Arriving by special invitation to compete at the rarified Wellington Eventing Showcase last month, Lainey Ashker and her four-star Thoroughbred Anthony Patch came by way of hard knocks, bad falls, and pure grit.
Theirs is not a story of easy rides. But after 12 years together, their “marriage,” as Ashker often describes their relationship, has grown seasoned and strong.
“It’s been a very humbling experience learning to ride Al the way he deserves to be ridden,” says the four-star rider who took third place at Wellington this month. “We’ve gone through so much together. We went through his rearing and flipping backwards stage, and it took me four tries to get a qualifying score at the two-star on him. I had to learn to ride up to his talent level.”
But after the long journey together, Anthony Patch (JC name: Alex’s Castledream), is a $300 off-track Thoroughbred from Charles Town Racetrack who has become Eventing’s tour de force.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Ashker talks about the handsome bay gelding, his quirks—he won’t eat breakfast until she takes him on a 1-hour hand walk— and the joy of succeeding together at the highest competition levels.
Q: You finished 3rd behind Boyd Martin (1st) and Michael Pollard (2nd) on one of three Thoroughbreds at the Wellington Eventing Showcase. What was that like?
It was pretty amazing. Al was one of three Thoroughbreds among some of the best competition horses. Twenty-eight riders came by invitation only, and they all brought their best horses. Michael (Pollard) was on an Olympic horse, and there were WEG (World Equestrian Games) horses there. I hadn’t had a lot of rides on Al leading up to this event because I was recuperating from a broken arm in November.
But it all goes to show that even without having a lot of practice beforehand, we have the benefit of having a long partnership together. As they say, he’s an old campaigner and it’s not his first rodeo.
Q: He takes the big atmosphere in stride, but it wasn’t always that way.
This horse was freaking nuts when we first got him. While (his sellers) were lunging him so I could take a test ride, he threw a shoe. Then I got on him and took him over a jump and my mom (well-known Thoroughbred trainer Valerie Ashker) was like, ‘Wow!’ So she got on him and he bucked her off. I was really apprehensive about the decision and asked if I could take him on a 15-day tryout before committing and they said I could bring him back, but that they really didn’t know what to do with him. He was considered to be dangerous at the time.
But even though he was flaky and flipping out on the lunge line, he had a correct build and there was no denying his beautiful movement. I took a big risk with him, but it was really worth it.
Q: A lot of people have Thoroughbreds, but only a small percent make it to the four-star level. What is it about this horse that makes him so good?
I’ve worked with a lot of horses who have the talent, but it boils down to whether they have the heart for it. He had all the makings of being a world-class horse, right from the beginning. He moved well and was beautiful on his feet. But it’s been a long, humbling experience learning to ride up to his level. It’s taken me a long time to full grasp how to ride him well.
Q: What are some of the things you’ve learned?
The big thing with Al is that he wants me to wait at the jumps and not rush him into anything. He hates to be surprised and he doesn’t want me throwing the reins away. All he wanted was a solid rider.
Q: He also has a few modest demands.
Whenever we travel, I take him out for a walk. We discover the place together, as a team. He trusts me and I trust him. The second I get there, my groom and student Lauren Sherrill, who is amazing, gets him settled. Then we go out for a long walk and a graze. And every morning when I go to the barn he will not eat his breakfast unless we have an hour walk first. On show-jumping day in Wellington I took him out for 45 minutes and he knew that it wasn’t time to go back in yet. He literally plated his feet and stood there like a cow. He’s very opinionated about when he should go back in, and he wants his quiet time and his walks.
Q: What advice would you give someone planning to buy an OTTB for Eventing?
I think Off Track Thoroughbreds are business horses, they’re not pets. The biggest issue I run into is people who want to take it so slowly with their OTTB. They want to walk for months and then they put all kinds of contraptions on to try to slow them down. My biggest piece of advice is to get a really good coach who understands the Thoroughbred and work with that person and horse everyday. Don’t expect to do walk/trot classes for six months. These horses need jobs. Make it interesting for them. Give them trot poles, open their minds, and take them on trail rides.
Trail riding is a great way to help them understand that they won’t always be working on manicured surfaces, and to teach them to be more self-preserving.
Q: And your OTTB is still going strong with three-star plans in March.
Our goals are to go to the Carolina *** in March because he really loves his job, and he tells me that he’s happy doing it. It’s seldom that you get an Advanced level horse going for more than 5 years, but Al’s going on 7 years and even though he’s no spring chicken, he really loves his job. When he’s in the ring, he loves the attention, and there’s nothing in his physical or mental state that says he doesn’t want to keep going. I think he’s at the top of his game … Al’s pretty special.