Ballinure went from jumping his first fences to showing in his first grand prix in just three years, with rider and owner Grant Chungo in the irons for every ride along the way. That alone would be impressive enough, but when you factor in that Ballinure is an 8-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred and that Chungo is a 19-year-old who did not start showing until he was 16, their accomplishments seem even more impressive.
Their story is not one shared by many, if any, grand prix riders and horses competing now. Chungo, of Middleburg, Va., grew up riding, but as a foxhunter and Pony Clubber. His mother, Marion Chungo, is an avid foxhunter and instilled a passion for horses in her son at an early age. Grant grew up hunting behind the Middleburg-Orange County Beagles and other Middleburg area hunts like Piedmont, Orange County and Snickersville. He won a first-flight division of the 2009 Junior North American Field Hunter Championships.
Grant Chungo riding Greystone in the Junior
It was through Marion that Grant first met the man who would help make it all happen: Joe Fargis. Marion enlisted Fargis to teach a show jumping clinic to Grant’s Pony Club. Little did either of them know that the clinic would spawn a mentorship that resulted in Grant working for Fargis full-time, managing his farm in Middleburg, Va., during the winter while Fargis was in Florida. He balances that work with his studies at George Mason University (Va.).
Without Fargis, Grant might never have found himself in a ring, let alone jumping grand prix. “All I wanted to do was fox hunt,” Grant recalled. “I didn’t want to be in a ring. And then I started with Joe when I was 13 and I just started out setting fences for him, and it progressed. I started helping in the barn, then I was allowed to flat, then I started getting paid to work on the weekends. I got a job and was working for him full time. Eventually I got to jump some and then by the end of my junior career I would show some for him as well.”
The Horse That Changed Everything
It’s a dream many have had: working their way up from Pony Club or a local lessons program to the grand prix levels. But that was only one part of it and to get as far as he did, Grant needed a partner to take him there. That partner came from beginnings just as humble as Grant’s. Marion had a friend who bred racehorses, and they had one that was too big and too slow.
He had eight starts and had never finished better than fourth despite starts over varying distances and surfaces. “My mom called me and said we could get him cheap. I needed a new horse and I was like ‘Sure, that’s fine.’”
Ballinure, a dark bay gelding who stood 17.2 hands tall as a 4-year-old when Chungo first got him, spent the beginning of the his 5-year-old year in a field turned out. After that, they slowly re-started him under tack. From the beginning, he seemed eager to please. “He was super quiet when I first got on him,” Grant explained. “He’s not crazy; he’s level headed.” There were never any expectations for Ballinure new mount; just an idea for him to be a horse Grant could take lessons on with Joe. “It was just for fun. We don’t have the horses to buy and sell. We just bought him to kind of see where it went. I had no idea that this is where we would go.”
Even after starting him over fences, Ballinure’s connections had no hint that he would end up jumping 1.50-meter. “He had never jumped before. That was very interesting—trotting him over his first jump,” Grant said with a laugh. “He had no idea what to do, his legs were going everywhere. So we did about a good six months of just trotting fences before we cantered. We were still learning. He couldn’t keep himself together at all.”
Grant credits a lot of his success to those months spent trotting fences while the gangly 5-year-old figured it all out. “I really think though, that doing that long of just trotting fences is how I could just come so far so fast. It was a really good base,” he acknowledged.
Grant Chungo and Ballinure back at the barn
More Than Expected
While Grant was certainly a horseman with a lot of experience in the saddle, he and his mount both shared a complete inexperience in the jumper ring. Unlike many of the people Grant now competes against, he did not grow up showing in the junior ranks on ponies and equitation mounts before progressing to the jumpers. In fact, he had never showed at a rated show at all until he got Ballinure when he was 16. Their first year together, Grant and Ballinure took it slow. “As a 5-year-old we did the Thoroughbred Celebration horse show down in Lexington, Va., and that was pretty much the only thing he did that year.”
That slow pace did not last long as it started to become clear that Grant had a lot more horse that he had ever expected. “It was as a 6-year-old, the first year of solidly showing him, that I started to realize what he could do,” marveled Grant. “We would have rails at the lower heights but it was just because he still didn’t know where his legs were. But I could just start feeling the power underneath us and last year just solidified it more.”
Thing progressed quickly from there. “We started in the children’s jumpers just doing maybe a meter and worked our way up to low junior jumpers. We did the 1.30-meter all year and then one 1.35m and finished out 2013 in the high juniors.” All this with a limited show schedule—about one or two shows a month—and no Florida showing.
Grant credits this quick ascension to both the foundation he and Fargis instilled in the horse as well as Ballinure’s raw talent. “I’ve just always felt like he’s had the power and that it hasn’t been hard for him at all. Whenever we were comfortable, we just moved up. Which was mostly pretty quick because I just never felt him really have to try,” he said.
Ballinure’s natural jumping talent helped him and Grant Chungo move up the levels quickly.
A few times, Grant has had to consciously put the brakes on himself and Ballinure a time or two. “It’s just gone so fast that I had to realize ‘OK, wait, I have to show him for a while at this height.’ ” Chungo also attributes their success to Ballinure’s maturity. “I just don’t ever feel like I’m sitting on the age of the horse that I am,” he explained.
Next Stop, Grand Prix
Grant and Ballinure seemed to be right on track to reach their goal of competing in a grand prix. Lexington Spring Premiere in April was their first show of 2014 and they stuck to the young jumper classes with a plan of doing the welcome stake and possibly the grand prix the following week.
With Ballinure going well all week, it seemed like Grant’s dream might become reality. Then, as it too often happens with horses, disaster struck. Fargis had a bad fall and was taken from the show by ambulance and rushed to the hospital where he ended up spending several days in the ICU.
Aside from the obvious stress of worrying about the man he had become so close with, Grant was faced with another problem. He had to decide whether he was going to compete in his first grand prix without his trainer present. Unable to consult with Fargis about what he should do, he went off of the plan they had discussed earlier.
“I had talked to Joe the day of his accident before it happened. I had asked him what he thought about doing the grand prix, and he said I could think about it. Ballinure felt so good the rest of the week and we had done the welcome stake, and I just felt like we should keep going. That there wasn’t really a reason not to,” he said
While Grant went ahead and entered, it was not without some apprehension. “It was just hard because it was our first grand prix and Joe was in the hospital. And I had to go first too!” he quipped.
Despite it all, their first grand prix for both horse and rider, Grant and Ballinure lodged a tidy 4-fault round to finish 10th. With Fargis’ horses at Lexington needing to be taken care of, Grant wasn’t able to visit him in the hospital to tell him the news in person. “There was a card for Joe that everyone was signing at the in-gate to send to him so I just wrote ‘I was 10th!’ and signed my name,” he recalled with a smile.
See Grant and Ballinure’s first round in the $25,000 George L. Ohrstrom Grand Prix…
The pair continued to move forward with Upperville (Va.) as their next show in June. It was there that the pair completed another milestone: their first 1.50-meter course. Grant acknowledged having some apprehension before the class. “I get nervous walking the course,” he admitted. “Its just not real to me that I’m jumping these fences yet. It’s so new. The welcome at Upperville was the second big class that I’ve done and it was much bigger than Lexington.”
“I walk it and think, ‘What am I doing? What am I thinking? These are too big!’ But my nerves go away as soon as I’m jumping in the warm-up because I can feel that he’s got this, that he can get me over these fences,” Grant said.
Grant and Ballinure finished out 2014 with good ribbons in the high amateur-owner jumper division at shows like the Lexington National and the Summer Kick-Off (Pa.) before ending their season showing at the Hampton Classic before Grant went back to school.
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