“It was the luckiest day of my life when I met Jennie Brannigan,” said Beth Battel, who has owned Footlight Farm in Roosevelt, Monmouth County, for 37 years.
A rider, trainer and horse breeder, Beth is a half-owner with Jennie of Stella Artois, the poised bay mare who won the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI 2-star last weekend with Jennie aboard.
“She doesn’t go out and buy upper-level horses, to climb on and go show,” Beth said of Jennie.
“What she likes to do, and does so well, is starting them at novice level and bringing them on up. She trains them herself. It’s a real partnership, like a dance partnership.”
Fair Hill was the biggest success for Stella in the duo’s three years with the 8-year-old Hanoverian.
She was second on a respectable 44.5 penalties after the dressage phase at the Maryland event, a segment won by Emily Beshear’s Silver Night Lady, marked at 43 penalties.
The next day, Jennie flew around Derek DiGrazia’s cross-country course and didn’t add anything to her dressage score, going into the lead after Emily’s mount had 2 time penalties.
Beth was there to watch and conceded, “I’m always a little bit nervous on cross-country especially, but she just sailed around and made it look so easy. They were both very confident, and we were ecstatic when she made it inside the time.”
Beth wasn’t asking for anything more.
“No matter what happened on Sunday, the two of them had done a fabulous job, And then Sunday, it was just a gorgeous stadium (jumping) trip and they nailed it.”
The mare was clean over the route designed by Sally Ike, where 19 of 34 finishers dropped rails. Stella kept her lead to take the trophy, with Beth in proud attendance at the presentation.
The performance was so convincing that it’s only natural to think of not only the next step, but what the partnership eventually could produce.
“I’m not in any hurry,” commented Beth.
“I love the sport, I’m in it to do a good job by the horse, see what the horse can do, what it’s comfortable doing, letting the horse be the guide. Obviously, there’s the dream of Rolex Kentucky (the Western Hemisphere’s only 4-star), if you take your time and don’t try to push them and either burn them out or burn them up.
“I have total faith in Jennie to make the right decisions,” Beth continued.
“She’s a bonafide good person, she truly loves every single horse she gets near; good or bad, win or lose. She gets up at the crack of dawn and gallops horses at the track before she goes back to her own farm,” Beth added in admiration.
Beth is impressed that Jennie “is constantly studying her art; taking lessons from the best people she can get to in all three phases, dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping, always trying to improve her already considerable abilities.”
The two got together in 2009 when Jennie was working for Phillip Dutton in Pennsylvania. The first horse of Beth’s that she rode was a homebred Riverman mare named Thalia.
“She was a little too hot to make her for children or ladies,” said Beth, who had shown her once in dressage and in baby green jumpers. She thought eventing might be the answer for Thalia.
Before Jennie went in the ring for the jumping phase at Thalia’s first event, she asked Beth, “How’s she going to be in there, will she look at anything?”
Replied Beth, “I have no idea.” But Thalia ended up winning right off the bat, and Beth started sending her other homebreds to Jennie.
In 2013, Beth heard from Jennie, who had gone over to Germany for the Luhmuhlen 4-star and to look at prospects.
“She called and told me she’d seen this wonderful mare and would I be interested in partnering?” Beth recalled. The answer was, “If you think it’s a good mare, I’d be interested in that.”
“I can’t leave Germany without trying to figure out how to get this horse,” Jennie had said to herself before dialing Beth’s number after someone who had promised to go in with her on the mare dropped out.
“I’m horrible asking anyone for anything,” she noted, and was delighted after Beth came through. The Fair Hill victory was even more meaningful because of Beth’s involvement. The admiration in this arrangement is mutual.
“When you put up money and people back you and you have a good result, it makes it feel like you’re doing well for them. Beth’s awesome. I probably could have fallen off and she would have liked me just the same,” said Jennie, who hopes to syndicate the mare.
“That (attitude) brings out the best in you because they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Beth is an especially good fit for Jennie, who calls her, “a great rider, a really cool horse person. She’s ridden upper level dressage and prelim (eventing) and foxhunted.”
There are about 25 horses at Footlight, mostly boarders. Beth rides two or three horses a day, but isn’t teaching lessons the way she used to. She has other interests; horses aren’t all she does. For instance, the former mayor of Roosevelt is now on the town environmental commission.
Jennie bought Stella in Germany from a friend of hers. The mare’s name was Second Chance, because the seller was one of New Zealand eventer Mark Todd’s best friends, and the book about the two-time Olympic individual gold medalist’s comeback in the sport was entitled, “Second Chance.”
“I didn’t love that,” said Jennie, who took the mare’s barn name, Stella, (from the mare’s original name, Stracciatella) and added Artois, after the beer. Then she changed her barn name to Toddie in tribute to Mark.
“She’s always been a horse that’s bit exuberant,” observed Jennie.
“She’ll eat anything. She’s a bit of a character. My main goal was to give this horse a good go.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. For instance, at the Jersey Fresh International in May, she fell at the last combination. But those things happen, and after Fair Hill it looks as if Toddie is on track.
“I think she is a three-day horse and has all the right stuff to be the real deal. She’s always been that horse I feel like is probably one of the most talented horses I have,” said Jennie.
Fair Hill is always difficult for the rider, because it was there seven years ago that her gold medal North American Junior and Young Rider mount, Cooper, suffered an injury in stadium jumping and later died of complications. Part of the insurance money from Cooper went to buy Toddie.
“This time of year and this place is very emotional for me because of Cooper,” she said.
“Time doesn’t seem to necessarily make that easier.”
But time does move on, and there’s lots to look forward to with Toddie. She has been bred twice, to Royaldik. One baby is in utero in a surrogate, while her first foal is now 18 months old. She’s named Reggie, after Dr. Regina Turner at New Bolton who did the conception and embryo transplant.
“We were there when she was born,” said Beth.
“The filly is the sweetest thing. She sees me walk by and she whinnies.”
Noted Beth, “Breeding and the babies, and seeing where they can go, that’s the best part.”
And working with Jennie has made a big difference for both of them, adding a dimension to the Fair Hill victory for Beth as she watched Jennie smile her way around the arena in a triumphant victory gallop as the tri-color ribbon fluttered from Toddie’s bridle.
“I was happy to see her so happy,” said Beth.