Burghley Is Their Chance Of A Lifetime

Aug 13, 2004 - 5:12 AM

“This doesn’t happen to people like me,” said Kim Morani wistfully. “My passport isn’t even stamped. I just got one last year!”

After a spectacular 10th-placed finish at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in April, Morani, 45, is now staring at her first-ever opportunity to compete at England’s legendary Burghley CCI****, on Sept. 2-5.

“I didn’t have great aspirations for Kentucky,” said Morani, one of 22 U.S. riders nominated for Burghley. “Getting a ribbon at Kentucky was absolutely unbelievable.”

Morani, for whom Kentucky was her first four-star and where she was also the highest-placed owner-rider, considers her home-bred Test Run to be “a culmination of my whole life of breeding horses.”

“Merle” (by Test Pilot–Iron Gal) is the great-grandson of Morani’s first advanced-level horse, whom she rode at the Kentucky three-star 20 years ago.

“He’s my ideal of a perfect horse. He’s my absolute best friend,” raved Morani about the elegant gray gelding. “He’s the best thing that I’ve ever had.”

In the wake of her Kentucky accomplishment, Morani begrudgingly took the advice of friends and decided to find out what was required be eligible to make the trip to Burghley. In doing so, she set the wheels in motion to make what she thought to be the impossible happen.

“Crossing the pond” had never seemed like a financial reality for Morani, who runs a teaching and training facility in Worton, Md., with husband Marty. But Morani’s friends and support network were not about to let a few dollars stand in the way of such a lifetime opportunity.

Be it 50/50 raffles, cocktail parties, bull roasts or just plain networking, Morani’s supporters are trying to fundraise her way to England. The trip will cost at least $20,000—$13,000 per horse for the airfare alone, thanks to this year’s skyrocketing fuel prices.

“You get a little bit here, a little bit there. It’s wonderful,” said Morani. “Then we really have to get down to how many pennies we need and how to fill in the gaps. In the meantime, I just go out there and work my horse.

“The only way this is even near possible is because all of these other people are doing this fundraising for me,” she added.

Incredible Pressure

Finances aside, Morani has discovered that a trip off the continent adds several new snags to the usual event preparation.

“Around here, it’s so simple,” she mused. “All of a sudden there are all of these logistics of dealing with all of these people that you don’t know.” To begin with, how will she get Merle from the airport to the event?

Relying on supporters to fund the trip has also brought a new type of pressure the equation for Morani. She doesn’t wantto disappoint her supporters, so she worries constantly about keeping Merle safe and sound until the start of the dressage at Burghley.

“That, to me, is an incredible pressure. That is a much bigger issue than, ‘Will you be able to go to this event, and will you be able to do well?’ ” she explained. “I just worry about one day at a time, like don’t step on a stone today, don’t run into a nail tomorrow. I have to get him through tomorrow without stepping in a gopher hole!”

Having a horse of Merle’s caliber in the latter portion of her career also weighs on Morani as she prepares for Burghley.

“I am an old lady. The fact that I can still do this is something I’m very grateful for,” she said earnestly. “I feel pressure simply because I’m not young. I probably don’t have the time to start from scratch.”

But Morani isn’t ready write off Merle as the first and last four-star horse of her career.

“Merle is keeping me young. I have to keep going because I have this great horse. I have to push myself because I can’t let this great horse go to waste,” she said. “But, if I look at that yearling filly that’s his full sister [in the field] and go, ‘Gosh she’s awful nice,’ then I can just dream and say, ‘Why can’t that be possible?’

“I am an example of what persistence will net you,” added Morani, who has brought six horses to the advanced level, five of which she broke herself and four of which she bred. But her forays at the advanced level haven’t always been as smooth as with Merle.

On her first trip to Kentucky 20 years ago, Morani said she fell three times on two different horses before the 15th jump on the cross-country course. “I was like a car wreck. I kept getting back on. Some people call that stupid. I call it experience!” she said with a laugh.

The good, the bad, and the ugly are what Morani believes has helped to shape her into a rider capable of taking on the mighty Burghley. And she’s certainly managed to keep her sense of humor along the way. “I try not to fall off anymore because it hurts too much,” she joked. “I’m not really better. I just really don’t want to fall off.”

Last Chances

Unlike Morani, Gretchen Butts, 50, of Laytonsville, Md., is treating the trip to Burghley as her first and last opportunity to ride at the prestigious event.

“It’s a little hard to put it in perspective. He’s one of those once-in-a-career horses,” said Butts of Zydeco, the 12-year-old Canadian-bred Thoroughbred-cross who’s been her partner for six years.

“I really thought that Kentucky was the pinnacle, and it certainly still feels that way,” added Butts who finished 23rd at Rolex this year, her second run at the four-star with ‘Z’. “I didn’t think anything could top it.”

It took a little push from friends David and Karen O’Connor after Kentucky to convince Butts that a trip to Burghley should be in her future. “They were saying, ‘You just have to do this,'” said Butts. “It’s sort of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do it.”

Butts will also be relying heavily on the O’Connors to help with the logistics of flying Z to Europe and preparing him for Burghley. “I told Karen and David that they would pretty much have to adopt me for the two to three weeks that I would be over there,” said Butts jokingly. “They’ve kindly taken me under their wing.”

Like Morani, Butts is also relying on a “cast of thousands” to finance her way to England.

“My family has supported me through all of my ventures thus far, but I just can’t see burdening them with that again. It’s a question of realism to come up with the money for me to go play for a weekend in England,” explained Butts. “My husband keeps reminding me that I don’t have a wealthy owner! We have made this happen on a shoestring, and that’s the only way we will continue to make it happen.”

Friends Julia Beamish, Pat Mansfield and Beth Sokohl are leading the fund-raising charge for Butts. “I can’t give those ladies enough kudos, that’s for sure,” said Butts.

And she too is experiencing an element of pressure that she hasn’t faced before.

“It’s not just me sending myself over there, having really just myself to account to. A lot of people are trying to make this happen for me, and if I get there it will be because of the power of people putting this together to get me there, and I feel a certain responsibility to them,” she said.

So she’s trying to keep the expectations of her supporters in perspective. “It’s not the outcome. It’s just getting me there and giving me the chance to do it,” she said. “The pressure I put on myself tends to be my own.”

Butts said she feels especially intense about this opportunity because she and Z have reached the four-star level in the twilight of her high-level competitive life.

“I’ve gone through any number of horses trying to find ‘the one’ who could possibly turn the corner and get me there, and I’ve found it with this horse. There won’t be another one, not in my career,” she said matter-of-factly.

On top of being a licensed eventing judge and technical delegate, Butts, along with husband Robert, runs Waredaca, an equestrian facility that hosts everything from summer camps to three or four recognized horse trials a year.

“It is realistically balancing what I can give within my lifestyle of running a farm, and raising a family, and being an official,” said Butts.

Husband Robert agrees that preparation for the trip has proved to be a juggling act. “The time she’s taking to gallop and those kinds of things is making an already busy time of year even busier,” he allowed.

But he also understands the magnitude of the chance to run at Burghley. “When you have a horse like Zydeco, that’s a rare opportunity, and for her to have the opportunity for as long and hard as she works in the sport, it’s wonderful.”

Because of her commitments at Waredaca, Gretchen will be sending Z to England to prepare with her 21-year-old daughter Stephanie. After she and younger daughter Devon, 16, have finished running Waredaca’s August event, Butts will rush over and take the reins.

Making a living by officiating at events and running the programs and events at Waredaca has long prevented her from spending as much time in the saddle as the O’Connors. “I consider myself more an amateur than a professional,” she said. “Most everyone identifies with me in that role.”

In this way, Butts sees herself as a role model for the vast majority of adult-amateur event riders. “It’s giving amateur adults the sense that, ‘Hey, it can happen to you too,’ ” she said.

Persistence Pays Off

Butts and Morani never really thought they’d find themselves riding at Burghley, but it’s long been Lellie Ward’s dream. “I’ve been trying to ride at Burghley for the past 20 years,” said Ward, 45.

Ward, of Aiken, S.C., actually moved to England for four years in 1990 to ride–just 20 minutes down the road from Burghley, in fact. But her hope to run the renowned event never seemed to pan out.

“I came close to riding at Burghley several times, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Horses went wrong. Things went wrong,” she recalled. “This is a real dream, I’ve been trying to do it for a long, long time.”

But the years Ward–who finished 25th at Rolex Kentucky this year with her and Eric Wilson’s 13-year-old gelding Riverdance–spent in England have given her a good idea of what to expect.

“Burghley is a bit hillier than Kentucky, so I think that there are greater demands on the stamina of the horse,” she explained. “I think it is a fraction harder because there are a lot of jumps that are situated on more undulating terrain than at Kentucky.”

But she also said the difference in terrain will suit Riverdance (Mogambo–Lupe Valez), who performed admirably over similar rolling hills at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) two years ago. As the joint master of the Aiken Hunt (S.C.), Ward also has seen her share of undulating landscapes.

While Ward’s dream of riding at Burghley is about to become a reality, her partnership with Riverdance certainly didn’t begin with that goal in mind. When he was sent to Ward to be sold as a dressage horse in 1998, her first goal was just to stop Riverdance from running off with her.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sell him as a dressage horse. He was a nut,” said Ward with a laugh. “A certified, professional runaway!

“It’s been a long, hard struggle taming him,” she added.

Although his rideability required some work, it only took three jumps in front of Canadian show jumper Nancy Wetmore, who winters in Aiken, before she told Ward to buy the horse herself.

“We didn’t buy him to be an international event horse,” said Ward. “We bought him because he was a very game jumper and he seemed to jump everything I aimed him at. He was just such a goer.”

Still, Ward knew she was going to need some financial help to realize her Burghley dream. For that she turned to her hometown fans.

“I have the entire town of Aiken, S.C., helping me!” Ward joked. “On the Burghley entry form, there’s a place–and it’s only about 2 or 3 inches wide–and it says, ‘List all your sponsors.’ So I just wrote on the thing, ‘Riverdance and I were sponsored by the entire town of Aiken, S.C.’ They’ve kept me going. Period.”

Ward has also turned to the American Horse Trials Foundation, the same group that helped her make the trip to England 14 years ago.

“They’re just such a gift to any rider that wants to do anything without the help of private sponsors or corporate sponsors,” said Ward. “Without that [organization], most of us riders couldn’t even begin to dream of getting things done.”

Ward, who balances her four-star ambitions with running a training business, said that after Burghley she might allow herself to think about trying to break onto a future U.S. team with Riverdance. “It’s crossed my mind,” she admitted.

Ward said that just a couple of rider errors near the end of the cross-county course at Kentucky kept her out of the ribbons, something she believes she must overcome before she starts seriously contemplating making a run for the team.

“When you have a successful competition without making mistakes, then you can think about making the team,” she said.

For now, Ward’s focus is squarely on having a good run at Burghley. “This is my 10th advanced horse, and I hope it works this time,” she said.

The Start Of Something Good

At age 27, Cricket Worthen is hoping that her initial crack at the Burghley CCI**** is just the beginning.

She and the English-bred Thoroughbred Broadstone Whitehall, 12, each made their four-star debut at Rolex Kentucky this spring in the modified division, finishing 21st.

Worthen, Newnan, Ga., entered the modified section hoping to be considered for an Olympic berth–where the modified format will also be used. But she’s looking forward to running the traditional three-day format at Burghley.

“I’m definitely glad to be able to go and do the real thing, just in case they end up getting rid of them all!” she joked.

Seriously, she’s hoping that her week at Burghley goes a little smoother than at Rolex, where she spent the night before the cross-country phase in the hospital with food poisoning.

“I think it is the first time in my life I have had to have someone come and wake me up to go jump cross-country,” said Worthen with a laugh.

Despite her queasy state, she thought that “Rodney” handled the test admirably. “It didn’t seem to take anything out of him,” she said. “Hopefully, he’ll have quite a few more [four-stars] in him.”

Beyond Burghley, Worthen is looking toward qualifying for the U.S. team that will contest the 2006 World Championships in Aachen, Germany. With another horse showing promise, she hopes to have two at the four-star level by next spring.

But Worthen is also concentrating on raising the money she needs to get to Burghley. “I was trying to find six or seven people that would put up a couple of thousand dollars apiece,” she explained. “Needless to say, I don’t have all the money yet! I hope it will all come through.”

Having never taken horses to Europe, she’s also teaming up with Ward and Morani to make the arrangements a little less stressful. Worthen is responsible for organizing accommodations for the three once they land in England, something she’s finding challenging, owing to the vast number of small towns in proximity to Burghley.

Fortunately, her groom, Nick Cheswick, is from England and has been most helpful directing her on the geography of the area. “He’s my secret weapon,” she said with a laugh.

With all the stresses of the trip, Worthen doesn’t think she’ll get to sit back and enjoy the moment until it has passed.

“I wish it was over so I know I survived it,” she said wryly. “It will be one of those things that you can’t truly enjoy until you’re on the plane trip home.”

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