams], and she wanted me to keep on going with him and compete him. She’s been supporting me and helping me for the last six years,” Helffrich said. “He wasn’t the easiest to be honest! He was very late to mature. He’s a big horse. He was very spooky for a long time. He was so strong. He put me on the ground more than all of the horses I’ve ever ridden, and not because he was naughty, just because he was very playful and distracted. Only the last two years has he really started to be ‘my horse,’ where he really feels like he wants to be my partner and do it for us. It’s been worth the wait.”
Helffrich said he didn’t have grand plans for the gelding in the beginning of their partnership, but Luke kept answering all the questions and moved up the levels easily.
“He was one of those horses that went novice, training, then, oh we’ll try prelim, and that was easy for him, then intermediate was easy for him too,” he said. “When he did his first advanced—first of all, he can jump a house. He can really jump. He’s so scopey. He jumped all the advanced fences with such ease that I thought eventually he’ll become a four-star horse. The only question mark is, will he ever be fit enough? He’s a big horse. He’s 50 percent Thoroughbred, so I don’t know. He can jump the fences; he’s very brave; he’s very straight. In six years since he did his first event he’s never had a jump penalty on cross-country.”
Helffrich was raised in France to a French mother and an American father, so he holds dual citizenship.
He didn’t start riding until he was 15, but he became hooked on eventing early on in his riding career. He’s spent time in hunter/jumper barns in France and Italy, as well as a few months at a Thoroughbred race horse training and breeding facility in France, and after high school he called up Andrew Nicholson and asked if he could come work for him in England.
Nicholson offered him a working student/groom position, and Helffrich spent two years riding and traveling to the biggest events to groom.
“It was completely mind-changing,” he said. “I went from just being in a horse facility with other kids my age to his place where he had 35 horses, 10 of which were doing four-star. The year I was there he had nine qualified for the [FEI] World Equestrian Games. It was incredible—watching him work, watching him manage the horses. He really has a system of his own. Being in England, it doesn’t get much more horse friendly than there. It really told me that I want to do this for the rest of my life even though it was probably one of the hardest places in the world to work. It was a lot of horses and a lot of work.”
Helffrich loves learning, and after working for Nicholson he attended the National School D’Equitation in Saumur, France, where he earned an instructor’s degree and a bachelors in equine management over three years.
“I really wanted to be educated. I didn’t want to just be a rider,” said Helffrich. “I love to teach as well. That’s why I went to school in Saumur. I wanted to be a good teacher. I don’t ever see my life without teaching.”
Upon graduation in 2005 it was time to send out job applications. He applied all over the world and was invited to a working interview at Denville Kanani Farm in Pleasanton, Calif. He loved it and got the job, which involved growing the eventing clientele at the facility.
After spending nine years there, the facility went private, and Helffrich found a new base at Graceland Equestrian Center in Castro Valley, Calif., where he has 32 horses in training with his wife Kate.
Alexis has only been as far east as the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** to spectate, so he’s excited to tackle Derek Di Grazia’s course at Fair Hill.
He’s been based at Matt and Cecily Brown’s farm in Pennsylvania and appreciates the dressage tune-up from Cecily.
“I’ve heard really good things about Fair Hill. [Di Grazia] is absolutely phenomenal as a course designer. He’s very fair to the horses, so that’s something I really look forward to. I heard it was very hilly and hard physically for the horses, so that worries me a little bit. I think he’s really fit, and I did all the preparation as I was told,” he said.
The Chronicle’s Lindsay Berreth will be at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International all weekend posting all the news and great photos on www.coth.com. Also don’t forget to follow the Chronicle on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @Chronofhorse.