It was late April, 2013, and eventer Allie Knowles was still trying to adapt to the frozen winters and volatile springs of her New Kentucky Home. Just over a year before she’d packed up her life and trekked across the country from her native California, plunging head first into the unpredictable sea of full-time eventing. Now she was making her four-star debut at Rolex Kentucky, just a few miles from her Paris, KY farm. Nervous? Sure, but Knowles had a talented and familiar dance partner in Last Call, a then 13-year-old Mecklenburg mare she had quickly ridden up the ranks.
The Rolex rookies dazzled on day one in the dressage ring and after the dust settled on the opening phase, Allie Knowles was sitting in 4th place, the highest American in the event. The momentum curtailed that Saturday however, as the pair were eliminated on cross-country after a set of refusals. A disappointment, no doubt, but a good education at the highest level of the sport, nonetheless.
Knowles and “Fergie” were back at Rolex in 2014, and once again, eliminated on cross-country when an awkward attempt over a ditch sent Knowles out of the saddle. Thankful to escape injury yet disappointed with the result, she reached the ultimate realization that achieving her goal would require more horsepower. She needed a tireless running machine with the willingness to jump first and ask questions later. She needed a thoroughbred.
So Knowles put together a syndicate to acquire Sound Prospect, a 13-year-old gelding (by Eastern Echo — Miner’s Girl, by Miner’s Mark).
Now a Rolex “veteran”, Knowles is hoping 2015 brings a reversal of fortune with her plucky OTTB. So far this year, Knowles and “Sounder” have been firing on all cylinders, with top 10 finishes at Red Hills CIC*** and Carolina CIC***.
“I feel really excited,” Knowles admitted. “He’s the first thoroughbred I’ve attempted a four-star on and I’m very excited about that aspect—having a horse that loves to run. I’ve yet to find the end or the bottom on him. He always wants to keep going.”
That’s a handy trait when it comes to tackling the Rolex gauntlet. Sounder is one of 21 ex-racehorses currently entered in this year’s event, further evidence the OTTB “movement” is no longer a movement, but a standard.
“The main difference for me this year is I’m not near as anxious worrying about whether he’ll have the fuel in the tank to get through the weekend,” said Knowles. “And, his dressage is quite good for a thoroughbred. I don’t know how he’ll handle that kind of atmosphere at Rolex, but hopefully he can keep it together.”
Ah, dressage. The ever-important “wildcard” phase for hot-blooded thoroughbreds in the 3-day event. Fortunately, Sounder is learning from one of the best.
“[The thoroughbreds] have helped me on cross-country, with the galloping and bravery aspects, and I’ve been able to help them in dressage.”
“This has been a fun table-turn for me, because dressage has always been my strong suit, and now it’s something I’ve really had to work on,” said Knowles, adding that her barn is now almost exclusively occupied by OTTBs. “[The thoroughbreds] have helped me on cross-country, with the galloping and bravery aspects, and I’ve been able to help them in dressage.”
There will be no shortage of supporters on the grounds to cheer on the “local” pair, including the entire Sound Prospect Team.
“I have 6 people who own this horse with me…We get to do this as a group and experience the adventure together. That adds a whole lot of fun to our sport. Everyone is a first time owner at Rolex—it’s a big deal to have a horse at Rolex, so I just want to make it as special for them as I can.”
In most sports, playing on your “home field” is viewed as a competitive advantage. Familiarity breeds confidence, after all. There are fewer travel headaches and lags, plus increased support from the home crowd. With horses, that’s not always the case, which is why Knowles has elected to hold off on shipping Sounder back to Kentucky until early next week.
“I’m shipping straight to The Horse Park,” Knowles said last week from Ocala. “I don’t want the distractions of working at home. I don’t want him to lie down and think he’s done, then turn around a week later and and have to go compete. He ships very well in general, and he’s been on such a roll this Spring, so I feel like it’s the best decision for this horse right now. I’m treating it like a business trip.”
With a fit thoroughbred ready to fly and a clear mind of her own, all that’s left for Knowles to do now is take care of business.
“This is about getting a safe completion and doing my very best, rather than going to win,” Knowles explained. “If I have my best ride each day, I’m sitting in a very good position. This is a competition with myself to do my very best. You can psyche yourself out if you let yourself think about it too much.”