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From youngster to international Grand Prix horse: Kilkenny

Tuesday, 01 June 2021
From youngster to international Grand Prix horse

Photo © Sportfot While the Olympic Games were not in the cards for Kilkenny when Cian O’Connor bought him, the Irish rider now says that the 9-year-old gelding has “put himself right up there as a good option” for Tokyo. Photo © Sportfot.

 

Text © World of Showjumping 

 


 

With Cian O’Connor’s 9-year-old grey gelding Kilkenny (VDL Cardento x Guidam), the Brennan-family’s renowned Mill House Stud in Gowran, Ireland, has once again bred an Irish horse for the very top end of the sport. Formerly known as MHS Fernhill, Kilkenny was renamed after the Irish county in which he was born and produced when O’Connor bought him last year. 

Kilkenny comes from a strong dam-line; his grandmother Gowran Lady is the mother of Greg Broderick’s Olympic partner MHS Going Global, as well as international showjumper MHS High Hopes and five-star eventer MHS King Joules. Kilkenny’s father is the world-class sire VDL Cardento, that has produced countless of horses jumping at the highest level of the sport. 

O’Connor bought Kilkenny in October last year, but despite their short partnership, the pair has already impressed – in March they finished third in Kilkenny’s first ever five-star Grand Prix, in Wellington, Florida. While the Olympic Games were not in the cards for Kilkenny when O’Connor bought him, the Irish rider now says that the gelding has “put himself right up there as a good option” for Tokyo. 

Kilkenny’s journey to the top is about much more than breeding and sport though, as WoSJ discovers that behind it all is a story of friendship, loss, love and trust. 

 

Carol Gee: “He picked me; I did not pick him”

Photo © private collection Kilkenny with Cian O'Connor and his former owner Carol Gee at Karlswood Stables. Photo © private collection.

Carol Gee owned Kilkenny – or MHS Fernhill as he was known back then – from he was three to he was eight. Gee has a background in eventing, and only switched to showjumping in recent years. “My yard Fernhill Sport Horses Centre is located in Kilkenny, and from there we mostly produce and sell eventing horses for every market – from the amateurs, to housewives, to the top end such as Olympic medal winner Phillip Dutton,” Gee tells. “I have been in Fernhill for twenty years, and from 2008 to 2015 Duarte Seabra rode the eventing horses for me. Very unfortunately, Duarte’s brother Francisco had a tragic accident in 2015 and was killed while eventing. Francisco was one of my best friends; he was an amazing person. When he died, we were all shocked and stunned. We asked ourselves about the road ahead – would we ever be able to go eventing again? Along with Duarte, I made the decision that we would have a go at showjumping instead.”

“When Francisco had his accident, it shattered his family, so Duarte moved back to Portugal,” Gee continues. “Duarte re-established the yard at home, which Francisco had been running in his absence. Over the years, Duarte and I have remained great pals and business partners. Today, we have our jumpers in Portugal – in a beautiful setting for the horses. Duarte is on the Portuguese side; I am on the Irish side and go between the two yards – I spend about a third of the year in Portugal. Duarte and I have a real mutual understanding of how to produce a horse, and which shows to take them to – we have a big part in each other’s lives, which is great.”

 


As we went into the field with the three-year olds galloping all around us, there was one grey horse that walked straight up to me and put its head on my shoulder and would not move.


 

“At the time we decided to make the switch to showjumping, I had an 8-year-old called Fernhill Curra Quinn (Harlequin De Carel x Clover Hill). He had jumped in Dublin as a 5- and 6-year-old, as well as in the international young horse final as a 7-year-old, so I said to Duarte to have a go with him to see if we could do it. Within three months, Curra Quinn was jumping the ranking classes and ended up doing fourteen Nations Cup teams – never with a discharge score. He also did a couple of Global Champions Tours in Cascais, as well as the World Equestrian Games in Tryon in 2018 and here we are. We came into showjumping and we are loving it!” Gee tells. 

“When we got into showjumping and started looking for horses we realised that it’s not quite as simple as buying and producing eventing horses,” Gee laughs. “To get a good showjumper is very, very expensive. So, we thought that we better start by getting some younger horses. Over the years, I have done a lot of business with Tom Brennan’s MHS Stud in Kilkenny – breeders of Irish Olympic horse MHS Going Global. So, I approached Tom and did my normal pilgrimage to MHS to look at horses at the end of the year. I said to Tom that I wanted to try to buy some top jumpers, or at least a top jumper, to see if we could produce one from scratch. As we went into the field with the 3-year-olds galloping all around us, there was one grey horse that walked straight up to me and put its head on my shoulder and would not move. I looked at Tom and asked him ‘What’s that?’, and he answered: ‘That’s your jumper Carol’. So, actually, he picked me; I did not pick him,” Gee tells about her first meeting with Kilkenny – or Elmo, as his stable name was back then. 

Photo © Sportfot "We knew that Cian would be able to campaign the horse in a way that we did not have the resources to do. It was simply a great chance for the horse," Gee tells about the sale of Kilkenny to O'Connor.

“I loved Elmo’s personality, he was not a flight animal – he came up to me, he spoke to me and he picked me,” Gee tells. “Elmo was also a real athlete, with so much blood – he could have done any job really and also been a top eventing horse. When I buy a horse, I always pay attention to the way they walk out of the stable – or the way they walk across the field – and Kilkenny strode up to me like he meant it. That attracted me to him. He gave me the feeling that he was the one, and that he believed in himself – and generally speaking, I think that if the horses have this attitude and believe that they can do it, they will.”

“Anyway, I ended up buying a few eventing horses from MHS – and I bought Elmo,” Gee tells. “However, Tom said he wanted me to see Elmo jump before I paid for him, so a week later he brought him in and gave him one jump over a fence. That was it for me – I knew this was the horse that was going to do it for us. I brought Elmo home, and then the question was where to go from there. Elmo was three at the time and had to be saddle broken. Sophie Richards had been my rider at Fernhill for seven years, but she had left and set up on her own – and was doing very well. Sophie is a beautiful rider and fantastic to produce the horses and was happy to take Elmo in. As he was a really sharp and sensitive horse, I knew that he could never be rushed. I told Sophie to take all the time she needed, because this horse was meant for the big stage, and that is exactly what she did.”

 


I loved Elmo’s personality, he was not a flight animal – he came up to me, he spoke to me and he picked me.


 

“The minute Sophie saw Elmo, she shared my passion for him,” Gee tells. “Sophie always puts the production of the horses first – prizes are not important to her, but respect as a rider and producer is – so she was the perfect match for Elmo. I have so much respect for Sophie and how she produced Elmo; without her, he would not have been what he is today.”

“Sophie built a great relationship with Elmo and the horse absolutely adored her,” Gee continues. “He is the type that prefers people over other horses; he loves human company and I think Sophie had a big part to play in that, because she is very soft with them, spends time with them and gives them a lot of attention.”

“When Elmo did the very first Dublin-qualifier as a 4-year-old with Sophie, it was pretty obvious that he was something special and there was a lot of talk about him from there on,” Gee tells. “I then made the decision to leave Elmo with Sophie until he was ready to do some bigger classes with Duarte. Ireland is the ideal ground to produce a young horse; we have fantastic classes here in the different age categories, lots of gear towards the young horse – so I preferred this to moving him to Portugal.”

Photo © Sportfot "It was difficult to turn down the chance to have your horse ridden by one of the best riders and producers in the world, and it was also an opportunity for me to still be involved with the horse," Gee tells about selling Kilkenny to O'Connor. Photo © Sportfot.

“Initially, we had said Elmo would go to Duarte as a 6-year-old, but it turned out he wasn’t quite mature enough to come and campaign in Portugal at this point, so we left him with Sophie for a bit longer,” Gee explains. “Sophie did Dublin Horse Show with Elmo when he was seven and then after we decided it was time for him to go to Duarte. They did their first show together in Vilamoura in October 2019, and Elmo just ate the jumps – finding it very easy. From the minute he appeared on the international circuit, the phone never stopped ringing: ‘What’s the grey horse, is he for sale?’” Gee laughs. “But, Elmo was bought for Duarte and my intention was never to sell him.” 

“Then, at the Sunshine Tour in the autumn of 2020, Cian saw Elmo jumping and approached Duarte,” Gee tells. “Shortly after, my phone rang – it was Cian. Actually, my first instinct was to press the reject-button because I knew what the question was going to be!” Gee laughs. “However, after speaking with Duarte, I had a talk with Cian. Initially, I told him my answer was always no – Elmo was not for sale. Anyway, after both Duarte and I had been chatting to Cian, we thought that well, Cian is one of the best riders in the world – an Irish rider, and would it not be amazing to get him back on an Irish horse. We knew that Cian would be able to campaign the horse in a way that we did not have the resources to do. It was simply a great chance for the horse. Lengthy conversations with Cian also made it clear that he was not going to take no for an answer. He wanted the horse, period. It was difficult to turn down the chance to have your horse ridden by one of the best riders and producers in the world, and it was also an opportunity for me to still be involved with the horse – which was a big plus seeing that I had had him since he was three,” Gee explains about the sale to O’Connor. 

 


Everything happens for a reason, and somebody somewhere – I’d like to think it was Francisco – made the decision for us that this was the way to go with this horse.


 

“In hindsight, selling Elmo to Cian was the best decision for the horse,” Gee says. “With the coronavirus, and more recently the EHV-1 outbreak, what would we have been able to do with him? He would have been sitting in Portugal doing nothing, while Cian has taken him to the other side of the world, he’s campaigned him in Wellington – the horse has had an amazing spring and we would never have been able to do that with him. Everything happens for a reason, and somebody somewhere – I’d like to think it was Francisco – made the decision for us that this was the way to go with this horse.”

“Cian is amazing! He calls, sends photos, videos, messages – discusses the plans with me, he has really impressed me with his attitude,” Gee smiles. “Just his involvement with us really, it could not be better. When I recently went to visit Elmo at Cian’s breathtaking new stables, he was treated like a king – it’s unbelievable there. Now, I’m just very excited to share the rest of the journey with him.”

 

Sophie Richards: “Everything felt very easy for him”

Photo © Tori O'Connor "At the age of six and seven, I had the feeling he had not even started yet – there was just nothing you could give him at that age that was ever going to be enough for him,” Richards tells. Photo © Tori O'Connor.

“I saddle-broke Elmo over the winter when he turned four," Richards tells. “When I started him, he was very babyish and green. While he wasn’t really flashy on the jumps, he was very athletic and most importantly everything felt very easy for him. It never felt like he had to try.”

“Elmo is a blood horse, so you would not be asleep on him,” Richards smiles when talking about the gelding’s early days. “However, he was never any trouble and took everything in his stride. As to his personality, Elmo could be a human – he was a real character and wanted to be your friend. He was just a really kind horse to be around and he knew how much people liked him.”

“When Elmo was four, he did some of the qualifiers for Dublin Horse Show – and won the first of them,” Richards continues. “He did not do too many shows that season though, and in September I gave him a break and left him for the whole winter in the field. I brought him back in at the start of the next year, and during his 5-year-old season, he did the Irish Sport Horse Studbook Series as well as the Dublin qualifiers. Later that year, Elmo also jumped at the World Breeding Championships in Lanaken. After, he again had a quiet winter in the field. We repeated this program when he was six, apart from Lanaken. When Elmo was seven, he jumped the international young horse classes in Dublin, as well as doing his first national Grand Prix and then he left for Duarte in October 2019. The Studbook Series is really nice for the young horses, with good courses and good venues. I don’t like to just go to show after show with the young ones; I prefer a nice venue with a good course that includes flashy jumps so that the horses learn something that day. For me it’s important to try to give the horses a really good experience every time they show.”

 


Nothing was ever driven by a competition or a trial, or anything else, it was all about what we felt he was ready for.


 

“I believe that the winter breaks in the field are really good for the young horses – both physically and mentally,” Richards says. “As young horses, they have to learn so much in only a few years – the amount they have to cram in is a lot compared to an older horse. I think the complete downtime in the field gives their bodies time to change and their minds an important break to absorb what they have learned. Any horse I ever had, has always come in even better after a winter break. They have all been ready to pick up where they left off.”

“For Elmo, I think being produced the way we did it was important. He was a bloody, sensitive and sharp horse that needed time. We were very laid back with him; he would be the one to give us the feeling of what he was ready to do. Nothing was ever driven by a competition or a trial, or anything else, it was all about what we felt he was ready for,” Richards tells. 

“Elmo was very intelligent and learned quickly. He was almost a bit too clever sometimes,” Richards laughs. “He had plenty of personality, and I absolutely loved him! I always believed that when he would put everything together, he was going to be really, really good. At the age of six and seven, I had the feeling he had not even started yet – there was just nothing you could give him at that age that was ever going to be enough for him.”

“I always said of Elmo: ‘If he is not a top horse, I don’t know what is!’ and it turned out that my gut feeling was right. It’s been very exciting watching him jump with Cian, and it’s great to hear how much Cian thinks of him. To have such a good Irish-bred horse with an Irish rider is fantastic; it does not happen that often.”

 

Duarte Seabra: “A special horse in every way”

Photo © Moises Basallote/Sunshine Tour "I think he will be a real super-star, right up there among the very best," Duarte Seabra says about his former partner Kilkenny. Photo © Moises Basallote/Sunshine Tour.

“Kilkenny – or Elmo as we called him – was bought with high expectations,” Duarte Seabra tells. “He has the same mother-line as MHS Going Global, and already when he was three there was quite a lot of interest in him. Sophie did a great job with him until he was seven, and during that time Carol got quite a few offers on him but she always wanted to keep him for me.”

“When I first sat on Elmo in Vilamoura in October 2019, I told Carol that this must be the feeling of riding a super-star,” Seabra says. “At the time, I had already jumped a few five-stars and some Nations Cups with Curra Quinn, but Elmo was different – everything felt easy, there was no limit on his scope. However, he needed to be arranged for the big level – he needed to put everything together and become a bit more correct. While he was very athletic, elastic and light – which made everything come easy for him – I still felt that I needed to get his body a bit more compact. At the same time, Elmo was a horse that you could not just tell what to do; he had so much blood and was so intelligent, so you had to understand him and go with him. It was a lot about building a partnership with him. When I got him, I thought we would need a bit of time to gel but in two months we had come a surprisingly long way.”

 


Everything felt easy, there was no limit on his scope.


 

“The next year, when Elmo turned eight and I started to jump the first 1.40m with him he turned into a clear-round machine and just got better and better,” Seabra tells. “That following autumn at the Sunshine Tour, I was approached by Cian who had seen Elmo jump. As much as I wanted to have the horse, I thought it was the right person to sell to and the right time. An Irish horse, and an Irish rider – it was right to sell; for the horse, for Carol and for me. While Carol did not really want to sell, it made sense for me to let him go to Cian – with him he will jump for an Olympic medal. Every time I see Elmo with him, he makes me really proud! Also, I am only 35, so hopefully we will find another one like Elmo for me one day.” 

“Elmo is the nicest horse, so soft to ride – although he was quite powerful, so not a kid’s ride!” Seabra laughs. “At the same time, he had a lovely character and was very brave. Elmo was nice to look after, good to ride on the flat, delivered in the ring – simply a special horse in every way. I think he will be a real super-star, right up there among the very best.”

 

Cian O’Connor: “Kilkenny has the great intelligence of an old Irish horse”

Photo © Sportfot “His mind is brilliant; Kilkenny has the great intelligence of an old Irish horse," O'Connor says. Photo © Sportfot.

“I spotted Kilkenny at the Sunshine Tour last September only,” O’Connor tells. “Ironically – seeing the fact that he was Irish bred and was jumping around here – I never saw him in Ireland, as I was so much away.” 

“I was watching a ranking class in Vejer where he was jumping, and I liked the look of him as well as the fact that he was Irish,” O’Connor continues. “After the class, as I was making my way over to Duarte, I bumped into Pedro Veniss – who I know well and who is a good horseman. Pedro said to me: ‘Are you asking about MHS Fernhill? That’s a proper horse, and a horse to buy!’ Pedro also told me the Irish lady that owned him was not easy and that I would have my work cut out to buy him. But actually, I knew Carol – she is a fantastic customer for an event horse – and I always had a good relationship with her. So, I rang Carol up, and as she was coming to the Sunshine Tour the next day herself, we sat down and spoke. Eventually, it was agreed that I could try the horse.” 

 


He has been produced beautifully, all the way from when Sophie had him to Duarte taking him up in the Grand Prix classes.


 

“I fell in love with Kilkenny the moment I sat on him,” O’Connor tells. “He has been produced beautifully, all the way from when Sophie had him to Duarte taking him up in the Grand Prix classes. I suppose when you find a horse with all the raw talent, and so well produced and cared for by the people who had him before, it was just up to me to gel with him and take him to the next level. While I thought Kilkenny was brilliant, he has surpassed my expectations. He had only jumped a few 1.45m classes when I went to Valencia with him at the end of last year; there he won a 1.40m class and had a fence down in his first three-star Grand Prix. In Florida, his results were outstanding during the entire circuit.” 

Photo © Sportfot “I fell in love with Kilkenny the moment I sat on him,” O’Connor tells. Photo © Sportfot.

“His mind is brilliant; Kilkenny has the great intelligence of an old Irish horse – he always watches the top rail of the jump,” O’Connor explains. “He’s not really explosive or throwing himself into the sky, but he just has this cleverness about him that he always knows where the top pole is. Kilkenny is also so light and so easy on himself; after he has jumped a Grand Prix, you go to look at him the next morning and it just takes nothing out of him. It’s all so easy for him. I really hope that he keeps developing and that we can become a real partnership to be reconned with for the next couple of years.”

 


He just has this cleverness about him that he always knows where the top pole is.


 

“If you asked me when I bought him, I would have said it is too soon for the Olympics, but after what he did in Florida, he has put himself right up there as a good option,” O’Connor says. “I will be aiming PSG Final for the Olympics – he will be my plan A given his experience – but if Kilkenny would have to go, I would not be concerned.”

“Over the years, we have had a lot of Irish riders campaigning Irish horses but it’s a lot scarcer nowadays,” O’Connor tells about partnering up with a horse bred in his own country. “I suppose the last pair that was at a really high level was Greg Broderick and MHS Going Global. Interestingly, Kilkenny comes from the same breeder – Tom Brennan – and shares the same dam-line. Tom would have been angry at me when I changed the name from MHS Fernhill to Kilkenny, but Tom is from Kilkenny and Carol’s Fernhill Sport Horse Centre is based there too – so when Tom called me about the name change, I said: ‘Don’t worry, everybody knows you are the best breeder in Kilkenny!’ I think Tom is happy now though and got over it. I don’t know, it just fitted – a grey, Irish horse – it was the first name that came into my head when I wanted to rename him. I hope that when people watch Kilkenny jump at the really big venues – like Aachen – they will feel a closeness to Ireland.”

 

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