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First And First



            For so many Saddlebred lovers the breed they started riding depended on geography or their family’s level of financial or emotional involvement but once they met a Saddlebred they’ve never wavered in their devotion to the breed. Once you go Saddlebred you never go back.

         Sue Valley Chen grew up in Connecticut and started riding Saddle Seat at an Arab barn when she was nine years old. When she grew up and went to the University of Connecticut her saddle seat riding experience continued to pay off.

         “Someone donated a Saddlebred to the school but only my friend and I rode saddle seat so we were the only ones who could ride him,” said Sue. “That horse would get big in the ring and I fell in love with that feeling of power and speed.”

         “I owe a lot to Bob Heilman. He was a trainer and made it affordable for me to be involved with horses. He would take me to shows so I could experience that side of things and I loved it.

         “But like it so often happens, life intervened with my horse activities. I went to med school, got married (to husband Terry) and had kids (Julia and Chris) and had moved across the country from Connecticut to California.

         “When the time came that I thought I could get back into horses I went to trainer Terry Konkle and I bought Arietta from Michele Macfarlane.

         “By this time my daughter Julia had started taking lessons with Jennifer Dixon at the famous Menlo Circus Club because Terry really wasn’t interested in instructing junior exhibitors.

         “When Michael Craghead came to work at Diamond Hills both Julia and I rode with him and he got us both in the show ring. It was always fun to share horses with Julia. Often at shows one of us would show in the qualifier and one of us would show back in the stake.”

         Michael found Julia’s equitation horse Private Benjamin sort of by accident. “I went to Colorado to look at a horse that Patty Wooters had but when I got there I didn’t like him,” said Michael. “She said she had another horse she could show me but she wasn’t sure he would do. She put her daughter Kayla on him and I said “call the vet. I’ll take him.”

         He called Sue and said “I’ve found the horse” so she bought him without ever seeing him and without Julia even trying him. Michael knew what he was doing. He knew it would work and indeed it did. Julia Chen won the 2000 Eight and Under Walk and Trot Equitation World’s Champion of Champions title in her first ever trip to Louisville.

         Michael made a series of moves after leaving Diamond Hills and the distance made it difficult for Sue to ride her horses as often as she wanted to so eventually she moved to JL Dixon Stable at Menlo Circus Club which allows her to spend more time with her horses.

         Jennifer Dixon’s group has been making the trip to Kentucky after the Del Mar Charity Fair Horse Show for the last several years. They show at Lexington, Blue Ridge and Louisville before heading back to California.

         Sue had been coming to Louisville every year just to watch and cheer her barnmates but had never shown on the green shavings herself. ‘I never thought I’d have a horse to show here,” she said.

         That changed this year. She bought Here We Are ((SA) Molligny Don’t Worry Be Happy x Callaway’s Dolly Willits) in 2011 from Doc Raun and has been showing him successfully ever since.

         Just before heading to Kentucky they won the Adult Five-Gaited Pleasure class at Del Mar and they were ribbon winners in both their classes at Junior League. At Blue Ridge, Sue and Al were unstoppable and were the Adult Five-Gaited Pleasure Grand Champions and also won their qualifier. They were ecstatic and they were building momentum but the million dollar question is always “Would it last?”

         The answer is yes. Monday morning she and Al, in their first ever appearance at Louisville took the world’s championship victory pass in the Adult Five-Gaited Pleasure Section III class.

         Mother and daughter now have the distinction of being able to say they were both first in their first time to compete at the World’s Championship Horse Show.

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