Show jumping: D'Ambra making her way to the top
REXFORD The dark brown leather bridles, clean and flawless, hang in parallel lines on a wall in the tack room.
The dirt on the floor of the massive all-weather riding barn is groomed flat and ready for someone to work a horse.
Dozens of colorful ribbons surround two silver plates and a silver claret jug in a glass trophy case.
Most of the stock on Agatha D’Ambra’s farm are quietly nibbling grass in paddocks with white fences and plenty of room.
She reaches up and affectionately scratches Vitaly behind the ears in his stall and predicts, “He’s going to want to follow us out.”
Sure enough, Vitaly tries to walk out, introducing the only sign of entropy on an otherwise perfect Thursday morning at Trade Winds Farm, where the 26-year-old D’Ambra boards and trains as many as 25 horses, including Vitaly and the other four she keeps in her rotation for professional show jumping competition.
On Sept. 8, D’Ambra made a breakthrough leap into the international level of the sport, at the Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix Class in Saugerties. It was part of a progression that could bring her to events like the Olympics, World Equestrian Games, World Cup and Nations Cup.
Unfortunately, her horse, Quivola, balked at a jump during warmups, an omen for the relatively inexperienced rider and her gelding, who went on to have a disappointing showing at the
$1 million Grand Prix. But D’Ambra appears to have the proper balance of organizational skill and love of the animal to continue to emerge as a standout rider in show jumping.
“What’s really interesting about this sport is the equipment has a mind of its own,” she said with a laugh.
“She’s a very committed horsewoman who has a lot of passion for the animal,” said Peter Wylde, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in team jumping who has been training D’Ambra since May. “It’s a rare combination that can create great results.
“It shows in everything she does. She’s very thorough and meticulously organized. She’s running it like a business, but she’s doing it with compassion at the highest level.”
D’Ambra qualified for the $1 Million Grand Prix Class by competing in enough events on the Horse Shows In The Sun (HITS) nationwide circuit and finishing in the top 50 in earnings.
Reaching that goal was bolstered by a win at the $75,000 HITS event in Saugerties in June — first place was worth $22,500 — after which she rode consistently enough to stay well within the top 50.
In the $1 Million GP Class, D’Ambra faced former Olympic medalists, including Wylde, and some of the top riders from around the world. Stanford University senior Nayel Nassar of Egypt won it to earn the first-place check of $350,000.
“I was really excited to be competing against some of my idols, people I had watched since I was growing up,” D’Ambra said. “I’d watch them on TV and say, ‘Wow, I want to be them someday.’ ”
D’Ambra’s family lived outside Troy, then moved to Rexford in the late 1990s, where D’Ambra’s mother, Connie, came up with the idea to open a farm that would serve as a quiet horse haven with a compassionate approach to training.
Agatha’s father, Tom, is a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from MIT and co-founder and CEO of Albany Molecular Research, Inc., whose claim to fame is having developed the active ingredient in Allegra.
He has been involved in thoroughbred racing as an owner, in partnership of horses like Grade I Garden City winner Lucifer’s Stone and Saratoga Jules, whose win photos hang inside the Trade Winds Farm facility, as well as horses he named with local flair, like Maryland Million Nursery winner Clifton Park.
Agatha D’Ambra runs Trade Winds Farm on 60 acres of the high ground between the Mohawk River and Riverview Road as a full-service operation that has bred thoroughbreds and warmbloods, the preferred breed of the equestrian sports, and boards, rehabilitates, trains and consigns them.
The farm bred Scientist, who broke his maiden at Saratoga in 2008, and Scienziato, who ran three times there this summer.
Presently, there are 20 horses on the grounds, some of whom are rescue animals, like the miniature who was hanging out in a paddock close to the main barn last Thursday. D’Ambra is in charge of 11 employees, some of whom have been working there almost 10 years.
The farm even has a walk-in chute with a vibrating Theraplate like the one used by trainer Charlie Lopresti on Horse of the Year Wise Dan.
“We’ve bred about a dozen thoroughbreds at the farm that are now New York-bred racehorses,” D’Ambra said. “Then I had four show horses have babies here, as well.
“It’s kind of unusual for show horses to be turned out. You’d like to keep them in bubble wrap so they don’t hurt themselves, but grazing and moving and relaxing, I think, is really important for their health, mentally and physically.”
Like any father, Tom D’Ambra perhaps would like to keep his daughter, the youngest of the D’Ambra’s three children, in bubble wrap, but that was never going to be the case once she was exposed to show jumping at the age of 10.
She started riding trails in the Catskills with her father when she was 8, and actually trained to be a rodeo barrel rider at the Double B on Vischer Ferry Road, but was intrigued by the show jumpers and decided to give it a try.
Among her injuries was a concussion suffered when a horse reared and smashed her in the face with the back of his neck, knocking out some teeth — and memory — in the process.
“Once I did it, it was scary, but it’s like cliff jumping — you do it once and think, ‘This is what I’ve been missing?’ ” she said. “Then you want to do it again and again.”
“We made a trip to France when she was young, and they had horse rides where you hold the rope,” Tom D’Ambra said. “A bee stung the horse or something, and it bolted off. She just had the ability to stay on until the horse settled down. It was amazing; obviously, she had an aptitude, just took to it and had that drive and love for it.
“Even today, it’s hard to watch. She’s going way up there. It’s a beautiful sport, but it’s dangerous.”
Show jumping is one of the three primary disciplines in the non-racing equestrian sports.
Hunter and equitation competitions are subjectively judged on the smoothness, command, grace and form of the rider and horse, respectively, and show jumping is objectively scored based on the number of rails cleared within a time allotment, with penalties for knocking over or skipping hurdles and finishing beyond the time limit.
The courses are mazes without walls, in which the horse and rider encounter tight turns and series of jumps designed to test courage, endurance and skill.
For her 12th birthday, D’Ambra got a horse named Matty Monster who was 0-for-10 as a racehorse, but was retrained to be a show jumper. Renamed August Eclipse, he and D’Ambra eventually became “pretty much unstoppable on the local show circuit,” she said.
“He used to throw me off every day. He’s a little crazy. Needed a little work. But we stuck it out,” she said of the horse who is retired now and still living the good life as a 20-something at Trade Winds.
D’Ambra, named the top U.S. amateur owner/rider in 2007, began to travel around the country and Canada to compete, which necessitated finishing her high school studies with a tutor after a year of correspondence work with Shenendehowa in ninth grade.
In lieu of college, she continued to progress as a show jumper while taking on the responsibility of running the farm.
“No tuition can buy experience,” she said. “I’m blessed that I already knew what I wanted to do and I’m in there head-first.”
The top two jumpers in D’Ambra’s string of five are 9-year-old Quivola and 12-year-old Udiana, an imperturbable mare who doesn’t quite have the same jumping range, or scope, as the younger gelding. D’Ambra was on Udiana when she won the HITS event in June.
But because of Quivola’s scope, D’Ambra picked him for the $1 Million Grand Prix Class, where the jumps were at the 1.6-meter height commonly found at the top international competitions.
What she hadn’t counted on was a windy day on an extremely difficult course with jumps painted and decorated to fit the occasion, which drew a huge crowd. Quivola hesitated at a jump during warmups, signaling the bad day that was to come.
“I was super-nervous,” D’Ambra said. “I’d never been in anything that big. It was just such a big atmosphere, and they made a big deal out of the class. They give you a special jacket, and you feel like a celebrity . . . ‘Oh, she’s one of the riders.’
“And he gets nervous when he competes. Sometimes, you feel like there’s a spotlight on you like a person being interrogated. When you walk in the ring, you feel like he holds his breath for the first couple jumps because he’s really impressed with everything that’s going on.”
“A horse can always throw you a twist that you’re not prepared for,” Wylde said. “They’re not a vehicle, not a machine, they’re living, breathing animals.
“It was a little bit of a combination of Agatha doing it for the first time and an unexpected moment that knocks your confidence down, but she kept herself together and said, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ The unknown is now known. You just move on to the next one.”
What’s next for D’Ambra, who secured important sponsorships from Elite Equine Veterinary and equine nutrition specialist Cavalor this summer, is to travel overseas next Monday to drum up business for Trade Winds in the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. She also wants to buy another potentially top-level horse to add to her show-jumping string.
Then she’ll head back to Wellington, Fla., to kick off the next phase of the jumping season and hit more of the international-level events around North America.
Eventually, she’d like to compete in Europe, where the sport is wildly popular and she could continue to develop into an Olympic- and World Games-caliber rider.
With that in mind, Wylde has introduced European technique into her riding, what he describes as an element of dressage-like style “where you get them traveling loose and supple.”
This effort seems symbolic of the balance D’Ambra has established between what can be the complicated business side of her work at the farm and the equally complicated personal connection she maintains with the horses.
“I’ve always been infatuated with any animal, but especially horses,” Agatha said. “There’s just something special about them. They’re so majestic. They’re really an amazing animal.
“Everybody’s on the same page here where I’m allowed to do what’s best for the horse. Now that I have my feet wet in the top international competition, I just want to be consistent and be a contender every time I go in.”