Lauren O’Brien (nee Hart) was having a pretty unlucky year in 1995 as she prepared to tackle the Fair Hill International CCI*** with her horse of a lifetime, Wexford.
Then 30, the eventer was trying to make ends meet galloping racehorses in Southern Pines, but after returning home from Fair Hill the year before, she lost her job and her living situation suddenly.
Things were looking up as she was selected to compete on the U.S. team at the Open European Championships in Pratoni, Italy, and spent the summer competing in England.
But things fell apart on cross-country at the Europeans and she and Wexford were eliminated after two falls. O’Brien dusted herself off, came home and rerouted to Fair Hill, where she and the Irish-bred gelding jumped to third place, their best three-day finish to date, despite a scrappy moment on cross-country that mimicked their trouble at Pratoni.
Then-Chronicle editor John Strassburger was on site to capture the action at Fair Hill in 1995, and his report from the Nov. 10 issue described O’Brien’s near-miss.
“Hart’s European Championship downfall was the water jump. The second element there was a log surrounded by reeds that caused many horses to make awkward efforts. Hart said Wexford hesitated and then crumpled on landing from a steep descent. A second fall a few fences later eliminated her.
“Ironically, Hart’s only awkward moment at Fair Hill was at the second water jump, a bounce over two massive logs into a pond.
” ‘I got there going forward like I wanted. It was going to be a little long or take a tug, and no way was I going to take a tug after Pratoni,’ she said.
“Wexford bobbled when he landed in the water, and Hart hung on to his neck after losing both stirrups. Trouble was, they still had to jump up the bank. Wexford just kept going straight, through, and Hart righted herself once they were out of the water.
” ‘He was really good to keep going,’ said Hart. ‘I really wasn’t doing anything to help him at that point, but I knew if I fell off a bunch of people would have jumped on my head.’”
While the details of the close call at Fair Hill are fuzzy to O’Brien now, she remembers Wexford as a great competitor.
“I remember [Fair Hill] seeming a bit easier than the Europeans. It was my first time competing in Europe, so it was pretty overwhelming,” she said. “Coming back home and being on familiar turf, it felt a little bit easier. It’s always gratifying to have that opportunity to fix a mess and have a second chance. I remember him being very good in the show jumping. He was always good. He was a great competitor. My fall at the Europeans was not his fault, it was my fault.”
O’Brien had been a groom for Torrance Watkins and had traveled to the 1986 World Championships in Australia with Watkins to care for Finvarra. She also traveled to the 1990 World Championships in Sweden with Mike Plumb and Chagall.
She found Wexford as a 5-year-old who’d done a couple of novices. He’d been bred in Ireland by huntsman George Chapman and was by Soudnou. O’Brien thought he’d be a sales horse and brought him north to Karen Stives and Mike Plumb’s farm where she was working for them.
“I can remember Karen coming one evening late and I was riding in the indoor,” she said. “She said, ‘You better be prepared to lose him or come up with the money, because he’s starting to look like the money.”
O’Brien scraped together the cash to be able to keep him. As they came up through the levels, they won the Radnor Three-Day in 1991 (Pa.) and the Essex Three-Day (N.J.) in 1992.
They won their first advanced horse trial and did their first three-star at Fair Hill in 1994. They placed fourth at the Rolex Kentucky CCI*** in 1995 before being named to the U.S. team for the Open Europeans.
1995 was also a special year because O’Brien had just started dating her future husband, David O’Brien. He was competing Iditarod at Fair Hill and had also spent some time in Europe that summer. Now, they’ve been married for 15 years and have two daughters aged 12 and 10.
They then went on to be shortlisted for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but Wexford sustained a tendon injury that was discovered during a team vetting.
“He spent all of the rest of 1996 and 1997 rehabbing on a tendon they said he would never recover from,” said O’Brien. “In 1998, he did Kentucky as a three-star and in 1999 he did Kentucky as a four-star.”
Wexford’s swansong was the 1999 Pan American Games (Winnipeg), where they earned a team gold medal. O’Brien decided it was time for retirement after that since Wexford had given her so much.
“He was too much fun to ride and be around and I figured that tendon only had a certain amount of time,” she said. “I lost him when he was 26 a few years ago because he severely bowed his other tendon just walking around. He was healthy and sound and looked well up until the end. He had a good 10 years of retirement and relaxation. He was always with me. He never left me.”
O’Brien doesn’t compete anymore because she’s too busy with her children, but looks back on Fair Hill as a special event.
“It’s the most beautiful place this time of year,” she said. “The color is just stunning. It’s Fair Hill—it’s challenging. The terrain makes it challenging and the footing’s always really good. They’ve done so much now with the arenas and the sponsorships and stuff. It was our big three-day event. Back in the day, that was really all that we had. That and Kentucky. Coming from here it was always so crisp and cool and always just really fun to ride there.”
She remembers Wexford as her horse of a lifetime who gave her the confidence to jump around some big tracks.
“He was extremely talented. He’s one you look back and say, ‘Oh I wish I knew then what I know now.’ He had to put up with a lot of my not knowing. We did our first advanced together and won it and did our first three-star together and did our first four-star together,” she said. “He was very quirky and didn’t much care for people in general. He didn’t need people, but he tolerated me. It worked. Wexford will remain one of the most special horses of his day.”