Monday, May. 20, 2024

Badminton-Bound OTTB Palm Crescent Has Shown O’Donoghue She Belongs At 5*

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When Meghan O’Donoghue first met the off-track Thoroughbred Palm Crescent back in 2011 as a 5-year-old, there was no inkling that he would ever be hers, much less become her next five-star mount. She can’t claim any clairvoyant foresight into his potential, because as it happened, they came together mostly by accident. 

“Honestly, ‘Palmer’ more or less found me,” O’Donoghue recalls with a laugh. 

After a spring season that saw the pair earn one of their best-ever placings at the four-star level when they took third at the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International CCI4*-S (North Carolina) in March, instead of steering for another go at the Defender Kentucky CCI5*-L, O’Donoghue is pointing the 18-year-old gelding toward her first Badminton CCI5*-L (England), May 8-12.

Originally from Carbondale, Illinois, O’Donoghue had moved east to work for Jan Byyny, and Palmer was one of Byyny’s resale Thoroughbreds. The gelding (Quiet American—Edey’s Village, Silver Deputy) was bred by Eugene Melnyk, a successful name in racing and the former owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey team. Palmer raced 10 times, earning $9,462 with one win, making his last start as a 4-year-old in April 2010 at Charles Town (West Virginia).

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent finished third this spring at the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International CCI4*-S. Kimberly Loushin Photos

“He didn’t come directly from the track to Jan; he came through CANTER Mid Atlantic,” O’Donoghue recalled. “Then he was sold to Tebogo Sport Horses [and] Patricia Vos as a sport horse prospect, and Jan bought him from Patricia, I think as a 4-year-old. He was produced through the training level by Jan and then sold to the Shipka family, and Chase Shipka rode him. She did a couple intermediates on him before I took the reins [in 2015].”

After several years working for Byyny and then for Will Coleman, O’Donoghue had just struck out on her own as a professional. She wanted to stay in the Middleburg, Virginia, area, so rented stalls at the Shipkas’ farm. Chase, then a young rider, had decided to switch from eventing to dressage, so her mom Darcie asked O’Donoghue to help with the event horses. 

“One had sustained an injury. One I actually sold for the family. And then Palmer was the other horse,” O’Donoghue said. “They weren’t really sure what they wanted to do with him. But they asked me if I would kind of get him going. And I, of course, gladly took on that job and got him going again.

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent at Land Rover Kentucky in 2023.

“They weren’t really keen to sell the horse, so they just asked me to basically take the ride and get him going and see what happens. So that’s how that relationship began,” she said. The Shipkas maintained ownership until 2020, when O’Donoghue and her fiancé Will Duhring worked out a deal to purchase him.

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O’Donoghue had moved East with another off-track Thoroughbred, Pirate, who took her to her first five-star at Kentucky in 2013, where they placed 12th. They completed Kentucky two more times and made an unsuccessful try at Burghley (England) before he sustained an injury that ended his five-star career. 

“I never sought [Palmer] out; he just found his way [to me],” O’Donoghue, 35, said. “I needed him probably more than he needed me, because I was in no position to fill that hole that Pirate was leaving [with another upper-level horse]. I got very lucky that he just happened into my life and that the family was so gracious with, one, supporting him for a long time and then, two, making it so I could continue on with him.”

“I got very lucky that he just happened into my life and that the family was so gracious with, one, supporting him for a long time and then, two, making it so I could continue on with him,” Meghan O’Donoghue said of Palm Crescent and his former owners, the Shipka family.

Having grown up with Thoroughbreds, O’Donoghue found Palmer to be a familiar ride. “He is a different horse than Pirate, but 110% [putting] the same amount of try and heart into everything that they do,” she said. “I would say, because I produced Pirate from a young horse straight off the track all the way up the levels of eventing, it was different because Palmer came to me having been ridden and kind of produced by a couple of different people. He had a rapport with different riders, but was willing to give me a chance to kind of create this partnership, that ultimately now very much is ours.”

The pair moved up to the advanced level by the end of 2015, and did their first CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) in 2016, but then had some detours due to freak injuries. Palmer had a non-displaced fracture of his stifle at Carolina International in 2017 after misreading a ditch-and-wall and catching his hind leg. Then at Fair Hill in fall 2018, he stepped on his bell boot while trying to take off at a jump in the water, hit his head on the back side of the jump and fractured his jaw. But he recovered from both injuries without incident. “We got very lucky with both of those situations, as unlucky as they were, with the rehab side of it,” O’Donoghue said.

Palmer recovered from the broken jaw over the winter, and it was full steam ahead next season. They earned two top-10 finishes at the four-star level in 2019, placing third at the Jersey Fresh International CCI4*-L (New Jersey) and sixth at the Fair Hill International CCI4*-L (Maryland). After a COVID-shortened 2020 season, the pair made their debut at the Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L in 2021, six years after O’Donoghue’s last trip around the event, and placed 23rd. They completed the event again in 2022, improving their placing to 11th.

It’s been at the five-star level that Palmer has truly found his stride, O’Donoghue said.

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent finished just a few seconds over the time on cross-country at the inaugural Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill in 2021.

“When he leaves the start box, if anything, I have to remind him that we have a ways to go,” she said. “So he has flourished around 11-plus-minute tracks and being at the five-star level, because it gives him a little bit more time between the jumps to actually take a deep breath and relax in his stride. Because he comes out at 200% when he leaves the start box, and he needs that time between those jumps to relax and find a rhythm that just makes the course feel like it’s quite easy.

“He has been an unbelievable cross-country horse. And, you know, I’ve looked after him, between all of those major competitions, knowing that I don’t have a lot of those [upper level] horses, so I need him,” she continued. “I would like to think that between that, and the team of people that are behind me in the barn, the vets and the farriers and the physios and all of these people, that is why he’s 18 and going to a five-star, and looks as good as ever.”

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O’Donoghue and Palmer competed overseas for the first time in 2022, traveling to the Aachen CCIO4*-S (Germany), where O’Donoghue competed in her first Nations Cup, and then went on to Burghley.

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent jumped clean and fast around cross-country this spring at the Carolina International CCI4*-S.

Although they earned a personal best in dressage and show jumped clear over Aachen’s notoriously difficult show jumping track on the grass, they had some trouble on cross-country that O’Donoghue chalks up to a gap in her preparation, trying to balance Palmer’s longevity and her own experience.

“Maybe my management of looking after that horse at the shorter courses that I have used to prepare him for five-star level, not running him very quickly there and getting a feel for understanding him on a shorter course, at a higher rate of speed, I think that was where I had a miss,” she said. “It’s just something that I’ll take away, and I will never make that mistake again. It’s tricky when you have one top horse, and you’re trying to look after them, but also gain the mileage you need to perform on a competitive stage, like a Nations Cup at Aachen.”

They continued on to Burghley two months later, where O’Donoghue said Palmer was “incredible” but she lost her balance in the saddle turning to a question on cross-country, so they had an unfortunate 20 penalties.

“That really is not a reflection of him at all, and what an amazing cross-country horse he is, but it is what it is,” she said with a laugh. “So, I do feel that going into Badminton, having Burghley checked off my list as something that we have accomplished together, does give me some [confidence in] the fact that he is up to a track like a Badminton and a Burghley. I do feel that there is some something to be said about having done that, and he’s been around Kentucky three times and Maryland once. We have a lot going for us that way. I know that Badminton is its own thing, right? So I’m definitely not going in overly confident. But it’s something that I want for the future of my other horses; I want that experience. And it’s something that I feel he deserves on his resume, if we can pull that off, so I’m very excited.”

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent at the 2021 Maryland CCI5*-L, where they placed 17th.

For O’Donoghue, developing another successful five-star partnership is a confirmation that she’s where she’s supposed to be.

“When you’re young, you’re gung ho, you get your first five-star horse—that’s a huge accomplishment, and I’m very grateful to Pirate and all the years he gave me, allowing me to learn that level and gain those experiences,” she said. “But I think until you’re in that position where you don’t have that horse anymore, and you sit back and you wonder, where is the next one? Is there a next one? You can’t appreciate that moment until it happens.

“So, I think that you have to prove yourself as a rider, that you can have a next one and form another relationship with another horse, that you can do it at that level. Having [Palmer] as that next horse that put me back on that stage to successfully do the level again, it just gives me a lot of confidence that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I have dedicated my life to this sport and being a top eventing athlete, and I am where I belong, and I hope to be here on many other horses. So I think that I am indebted to him for that.”

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