Stephanie Cooper rode her way into the kind of fairytale win that gives hope to amateur eventers on a budget. A dental assistant from Hobart, Wash., Cooper and her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Kaelen, galloped to victory in the Galway Downs CCI** in Temecula, Calif., Nov. 4-7.
Cooper, 33, hadn’t actually planned to ride in a three-day this year. She completed her first advanced horse trials at Jackson Hole (Wyo.) in August. “That was my goal for the year,”said Cooper. “I hadn’t thought about coming [to Galway Downs].”
Cooper bought Kaelen four years ago for $1,800 as a 6-year-old. He raced until he was 5 and then had a year off. She only rode in one novice and one training event before moving him up, since he wasn’t paying attention at the lower levels.
Working with John Camlin and Amy Tryon, Cooper learned to organize Kaelen’s long body. This was their first full season at intermediate.
Cooper and her best friend and groom, Katrina Bradley, drove for 24 hours straight to make it down the length of the coast to Galway Downs. When they arrived, Kaelen took in the track and stabling and decided he must be there to race. He thought he was back in the paddock when he was presented for the first jog. He got so excited that he kicked out at the ground jury and ran sideways, leaping around instead of trotting.
“They told me to take a deep breath and try again because they really didn’t see anything,” said Cooper of the first horse inspection.They tried fooling Kaelen by taking a new route back to the barns each time, but he eventually figured it out and made lifepretty miserable for whoever was leading him. “He picks me up off the ground a lot!” said the diminutive Bradley with a laugh.
Fortunately, when it came down to performing, Kaelen was a different horse. They placed second after dressage with a score of 53.4.
Cooper went into cross-country feeling confident after walking Michael Etherington-Smith’s course with Camlin. “This last year he really knows his job,” she said of Kaelen. “When he comes out of the box he’s ready. If you just give him a decent ride, he’ll go.”
The course was almost destroyed by mudslides the week before the event, but course builder Bert Wood worked day and night and succeeded at restoring the footing so well that most competitors ran without studs.
Kaelen ate up the fast course and added only 3.6 time penalties to hold onto second place, but Cooper knew the show jumping wouldn’t be easy.
“You never know what horse is going to show up,” she explained. She walked Josea Nava’s maximum course once with Camlin and then again with Tryon, carefully planning her routes. She executed a flawless clear round, even making the inside turn off the triple that no one else attempted.
“I got lucky and it worked,” said Cooper. “He came out the perfect horse today.”
With the only clean round in the division, Cooper moved into first after overnight leader Jamie Lawrence took the last two rails. Lawrence did win the John H. Fritz trophy for the highest placed young rider.
“This is the one horse, the one chance,” said Cooper emotionally of her win. “I called my parents and I was crying. I just came and sat in a bunch of saddles and I feel like a princess!” (She received a new custom Devoucoux saddle as a prize.)
Just An Everyday Working Girl
Cooper used her vacation time from the dental office to go to the three-day. She had to turn around and leave immediately afterwards so she could return to work on Tuesday. Cooper keeps Kaelen and another horse at her parents’ home while working afternoon and evening shifts so she can ride in the morning.
“I own one to compete and one to resell to fund everything else,” she said with a laugh. She travels one to two hours every week for a lesson and spends the rest of the time working on her own.
Shannon Lilley took a different approach to her love of horses and decided to try and make it as a professional. Lilley, 25, rode High Mountain Road to a win in the CCI*. A graduate of Santa Clara University (Calif.), Lilley made the switch from working student to trainer for Dayna Lynd-Pugh at Flying Tail Farms in Gilroy, Calif.
“I knew I was going to be a horse trainer but never wanted to avoid college,” said Lilley. “I rode through college, and I’ve always been [Lynd-Pugh’s] working student. When we moved to Gilroy, we needed another trainer.”
Lilley credits Lynd-Pugh with the training that made “Otis” into a winning ride. The off-the-track Thoroughbred had competed at intermediate and advanced, but, “He was pretty unbroken,” said Lilley. “He was used to a man’s ride.”
Lynd-Pugh re-schooled the 9-year-old gelding, and when he went on the market, Lilley knew she had to own him. She asked her father, Alex Lilley, and he agreed to buy the horse.
“I just enjoy him so much,” said Lilley. “He gives you the feeling of a big-time, upper-level horse. I feel very privileged to be on such a nice horse.”
Lilley bought Otis in late September, so the pair is still getting to know each other, but they’ve placed first or second in all three horse trials they’ve completed.
Otis was the last horse to do dressage on Thursday, and Lilley thought that wasn’t ideal because he’s better with other horses around.
“If anything he was a little exuberant,” she said of their test. “He was very obedient, but he gave the impression of being a little short in the back, a little tense. It wasn’t my best test.”
Still, it was good enough to put them in third place heading into cross-country with a score of 48.3. Lilley had few worries about the endurance phase of the competition. “He’s been known to be strong on steeplechase, but this time he was so soft, I didn’t feel like we were going fast,” she said. “The cross-country course was easy for him.”
Less than a rail separated Lilley from the leader, Jil Walton, riding her student Jennifer Taxay’s Indego. Otis jumped around well but did pull a rail from one of the verticals. “He’s better with the more impressive fences,” admitted Lilley.
Unfortunately for Walton, she had two rails and three time penalties, propelling Lilley into first. Lilley also placed 14th with July 4th, a homebred mare owned by Charlotte Allen of Pebble Beach.
Galway Downs also offered the option of riding in a CCI without steeplechase, but the divisions were quite small. Only three people completed the modified CCI**, which Vicky Koss won riding Ben Cruise.
Mogie Bearden-Muller of Danville, Calif., took the CCI* without steeplechase on Alexa Seip’s Select.
“It’s the same qualification whether you run the long format or the short format,” said Bearden-Muller, explaining why she called Kellerhouse and asked him to run a CCI without steeplechase. “[Select is] young and has a lot of talent. She could have done it, but there was no sense in risking the possibility of injury unless you have to.”
Bearden-Muller imported “Lexie” this spring from Ireland. The 6-year-old Irish Sport Horse had done one novice level event there, the equivalent of preliminary in the United States. Bearden-Muller took her to one training level event and then moved up to preliminary.
“I’ve been having a problem with her being spooky,” she said. “She was looking at all the stuff as I’m galloping and not galloping straight. Having the longer course with more distance between the fences meant that she galloped better than she’s ever done before.”
Bearden-Muller was third after dressage and that didn’t change after cross-country, but her clean round in show jumping moved her up to first when everyone else had rails. She finished on her dressage score of 53.7.
“She’s a fabulous jumper and was my first pick,” said Bearden-Muller of Lexie. “I want to move her up to intermediate next year and possibly do the Jersey Fresh CCI** [N.J.].”
Bearden-Muller said she would run the short format if it were offered at Jersey Fresh.
Galway Downs Events Are Safe For Now
Organizer Robert Kellerhouse hasn’t ever had a guarantee that he’ll be allowed to continue using Galway Downs for his events. The facility wasn’t making enough money to cover the mortgage, and last year the owners of MCC Events Management filed for bankruptcy.
The property went into trust in July with the promise that operations could continue through September. Then the possibility of a buyer meant that the horses living there had to leave and the track shut down. Kellerhouse rushed to assure both the new owner-to-be and the bankruptcy trustee that the horse show wouldn’t cause any problems for the sale.
“My eventing competition was a minor issue compared to buying this place for 10.2 million,” said Kellerhouse. “But the buyer’s representative kept working with us.”
In mid-November, the Los Angeles-based Namco Capital Group, run by real-estate investor Ezri Namvar, will take ownership of the 242-acre property. The plan is to develop the land eventually, but for the next three to five years horse operations will continue.
“That’s more of a commitment than I’ve ever had before!” said Kellerhouse.