Written by: Chris Stafford
In the second of our series on the people who provide the horsepower, American horse owners Abigail Wexner, Anne Sparks and Bruce Duchossois share their experiences.
The partnership of Abigail S. Wexner and Beezie Madden has become synonymous with show jumping in the U.S. For more than a decade the duo have collaborated on producing medals at Olympic and World Equestrian Games, and providing the team with a string of world class horses. In 2004 Madden won a team gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games with Authentic and then under Wexner’s ownership went on to add a team and individual silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen. While these would be just two career highlights, there are numerous other wins that made the Wexner-Madden team so successful.
Among their current string are the KWPN gelding Simon, BWP gelding Cortes C, Danish Warmblood mare Vanilla, the Dutch stallion Breitling LS and mare Amadora. It’s a team that Wexner says is based on a personal relationship, which formed in 1999 when Madden competed at the New Albany Classic.
These days Wexner is a recreational rider enjoying hacking around the family property in New Albany, Ohio, home of the New Albany Classic, which she founded to benefit The Center for Family Safety and Healing. The passion for horses though began when she was growing up in New York City, learning to ride in Central Park, since there was no family involvement. “I was the typical young girl mad about ponies but never had the opportunity to ride, and also my financial circumstance wasn’t such that it would have allowed it, so I didn’t actually start riding until I was late into my teens,” says Wexner..
As a practicing lawyer, Wexner née Koppel, spent two years with Davis Polk & Wardwell in London and took advantage of riding in Hyde Park and Richmond Park but it was not until she married Leslie H. Wexner, the Founder, Chairman, President and CEO of Limited Brands, in January 1993 that the opportunity emerged to actively participate with horses at the family home.
“I was always looking for ways to be involved at different levels so I started with an event at the house.” The charity event which supports victims of child abuse and domestic violence raises close to $1.5m a year. “I was very lucky, I got to meet John and Beezie who had come to compete at the event and it all started from there with the purchase of DeSilvio.” He went on to win the first phase of the Athens Olympic Selection Trials but was injured during the process. Madden went to Athens instead with Authentic which Wexner subsequently bought.
“We’ve developed an incredible relationship over the last fifteen years. It’s as much about the personal relationship I have with her and John as it is with the enormous success that she’s had, and the tremendous privilege of just being able to support her and the U.S. team.
“I felt very comfortable with them, I enjoyed being around them. And the idea of creating a team and developing that was interesting. I had a couple of horses with Jeffery Wells and that was a lot of fun too but once they had finished their careers, I really just decided to focus on this one relationship. Part of it for me was the development of the horses. I would often go with Beezie and John to buy the younger horses and then work together in terms of thinking about their career and who we’d keep and who we wouldn’t. That was as much fun as any piece of it.”
While they would normally buy younger horses to produce, Wexner has acquired some established jumpers like Simon which she purchased from Holland in 2012. “That was possibly because there was a hole in Beezie’s string and again I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to always help to make sure that she had what she needed to be at the top of her game.”
The choice of show jumping came from showing a little herself as an amateur. There’s nothing more humbling. “I admired how much talent it took and I think show jumping is a little bit of an elusive sport, the lay eye doesn’t necessarily see the finesse and the complication of the sport but I definitely appreciated it.”
Wexner defers training and competition decisions to the Maddens and travels to as many shows as she can, “which is not quite as much as I’d like. I follow as much as I need but I’m very careful to see myself as a supporting force.” Plus Wexner admits that she gets so nervous watching Beezie it’s easier to watch on the computer.
“I don’t make the decisions about the horses. It’s in consultation but I believe as an owner if you’re lucky enough to trust in your team you have to rely on the expert’s advice. I really do trust their knowledge and expertise. Our goal is the international level but it’s not about going to every Grand Prix because we have to be careful how we manage the horse, and hopefully do that thoughtfully.”
With the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games ahead of them Wexner says they hope to be a part of it and are managing their two top horses – Simon and Cortes – very carefully.
“At this point in Beezie’s career, it’s not about making every horse but how many Olympics are left and what would you hope to achieve.”
Although there were no horses in Wexner’s childhood, she has four children, aged 15-20, who all ride. “They all love horses and are really quite competent but no-one really has that bug. I’m convinced that it’s a thing you either have or you don’t have, and you certainly can’t do it if you don’t love it deeply.”
In terms of the sport’s evolution in the U.S., Wexner has observed a shift in trends in recent times of young riders owning their own horses rather than having to rely on owners. She also feels that to broaden the sport’s audience it’s important to make shows about the community, as she has successfully achieved with the New Albany Classic, a family event which typically attracts 18,000 spectators.
For Wexner she never loses sight of why she’s involved in the sport; “I’m always very mindful of what a privilege and what a joy it is to have this part of my life and the excitement of being part of something that you’re hopefully doing at the best level.
Anne Sparks from Albuquerque, New Mexico began a partnership with Athens Olympic dressage team bronze medalist Lisa Wilcox four years ago. She is now focused on producing another U.S. team horse for the Florida based rider.
In 1999, Sparks founded her breeding operation, Horses Unlimited, with a variety of warmbloods and currently has three horses in Wilcox’s barn including the Hanoverian stallion Pikko Del Cerro HU, the 2011 USEF National Developing Horse Dressage Champion. He is being aimed at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
During the previous decade, Horses Unlimited’s Belgian stallion Galant Du Serein, (1994-2007), the Hanoverian stallion Pik L and the RPSI stallion Leonberg were partnered with Danish rider Mikala Munter Gundersen with notable success.
Through their friendship, Gundersen introduced Sparks to Wilcox, whom she was training with. Sparks needed an American rider to show in the Developing Horse classes. Thus began a journey that so many sport horse breeders aspire to and that is finding the right partner for their home-bred progeny.
However, this adventure for Sparks began far from the dressage arena. She inherited her passion for horses from her grandfather who started breeding Saddlebreds in Illinois before World War II, and by the age of 10 she had designs on her dream horse; a Thoroughbred – Arab cross. Her early days of competition would find her in the hunter jumper ring but the most fun she had as a child, she admits, was riding bareback with her friends all day.
She was in college when she realized she wanted to get serious about horses and later, after partnering with a friend, learned about Warmbloods. They ventured to Germany to source their early breeding stock and “…just picked good horses of mixed breeds. We were looking for movement and type,” recalls Sparks. Among them would be Oldenburg, Trakhener, Holsteiner and German Sport Horses. “We were not picky about the brand,” she adds.
Now established with some 40 horses Horses Unlimited has an impressive line-up including a couple of show jumpers. One, Galante HU (Galante du Serein – Landina) is showing with Danish jumper Rikke Poulsen (who also rides dressage with Wilcox and her trainer Ernst Hoyos). Jessica Kozel, who is the Assistant Trainer to Wilcox, is partnered with one of Galante HU’s first foals, Gorgeous George. And as well as the three dressage horses with Wilcox, Sparks also has three horses in Germany with show jumper Katrin Mueller and dressage rider Anika Quint “because it’s less expensive to have them in Germany.”
Sparks has managed to combine her passion for horses with a successful breeding operation which could ultimately realize her dream of becoming a U.S. dressage team owner.
Bruce Duchossois met Phillip Dutton when the Australian-born U.S. Team rider was renting a barn from Duchossois’s father in Aiken, South Carolina. He was very impressed with how Phillip did things, his personality and ethics.
Bruce’s father owned Arlington Park Racetrack in Chicago and was involved in Thoroughbred racing as an owner and breeder. Bruce Jr. took up riding as a boy and went the showing route, trying his hand at pony driving along the way with Jack Wetzel. Bruce was, however, a hunter-jumper at heart and was not involved with eventing when he met Dutton. They hit it off though and after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, when the then Australian team member settled in the U.S., he asked Duchossois if he would be interested in buying an eventer. He was and the horse was Rough Cut, an inexpensive purchase that made them both some money. That initial foray led to the acquisition of a very successful partner in the 2008 Rolex winner, Connaught. Later that year the pair represented the United States at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong where the team finished seventh.
Duchossois has subsequently bought other good horses for Dutton, including Hannigan, on which Dutton finished eighth at Badminton in 2003. Duchossois rode Hannigan in some hunter classes too. He likes the variety of the two sports which, as he points out offer different opportunities. “Unlike hunters, you can’t turnaround the next day and have a go, you only have a shot at the big events three or four times a year.”
Currently one of Dutton’s main string is Duchossois’s eight-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Mighty Nice, team reserve for the 2012 Olympic Games. The striking dark bay gelding also won the Red Hills CIC3* this spring.
Bruce is a frequent spectator at events. “I like to lend a hand, carry buckets or whatever without getting in the way. It’s great to be involved.” But decisions on where the horses compete is left to Dutton. “I’m always included but Phillip is the trainer and I back him one hundred per cent.”