Shelby County native Hannah Sue Burnett is back for her second try at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event that begins Thursday.
In 2007, she completed her first four-star Rolex competition at the tender age of 20 before going on to ride for Team O'Connor, the team headed by Olympic riders David and Karen O'Connor in The Plains, Va.
"I'm really excited. It's my hometown, basically," she said last week by phone from Ocala, Fla., where she was preparing for the drive to Kentucky for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, which begins Thursday.
The annual Rolex Kentucky, an Olympic-level equestrian competition, draws 50,000 to 100,000 spectators and top riders from across the world, including many who competed at last year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington.
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Eventing, sometimes called the triathlon of equestrian sports, combines the disciplines of dressage, cross-country riding and show jumping.
"Obviously, there's a lot of pressure to do well. It's my second time" at Rolex, Burnett said. "The first time you just kind of go and get a feel for it; the goal is just to complete. ... This year, I'm coming to compete."
Keep the Faith, the 16-year-old horse that first took Burnett to the highest levels of competition, has retired to a lovely pasture in Virginia; this week Burnett will be riding a Washington-bred Thoroughbred called St. Barths.
St. Barths' barn name is "Nike" because his name registered with The Jockey Club was Red Track Shoes.
"Nike is an appropriate name for him," Burnett said, even though he never ran a race. "He's very speedy ... very fast-thinking and very quick on his feet".
Burnett has been moving pretty fast herself — in 2009, the Finchville native won the U.S. Equestrian Federation's National two-star championship.
Last fall, she and Nike won the Dansko Fair Hill International Three-Day Event in Maryland, taking the national three-star championship and beating some of the top riders in the country, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton.
Burnett, now 24, is looking forward to riding for a hometown crowd. Although her family moved to Maryland last year, her parents and four siblings are making the trip back. "They are all coming. I think we got, like, 12 tickets," she said.
Burnett began riding practically as a tot, learning from her mother, Sue, working her way up through the competitive levels and traveling around the country.
She tried college — a semester at the University of Kentucky — before devoting herself to riding and teaching full-time. She worked with local horsewoman Cathy Wiesch hoff, who was impressed enough to introduce her to the O'Connors.
Working for Team O'Connor for the past three years has been a definite leg up. In 2008, Karen O'Connor was training to compete for the United States in eventing at the Beijing Olympics with her horse, Mandiba.
She asked Burnett to ride St. Barths, owned by Richard Thompson, to keep him in shape. The horse was recovering from a serious bout of equine protozoal myeloenchephalitis, known as EPM. The disease, spread by possums, can cause permanent neurological damage.
It took St. Barths more than a year to get fit again, but now he competes at the highest levels of the sport.
"He's a tough little guy," Burnett said of the 11-year-old gelding. "I'm amazed that he came back."
After O'Connor returned from the Olympics, she was impressed with the connection between the horse and Burnett.
"We got along so well she let me keep the ride on him," Burnett said.
Now that Burnett and St. Barths are a team, they're looking to take on the top riders at Rolex.
Among them are Clayton Fredericks of Australia, who won the 2007 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, at which Dutton finished second and Karen O'Connor came in third. All three riders are back again this year.
Last time, Burnett remembers, she had a less-than-stellar dressage score of 59, followed by a mistake at a cross-country fence on the second phase of competition. She then knocked down a couple of rails in the final phase, show jumping. She finished 23rd.
"I was happy just to get through it," she said.
This year, she's pretty sure she can do better than that, having matured as a rider.
Burnett said the biggest challenge for her temperamental redhead (Nike is a penny-bright chestnut) is dressage, the first phase of the three-day event.
"He gets a little nervous," she said. At a three-star competition at Red Hills in Florida in March, the flapping tails of Burnett's "shadbelly" coat — a long-tailed formal riding costume — distracted him so much during the warm-up for dressage that she had to rush back to the barn and borrow O'Connor's shorter hunt coat.
But by then the horse was frazzled, and they ended with a score of 60, not what she'd hoped for. (The event winner, Candace Tribe, scored a 47.)
"It got a little out of hand there. That kind of thing can happen with him," she said.
This time, she plans to get to Kentucky on Monday afternoon, with plenty of time to hack around the park and let her horse relax.
"I've put a lot of pressure on myself. ... The key to being successful is not saying, 'I'm going to win.' It's doing the best I can for my horse and giving him the best ride possible, and hopefully the rest will fall into place," Burnett said.