Flashing her photogenic smile, Meghan O’Donoghue showed no hint of fear as she and Pirate plunged down cliffs, over immobile obstacles and into water, all the while looking like they were just glad to be there, in the thick of the fabled Rolex competition.
As horse and riders hurtled across, over and through a course of hair raising obstacles that challenged even the most seasoned Olympians at this year’s Rolex Kentucky Three Day, facial expressions of top-tier riders ran the gamut, from quiet confidence to sheer terror.
But here was a fresh-faced 24-year-old from Illinois who galloped up to each new challenge as though she and her off-track Thoroughbred Pirate’s Gold Star were just off on a good romp.
O’Donoghue says she had reason to smile.
But for an accidental meeting in 2005, in a dusty indoor arena of a race-training facility, O’Donoghue might never have met the unfit little horse who would one day take her to one of the most prestigious competitions on American soil.
“By the time we got to Rolex, I felt pretty prepared for the competition. As prepared as you can before your first Race name: Pirate’s Gold Star
Show name: Pirate
Sire: Pirate Stronghold
Dam: Stars Heir, by Risen Star
Foal date: March 28, 2002four-star event,” says O’Donoghue in a phone interview with Off-Track Thoroughbreds.com. “I also had a great team of support around me, including my friends from back home, who were behind me and gave me confidence.”
US Team Olympian Will Coleman was chief among her cheering squad, encouraging her all the way, and all the hard work with longtime coach Jan Byyny of Surefire Eventing helped her square her shoulders, sit back, and enjoy a day competing against the likes of William Fox Pitt and Andrew Nicholson.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the smile, so infectious and ever-present that photographers there that day could not help but take notice as they captured her joyous expression, was the prince of a horse who only years ago, all logic argued against.
When they met, O’Donoghue didn’t need a horse. She already had several, and her equestrian parents Mark and Jill O’Donoghue, deeply supportive and encouraging of their daughter, had to balk at the idea of bringing in one more horse, she recalls.
So naturally, when O’Donoghue went to the riding facility to help another girl choose a horse, and had no interest at all in finding a horse for herself, in walked a scruffy little Thoroughbred in a big western saddle who would set her heart to hammering.
Pirate was there to pony sales horses that day, animals her friend tried out while Pirate waited patiently on the sidelines.
O’Donoghue noticed his striking good looks and nicely formed head, and couldn’t help herself. She wandered over to his rider to ask a few questions, and while her friend was riding the sales horses, O’Donoghue soon found herself riding tall in the western saddle.
“I liked his canter right away,” she says. “It’s naturally round, and so of course, I fell in love with him.”
Cooperative and smart, Pirate demonstrated his skill at swapping leads and by the time O’Donoghue left that day, she was smitten.
But her mother would not hear of another horse. She quickly denied O’Donoghue when the young rider asked if the could buy him.
“We weren’t in a position to buy Pirate when I first met him, even though he was only $3,200,” she says.
But about a month later, fate played a hand when the phone rang while O’Donoghue was taking classes at a nearby community college, and her mother soon had to contend with yet another plea on Pirate’s behalf.
“Pirate’s owner, the guy who had him at the time, told my mother that the horse I really liked really needed a place to go. They didn’t have a stall for him anymore, and he was going to have to live in a field if we couldn’t take him,” she says.
Without hesitation, Jill O’Donoghue agreed to let Pirate come live in their barn, and soon after, the whole family was equally smitten with the good-looking gelding.
It quickly became evident that the once-scruffy Thoroughbred was very talented, and had tremendous potential as a competitive sport horse.
Slowly, over time, the O’Donoghue’s paid installments on the horse with the idea of re-training and re-selling him for a profit.
But when offers started rolling in, O’Donoghue’s family rejected one after another. And the horse stuck.
Through the years, the pair worked seamlessly, climbing the ranks in the eventing world.
In 2012, they jumped a double clean around the Jersey CIC*** and came in 7th. They also finished clear at Fair Hill CCI*** and he finished in the top 10 in the Southern Pines Advanced.
Going to the Rolex**** was a first for them.
Against the mightiest, most expensive horses out there, her $3,200 OTTB had taken most of them to school when he placed 12th overall.
“I wouldn’t have picked any other horse to do my first four-star on,” she says. “I feel really lucky and blessed to have Pirate to do it with.”