In 1993, Stephen Bradley had something to prove. It was the year after the Barcelona Olympic Games where Bradley had two unexpected refusals at the water complex. “It was very disappointing and a huge learning curve for me,” said Bradley. Little did he know, his path to redemption would result in winning the Burghley Horse Trials CCI4* (now CCI5*-L) – a victory so great that only two Americans have achieved: Bruce Davidson Sr. in 1974 and Bradley in 1993.
Bradley’s first time competing at Burghley doubled as his first four-star event, and for most riders making their debut at the level, the end goal is completion. For Bradley, it was winning. “Ignorance was bliss,” said a humble Bradley as he shared his experience. “I was so nervous at Burghley that I walked the cross-country course seven different times from start to finish.”
“The only other time I went to Burghley was to groom for Bruce (Davidson) where he was second on J.J. Babu in 1985. For me to go and compete was huge, and to win it on my first try was just . . . wild.”
Bradley won Burghley on the 1981 American Thoroughbred Sassy Reason, bred in Millwood, Virginia and owned by Ann Barrow. “I first met Ann when I was a student in a summer program at Morven Park and Ann was one of the instructors. Later on, I was working for Bruce and she had taken Sassy up to Bruce’s for some help. She ultimately decided she wasn’t going to continue competing Sassy herself, and that’s where she and I ran into each other again. I got lucky enough that she asked me if I wanted to ride him,” said Bradley. From that moment on, Sassy and Bradley formed an unbeatable partnership. “Every three-day event he completed – he won. Barcelona was the only three-day event he completed that he didn’t win. He won his first Preliminary Three-Day Event at Essex in 1990, he won the Radnor Intermediate Three-Day Event Championships, and he won the Checkmate CCI3* in 1991, 1992, and 1993.”
“Sassy was a really, really cool horse. He was very careful in the show jumping and I could go into show jumping confidently as long as I rode forward and didn’t let nerves overtake me. He was very well balanced and a consistent competitor,” said Bradley.
“At Burghley, we were sixth after dressage, so we didn’t win the dressage. It was on cross-country where he was very fast and very careful to the jumps - so that was what brought us up to first. We were one second outside of the time and moved up from sixth to first after cross-country.” On the final day, Sassy, the careful show jumper, put in a clean show jump round to secure the win.
A longtime student of Bruce Davidson Sr., Bradley remembers Davidson being by his side for his Burghley win. “Bruce was competing at Burghley the same year and when he finished his show jumping round, he got off his horse to come help me warm-up for show jumping. It was fantastic.”
Bradley’s winning streak didn’t stop in 1993 as he went on to win many long format events on a number of horses. One commonality among his top horses was the Thoroughbred blood. After Sassy Reason retired, Bradley formed a partnership with Dr. Doolittle (Masked Dancer x Miss W.I.P.) a Thoroughbred gelding owned by Nicola Hales. “Dr. Doolittle was another off-the-track Thoroughbred and he won Kentucky [CCI3*] in 1996,” said Bradley. “He was a good mover, not a great mover. He never won the dressage but would always be right up there. He was extremely brave and very fast on cross-country. He was a really fun horse with a great attitude, and he never once pinned his ears. He was just a lovely horse to be around.”
Several years later, Bradley formed a partnership with one of his all-time favorite horses, Brandenburg’s Joshua. Now retired, Brandenburg’s Joshua aka Josh, is a 1995 Thoroughbred gelding owned and ridden by Bradley who competed at the upper levels for over ten years. “He was another off-the-track Thoroughbred and I first saw him as a 4-year-old when I taught Joerg Eichmann on him. I told Joerg, ‘If you ever want to sell this horse would you please call me first.'” Two years later, Bradley received a call from Eichmann. “Josh was 6 years old when Joerg decided to sell him, so he called me, and I was lucky to get him.”
“[Josh] was a very pretty mover in the dressage, he was brave and fast on cross-country, and an extremely clean show jumper. You could count on him to always jump clear,” said Bradley. Brandenburg’s Joshua and Bradley won the Foxhall Three-Day Event CCI3* in 2005. The pair also competed at the Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI4* (now CCI5*-L) three times (2006, 2008, and 2009) and every time they finished in the top 10.
Stephen Bradley is an Olympian, a two-time Pan American Games gold medalist, and has finished in the top 10 at the Kentucky Three-Day Event five times. He has won many three-day events including Burghley, Kentucky, Checkmate, and Foxhall. A master at the long format, Bradley shared, “I loved the long format and I miss the long format. The beauty of [endurance day] was that steeplechase got you riding forward and galloping. Back then, that’s more what the cross-country courses were all about with long gallops. We did have some technical questions but not like we do today. As a result of the steeplechase, you came out of the cross-country box and you were on the mark right off the bat.”
The U.S. is one of the only countries to still offer steeplechase in eventing through the USEA Classic Series. An advocate for the Classic Series events, Bradley ended with, “We are very lucky to still have the long format events at places like Kentucky and Waredaca. I think people should utilize them and learn from them as much as possible.”
The USEA Classic Series keeps the spirit of the classic long format three-day events alive for Beginner Novice through the Preliminary levels. Competitors can experience the rush of endurance day, including roads and tracks, steeplechase, the vet box, and cross-country, as well as participate in formal veterinary inspections and educational activities with experts on the ins and outs of competing in a long format three-day event. Riders who compete in a USEA Classic Series event during the year will have the chance to win a variety of prizes at the events from USEA sponsors. Click here to learn more about the USEA Classic Series.
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