Ticket to the Top

Four riders recall the special OTTBs that took them to their first Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

The incredibly athletic and game Mo earned Top 10 finishes at the four-stars at Badminton and Burghley, as well as the 1994 World Equestrian Games. Courtesy Dorothy Crowell

There’s something special about spring in Kentucky. Thoroughbred foals stretch to gallop across rolling green pastures, and racehorses train around Keeneland’s storied oval and under Churchill Downs’ iconic twin spires.

But these aren’t the only displays of equine strength and agility in the Bluegrass this time of year; many of the world’s most versatile athletes descend upon Lexington to take part in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, known by locals and longtime fans as the “Best Weekend All Year.”

The only four-star event in the Western Hemisphere, Rolex has over the years seen dozens of Olympic and World Champion riders (sometimes one and the same), fan-favorites, unlikely heroes and gifted rookies leave the start box at the Kentucky Horse Park.

And just as you likely remember your first horse or your first blue ribbon, riders who’ve reached eventing’s pinnacle aren’t likely to forget that first time they rode down the center line, plunged through the head of the lake water complex or cleared the last show jump to roars from a packed Rolex stadium crowd. Here are the stories behind four riders’ first Rolex Kentucky events. Their common denominator: The incomparable athleticism of an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) that took them there.

Making a Splash

Box: Parker

Jockey Club Name: Eastside Park

Foaled March 22, 2002, in New Jersey

Marquetry — Hello Mom, by Caveat

Starts: 15

Earnings: $8,145

James Alliston was a new face on the American eventing scene when he first saw the athletic bay Thoroughbred Parker. After graduating from Oxford University, the Gloucestershire, England, native and British Pony Club alumnus had secured a job working for eventing legend Bruce Davidson Sr. at his Unionville, Pennsylvania, farm, and was looking for a horse with a good jump to bring him up the levels.

Rolex veteran Bonnie Mosser brought the gelding over to school at Davidson’s Chesterland Farm, and Alliston was immediately drawn to his form over fences.

“He was just jumping little logs, but he jumped really big over them,” and in good form at that, Alliston recalls.

Davidson and his partner, lifelong equestrian and breeder Susie Tuckerman, encouraged him to go after the horse.

“Bonnie’s place was just over the road, so she let me just come and ride him when I was negotiating to buy him,” Alliston says. “I’d go over after work and play with him and ride him around a bit. She finally sold him to me, and that was it.”

Initially Alliston wasn’t sure whether Parker would wind up being a four-star mount.

“It was all new to me,” he says. “But Bruce and Susie thought he was a really good jumper, so that was a good sign — they know what they’re looking at.”

Parker found the dressage work a bit more challenging.

“The dressage has always been pretty tricky,” Alliston says. “He typically finds it a little bit harder, and he’s not the fanciest mover.”

Nonetheless, he was brave and enthusiastic cross-country, which is essential for an upper-level eventer and made up for any perceived flatwork shortcomings.

The pair began competing at training level in 2008 before moving up to preliminary a few months later. After several top placings, Parker stepped up to intermediate in 2009, the same year Alliston moved across the country to California, where he’s now based.

In 2010, as an 8-year-old, Parker successfully progressed to the advanced and then three-star level, at which point Alliston began eyeing the spring four-star in Kentucky.

All necessary qualifications achieved, Alliston loaded Parker and his other Rolex entrant, Jumbo’s Jake (an Irish Sport Horse), and headed for the Bluegrass. He was very careful during the trip, because Parker can be “a bit funny,” says Alliston, to trailer.

“He knows all the venues where he shows here in California, so as he’s going down the driveway he starts kicking the trailer like crazy,” he says. “Last year he kicked so bad he cut his leg before the CCI3* (at Galway Downs) in November.

“Now we have a new system where I have someone else drive for the last half-mile or so, and I stand in the back with him and he doesn’t kick,” he adds.

The horse arrived calm and unscathed to the Kentucky Horse Park, and once settled in, Alliston got his first look at the cross-country course.

“It was definitely much bigger than the three-stars he’d done,” he recalls. “Even all the let-up fences were really big. Obviously, the combinations were really hard, but every single fence was big, which is what it’s supposed to be like.”

Before the competition began, the Rolex faithful got their first chance to see Parker jog (or, canter, as the case may be) during the horse inspection, where he’s known for his acrobatics. The jog-lane Parker is a stark contrast to the easygoing horse he is at home.

“He’s not great trotting up anywhere, really, but at Rolex I think he really doesn’t like that trot up because there’s more people there,” Alliston says. “I think he gets really nervous. Everyone makes noise, and that makes it kind of worse.”

Parker and Alliston managed to make it through their first Rolex jog, though some of the geraniums lining the lane might not have been so lucky, and went on to score a 67.8 in dressage.

“It was rough,” Alliston admits. “He didn’t get excited or anything,” but there was certainly room for improvement. 

Cross-country day was a completely different story, however. The pair stormed around the course, picking up just 2.8 time penalties — a feat that’s even more impressive considering the deep footing that day.

“I think (the ground) was quite wet in the days leading up to it,” Alliston says. “It added an extra challenge. (The wet ground) makes the jumps feel bigger, and it’s a bit more tiring on the horses galloping. But he never seemed to get tired.”

Parker recovered well overnight, loped through the second horse inspection and capped the weekend off with an 8-fault effort in show jumping, finishing 14th out of the 28 that completed and 45 that started.

Parker has returned to Rolex five times since his first run and continues to compete at the sport’s highest levels, while remaining sound. Alliston believes this is due, in part, to the horse himself.

“If you watch the way he gallops, he’s really quite efficient,” he says. “There’s no excess motion, he just sort of sweeps the ground. I always think that may be part of the reason he’s lasted so long is that he’s easy on himself.”

He also says he doesn’t have to spend as much time conditioning Parker as he does the Warmbloods he’s taken to Rolex.

“With Jumbo’s Jake and Tivoli …  I had to do double the fitness in the lead up, which I think is quite hard on them physically,” he says. “I think that’s partly why Parker has had such a long career. He’s not galloping a million miles to get ready. (Thoroughbreds are) naturally better gallopers. And hopefully they have longer careers because of it.”

Alliston says he hopes to return to Kentucky this spring after wrapping up a successful 2016, with two wins and multiple top-five finishes.

“He’s been amazing, really,” Alliston reflects. “I’m happy I have him. He’s been a great horse for me. I hope he keeps going.”

Growing Up Together

Box: No It Tissant

Foaled May 11, 1992, in West Virginia

Admiral’s Flag — Yes Tis, by Northern View (IRE)

Starts: 24

Earnings: $16,675

What do you get when you combine a teenage lower-level eventing rider and a young, quirky, athletic OTTB? In the case of Lynn Symansky and No It Tissant, you get a team that’s destined for Rolex.

“I was 14, and he was 5,” Symansky recalls of the big gray, “Fergus,” she purchased from Julie Gomena, who’d transitioned him from life on the track to eventing, bringing him up to training level. “He was pretty green still, but he was so incredibly brave. I was very green, as well. I hadn’t ridden above the training level.”

To boot, the big gray had an unusual jumping style that might have caused other riders to pass on him.

“He was an incredibly brave and scopey jumper, but would always drop his shoulder and hang his knees and front legs,” Symansky says. “In the beginning a lot of people told my parents that he was probably going to hurt me, possibly leaving a leg somewhere or making too bold a move. But in the whole time I’ve had him, that never happened. He’s just such an incredible athlete that he could get away with it.” 

Fergus also had a big personality. He was smart, bold, opinionated and quite happy to take advantage of his young rider, both on the ground and under saddle. Symansky says with a laugh that “he got away with a lot” due to her inexperience at the time.

“But it’s that quirky personality that made him what he was,” she adds. “He certainly taught me a lot of patience on the flat.”

Symansky recalls that Fergus was quite competitive in dressage in the early part of his career. “But as he got fitter and really got a taste for what the upper levels were, he got hotter and more difficult,” she says.

The jumping phases, however, never seemed to be a challenge for him.

“He was bold to a fault, sometimes, but a very powerful jumper,” she says. “He’s never thought about saying no in the cross-country phase.”

She says that attribute gave her confidence and helped turn her into the rider she is today.

Symansky and Fergus moved up the levels quickly. After multiple wins and top placings at the preliminary level in 1999, the pair completed their first one-star before moving up to intermediate and the two-star levels in 2000. A year later, they stepped up to advanced and three-star. They ran advanced and three-star while Lynn was in college and were named as alternates at the 2003 Pan American Games before finally making it to Rolex in 2007.

Preparations were going well until two weeks before Rolex, when a fetlock issue flared up.

At that point, “I didn’t even think I was going to get to go to Kentucky,” she says. “He had some filling in his ankle, and I thought it was a chip in that would have to come out.

“So, I walked him (under tack) for the two weeks leading up to our first Rolex Kentucky,” Symansky says. She used the hill at eventers Karen and David O’Connor’s Virginia farm, sometimes walking for up to four hours a day to try to maintain his fitness.

“I took him to Dr. Kent Allen’s clinic on the Tuesday — the day before the jog — and didn’t really have anything packed up (for the trip), but he said he was good to go,” she recalls. As it turned out, the issue was due to cellulitis (a bacterial infection of the skin and associated tissues) rather than a musculoskeletal problem. “So I went home, packed up and went to Kentucky.”

Upon arriving at the venue, Symansky said the cross-country course certainly looked imposing, but “I had no doubt we were going to get around because I had so much confidence in him. I was more nervous about the dressage, honestly.”

Still plenty fit, Fergus had energy to spare and lived up to his hot-on-the-flat reputation, scoring a 67.2. But the pair jumped clean around cross-country, picking up just a handful of time faults; with the previous weeks of recovery in mind, she had decided not to push for time.

Fergus proceeded with a clear show-jumping round and just one additional time fault. The pair finished 19th out of 31 finishers and 42 starters.

The next year, in 2008, Fergus was named the Best Conditioned Horse at the end of the competition. It would be his last four-star before Symansky retired him at 17 from upper level competition and handed the reins over to her students to gain the type of valuable experience she did.

“What I learned from Fergus has helped me with so many other horses that have come into my barn,” she says, noting that he taught her how to deal with quirks and has helped her be more open-minded as she figures out how each horse ticks. “It definitely was not always as easy as it would have been if the horse was push-button, but he helped make me a more well-rounded horseman.”

She also believes Fergus influenced how she’s worked with another well-known OTTB: her World Equestrian Games, Pan American and Olympic partner, Donner. “If I’d had Donner before I had Fergus, I don’t think he would have ever have done as well.”

Fergus, who will turn 25 in May, is living out his retirement at Symansky’s Handlen Farm, in Middleburg, Virginia.

“I thought he’d go out and one day settle down, but he never did; he still hasn’t,” she says with a laugh. “He still drives the girls nuts back on the farm: He paws in the cross-ties, runs them over coming out of his stall in the morning. Now it’s just funny.”

Second Chances

Box: Rise Against

Jockey Club Name: Trabuco Kid

Foaled June 9, 1999, in California

Far Out East — April Betty, by Distant Land

Starts: 4

Earnings: $0

It’s not just young riders’ lives that can be rerouted by a single horse or competition. Life has a funny way of giving us opportunities we never thought we’d have, regardless of our age. In Bunnie Sexton’s case, “life” came in the form of an OTTB called Rise Against.

Sexton first saw “Ecko” competing at the preliminary level with his previous rider Ruben Arce. At the time — the beginning of the 2012 eventing season — all three of her own competition horses were laid up with injuries.

“I had admired his agility and sharp mind … although his dressage was very explosive,” she recalls.

She purchased Ecko and went into the partnership wanting to make him happier in dressage.

Sexton says she knew Ecko possessed the talent to reach the advanced level, but she didn’t think international events were in the cards for her. While raising four children, she had opted to curtail her own upper-level eventing career, instead focusing on bringing horses up through the lower levels and not pursuing events past the two-star and advanced horse trial level.

“I thought that trade-off meant staying at the horse trial level during the remainder of my eventing career,” she says.

That changed, however, when Bea DiGrazia suggested she finally, at the age of 50, pursue the three- and four-star levels with Ecko. With her children grown and a bit more time on her hands, Sexton got started, sticking to her initial goal: making Ecko happier and more rideable in dressage. She diligently set out to determine what worked and what didn’t for the sensitive Thoroughbred as he moved up the levels.

“It has taken many different approaches … to allow him to relax and accept that the sky is not falling at each new test,” she says. “He is always memorizing the tests and can be brilliant if I get his mind quiet — but that is always a work in progress.”

But she says it’s about much more than just her hard work — Ecko has also helped her along the way.

“We’ve had a few hiccups on cross-country and in show jumping, but most are due to my learning curve in those phases,” she says. “My lack of belief in myself gets in my way, and I am always striving to stay out of my head and just ride. You might say Ecko and I have helped strengthen each other’s confidence issues.”

As the pair racked up strong results, Sexton realized her upper-level aspirations might not be that far off.

“I think the first time it really hit home to me that we could be competitive above the two-star level was at the Woodside International Horse Trials, in late 2011, when he skated around the CIC two-star as if it were nothing, finishing in second,” she recalls. “Then, when he tore around the Bromont Three-Day Event three-star (in Quebec, Canada, in summer 2013) and finished sixth, I knew — barring bad luck — this horse loved his job and was exceptionally talented.”

Unfortunately, bad luck in the form of a shoeing issue made them miss their chance at Rolex in 2014, but 2015 looked to be Sexton and Ecko’s year to do their first four-star.

“I prepared as if it was an old-fashioned long-format three-star; lots of interval training, but not a great deal of speed work,” she says. “We did primarily dressage, both on hacks and in the (arena), and gymnastic jumping exercises, using the events leading up and his recovery rates post-cross-country to guide my next week’s work.”

She also kept close tabs on Ecko’s health: “I probably drove my veterinarian, Dr. Lisa Teske, crazy with the frequent checkups I requested, but as an FEI dressage rider herself, she was very good about it,” she laughs.

All went as planned, and Sexton made the trip from her home in Santa Ynez, California, to Kentucky.

“Walking the course, it occurred to me that I might be crazy, but I knew from experience if I went out believing it was possible I would know if we were up to the task,” she says. “By the third walk I had calmed down and surprised myself by feeling good about the direct routes on course. I think my confidence that I would pull up if he didn’t feel right was what actually allowed me to be bold when he felt so confident on course. He gives me courage I never knew I had.”

In dressage, still not Ecko’s strongest suit, the pair scored a 69.8 to land near the bottom of the leaderboard. But once the flatwork was out of the way, it was Ecko’s time to shine … or so Sexton hoped.

“As luck would have it, a spider bite on his hock after dressage kept us on pins and needles as to whether we would be allowed to run cross-country,” Sexton says. “We were given permission only a bit over an hour before we got in the start box!”

Nevertheless, Ecko and Sexton tackled the deep, wet cross-country course like a pair of seasoned veterans. They added just a few time penalties to their dressage score, which moved them up the leaderboard substantially.

“Crossing the finish line after cross-country — with Ecko still looking for more — was an unbelievable moment,” she says. “Then, in show jumping, the fact that he somehow had the stamina to be strong and his usual sassy self all the way through was nothing short of magical to me.”

The pair added just a rail down to their score, ending up in 24th place out of 40 finishers and 74 starters. Sexton says the accomplishment had a deeper meaning for her. It made her realize it wasn’t a fluke that she trained and competed her first OTTB, Hark, through the advanced level in her younger years.

“He paved the way for me to believe that the next brilliant OTTB could take me to places I never imagined,” she says. “Ecko did just that.

“I’ve come to appreciate that the very sensitivity, agility and heart that can make some OTTBs seem intimidating when they are overwhelmed can often be molded into a horse that will give you everything if you are willing to remain calm and determined to help him feel comfortable in his own skin,” Sexton says. “That means for me that most every ride gives me more to work on. When an OTTB trusts you, there is nothing they won’t do for you. Ecko makes me a better rider every day. I hope I can give him the same joy that he has given me.”

Crowning Achievement

Box: Molokai

Jockey Club Name: Surf Scene

Foaled April 24, 1983, in Kentucky

Hawaii — Pretty Copy, by Copy Chief

Starts: 6

Earnings: $720

The 1998 Rolex wasn’t the first four-star for Dorothy Crowell (then Trapp) or her OTTB Molokai. In fact, it was their last in a storied career that included multiple runs around the Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials, in Great Britain, and an individual silver medal at the 1994 World Equestrian Games, in The Hague, the Netherlands. But it was the first time a four-star event was held in the United States and a perfect swan song for one of the most popular event horses in history.

Crowell, who’s based in Frankfort, Kentucky, not far from the site of that historic event, says her story with her horse-of-a-lifetime started with a dream … quite literally.

“I’m somebody who never remembers dreaming when I wake up,” she says. “There’s maybe one or two times in my life that I’ve remembered my dreams. But one day I remembered having dreamed about this magnificent bay horse that I was jumping around Badminton, the World Equestrian Games … all of that. Of course, I woke up in a very good mood!

“I went on with my day, and about two hours later a student called and said she wanted to look at a horse, an off-track Thoroughbred, and would I come with her to give her my opinion? That horse was Molokai.”

As a 3-year-old fresh from the track’s backside, “Mo” had his imperfections.

“He was 16.2 to his withers, but the rest of him was barely 16 hands,” Crowell recalls. “He was so close (in his lower legs) that all four of his ankles had scars on them because he’d bang into his ankles so much. He was pretty weedy (lean and scrawny with long legs) and incredibly overreactive, but had a really great eye.”

It didn’t take long to realize that Mo wasn’t the right horse for the student, but Crowell hopped on to see what he felt like.

“Every once in a while you meet somebody, and you know from the moment you meet them that you want to be really good friends with them,” she says. “That was Mo. As soon as I got on him, it was a great conversation.

“Meanwhile, everyone was watching this little horse that I — at 5’11” — was too big for bouncing around, barely even trotting, nearly just pacing, not walking, who couldn’t canter — but he could gallop. They were all incredibly unimpressed.”

Crowell left the farm that day without Mo, but she couldn’t get him out of her mind. She called her aunt, a foxhunter responsible for getting her started riding, who agreed to help her with a down payment. Mo’s owners agreed to let her work the rest of the $5,000 price tag off at Thoroughbred sales.

“It took three years to pay him off,” she says, “which is actually shorter than it took him to learn how to walk under saddle.”

Mo had a “Jack Russell terrier personality,” always needing a job to do.

“He looked like a horse that was very tense, but he wasn’t — he was intense,” she recalls. “When you rode him, you’d feel, ‘Oh, what are we doing? Let’s do it. Trotting circles? Let’s do shoulder in. Let’s do haunches in, let’s do half-pass, let’s canter, let’s do this, let’s do that, trotting circles is boring, there’s got to be more to do. Stand still? I don’t want to stand still, there’s more to do!’

This, of course, posed a challenge in the dressage phase. So Crowell began using him as a stool as she taught lessons — something she now does with all her OTTBs.

“It took about three years,” she says. “There were times I probably sat on him for five hours. Finally, one day, he stood still through a whole lesson. Just stood there. And that was the beginning of his understanding the concept of walk.”

Crowell says Mo found cross-country easier to grasp.

“For his very first cross-country school, we went out with a babysitter,” she recalls. “We did all the little baby logs, and he was totally aggressive to them — leaving strides out, taking big leaps over them, but obviously doing it with joy.

“After, as we’re hacking back with our babysitter, all of a sudden he peels off and starts to trot with purpose. I start to gather my reins and look up, and he’s making a beeline toward a training-level cross-country oxer.”

Crowell says she thought, “Yeah, right,” but Mo didn’t seem to be kidding.

“We get about four strides out, and he picks up a canter,” she says. “I still thought he was going to run out or stop at the last minute, so I sat deep. Well, he did those four strides in three and launched. He jumped me so far out of the tack I lost both stirrups and reins. I came down looking for saddle and mane. … Four strides later, we’re probably going 800 meters per minute.

“That was all I needed to know,” she says. “A horse that loves it that much, that can jump that huge and can move that fast — if that’s not what it takes (to be a four-star horse) I can’t imagine what it does. So, I spent the next 10 years trying to figure out how to ride that.”

And figure it out she did.

Crowell and Mo would go on to Top-10 finishes at the Badminton and Burghley four-stars, come just points from winning individual gold at the 1994 World Equestrian Games and be named to the 1996 Olympic eventing team. Crowell withdrew from the team, however, as Mo was recovering from bruised heels.

In 1997, Crowell says she felt it might be time to think about retiring her partner.

“He was the kind of horse that when you did a Normandy bank to a corner (a challenging combination of a large ditch/bank, a fence on top of the bank and a quick step or steep slope to the flat before a technically demanding fence), you had to sit chilly, just hug him lightly with your legs,” she says. “If you closed your leg or drove the saddle, he would leave a stride out. At the end of his 14-year-old year, I started having to close my leg when we were coming off the drop. That told me that he was starting to feel it, and with everything that horse had done for me, that was all needed to know. So when I heard (the 1998 Rolex) was going to be the first four-star being held in my hometown, that was perfect.”

She says that weekend would turn out to be one of the most amazing experiences she’s ever had on a horse. After a good dressage score put the pair toward the top of the leaderboard, they had a cross-country run Crowell will never forget.

“From the moment he came out of the start box, every step of the way there was someone cheering him,” she recalls. “There were a few places that it was just a few people clapping and yelling, ‘Go Mo!’ But there were no galloping lanes where I heard nothing but his breathing. It was really so special, it was amazing.”

A clear show-jumping round was all that stood between Mo and victory at his final four-star. “The last thing I said to my husband before I went in to show-jump was, ‘John, we’re doing the right thing because for the first time, I can feel that he felt (cross-country) yesterday. He’ll need my help.’

“Mo’s the kind of horse that when you’re riding a triple bar to a vertical, (you) couldn’t kick to the triple bar — had to ride it like a little tiny fence, as quiet as you can,” Crowell recalls. “So, I kicked to the triple bar because I was worried he ‘needed my help.’ He did his usual Mo-huge-leap and landed deep in the distance. So I sat up and said ‘whoa,’ but he was already backing off the next jump. We ended up adding that half-stride and that’s where we had our rail. If I had just left him alone, he wouldn’t have had that rail.”

So in the end, Crowell and Mo settled for second. But they received the USEF Pinnacle Trophy for the highest placed American, and Joe Mangione — whom Crowell had worked for to pay Mo off — received the William C. Coman Trophy to recognize his accomplishment in breeding Mo.

Crowell retired Mo shortly after Rolex, and he lived out his days at her farm in Kentucky, often going south with her to enjoy the warm Florida winters. He died quietly in his pasture at the age of 30 in 2013.

“Mo was a class act and had a huge heart,” Crowell says. “He was everything you hear about a good horse. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to have the life I have riding and training horses.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the only publication dedicated to the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse in second careers. Want four information-packed issues a year delivered to your door or your favorite digital device? Subscribe now!