The USEA is pleased to present a series of stories written by Joe Verga that chronicles Eventing in the U.S. from 2000-2010.
The 2000-2010 decade was, in many ways, a renaissance for Eventing. It was filled with great moments and incredible accomplishments featuring some of the greatest riders the sport has ever known. Some events would capture our imagination because of the magnitude of the accomplishment while others will never be forgotten despite the fact that the story didn’t end with a blue ribbon. With that, I present the biggest stories in U.S. Eventing from 2000-2010.
“I saw Karen this morning,” a stranger said as we waited for horse #1, Theodore O’Connor, to kick off the cross-country phase of the 2007 Rolex Kentucky CCI4*.
“How is she doing?” I asked.
This struck me like a ton of bricks. The words “Karen” and “scared” have never been used in the same sentence before today. Scanning over her resume: thirty years of international competitions, three-time Rolex winner, eight-time USEA Lady Rider of the Year, five-time Olympian… but scared wasn’t to be found anywhere.
“How do you know?”
“I was looking into her eyes. In all the years that I’ve known her I have never seen the look of fear in her eyes until now,” the woman said as she prepared her camera at the second water complex.
Turning back towards the starting gate, I could hear the roar of the crowd as Karen galloped towards the first fence. I couldn’t see it, however, because it seemed that nearly all of the 47,000 spectators were already at hand for the start of the second phase of the event. Never has there been such anticipation and buzz around cross-country as there was here today. The reason?
That day, a 14.1 hand pony named Theodore O’Connor would have the distinction of being the first pony ever to compete at a four-star competition, and Karen O’Connor, despite her laundry list of accomplishments, would be questioned about sanity of bringing a pony to do a horse’s job. Either a legend would be born, or a reputation tarnished.
“Prevailing sentiment was ‘gosh I hope this works.’ You never know about any horse (at Rolex) until you actually go,” said Jimmy Wofford.
The Eventing world held its collective breath for over ten minutes while Karen and Teddy navigated 35 jumps with pin-point accuracy. I could hear as the two made their way around the course - not from the pounding of hooves, but from the roar of the crowd as they successfully answered each question.
Coming to the second water complex, Teddy would answer one last question the analysts had asked: “Will the pony peter out over such a long course?”
Not the “bionic pony”, as announcer Sally O’Connor dubbed the diminutive equine.
I hustled to the finish line just in time to see the two cross. The spectators went crazy! People where hooting and hollering, jumping up and down, and whistling like it was the end of the competition, not just the end of the first ride on course. Before Teddy even came to a stop, an ecstatic Karen O’Connor had already hopped off. I don’t think there was a more touching scene than what happened next. Running towards her husband David, Karen jumped into the air, landing neatly in her husband’s grasp, her legs wrapped around his waist and her arms around his neck in a long embrace.
Most of us would have been happy to go home right then. Only Teddy wasn’t done with his surprises. With no refusals and just a few time penalties, Karen and Teddy had moved up the leader board and now held 11th place going into the last phase: show jumping.
After a stadium round with just a few time faults, Karen and Teddy watched as competitor after competitor took down rails and mounted penalties.
“The Bionic pony is now in 5th,” show jumping commentator (and Karen’s mother in-law) Sally O’Connor said as the pair steadily moved up the leader board.
Teddy and Karen eventually finished in 3rd place for the competition and indelibly etched their names alongside the greats of the sport.
“I'm speechless," said O'Connor. "Our goal with this pony has always been to never over face him and never show him what he can't do. I was very nervous coming into the cross-country today. But, as each exercise came, he just proved to me that he is just a one-in-a-million horse. I'm in awe of him.”
Jimmy Wofford put Karen and Teddy’s performance in perspective, saying, “Karen is one of the top ten U.S. event riders of all time and she has accomplished a lot in her career, but that had to be easily on the list of her top ten personal achievements. Granted coming in third is never as good as winning it, which she has three times, but that comes close.”
Teddy and Karen would go on to have a magical year, winning the individual and team gold at the 2007 Pan-American Games and collecting the 2007 USEA & USEF Horse of the Year awards. But those of us who were there that day at cross-country witnessed something that will never be duplicated and will never be matched. At the moment they crossed the finish line, one legend was born and a legendary rider became even bigger than life. Superman big.