Part 2: Salute to the American Thoroughbred: Touch the Sun - Expert how-to for English Riders

Part 2: Salute to the American Thoroughbred: Touch the Sun

The amazing feats of champion hunter Touch the Sun in Part 2 of our four-part series on the American Thoroughbred.
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Jamie Mann and Touch the Sun | Courtesy, Jamie Mann

Jamie Mann and Touch the Sun | Courtesy, Jamie Mann

Touch the Sun
Hall of Fame show hunter Touch the Sun was the epitome of the classic Thoroughbred: elegant and refined yet also breathtakingly athletic. When the beautiful chestnut colt was born in Logansport, Indiana, in 1969, his breeder, Ross Reid, predicted he would be great some day and chose an appropriately lofty name for him. With the bloodlines of the colt’s sire, Beau Busher, and dam, Alcidream, both tracing back to the great Man o’ War, Ross hoped he might become a champion racehorse. But after Touch the Sun won less than $3,000 in 16 starts, he decided to sell the horse.

Chicago hunter/jumper trainer Tim Sullivan recalls the first day he saw Touch the Sun, “A dealer brought up a load of school horses for me to try and told me he had a Thoroughbred on the truck if I’d be interested. I watched him for about 20 minutes and wrote the check. We just jumped him over little crosspoles and oxers and he jumped spectacularly. That night I told my wife at the time, ‘I think I just found the nicest horse that I’ve ever seen walk in the door.’ I’d had a lot of nice horses, but I said, ‘This one is really nice. He’s got to be 16.2.’ The next day, she said, ‘He’s not that big. He’s about 15.3’ It was his stride that made him look so big.”

Tim showed Touch the Sun some locally before taking him to Florida and asking Mark and Laurie Perry to train and sell him. Under their care, he began a remarkably successful career, during which he earned countless blue ribbons with a long list of professionals, Juniors and adult amateurs. “That’s what makes a true champion,” says Steve Stephens, who piloted the gelding through his First-Year Green season in 1975, “not that some rider really clicked with him. He won for everybody.

“I won the very first class I rode the horse in,” Steve says. That was the beginning of a 78-class winning streak. “He was so elegant and such a beautiful mover. He just floated across the ground. Every jump was gorgeous. And he was really sound. You’ve got to give Mark and Laurie a lot of credit for that. They managed him beautifully, keeping him in condition, having the right blacksmith, the good nutrition, everything that a champion needs. Laurie rode him in between the shows and had such a connection with him. I was just the jockey, meeting them at the ring. And he was a real gentleman. He was all business in the schooling area. He was a rock star.”

Steve was so devoted to the horse that he refused to ride other First-Year horses that year. “I didn’t want to compete against him. That added a little more pressure because I didn’t get to practice before I rode my number one horse. I had only the one shot. But that was my choice. I wanted him to be my only special horse.” Showing the horse wasn’t easy, he adds, because of his spectacular movement. “When you had to make an adjustment, it was more obvious.” If he had to adjust the horse’s stride, he tried to do it as early and subtly as possible.

It took an unlucky slip to break the pair’s winning streak. Steve says they were competing on wet, muddy grass in a morning class, “and he came around a corner and slipped right out from underneath himself. That was the first time he lost.”

Touch the Sun finished that year as the American Horse Shows Association’s (now the U.S. Equestrian Federation) First-Year Green Horse of the Year and also received the Paige Lewis Jennings Memorial Trophy for winning the most points of all the hunter divisions.

Touch the Sun went on to win many more championships over the years with numerous riders, including Rodney Jenkins. Toward the end of his career, he partnered with Jamie Mann in the Working Hunters and Lisa Castellucci in the Junior Hunters. “What a fantastic horse he was,” says Jamie, whose partnership with “Touch” or “Touché,” as they called him, gave her own career a tremendous boost. “He put several of us on the map. I won 75 Working Hunter classes on him in one year and got the highest score I’ve ever gotten on him, a 96. He was such a beautiful horse—in his color, build, conformation, neck, movement. You knew if you got him there three-quarters of the way right, he was going to jump fantastic.

“But he was not an easy horse to ride,” she adds. “He was so keen and very intelligent. The less you did in the warm-up the better because he got a little too hot. As you did more classes throughout the horse show, he’d learn where the jumps were and would get very strong out of the corners. His first class was always his best class because he was a bit spooky and backed up, so he didn’t try to drag you to the jumps. In the second class, he would come out of the corner and go forward to the first jump of the line. And he had such a big stride that it would take him down the line too much. I always had to make him wait on the ends of the ring, but I had to try not to move my hands when I held him because he tossed his head a little bit.”

In 1981, Touch was the Small Junior Hunter and Working Hunter Champion at all of the Winter Equestrian Festival shows as well as the Junior Hunter Champion at Lake Placid and the Grand Champion at Harrisburg. In 1983, he repeated the latter achievement and was the Working Hunter Champion at Madison Square Garden.

With the growing number of warmbloods in the U.S., Steve says that fewer hunter/jumper trainers take the time to search for prospects on the racetrack. “But they’re still out there,” he says. “There’s a lot of Touch the Suns at the racetrack, but you’ve got to find them.” How does he think today’s warmbloods would have fared against Touch the Sun? “They would have been in trouble. His quality would have blown them away.” He believes the elegant Thoroughbred would have been especially competitive in the derbies, which evolved after Touch the Sun retired “because the height didn’t matter. If it was 3-foot-6, 3-foot-9, 4-foot, 4-foot-6, his jump was always the same. He would have been untouchable, unbeatable.”

Practical Horseman thanks The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program and the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame for providing background research for this article. Look for profiles on Keen and Good Mixture next month.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.