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Saturday 21 April 2018

Irish jumpers on a roll in the Sunshine State

As the Winter Equestrian Festival continues in Florida, Siobhan English profiles some of the Irish riders and trainers making their mark on the US circuit

Daniel Coyle won the $75,000 Grand Prix during the opening week of the festival
Daniel Coyle won the $75,000 Grand Prix during the opening week of the festival
Kevin Babington and Super Chilled on the way to their recent win in Wellington
Siobhan English

Siobhan English

Each January hundreds of riders from across the globe descend on Florida for the annual Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Centre in Wellington.

Attracting in the region of 2,500 riders and 5,000 horses from 30 countries over the course of the 12 weeks between January and April, it is now the largest and longest-running festival of show jumping and dressage in the world. Boasting a total prize-fund of some €8.5 million, it is also the richest of its kind.

When the WEF kicked off some 35 years ago, the presence of Irish emigrants within equestrian circles was modest. Back then only a handful had ever ventured across the Atlantic. In the early days this included Jimmy Doyle and John Brennan. Nowadays there are hundreds of Irish natives working with show jumpers across the States, with many of those based in the sunny climes of Florida for the winter months.

Originally from Co Wexford, Jimmy Doyle first visited the US as a groom to the Irish show jumping team in 1981. Twelve years later, after a stint in the Irish Army, he moved to America full-time.

Kevin Babington and Super Chilled on the way to their recent win in Wellington
Kevin Babington and Super Chilled on the way to their recent win in Wellington

Now a well-respected trainer of riders and based mostly in Florida, US team member Georgina Bloomberg is one of his long-term clients.

John Brennan, too, has made America his home and today runs the very successful show jumping operation, North Run Farm, with his wife Missy Clark. They have yards in both Vermont and Florida.

A native of Co Kildare, John first travelled to America with Kevin Babington in 1987. Both were in their late teens and had completed valuable training with Iris Kellett before taking up a summer job in Vermont.

It was meant to be a flying visit, but 30 years on and both are there to stay, with Brennan a full-time trainer and Babington a veteran member of the Irish senior show jumping team.

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Among the many riders to have been given their start in America with North Run Farm is Offaly man Darragh Kenny.

A member of numerous show jumping teams here in Ireland as a young rider, he first joined the outfit in 2008. For the next four years he gained immeasurable experience competing on top-class show jumpers across the country before finally branching out on his own in 2012.

Darragh Kenny pictured here in action in 2014 Nations Cup in the RDS, is now based full time in the US
Darragh Kenny pictured here in action in 2014 Nations Cup in the RDS, is now based full time in the US

Commenting on his time at North Run Farm before setting up his own business, he said: "For me, North Run was like going to college. You do four years of college and you learn so much. It was just time for me to try and do something on my own and make a go of it. I had no horses, no tack, nothing - just a bit of money I had saved."

With yards in both Florida and Holland, Oakland Ventures is now one of the fastest-growing equestrian operations of its kind and it continues to gain momentum as the rider accumulates competition wins, and clients, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Having spent the week before Christmas competing in London Olympia, where he picked up several wins, the 29-year-old Irish team member is now back in Wellington with a string of new horses to replace those sold in recent months.

For riders like Kenny, it is all about buying and selling, and in recent weeks he confirmed the sale of his Olympia winner Funke van 't Heike to top German rider Christian Ahlmann.

Many of the young riders like Kenny who have moved to the States in the past decade have often looked up to the likes of Kevin Babington who has shown that hard work and determination pays off dividends in the world of equestrian sport.

Having been born into a family with no interest in horses, for the past three decades the Carrick-on-Suir native has been building up a business in America that now sees him compete as well as coach a long list of other riders across the States and beyond.

While his main yard is based in Pennsylvania, Babington is now in Florida along with his wife Dianna and daughters Gwyneth and Marielle, both of whom are already following in their father's footsteps in the show jumping arena.

A multiple winner at Wellington over the years, Mr Babington has already kick-started his 2017 campaign with a win in the opening week of competition on board the Irish Sport Horse Super Chilled.

Excited

A longtime supporter of Irish breeds, having first hit the headlines with the great Carling King, he is also confident that the nine-year-old gelding, bred in Tipperary by Cheryl Broderick, will serve him well at the top end of the sport this year.

"It is a good start to the season," he said. "It feels great, especially on that horse. He did really well as a seven and eight-year-old, so I am really excited for his nine-year-old year."

In all he has over 30 horses in Wellington for the season, including four horses at Grand Prix level. Greg Broderick's cousin Oliver McCarthy has recently joined the team, having spent two years with American rider McLain Ward, and will campaign some of the younger horses up for sale.

"I have a great group of horses for myself this year, and we have a really good group of clients and an excellent staff here, so I'm excited about the circuit. We will be busy," Mr Babington concluded.

Also getting off to a good start at Wellington was Daniel Coyle, winner of the $75,000 Grand Prix during the opening week of the festival.

Having relocated to Canada just over a year ago, the 22-year-old is among the latest batch of young Irish riders to have proved their worth on the circuit, with a host of other major wins accumulated in recent months since taking over from fellow Northener Conor Swail as top rider at Lothlorien Farm.

Speaking about the change at Lothlorien and his abundance of new mounts for the winter festival, the rider stated:

"Fortunately for me, Conor left. I have all of these new horses, good horses. I had very good horses before; a lot of younger ones there, but to get his horses as well as the ones that I had, I was very fortunate."

Over the coming weeks Mr Coyle and his many fellow countrymen competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival will be aiming to better the results of 2016 when Irish riders accounted for a bulk of the top wins over the three month period.

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