This week, for the first time since 1978, there will be no Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Instead of a Kentucky Preview Issue, the Chronicle’s April 20 & 27 Classic Kentucky Issue features some of the people and horses who’ve made the event unforgettable over the years. We’ll also be highlighting some of our favorite memories all week on coth.com to honor Kentucky.
For most people, riding at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event is a dream that will never come true. It requires years of dedication, lots of skill, a talented horse and a little bit of luck to make it to the Kentucky Horse Park even once for this storied week in April, let alone multiple times.
Those that fill out the top placings at the United States’ premier event are usually established professionals with strings of elite horses, but every year a handful of riders who’ve made their dream come true on one special horse inspire thousands of horse-crazy teens, hardworking amateur riders and horse lovers of all kinds.
Sara Mittleider started dreaming of competing at Kentucky when she was 6, but growing up in Kuna, Idaho, a “black hole of eventing,” didn’t exactly give her a headstart on making her dreams come true.
Yet she made it to Kentucky in 2005 with her $300 Idaho-bred off-the-track Thoroughbred El Primero, and she competed there three more times, finishing in the top 20 each year.
Mittleider grew up training with her father, Gary Mittleider, a former race horse trainer who transitioned to training eventing horses and riders. The Mittleiders used their annual trip to Kentucky to spectate as an educational opportunity.
“We had gone every year there to watch since I was 13, and always after cross-country day my dad and I would go walk the course and see how the riders rode their lines and see their tracks,” Sara said. “We started developing our eye for what it could possibly look like if and when we were going to ride it ourselves, but nothing quite prepares you when you know you’re going to leave the start box and go out there when you walk it the first time. My mom was walking with us, and she made it to jump No. 5 and said, ‘I can’t walk this anymore,’ so she left!”
El Primero, or “Tony,” had come to her family as a 3-year-old, and Sara brought him through the levels. In 2005, Kentucky was running the long format for the final time.
“I’d been dreaming about it since I was 6, and I really wanted to do the long format at that level, so there was a bit of pressure that year,” Sara said. “I’d just moved up to advanced the year before, and everything just had to go perfectly—nothing could go wrong. Thank my lucky stars things did. The horse stayed sound, he got all of his qualifications, and he did it really well.”
Just 15.1 hands with shoes on, Tony (Dr. Dan Eyes—Classic Allure, Majestic Man) didn’t seem like the type of horse to succeed at Kentucky, but the pair made it around with 20 jumping penalties on cross-country to finish in 18th place—the only cross-country jumping penalty the gelding ever had on his international record.
“[Cross-country day is] something that’s hard to put into words,” Sara said. “It’s something I reflect on when I look back at it versus in the moment. In the moment I was very concentrated on what I was doing, and you don’t quite notice everybody except for the Head of the Lake. You cannot block that many people out when they’re screaming at you as you’re going by. I had a smile on my face the entire way around. My mom videoed the monitor, and the announcers were just commenting on how big my smile was. It was an absolute thrill to be out there.”
At 19 years old, Sara became the youngest rider to complete Kentucky since it had become a four-star (now five-star).
Sara also connected with Tony’s breeder, Jesus Trejo, to let him know how his homebred was doing.
“When he did Kentucky for the first time, I found his breeder, who was just a little old Mexican guy breeding race horses for fun—maybe one day he had one that could make it here in Idaho,” Sara said. “I let him know what this horse had been doing, and it was the first homebred he’d ever had. I sent him a bunch of ribbons and pictures and some paper clippings. I got a really nice thank you card after that, and he followed Tony for the remainder of his career.”
After finishing the 2005 event, Sara gave Tony some time off at home in the field, but the day she went to bring him in and get back to work, he incurred a serious pasture injury that pinched a nerve in his shoulder and paralyzed his right front leg.
“We were not really sure how, but when he came in, at first we thought he had broken the leg,” she said. “We rushed him into my vet clinic, and the radiograph showed the bone was fine, but he couldn’t move it. He spent three weeks in the hospital because he had to wear a splint and be suspended. We were trying not to lose the other leg because it was bearing all his weight. There was a 24-hour period there where we thought we were going to end up losing him, but he was very smart, and he started laying down, and he would only get up to go to the bathroom or to eat or look out and flip sides.”
When he was finally released and eventually given permission to go back to work, the muscles on his right side had atrophied badly. It took eight months of consistent rehabilitation to repair the damage.
“I worked with him four times a day, just putting him through his motions so he’d get the range of motion back to try to strengthen the muscles and get him coordinated again,” said Sara. “He still wasn’t 100 percent sound when we left here after eight months. I went to the East Coast, and we were going to train there. We were in Georgia, and my dad and I got sandwiched between two semi-trailers.”
They were hit from behind and pushed into the rig in front of them, destroying the truck and trailer. Two other horses on the rig were hurt, but Tony walked away unscathed.
The accident occurred in January, and Sara wasn’t sure Kentucky would be an option for them.
“My luck was not working out for me, but somehow it all came together,” she said. “He came sound, I did four shows, then we went to Kentucky, and he was magic. It was a good dressage test for him, and he was double-clear on cross-country, and I still haven’t ridden a round that felt like that, even on him. He just had the last rail in show jumping down, but he felt great, and he won Best Conditioned Horse, which was just mind-blowing considering everything that had led up to that point. 2006 will always and forever be my magic show.”
The pair finished 14th that year.
Tony often drew comparisons to Karen O’Connor’s famous pony Theodore O’Connor.
“Karen and I would go ride around next to each other, and there was not much difference!” said Sara.
Sara and Tony completed Kentucky again in 2007, placing 12th, and in 2010 they finished 18th.
He completed some preliminary events with Sara’s husband Attila Rajnai before retiring, and he died in 2015 in his field due to unknown causes, but Sara was with him for his last breath.
Sara hopes to return to Kentucky with her new talent, La Paz, who won the Galway Downs CCI4*-L (California) last fall, but she’ll always remember Tony as the horse who gave her so many firsts. His name means “the first” in Spanish.
“People were always so amazed,” she said. “They would watch him jump, but they would never think he was as small as he was. He was just brave. He wanted to do it. Every picture you ever find of him jumping, his ears are up, and he’s locked on to the next jump. He loved it so much.”