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March 30, 2006

Show Hunter Horse of the Year: Popeye K

Over the past three decades, Tommy Serio has thrown his leg over more horses than he could ever recall. Many stand out in his mind for their superior attributes and winning ways, horses like Mind Games and Two For One, to name just two. So when Serio considers the ranking of his current star, Popeye K, in his roster of favorites, he pauses for just a moment.

"He's definitely on the good list. I've had hundreds of horses who've won [U.S. Equestrian Federation] Horse of the Year titles, and he's on that list. He's in the top five, for sure. And I've had some nice horses over the years."

Owner Rachel Spencer couldn't agree more. She's observed the partnership develop between Serio and Popeye over the past three years and their special bond that produces such memorable performances. And while she's an active amateur competitor herself, Spencer understands the magic they have together. So she's only ridden Popeye one time, but she doesn't mind.

"Tommy just loves this horse so much," laughed Spencer, of Keswick, Va. "It's actually a big joke around the barn that he's really Tommy's horse. At [student] Jessi Smith's wedding last year we were joking about Popeye, and I said, 'I'll have a chance to drive Tommy's Corvette before I'll have a chance to ride Popeye.' So he turns to me, hands me the keys, and says, 'You can drive on the way home.' "

Serio admired Popeye from the first time they crossed paths in 2002, when Serio traveled to Ottawa, Ont., to give a clinic. Owners Peter Karneef and Paul and Darlene Morgan had already bred Popeye, then 5, extensively, and Canadian show jumping legend Ian Millar had started him, but they were looking to promote him as a show hunter.

"I liked him at first sight," recalled Serio. "He had a nice rhythm to the canter, and I liked that."

It wasn't long before Serio realized Popeye's jumping prowess. "He can jump an unreal jump," he said. "Even today, we did a little school, and he's unfit, but he gives me that exact jump--head down and withers up. From the first jump to the last, he does that every time. And that's not something you can train--they have to have that ability when they fall out of their dams."

Indeed, Popeye came by his athleticism through his genes. Karneef breeds his mares to top European stallions. For Eloretta, he chose Voltaire, known to produce incredible jumpers, and Popeye K was born of that union in 1997.

By age 3, Popeye was already the talk of Canada. He won the coveted Governor General's Cup, awarded at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair to the 3-year-old, Canadian-bred horse best suited to become a sport horse. His win in the Governor General's Cup launched his breeding career and, with his offspring displaying the same athleticism, good temperament and flashy markings, Popeye K became a highly desired sire, despite his young age. He's an approved Canadian Warmblood as well as a Canadian Sport Horse-licensed stallion. So far, Popeye has more than 250 get in Canada and 50 more in the United States.

So when Popeye arrived at Serio's barn in early 2003, it was perfect timing. Spencer and her mother, Elizabeth, were looking for a new investment horse to take to Florida. Rachel had just concluded a lesson on her hunter, Small Talk, when Popeye walked into the ring for a school with Serio.

"There wasn't a buzz about him in the barn, but I thought to myself, 'I should watch him go,' " said Rachel. "He was beautiful, and Tommy jumped him around a three-foot course and it was like, 'Wow!' So I asked Tommy if he was for sale. And he said, 'Maybe.' "

By the time the Winter Equestrian Festival began in January, the Spencers owned Popeye K and had added a whole new dimension to their Spencer Ranch. "We were very lucky being at the right place at the right time," Rachel added. "There's not anyone who would have turned down the opportunity to buy that one."

Since his debut in the green conformation division in 2003, Popeye has earned three consecutive top-three finishes in USEF Horse of the Year awards, along with tricolors at WEF, Devon (Pa.) and at the fall indoor shows. And throughout his competitive career, he's continued to breed a select number of mares when he spends two four-week "vacations" being collected at Select Breeders Services, based at Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md.

This year Rachel traveled to the Royal Winter Fair to watch the sport horse breeding classes, which featured many of Popeye's get. And she wasn't disappointed. Five of the top 10 in the Governor General's Cup and the top three in the Lieutenant General's Cup were his progeny, earning him the get of sire award for the second time.

While Popeye's list of mares has included many proven show hunters, his most famous is Elaine Boylen's Rox Dene, who had a foal by him in 2005. "Her name is Poppy, and she's going to show on the line this year," said Rachel. "I have fun seeing what people are breeding--it's exciting for me. And I enjoy it so much because it goes beyond owning Popeye K. I'm a part of something much bigger than my barn, which I like.

"Breeding and buying young horses is the biggest legal form of gambling I know," she added with a laugh. "I don't need to play the slots or tables, because as far as I'm concerned, I'm gambling all the time. But I wouldn't change a thing!"

Personal Profile
Description: 9-year-old, 17.2-hand, bay stallion. Canadian-bred Dutch Warmblood (Voltaire--Eloretta, L Ronald). Bred by Peter Karneef of Ashton, Ont.
Nicknames: Popeye, Old Man, Pops.
Residence: Summerfield, Keswick, Va.
Connections: Elizabeth and Rachel Spencer, owners; Tommy Serio, rider; Dave and Susie Morris, grooms.
Tack: A loose-port, sweet-iron bit to show in and a hollow-mouth loose-ring snaffle for daily flatwork.
Favorite Treats: "Just about anything," said Rachel. "He likes to eat. You
look at his belly. Every time he comes back from the breeder, we all wish he would lose some weight. He's been on a diet the past six months."
Traits: "He'll sucker you out for treats," said Serio. "He has that pony look, and you can't resist. He also likes to have you scratch around his eyes. He'll walk away from his food for that."
What's Unusual: "He has a perfect hoof print on his [right] flank, complete with a frog mark, where he was stepped on when he was a baby," said Serio. "I've never seen anything like it, and it's not a scar, it's an imprint."

2005 Competitive highlights
U.S. Equestrian Federation--Regular Conformation Hunter Reserve Champion
Royal Winter Fair (Ont.)--Get of Sire winner (Over The Moon, Lt. Governor's Cup champion)
Washington (D.C.) International--regular conformation reserve champion
Pennsylvania National--regular conformation champion
Capital Challenge (Md.)--regular conformation champion, grand hunter champion, leading hunter rider, best hunter performance
Middleburg Classic (Va.)--regular conformation champion, grand hunter champion
Kentucky HJA & Blue Grass Festival (Ky.)--regular conformation champion
I Love New York & Lake Placid (N.Y.)--regular conformation champion
Roanoke (Va.)--regular conformation champion
Lexington Spring Premiere (Va.)--regular conformation champion
Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.)--regular conformation circuit reserve champion