If you asked USA’s Karl Cook five years ago if the new mare on his string, Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet, would be the making of him, he might have thought you’d been sampling the punch. 

Purchased to be a “very good 1.45m horse,” the petite, 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (she’s barely 16.1, but according to Cook, rides smaller) and the lanky Californian rider make an unlikely pair.

For one thing, Kalinka (Thunder van de Zuuthoeve x Goldfee van’t Zorgvliet) is notoriously hot. For another, Cook admits he didn’t get along much with mares throughout his junior career.

Now older and presumably wiser at the age of 32, Cook has one crucial thing in common with Kalinka: they understand how to win.

“She gets the game and she loves doing it—sometimes too much, where she leaps in the air and it’s a bit wild,” Cook said in January 2022 after winning their first Grand Prix of the season. “But you know, she just understands the point of the game and it makes it so much fun to ride.”

For context, Cook and Kalinka are one of only a handful of partnerships that can go regularly go toe-to-toe with notorious speed-rider Kent Farrington (USA)—and come out on top. They did just that earlier this month during the B&D Builders CSI5* Grand Prix in Traverse City, Michigan.

Beating out not only Farrington and Landon, but also top Irishmen Andrew Bourns and Sea Topblue and Darragh Kenny and new mount Hamrah Van Het Exelhof Z, Cook and Kalinka posted the only double-clear effort on course designer Marina Azevedo’s (BRA) notoriously difficult track. What’s more: Cook’s clear time of 43.47 seconds was still one of the fastest posted in the second round. (Only Farrington was faster, but had two rails down in the process.)

If that sounds like a story you might have read before, it should.

One year ago, Cook and Kalinka claimed the Douglas Elliman CSI5* Grand Prix Qualifier in September at the Hampton Classic. Once again, the pair were the only double-clear in the field of 35 on Alan Wade’s 1.60m course, and once again, they posted the fastest time on the jump-off scoreboard (40.46 seconds).

Two days later, Kalinka, who is owned by Cook’s mother, Signe Ostby, doubled down to earn her then-biggest career win—and Cook’s first five star Grand Prix title—in the Hampton Classic CSI5* Grand Prix 1.60m.

They repeated the feat that December with the CSI5* MLSJ Grand Prix 1.60m, again besting a two-horse jump off against Farrington and the ever-speedy Orafina.

It stands to reason that when the going gets tough, Kalinka gets going, both jumping clear and finishing faster than most of her peers at the top level of the sport. According to Jumpr App, the mare has a 47% career clear round average at the 1.60m level in the 15 classes she’s competed to date. That average jumps to a 83% when it comes to her top-10 finishes at 1.60m.

It’s a phenomenal stat by any standard. At the same age and height, Harrie Smolders’ Monaco N.o.p. recorded top 10 finishes in 71% of his starts, while McLain Ward’s HH Azur averaged just 33% (Jumpr App).

Since 2019, the entirety of her career with Cook, Kalinka has earned a 59% clear round average (she was 68.8% in 2022), and finished in the top-10 at 1.45m and higher 52% of the time, or more. Said another way, if you were a betting person, you could flip a coin and follow its lead: Kalinka finishes in the top-10 more than half the time she steps into the ring. This season alone, the former Lorenzo De Luca (ITA) ride has earned six CSI5* podium finishes to date.

Oh, and that 1.45m career that Cook first envisioned? That’s a distant memory. 

Not only have he and Kalinka competed on two CSIO5* Nations Cup Teams this year—including the winning American squad at the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ USA in San Juan Capistrano, California in May and the third place finishing team in Falsterbo, Sweden—they’ve gradually been tweaking Kalinka’s job description. 

In 2021, the majority of her classes were jumped at the 1.45m height; one year later, the lion’s share were at 1.50m. In 2023, however, two-thirds of the rounds Kalinka has jumped so far have been at 1.50m or higher, with the most—10—at 1.60m. 

So there you have it! Kalinka the mare of the moment on Cook’s string. If he plays his cards right, his “very good 1.45m” prospect may in fact become his championship-level partner for years to come.