This article about Courageous Comet was published in The Blood-Horse of Sept. 18, 2010
One of Becky Holder’s all-time favorite moments aboard her retired racehorse-turned-eventing star Courageous Comet was his elated reaction upon completing his dressage test at the Kentucky Horse Park’s 2008 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event.
“It was in front of a capacity crowd in the new grandstand, and he scored 39 penalties (low scores are the best in eventing), so he took over the lead,” said Holder, 40, who ultimately placed second in that year’s competition aboard the big gray horse, stamping a ticket to that year’s Olympics (the equestrian games were held in Hong Kong). “He stopped at the end of the task, and I saluted, and the crowd just went crazy.
“(Courageous Comet) picked his head up and looked around at the grandstand and you could tell that he just knew. He pranced the rest of the way out through the grandstand, shook his head, and was just showing off like crazy as we left the ring.”
During Courageous Comet’s racing career, he fought hard but didn’t often succeed. Winning just four of 36 starts, he was a mediocre claimer at best upon the conclusion of his career at age 4 in 2000. Few would have guessed at the time that a whole new vocation for the now-14-year-old son of Comet Shine would soon begin and that his true calling had not yet been realized.
Fast-forwarding 10 years down the road, Courageous Comet has outshone his competition again and again under Holder as a world-class eventing horse, and was named the 2009 Rood & Riddle Thoroughbred Sport Horse of the Year for his stellar efforts. The pair, which competed solidly as part of the U.S. team at the 2008 Olympics, is now looking to add another achievement to their resumés as members of this year’s U.S. three-day eventing team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games that started Sept. 25 at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“We’ve had a great partnership…I’ve had him for eight years, and we know each other really well,” said Holder. “The Kentucky Horse Park and that big scene is one of our favorite venues—his and mine. He loves the crowd there. It would mean a lot to be able to represent the United States on home ground in Kentucky—the home of Thoroughbred racing. That would be a great honor.”
Three-day eventing consists of separate tests in dressage, cross country, and show jumping, with strict veterinary inspections throughout the competition to make sure all the horses remain fit and sound. Holder and Courageous Comet will compete as individuals at the WEG, along with fellow team member Karen O'Connor and her horse Mandiba. There are also four horse/rider combinations that will compete as a team, and four alternates.
Holder’s longtime team coach, Mark Phillips, a former Olympic Gold medal-winning horseman who is well-known in the eventing circuit for his effective training techniques, said while Courageous Comet has always excelled in dressage and is a swift mover in the cross country phase, his biggest challenge comes in the show jumping department.
“Historically, show jumping is his most difficult phase, but they seem to be getting more and more of a handle on that,” Phillips said. “Becky’s biggest challenge has been producing in competition what she produces in training. It’s all about how you’re able to handle pressures and nerves (during competition), but she’s gotten a lot better at it.”
Starting out on the New York Racing Association circuit, Courageous Comet placed in the 1999 New York Stallion Times Square Stakes for state-breds at Aqueduct as a 3-year-old for trainer David Donk. But the next year, the horse’s status slid from a Finger Lakes allowance horse to cheap claimer.
Courageous Comet, who had fetched $30,000 as a Fasig-Tipton New York preferred yearling sale horse, was claimed for $9,000 by Aaron and Charity Donnan’s A and C Stable during the gelding’s struggling 4-year-old campaign. The couple raced the horse in seven more allowance and claiming events, two of which he won.
He finished his career with $71,780 in earnings from a 4-2-7 slate in 36 starts.
In addition to running a few racehorses at Finger Lakes, the Donnans operate a foxhunting barn and Thoroughbred resale business in New York’s Genesee Valley. Courageous Comet was sent to the couple’s farm in winter 2000, learned to foxhunt, and got sold as an event prospect to Holder.
“One of the things we saw in (Courageous Comet) is that he’s such a light mover, and horses like that stay sound for a very long time,” said Charity Donnan. “Typically where we run at Finger Lakes, horses campaign all winter in New York at Aqueduct, and then come to Finger Lakes and continue to run all summer. That’s pretty hard on horses, so you tend to see them getting sore and not running well. But we saw (Courageous Comet) move and thought, ‘This horse is going to last for a long time.’ I think Becky Holder’s success is testimony to his soundness.”
Holder, who resides with her husband, Tom, just south of Atlanta, keeps Courageous Comet in her front yard—literally. The Holders have a seven-stall barn that is situated on a quaint, 10-acre farm complete with an arena, a few cross country jumps, and several expansive paddocks. While they do ship to other training facilities with better footing to use training gallops, most of Courageous Comet’s preparation has been done from the Holders’ home base, as well as a larger farm in South Carolina where they spend their winters.
Becky Holder, who described herself as “a Midwest girl at heart,” started riding at age 12 when her father, a member of the U.S. Army, was stationed in Alaska. A few years later, Holder’s family moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which has a very active foxhunting, pony club, and cavalry community.
“They had a little military stable where the cavalry used to be based, and I started riding there,” said Holder, who has also served as a coach and instructor for event riders at all levels since she was 16. “It was a really great opportunity, because it was very affordable to the military kids to be able to get going (in riding).”
Holder later pursued her riding career in Virginia, where she had the support of Faye Woolf, who had purchased Highland Hogan for the aspiring equestrian. Also a retired racehorse, Highland Hogan excelled at eventing, and Holder and the horse were alternates for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Woolf then purchased Courageous Comet from the Donnans as a new eventing prospect for Holder but the fledgling partnership was tested. Holder had decided to move to Minnesota to be closer to her then-fiancé, Tom, and she couldn’t afford to take Courageous Comet with her.
“(Woolf) gave me a grace period of about six months to look for another owner (for Courageous Comet), and Tom offered to buy him,” remembered Holder. “I held out for a while, because I didn’t want him to have to do that for me, but he finally convinced me. So Comet started competing in 2002 and came up through the ranks really quickly. He was a very quick study, as are most of my Thoroughbreds.”
Holder has owned a total of six off-the-track racehorses over the years, five of which have made it to the highest level of the sport, and two of which have been on Olympic teams.
Holder has several valid reasons for investing her time, energy, and finances in Thoroughbreds over other breeds.
“They’re affordable off the track, but they’re also sensitive, very quick learners, smart horses, and they have huge hearts; they love to try,” she explained. “If they understand what you want them to do, then nine times out of 10 they’re going to do it for you.
“They do take quite a bit more time and training and patience, and you have to be systematic in your training so they understand, but I think that’s true of any sensitive horse that’s very aware—they have to really understand what you want them to do. Nothing comes by force; it all comes through training. More than any of the other breeds I’ve ridden, they really do check the partnership with their rider and have a trust factor with one person.”
One of the biggest lessons Holder believes Courageous Comet learned while racing was self-preservation, which has been extremely beneficial in his second career.
“He’s funny, he’s quirky, he’s spooky, he’s very careful with his feet and where he puts himself,” said Holder. “You feel tremendously safe with him going cross country; he’s so nimble. If you felt a hole underneath him, he’d be airborne before you even had the chance to think about it. Your job is just to stick with him, because he’s so agile and athletic.”
Courageous Comet has several quirks about his personality that has made him all the more endearing, according to Holder. One thing is certain: he always keeps his rider on her toes.
“He is extremely funny about footing changes,” Holder said. “For the longest time, he would gallop across the grass area and if there was a dirt patch or sand patch—even if it was 25 feet—he would jump it. He’s very aware of what’s underfoot. I think early on it took him a long time to go over one pole on the ground.
“In the first six months (of riding him), I wasn’t sure what I had, but I just kept at it. He has such a game face when we go to the competitions. He knows when it matters, and really gets out there and can turn it on—whether it’s the speed in the cross country, or the extra-fancy trot in front of a big crowd. He very much has a sense of the occasion, and that’s a wonderful thing about him.”
Around the barn, Courageous Comet is quite the ham. One minute, he may try to take a cheap jab at Holder with his teeth, but the next minute he’ll turn around and stick his tongue out for her to play with. She never knows what to expect but that’s part of the beauty of their relationship.
Above all, Courageous Comet lives for his daily turnout in the field even more than being fed and savors every moment of simply being a horse. “When I’m going to get him, he’ll take his halter and throw it off the stall,” said Holder. “He loves to be out in the field, eating grass, running around, getting filthy dirty—that’s his favorite thing in the whole world.”
It’s a good thing Charity Donnan realized that Courageous Comet’s potential could extend way beyond the racetrack, or the eventing world may have never discovered the treasure of his talents.
“He’s just a lovely horse, and it’s always important to emphasize that Thoroughbreds are really useful animals,” Donnan said. “Every once in awhile, the eventing or the showing world gets a really talented Thoroughbred, and they say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know Thoroughbreds could do that.’ So (Courageous Comet) is a great advertisement for the breed as a whole.”
Just in case Holder and Courageous Comet miss the mark for this year’s WEG, it’s almost certain we’ll be seeing more of them in the near future. And in the meantime, Holder is always keeping her eyes peeled for an additional Thoroughbred prospect to add to her barn and help find fulfillment in a second career.
“We’re always on the lookout for another Thoroughbred, because that’s the breed we both have our hearts set on,” she said.