Nicolette Merle-Smith stared at her phone, reading and rereading the text message she just received from her father.
"David O'Connor wants to know where are you and why you are not here."
Merle-Smith was home in Virginia at the family farm, tending to the family's 30 horses, while her parents sat in the sponsor tent at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event in the spring of 2014. Nicolette was in particular disbelief at the next part of the text that said, "David says we need you riding here."
Merle-Smith, 27 years old at the time, was having a hard time processing the message. Was her father, a shameless prankster, playing a joke on her?
Or was David O'Connor, former Rolex winner and U.S. Eventing Team Olympic Gold Medalist who she had received lessons and taken clinics from before, actually alluding to something Nicolette already knew in her heart? Did he believe she was a rider worthy of competing at one of the most intense sporting events known to modern-day equestrians?
In the blood
Born into a family where foxhunting was religion, Merle-Smith has ridden since before she could walk.
Her father, Grosvernor, recalls an early memory of his daughter in the saddle:
"One of my favorite stories of Nikki riding as a child, though there are many, is when she competed in the draft horse races at Bull Run," he said. "The first time, she was a slightly chubby, awkward 13-year-old, riding a 5-year-old 17.2 hand Thoroughbred/Shire cross named Tyberius.
"She led the entire way, against a group of older gentleman, when Tiberius planted his hooves about 10 feet from the finish line in front of some fresh dirt from where a ditch had just been filled in. Nikki went about 30 feet over his head and landed in the middle of the racecourse, with a bunch of draft horses thundering towards her. She just sat there crying."
Nicolette doesn't dispute the fact tears were shed, just the reason why.
"I wasn't crying because I fell, I was crying because I was so mad," she said. "I was so close to winning and he just stopped!"
(Nicolette and Tyberius returned to the draft horse race the following year and won by nearly 20 strides - see photo.)
After graduating from Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va., (her great, great-aunt, Charlotte Haxall Noland, founded the all-girls school in 1914), she attended Goucher College outside Baltimore.
"I come from a long line of educators, and went to Goucher to study Elementary Education," Nicolette said. "When riding began to take more of my time, I was spending winters in Aiken, and my goals became set on competing at the top levels of eventing, my family and I decided I should leave school to focus on riding full-time."
"I was studying to be a teacher, and now, I am a teacher! I love it," said Nicolette, who gained her United States Equestrian Federation Professional card in 2013.
At the age of 23, she took over and expanded her family's sporthorse breeding, training and sales operation, located in the heart of Virginia horse country. Today, the farm has more than 30 horses, many of which are homebreds in training with Nicolette to be sold as amateur-friendly foxhunters, hunter/jumpers or three-day eventers. The farm stands its own imported Holsteiner stallion, Concerto Grosso.
Nicolette is the primary caretaker and overseer of all the horses, typically putting in at least 10-hour workdays, which can include riding up to 10 horses a day, most of which are young greenies or excitable, high performance horses that require a meticulous ride.
To say the least, Nicolette is a determined young woman with a steadfast work ethic.
"We go to Ocala for three months in the winter now, and this year we took nine horses," she said. "For most of the winter, it was just me and my mom. It was a bit crazy."
No slowing down
One would think with everything on her plate that she would be satisfied with the amount of challenging projects demanding her constant time and attention. Not Nicolette. Always pushing herself to improve her riding and horsemanship skills, she set a new goal for herself in 2016: to compete (and of course, excel) at the Retired Racehorse Project's $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover.
The Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, which will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park Oct. 27-30, is a platform to showcase off-the-track Thoroughbreds, or OTTBs, in a multitude of second careers, including everything from barrel racing and working ranch divisions to polo and dressage. The horses, which must have raced or had a published work after Oct. 1, 2014 in order to be eligible for this year's event, must also not have been started in training for a second career before Jan. 1, 2016.
Nicolette (at left aboard one of her promising homebreds, Watermark) began her search for her perfect prospect while in Ocala this past winter. She had two requirements: the horse needed to be sound for jumping and she wanted a filly or mare.
"I love mares," she said. "I've ridden great stallions and geldings, but I love my girls. Without question."
When asked why she prefers mares to be her preference, Nicolette said she admires three qualities - self-preservation, competitiveness and independence.
"Those are also things I have always valued in myself," she said.
After looking at about 10 Thoroughbreds in Ocala and along the East coast, the perfect prospect actually found Nicolette by fortunate chance.
A friend of Nicolette's had already purchased a horse from Doug Fout in Virginia for the Makeover, but after taking a new job that required extensive traveling, was looking for a new home for Blazing Beryl, a six-year-old mare by Family Calling. The bay mare, who stands a leggy 16.3 hands and is out of the Awad mare Mystery Mom, started racing for owner and breeder Margaret White in 2014. After lackluster performances in flat races at Great Meadow and Delaware Park, "Emmie," as she is now fondly known, was moved to racing over hurdles, but failed to find her niche.
She was then sold for $3,000 and turned out until Nicolette took her home in March, on the same day she first set her eyes on her.
"It's really hard to get a horse that you can't put a saddle on yet," she said. "But I was fairly confident from the beginning she was going to be an exceptional horse and everything she has done since I've had her has confirmed that."
Sights on Kentucky Horse Park
With the Makeover only a few months away, Nicolette is taking her usual calm, confident and practical approach to Emmy's reeducation. Her first order of business was to address all of Emmie's physical problems. There were issues with ulcers and soreness, among other things, so for the first few months Nicolette did nothing but focus on getting Emmie happy and healthy. A carefully formulated feeding routine, ulcer meds and chiropractic sessions with Dr. Jim Yanchunis of Integrated Veterinary Services became the new norm in Emmie's life.
Once Emmy began to show she was physically and mentally fit to begin her retraining, Nicolette began slowly, letting Emmie dictate how much she wanted to learn and how fast. To no one's surprise, Emmie was a star student.
"If you retrain them consistent and low key, everything will be fine. I've had her since March 15 and I've only ridden her five times.
"The first time I rode her she tried to take off at a gallop. The last time I rode her, I jumped her. Quietly, trotted downed, plopped over the jump, cantered away and halted. I feel confident she's going to be an awesome horse."
Editor's Note: This is the first in a multi-part series following the progress of Nicolette Merle-Smith and Blazing Beryl as they prepare for the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover, which takes place Oct. 27-30 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Check thisishorseracing.com for monthly updates on the pair's progress. You can also follow Kaitlin Christopherson on Twitter @kaitlinceqins
Originally from the Houston, Texas, area, Kaitlin Christopherson has always known horses had to be a part of her life. After graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans, she moved to Lexington in 2012 to pursue a career in the equine industry. Kerry Cauthen of Four Star Sales gave Kaitlin her first job and eventually she accepted a position with WinStar Farm as its Marketing Coordinator. At WinStar she was responsible for creating and implementing marketing strategies for the entire farm, but a large part of her time was dedicated to promoting 24 Thoroughbred sires, including Tiznow, Distorted Humor and Pioneerof the Nile. Now an adult amateur rider, Kaitlin is working to balance her new love of Thoroughbred racing with her adoration of sporthorses as an equine insurance agent and marketing consultant.