Saddlebred champ Don O’Neill retires

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He dominated his sport for almost a decade. It’s safe to say that Don O’Neill is the GOAT, even though he is a horse.

“I would compare Don O’Neill to Tom Brady,” said Cindy Chesler, co-owner of Don O’Neill. “Even with a bit of age, he’s still hard to beat.”

On Friday August 26, Don O’Neill will make his last winning pass at the prestigious Horse show world championship held at the Kentucky State Fair. He will retire at the age of 13 after winning every major horse show in the country, including blue ribbons at Rock Creek, the Lexington Junior League twice, River Ridge four times and after winning the Grand -father of all, the World Grand Championship Three- Class of pace.

The blanket of yellow roses of the Grand Championship of the World is to the American Saddlebred what the garland of red roses is to the Thoroughbreds of kentucky derby. The three-gait event in which Don O’Neill is world champion is a competition judged on extreme elegance, refinement and expression in three categories: walk, trot and canter.

“He’s pretty unique and he knows he’s something special,” said Steve Chesler, co-owner of Don O’Neill with his wife Cindy. “He’s a prima donna who comes to life in front of a crowd. He loves performing and the crowds love him back.”

What makes Don’s success story even more inspiring is the fact that no one expected him to be so extraordinary.

Cindy Chesler bought Don in 2013 to move up to one of the less intense divisions in Saddlebred competition. She named her horse after Irish fashion designer Don O’Neill who made her dress when he married Steve.

“I hadn’t shown (horses) in a long time and thought I’d find a nice calm horse in the country fun class,” she told the Courier Journal. “I’m a grandmother. I didn’t need a rough, tumultuous locomotive of a horse.”

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It turned out that beneath his calm exterior was a fiery, daring and talented competitor, just waiting for someone to bring out those qualities.

Don’s extreme athleticism and untapped potential was first noticed by trainer Chris Reiser, owner of Reiser Stables in Simpsonville, Kentucky. He felt Chesler’s new horse had the talent to show beyond the country’s class of fun. Although it wasn’t originally Chesler’s intention, she also noticed that there was something magical about this horse. So she agreed to give up the reins, so to speak, and Reiser took over as Don’s trainer and rider.

“Think baseball,” Chesler said. “Don started his career as a Single A baseball player, but Chris saw something in him and within a year he was at the level of an MLB player, and not only that, he became a player. of the year.”

Don O’Neill isn’t just athletic, he’s a one-in-a-million horse with a lot of personality.

“He’s like my best friend and the fun part about Don is he’s never the same,” Reiser said. “He’s so athletic, bold and fiery. I learned that I always had to change with him and always be ready for the unexpected.”

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The night before the duo won the Grand World Championship, Don was so full of energy and excitement that he took down his stand.

“I had a heart attack that morning when I came into the pits and he had torn down all the walls,” Reiser said. “But it’s a bit of his character. Usually, before big events, he gets angry and wreaks havoc on the stalls.”

Things are calmer in Don’s barn in Simpsonville. Throughout the day, he playfully knocks on the wooden cabin door to get the attention of his good friend, Roxy. The stable dog patiently lies among the woodchips on the other side of Don’s stall until it’s time to get out and train with Reiser.

“These two share a very special bond,” Reiser told the Courier Journal. “Now that Don is retiring he will spend his days in the field next to the barn and Roxy will keep him.”

After nine years of training and dominating the ring, the Cheslers decided that Don O’Neill deserved to live out the rest of his retirement years. Don will stay with his friends Reiser and Roxy at the farm in Simpsonville where he was raised and turned into a champion and legend.

“When Tom Brady got drafted he went to the sixth round of the NFL draft, people didn’t think he was going to be a superstar, but he did and the same goes for Don,” said Steve Chesler. “He’s a great athlete and who doesn’t love a great athlete?”

Reach journalist Kirby Adams at [email protected]

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