Thursday, September 29, 2016

All About The Team

Christina Kelly’s Aiken Debut

by Pam Gleason, photography by Gary Knoll

When Christina Kelly was still eligible to ride as a junior, her services as a catch rider on Florida’s hunter/jumper show circuit were in such high demand that she routinely competed scores of horses at each show. Over the course of one memorable weekend in Wellington, she got on 31 different horses. “I was off one and then on another one and back into the ring. I don’t think my helmet came off my head the whole weekend,” she says with a laugh. “It was crazy.”

Christina says that her success as a catch rider was mostly due to the fact that the trainers would bring the horses to the ring ready to win so all she had to do was stay out of their way. “I was good at staying out of their way. I was also good at getting on a horse that I had never ridden before and winning on it. In the Classic, you could only ride three horses. I would usually have six, so I would have to pick. It was a good feeling.”

Now 22 and professional rider, Christina is based in Aiken along with her parents, Barbara and Sean Kelly. Barbara is English, Sean is Irish, and Christina, who was born in England, rode for Ireland as a junior. The family moved to Aiken in January 2016, and Christina has been quietly building her own training and sales business at the new farm ever since. Over the winter and spring, she has been competing at Highfields and trucking her horses up to show in Tryon, N.C.

She also made big a splash at the inaugural Aiken Charity Horse show at Bruce’s Field in May. In the first week of the show, she and Kingdom, a 17.3 hand Irish Sporthorse owned by Andrea O’Brien, won the $5,000 Welcome Stakes. In the second week, they won the $25,000 Aiken Charity Horse Show Grand Prix. Not only did they win that class, they were the only horse and rider combination to have a clear round over Scott Starnes’s surprisingly difficulty course.

“I went first and I am glad I did,” says Christina. “I normally hate to go first, but it was good. I walked the course, we went in and I rode it exactly how I walked it. It turned out to ride a lot harder than anyone had expected.”

Christina has been partnered with Kingdom since February. His owner has a horse shipping company in Ireland and had sent Kingdom to another stable in the Northeast for training and to be sold. An animal who needs a lot of attention, he was not thriving at the relatively large sales stable – in fact, they concluded that he did not have promise to jump higher than the 1.30 meter level. And so he was sent to Christina, where there would be a quieter atmosphere and more personal care. The idea was to get him showing and get him sold.

“He has changed a lot since he came,” says Christina. “When I first got him he couldn’t canter in my jumping ring, which is small and a bit hilly. I think the ring helped him learn to react more quickly and be more balanced. He also craves a lot of attention, which he is getting. I love that his personality is coming out. When he first came he was very cold, but now I feel like we’re friends. He trusts me and I trust him, and if I ask him to do something he gives me everything. I love that. I love how much he tries.”

Kingdom stepped up to the Grand Prix level at the Aiken Spring Classic in April, finishing fifth in the first week and third in the second. He was also fourth in the first week at the Aiken Charity Horse Show before going on to win in his following Grand Prix outing. The Welcome Stakes in that first week at Bruce’s Field was the first competition in which Kingdom and Christina had won at that level together.

“It was funny though,” says Christina. “When I rode into the ring for the class, he slammed on the brakes, spun around and galloped out. I went right off. The bell hadn’t rung yet, so a friend grabbed him and threw me up on him, and we went in and went double clear and won. He’d never done anything like that before, so I was pretty shocked.”

Now that Kingdom has proven himself as a Grand Prix horse, his owner has decided to keep him. “I’m excited about that,” says Christina. “He gets better and better, and now I can to keep the ride on him. It’s just brilliant to have a horse like him.”

Christina comes to an equestrian career naturally. When she was very young, her parents owned and ran Wycombe House Stud, one of the most successful Thoroughbred breeding stables in England. In the early 2000s, they relocated their business to the United States, buying a large farm in Ocala, Fla. Although Christina had her own pony, initially she was not interested in riding, preferring to go to school, play soccer and be a “regular person.” The family had a summer home in Sotogrande on the south coast of Spain, and when Christina was 9, they moved there year round. There, at the international school, Christina became friends with a girl who loved horses, and it was only then that Christina became interested in riding.

At 10, she had her first taste of competing, got hooked and there was no turning back. She exhibited on the European circuit, showing and winning in classes up to the Grand Prix level. Competing with and against some of the top riders on the continent by the time she was 12, she made a name for herself as a precocious talent with determination, nerves of steel and a ready smile. When the family returned to Florida in 2008, Christina had nine horses of her own to show. She worked with several different trainers, including Kevin Babbington, Shane Sweetnam and Candice King. But the trainer who had the greatest impact on her was the Olympian Margie Engle, with whom she trained for two years. While she was traveling on the circuit and showing with Margie, Christina and her family fell in love with Kentucky and ended up selling their farm in Ocala to buy one in Nicholasville, near Lexington.

It would be impossible enumerate all of Christina’s many accomplishments as a junior rider, which include both junior and all- age Grand Prix wins, high point awards in Florida and elsewhere and a bronze medal in the Junior World Cup riding for Ireland. Then, in January 2012, she aged out of the junior divisions. She had thought at first that she could compete as an amateur for a while on her own horses, but her amateur status was protested immediately and so she had to turn pro. She quickly discovered that life as a freshly minted, 19-year- old professional rider had its challenges.

“It was a hard transition,” she says. “I went from everyone wanting me to ride their horses to having three of my own and feeling like no one was talking to me. I felt like I had dropped off the face of the earth.” Trainers need young riders to show their horses in the junior divisions, but they generally have less need for adult professionals to compete against them in the open divisions.

Facing that reality, Christina decided to further her professional education and headed off to Ireland for the summer. There she worked and trained with Cian O’Connor, an Irish Olympic medalist who has a farm in County Mead.

“It was probably the best experience I have ever had,” says Christina. “I got to learn so much, see the whole management and groom’s side of it, the care of the horses, everything. I was only going to go for three months, but I ended up staying for six.”

Returning to Florida that winter, Christina began to develop her own business: attracting clients, teaching, training and selling. She also rode for several top stables including Ashland and Raylyn Farms. She was operating mostly out of rented facilities, especially after the family sold their farm in Kentucky. Over the next years, she also had the opportunity to spend more time riding in Europe, both for her education and for her professional career. Meanwhile, her parents, who maintained a home on a lake in Florida, were looking for new place to go with their horses. Kentucky had been too cold in the winter and Ocala was no longer entirely to their tastes. They wanted to be somewhere different.

The Kellys had friends in Aiken, and they had always talked about it as a place where they might want to live. In January of 2016, that idea became a reality when they purchased a 15-acre farm not far from the city limits. There, they have a sweeping view over nearby farms along with a stable, paddocks, riding areas and access to several hundred acres of fields and forest for hacking. This is important to Christina, who feels strongly that show horses need to spend ample time outside the ring.

“I love that our horses can be horses and go out,” she says. “I like them to be happy, and I think they do need time in the paddock.” In fact, Christina is such a strong believer in turnout time that when she was showing downtown in Aiken, she regularly hauled her horses home so they could relax in their paddocks rather than staying in stalls at the showgrounds for the entire weekend.

In addition to competition, sales and client horses, Christina also has a number of young prospects on the farm, most of them products of the Kellys’ own breeding program. One of Christina’s first European show horses was a Holsteiner stallion who is now standing in Kentucky. He is the sire of several young horses on the farm, including two out of Christina’s top show mare Camirage. Christina is excited about the prospect of riding and showing this next generation of her own horses, as well as about the opportunities that she sees in Aiken.

“We love it here; we just appreciate it more and more. I’d love to get a good business going and expand it,” she says, explaining that she has stalls open in her barn now and that they have already selected a site to build another stable when they need accommodations for more horses. In addition to picking up clients, Christina has also attracted sponsorship from several companies, including Champions Choice (“it’s a supplement that I use with all my horses that is really amazing”), Cavalor feed, Der Dau boots, CDW tack, Samshield helmets and Kastel Denmark clothing.

There is no question that Christina has been extremely successful, both as a junior and as a professional, but she has never allowed that success go to her head. In fact, she gives all the credit to her team. These days that team includes her mother Barbara and her father Sean, who is also working as the manager at Mill Race Farm, not far from the Kellys’ new place in Aiken. Today, the Kelly family does all their own horse care (Sean even won the groom’s award for the Best Turned Out Horse after Kingdom’s Grand Prix win at the Aiken Charity Horse Show), though that may have to change if the operation gets much bigger. Christina, along with her mother and father, have always enjoyed taking care of the horses, appreciating the extra opportunity this gives them to bond with the animals.

“I love the horses, that’s the best thing about this business, for sure,” says Christina. “You’re doing what you love and you can travel anywhere with what you do, along with your horses, your best friends. The good days, when you win, when your horses go really well, they make it even better.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Aiken's Horse Shows

A Bright Future

By Pam Gleason; Photography by Pam Gleason & Gary Knoll

This spring, Aiken was the site of four consecutive weeks of top rated USEF horse shows. Traditionally, the two weeks of the premier Aiken Spring Classic at Highfields were Aiken’s major draw for hunter and jumper riders, providing a competition for local horsemen that also attracted elite equestrian athletes from across the Southeast region. In years past, after the end of the Aiken Spring Classic Finale, these riders moved on, following the circuit elsewhere in their hunt for ribbons, points and prestige.

This year however, the two weeks of showing at Highfields were followed by two more weeks at Bruce’s Field in the new Aiken Horse Park. This facility, which had a soft opening in the fall of 2015, was the site of the inaugural Aiken Charity Horse Show in May, an event created in honor of Bruce Duchossois for whom the horse park is named.

Each of the four big shows this spring offered a range of classes, including events for children and amateurs as well as Grand Prix jumping and hunter derbies. The level of competition was high, as was enthusiasm for the events themselves, a positive sign for the future of horse shows in the city and an indication that Aiken is gaining a stronger foothold in the hunter/jumper world.

Aiken Spring Classic

Action started at the Aiken Spring Classic Masters, held April 20-24. This four-day affair featured the $7,500 Welcome Stake on Friday, the $15,000 USHJA International Jumper Derby on Saturday and the $25,000 Aiken Spring Classic Grand Prix on Sunday. There was Liza Boyd and Like I Said, International Hunter Derby at the Aiken Spring Classic strong competition and plenty of ribbons and accolades to go around. Although some riders and their organizations had consistent success, no one dominated all the ribbons.

For instance, it was a great weekend for Penny Brennan, a professional show jumping rider and trainer born in England and based in Alabama. Penny won the Welcome, taking the top spot with Cord 11, a 17.1 hand 12-year-old gelding owned by Meco Equestrian. She was also second aboard her own Sun Tzu, a 12-year old Irish Sport Horse. Penny and Sun Tzu are on a roll – this winter they set the Gulf Coast Classic Winter Horse Shows (Mississippi) afire, winning, among other things, the $35,000 Budweiser Grand Prix. Daniel Geitner, one of Aiken’s top professionals, also found success: after finishing second behind Penny in the Welcome, he and Creativo, owned by Lionshare Farm, came back to win the $25,000 Grand Prix on Sunday. Doug Payne, who is better known as an event rider, was second aboard Courtney Young’s Botanja and Daniel picked up third with the Kenwood Syndicate’s Kenwood.

The $15,000 USHJA International Jumper Derby on Saturday was one of the most exciting classes of the weekend. Held on the Dietrich Derby Field, it was presented by Dietrich Insurance and sponsored by Mystery Stables and Brenda and Bill McKay. The International Hunter Derby is a hybrid between a hunter and jumper class. Recalling hunter shows from half a century ago, it features tall, natural fences and its two, independently scored rounds that reward horses for boldness and brilliance over the course.

Liza Boyd, based in Camden, SC, is one of the country’s top riders in the derby, having won countless trophies, as well as the 2013 and 2014 International Hunter Derby Championship aboard Brunello, a horse that is so famous he has his own fan club and even his own Breyer model. This year, Liza had a number of rides in the class, and came out the winner aboard Like I Said, an 8-year-old first year green mare owned by Pony Lane Farm. Liza was also third on Pony Lane Farm’s 6-year-old stallion Coronado. Havens Schatt, Liza’s closest competitor, was second on John Yozell’s Breeze.

The Aiken Spring Classic Finale week was held from April 27 – May 1. Penny Brennan, once again, won the $7,500 Welcome Stake on Friday, beating Aida Sanchez Long on Katie Barnette’s Catalyst and Christina Kelly riding Faith and Bill Stewart’s Zuleika. On Saturday, Daniel Geitner stepped in to win the $5,000 National Hunter Derby aboard Hilary Baylor’s Naddell, and also took second place on Janet Peterson’s Damocles. Christina Jason, a popular Aiken-based trainer, was third on Southland Stables’ End Game.

On Sunday, the final day, riders assembled to take stock of the course set for the $25,000 Carolina Company Grand Prix. Skies were threatening overhead, and there was a brief downpour between the course walk and the first round. The skies cleared, however, as the action started, and everyone jumped in the sunshine. Penny Brennan and Cord 11 won, with Daniel Geitner and Creativo a close second. Christina Kelly, riding Andrea O’Brien’s Kingdom was third.

As ever, Rick and Cathy Cram, who own Progressive Show Jumping and put on the Aiken Spring Classic, created a show that catered to the exhibitor, with plenty of social activities for riders and spectators alike. These included brunches each Sunday in conjunction with the Grand Prix, exhibitors’ receptions, breakfasts and barbecues. On Sunday, April 24, the Crams dedicated their new viewing pavilion to Mary Ann Parmelee at the brunch before the Grand Prix. Mary Ann Parmelee was Rick Cram’s mother, and an important figure in the development of the horse show circuit in Aiken.

Aiken Charity Horse Show

After the Aiken Spring Classic Finale, the competitors packed up and moved everything a few miles across town to Bruce’s Field for the Aiken Charity Horse Shows I (May 4-8) and II (May 11-15.) There was a strong buzz about these shows, and competitors were coming from near and far to participate. One reason for this was that everyone wanted to try out the new arenas with their professional GGT Footing. Another was to honor Bruce Duchossois, who died in 2014. Bruce was immensely well known in the horse show world, both as an amateur competitor in the hunter divisions and as a tireless promoter and supporter of all equestrian sports. The show management limited the entries to 500 horses, and had no trouble filling all their stalls.

Throughout the show, there was an emphasis on the exhibitors’ experience. Riders and spectators alike gathered under the ringside pavilion every afternoon to watch the classes and enjoy refreshments that were set out at 4 p.m. Members of Bruce’s family, including his father, also Bruce, were on hand to give out trophies and to honor the younger Bruce’s memory. Bruce senior, who is in his 90s, came all the way from Illinois.

The first featured event of the inaugural week was Friday’s $25,000 Aiken Charity Hunter Classic presented by Cold Creek Nursery. The winner of this class was, appropriately enough, Havens Schatt, who used to be Bruce’s trainer and who came to Aiken specifically to honor to his memory. Havens rode Aristocrat, a gelding owned by Tracy Scheriff- Muser. In an emotional moment after her win, she was presented with a glass trophy box that contained one of Bruce’s trademark velvet helmets. Havens was also third in the class riding John Yozell’s Breeze, while Liza Towell Boyd was second (by half a point) riding Stella Styslinger’s O’Ryan.

Saturday featured the $25,000 Premier Grand Prix, “The Inaugural Cup” presented by the City of Aiken. The winner of this class was Clueless P, owned by Hester Equestrian and ridden by Lauren Hester. Lauren is based in Kentucky, and Clueless P is a 10-year- old Hanoverian mare that has Above: Daniel Geitner; Right: Havens Schatt. International Hunter Derby at Bruce’s Field competed successfully all over the country. Daniel Geitner and Creativo cashed the second place check, while Penny Brennan and Cord 11 were third. Other featured classes included Thursday’s $10,000 Future Hunter Stake (Tosh Hunter riding Betsee Parker’s Liberty Road) and the $5,000 Aiken Saddlery Welcome Stake (Christina Kelly aboard Andrea O’Brien’s Kingdom.)

The Aiken Charity Horse Show II took place from May 11-15. On Saturday, May 14, members of Bruce’s family were on hand for grand opening ceremonies that included a ribbon cutting ceremony, a speech by Rick Osbon, who is the mayor of Aiken, and even recorded remarks from Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina.

The opening ceremony was followed by one of the two featured events of the second week, the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby. This was an especially competitive class with such entrants as Harold Chopping, Havens Schatt, Daniel Geitner, Jennifer Alfano and Christina Jason, among many others. But if you are in Aiken and it’s a hunter derby, the favorite always has to be Liza Boyd. Liza had two impressive horses for this class: O’Ryan and Like I Said, coming in off her win in the same class at the Aiken Spring Classic.

After the first round, true to form, Liza was sitting in first on Like I Said and second on O’Ryan. When she returned for O’Ryan’s second round, she rode boldly and made some errors that dropped her down to 11th place. Coming back with Like I Said, and ahead by a comfortable margin, she rode more conservatively, taking most of the high sides, but not cutting too many corners. The mare was letter perfect, earning the win and the Bruce R. Duchossois Cup, presented by Jack Wetzel. Liza only recently took over the ride on Like I Said, who made her debut in the hunter divisions in Florida this year under Kelly Farmer. An athletic mare with a pretty head and a scopey jump, Like I Said and Liza seem destined for great things.

Sunday, the final day of the show, featured the $25,000 Aiken Charity Horse Show Grand Prix presented by First Citizens Bank. The course, set by Scott Starnes, had a number of tight turns, along with some difficult distances. When the riders walked the course they knew it would be a test of handiness and scope, but few probably recognized just how difficult it would prove to be.

Christina Kelly went first on Andrea O’Brien’s Kingdom, a 17.3 hand Irish sporthorse that had just stepped up to the Grand Prix level two weeks earlier at the Aiken Spring Classic. Christina rode with precision and confidence to go clear – Kingdom, who has the power to jump cleanly from a long spot, wasn’t fazed by anything. Then Christina settled in to watch the other rounds while waiting for the jump-off.

But there wouldn’t be one. Horse after horse hit the fences, and rails clattered to the ground. Of the 17 horses that jumped, only Christina and Kingdom went clean to take home the blue. Erin McGuire riding her horse Kasarr had the fastest four-fault round, earning them second place honors. Lauren Hester and Clueless P came in third.

Everyone agreed that the Aiken Charity Horse shows were a resounding success, reflecting the hard work put in by the board of directors of the Aiken Horse Park and staff. The success was also due in great part to the positive attitudes of the exhibitors, who came to the show not just to ride and to jump, but to honor the memory and legacy of Bruce Duchossois. The show benefitted Equine Rescue of Aiken, the Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County and Danny and Ron’s Rescue.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.