Aug 12, 2023

The Road to the AEC: How a Thoroughbred Helped Melissa Fox Heal and Meet Lifelong Friends

Melissa Fox and Tito Tonight. Photo by Erin Gilmore Photography

Back in 2020, I was casually looking for my next horse to bring along. For years I had been competing my two steady-Eddie Thoroughbred’s Command Approval (With Approval x Takitforgranit) and Diamond Legacy (Unfold x Kiwi Trip) and had been pretty successful with them including being named Training Rider of the Year in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Both of my boys were aging quickly though, and I needed to figure out my future competition ambitions. I had also just lost my long-time trainer, coach, and mentor Packy McGaughan unexpectedly earlier in the spring of 2020. I thought focusing my energy on another horse might be useful during such a difficult time.

I decided to get a young Thoroughbred from Benchmark Sport Horses named Tito Tonight (Stay Thirsty x Dare to Dance) in April 2020 and brought him home on May 1, 2020. I was enrolled in a graduate nursing program at the University of Virginia and decided I would send Tito to Bourke Eventing for the initial restart while I focused on getting Command Approval, aka Pride, ready to compete for the spring and summer. Eventing was at a standstill during the pandemic, but the rumor was that horse trials would begin again in June 2020.

On June 1, exactly one month after bringing Tito home, Pride passed away from a diaphragmatic hernia. My heart was shattered because, within a span of four months, I had not only lost my coach but now one of my heart horses. For the weeks that followed his passing, I would go through a severe depression period. My family and friends were very worried about me. At the time my husband and I were living in Berryville, Virginia, and only a few miles from Bourke Eventing. I found myself over there almost every day to see Tito. Tito at the time was my only joy during such a difficult time.

Tito stayed at Bourke Eventing for approximately 90 days before I brought him home. In August 2020, Tito came home to our family farm to adjust to our herd and become familiar with his forever home. Shortly after his transition into the herd, he was playing with one of our other geldings when he sustained an injury to the top of his croup. He was sore in it but seemed somewhat fine. A few days later we headed to Loch Moy for our first starter event together. He jumped around the Beginner Novice course like a champion and brought home a fifth-place finish. The following Monday I had scheduled for an appointment at Spurlock Vet Associates, and we decided on a whim to X-ray the area to see if there was anything significant. Turns out he had fractured a vertebra in his back. Needless to say, I felt awful that I had taken him to the event the weekend prior with a fractured back!

Tito was restricted to flat riding only during his recovery that fall. Everything healed well and at the beginning of 2021, he and I competed in our first recognized event at Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina. Tito continued to improve with every event, and before I knew it he was qualified for USEA American Eventing Championships at both Beginner Novice and Novice in 2021. Our plan was to enter and compete at Novice in Kentucky that summer.

Photo by GRC Photo, courtesy of Fox.

When I first purchased Tito, a woman named Marianne Scherer contacted me on Facebook. She told me that she and her husband Eric Scherer were Tito's last owners when he was still racing at the track and she would love to follow him. We quickly became good friends, and I would frequently update her on how he was doing. The Scherers live in Kentucky and race out of Churchill Downs, so the minute I knew Tito and myself were qualified to compete in Kentucky, Marianne and I quickly made plans to meet and for her and her husband to come see him compete at AEC that summer. It was an exciting time in our lives, but ultimately we wouldn't make it to Kentucky that year.

In August of 2021, I decided to hack Tito at home one afternoon. Our farm is notorious for having a lot of wildlife. On this particular day, there were some wild turkeys that popped out of some tall grass at a neighbor's. Tito got spooked, and I fell off, fracturing four vertebrae in my lower back. Although it was a severe injury, my immediate thoughts were how disappointing it was going to be not to get to Kentucky that year. I took the recommended amount of time to rest and recover from my injury, but by October Tito and I were out competing again.

Later on that fall, I found out that one of my childhood best friends had decided that she was going to come back to the East Coast to train and compete in Aiken, South Carolina for a few months in 2022. Erin Storey runs a large eventing facility called Storey Tails in Boise, Idaho. She asked me if I could manage to come down to Aiken for a little bit to train with her. I immediately started working on plans to have an extended stay in Aiken. I decided I would take Tito and another Thoroughbred Rogue Patriot (Two Step Salsa x Signora Gnia) that I had gotten during my recovery (because buying a new horse when you are recovering from a fractured back seems like a wise idea).

In January 2022, I headed down with two horses to train and compete for a month. Erin came down at the beginning of February, and we got to train together for several weeks before I had to head back to Virginia. It was an amazing experience!

In 2022, the AEC was scheduled to head to Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana. After having such an incredible time with Erin in Aiken, I knew that I wanted to put the championship on my calendar that year. Unfortunately, again it was not in our cards! In May of 2022, I was hauling Tito over to the ring at Woodstock Equestrian Park in Dickerson, Maryland, something I did every day since fracturing my back when our 2017 F350 truck caught on fire.

Luckily, no one was injured during the whole situation, but our truck was in need of major repair. By August 2022, we still did not have our truck back from the dealership due to a backorder issue with a part we needed. I began looking into commercial shippers and options for flying Tito to Montana, but financially none were really feasible for us. I had to break the news to Erin that we weren't coming and watched the live feed of her and her students competing at Rebecca that year.

Once the truck was repaired, I started competing with both horses again. Rogue Patriot was entered in the Thoroughbred Makeover in October of 2022 ,and I knew that was my opportunity to get Tito back to Kentucky. I entered Tito in the TIP Championship for dressage and immediately informed the Scherers that we would be headed to Kentucky in October.

The Scherers made the short drive from Louisville to Lexington to finally meet us and see Tito after almost three years. The moment will be one of my most cherished memories for the rest of my life. Marianne and Eric both got to sit on Tito for the first time in 2 1/2 years. They couldn't believe how great he looked and Eric (imagine a big, tough guy) even got emotional during their visit. Eric told us that he was one of Tito's exercise riders when he was a 2-year-old. My friendship and bond with the Scherers that day only got stronger.

Marianne and Eric Scherer with Tito Tonight. Photo courtesy of Fox.

The Scherers had a horse that was racing in the fall meet at Keeneland a few days later and they invited me to attend. We were able to follow their horse from the barns, to the paddock, and into the starting gate. Their horse, Nepotism, even won the race, and we were in the winning photo. It was a fairy tale week! In the spring of 2023, I opted to buy in on an actual racehorse. Marianne and I owned a horse named Sermononthemount, who won a race at Evangeline before being claimed. We are hopefully going to get another horse together before heading to Kentucky this summer.

After our amazing time in Kentucky, I knew that I wanted to go back for the AEC in 2023. Tito qualified for Novice in the fall of 2022, but the ultimate goal was to get qualified for Training. Although we moved up this spring, we hit a few bumps in the road, so it became less and less likely we could get the qualification for Training. I still wanted to go even if it was only for Novice.

As of today, Tito Tonight is officially entered in AEC to compete in the Novice Amateur division. The Scherers are planning to come and watch Tito finally compete at the championship. I truly believe we will make lifetime memories this year in Kentucky competing at our first AEC together and seeing the Scherers again!

About the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC)

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC), presented by Nutrena Feeds, is the pinnacle of the sport at the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of combinations from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. In fact, the 2021 AEC garnered over 1,000 entries and now stands as the largest eventing competition in North American history. The 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds will be held Aug. 29—Sept. 3 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.

The USEA would like to thank Presenting Sponsor: Nutrena Feeds; Advanced Final Title Sponsor: Adequan; Platinum Level Sponsor: Bates Saddles; Gold Level Sponsors: Capital Square, Horse & Country, Parker Equine Insurance, Smartpak, Standlee; Silver Level Sponsors: Auburn Labs, Ecogold, Kerrits, The Jockey Club; Bronze Level Sponsors: 70 Degrees, Athletux, Black Petticoat, The Chronicle of the Horse, Devoucoux, D.G. Stackhouse and Ellis, Dubarry of Ireland, Equestrian Team Apparel, Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Horseware Ireland, Majyk Equipe, Retired Racehorse Project, Ride EquiSafe; Contributing Level Sponsor: CrossCountry App, Georgetown – Scott County Tourism, Lexmark, L.V. Harkness, Mountain Horse, Mrs. Pastures Cookies, #WeRideTogether; Prize Level Sponsors: Coach Daniel Stewart, EquiFit, Equilab, Equiluxe Tack, Equine Essentials, Equine Pulse Performance, FarmVet, Achieve Equine/FLAIR Equine Nasal Strips, Horses 4 Your Consideration, Hound & Hare, I Love My Horse Eventing Boutique, Jack’s Favorites, Jane Heart Jewelry, Kinetic Equine Services, LeMieux, Levade Kentucky, Mare Modern Goods, OneTouch Fly Spray, Parkmore Supplements, Practical Horseman, Sidelines Magazine, Spy Coast Farm, Strides for Equality Equestrians, and VTO Saddlery.

Jun 21, 2024 Competitions

Paris-Bound Riders Reflect on Day 1 of Mandatory Outing

The first day of this weekend’s mandatory outing for the U.S. Olympic Eventing Team kicked off on Friday, June 21, as the team riders, including all the reserves, took part in the Advanced division at the Stable View Summer H.T. With legendary Ian Stark revving up the spectators’ team spirit as announcer, the riders are using this event as a final prep before the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Jun 21, 2024 Eventing News

2024 Rebecca Farm Travel Grants Announced

The Event at Rebecca Farm is set to begin in less than one month in Kalispell, Montana. Competitors from around the country are preparing to travel to the event, and thanks to the generosity of the Broussard Family Charitable Foundation and administration of the USEA Foundation, that trip will be made more accessible through the Rebecca Farm Travel Grants.

Jun 21, 2024 Eventing News

Quick Links: June 22-23

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.

Jun 21, 2024 Eventing News

Now on Course: Coree Reuter-McNamara Has Found Her Strength and Courage in a Special OTTB

New Years Eve 2015. I was laying in bed, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square, thinking about the previous year, and listening to my husband snore. A few months before, I had lost my heart horse to ring bone. He’d had to permanently retire before he was even 10 and went back to his breeders to be a pasture puff for the rest of his life.

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