Raeford, NC--Fresh off their victory at the $50,000 Aiken Grand Prix Eventing Showcase just a few weeks ago, Liz Halliday-Sharp and her longtime partner Fernhill By Night once again find themselves atop another leaderboard, this time in the CCI4*-S at the Cloud 11 ~ Gavilan North LLC Carolina International. The pair earned a 27.9 to post an early lead in the 41-horse division.
"Blackie," the 16-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding sired by Radolin, enjoyed the blustery, rain-soaked morning, and added a little pep to his step before entering the ring. "With Blackie we're always trying to get him really sassy before a test, because he is a sleepy person in the ring. I think the temperature definitely helped him, that it was freezing and windy and all that."
Halliday-Sharp stuck to her plan of a light warm-up for Blackie. "I didn't really ride him at all on the [warm-up ring] surface, I rode him out in the grass, because I knew that that would make him more tired, since it's quite deep surface there. I did very very little [in the warm-up] as we always do. We've been sort of working to teach him to do a few little piaffe steps and do a bit of big passage-y trot to open it up...things that make him find it more fun. He knows these tests now after so many years." She added that she did a Prix St. Georges test on him this winter and she felt that really helped him come along this year in his flatwork.
"He's 16 and knows his job," said Halliday-Sharp, of the gelding, who's owned by her mother Deborah. "As long as we get him fresh and ready, he delivers a good test. It's always fun to ride him because you know he's going to bring something good to the table."
Now that he's older, Halliday-Sharp doesn't plan to run him at any more long-format events, but instead sticks to the shorter competitions, such as the ERM Series, the Millstreet Nations Cup and the Aiken eventing showcase. "He still does the same work as the rest of our crew, but we have to look after him and his soundness. He doesn't get hammered on the gallops or any of that. We try and keep things fun for him in the flatwork. Really, what I did this last year was I planned nearly all his events around where he could do well and win money, if I'm being really honest. I just thought that's a great thing for him to do and find somewhere fun to go."
Last year's defending champion at this event is Doug Payne and Vandiver (sired by Windfall), who currently hold the second-place position with a 29.0. When asked if he felt any pressure because of that title he said, "If you're going to be competitive, I always think there's a lot of pressure. Pressure can make you better."
Payne was pleased with "Quinn," a 15-year-old Trakehner gelding, whom he and his wife Jessica own with Debi Crowley. "I think he was the best he's ever been on the flat today. I've got to thank [dressage trainer] Shawna Harding and, of course, Erik [Duvander, the USEF Eventing High Performance Director] for all their help."
"It's very rewarding because he's the most genuine creature there is and wants to help you out. It makes the job a whole lot of fun and pretty straightforward."
Quinn had much of 2018 off after having a stifle issue sorted out. "Honestly, he's had it since he was a five-year-old and it was never anything super traumatic but it got to a point where there was no diagnostic thing aside from going in with a scope. [The vets] were able to go in and clean up some old damage that had been there forever and ever. It wasn't like it was an acute injury that happened, it was something that's been brewing for a very long time. He feels awesome now. Probably honestly, the best he's been since I've had the opportunity to work with him."
"I've got to thank [our groom] Courtney [Carson], she was walking him all last year. She was doing her midnight walks and her 4 a.m. walks. He's been doing full flat since about the fall. There was no rush to get him back because the ultimate goal was to go to Kentucky."
After being off much of last year, the pair have come out with a renewed vigor this season. "We've tried a new approach. He's a horse that would get a little bit nervous, but both Shawna and Erik helped me quite a bit figure out a way in which I can really ride through the tension and take the energy and go somewhere with it."
Halliday-Sharp, who had a busy day with six total rides, also sits in third with Deniro Z (29.5) and 12th with Cooley Quicksilver (34.1).
"Deniro's really come along in his strength," she said of the 11-year-old KWPN gelding sired by Zapatero VDL and owned by the Deniro Syndicate and Ocala Horse Properties. "I'd actually say there were quite a few mistakes in the test, which would've been expensive. Had the halts been nailed and one of the turns on the haunches was better and one of the changes was late, that's an ongoing thing for him, I think he would've beaten Blackie definitely."
"He hasn't done a test since Pine Top [in February], so I think it'll do him a lot of good to do another test at The Fork to get those little kinks ironed back out again. But I think overall his work has improved this year. I think he's getting better marks for the bits he does well now, because he's really pushing from behind. He spent some time with Robert Dover in Wellington, which was really great. It was really really amazing to have his insight and just teaching him to sit a little bit more. He's naturally quite bum high, so it is really hard for him, which is why he struggles with the lead changes."
Next stop for Deniro Z after The Fork, if all goes to plan, is the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event next month. "He's such a wonderful horse. He has a great brain and he just loves his job and he loves me and we just have a good partnership. When all the pieces are aligned, he's going to be unbeatable.
"I feel really lucky," says Halliday-Sharp, who splits her time between Florida and Great Britain. "Virtually every horse we have in the barn I've produced from a four or five-year-old. I got Deniro as a seven-year-old, but he'd never done any eventing or anything. It's kind of fun to see them all reaching maturity and stepping up. It's nice to see that they're all as cool of horses as you thought they were and it's even better to have some owners into them now so I can keep the rides. It's like a dream come true, really, because most things I produce I have to sell them or find an owner to buy into them. I don't just merrily keep them on myself. It's really fun when the person you sell them to is the one that wants to let you keep riding it."
The action resumes tomorrow with the completion of the culmination of dressage in the CCI2*-S and CCI3*-S as well as the Advanced class and other national divisions. The CCI4*-S riders will show jump from 12:30-2:00.
Eventing fans can follow along with the competition on the livestream at EQSports.net.
Check out all the live scores at EventEntries.com.
The Carolina International is a favorite prep event for many riders gearing up for the upcoming Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Follow along with Practical Horseman's coverage of #KY3Day19 on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Special thanks to our sponsors, Absorbine and Dublin NA, for their support!