Olympics watch: Comet from New York

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About eight years ago, western New York horseman Aaron Donnan stood in the test barn at Finger Lakes as a strapping gray horse walked past. The big gray, a New York-bred 4-year-old with lots of miles and not much success, turned Donnan’s head.

Donnan called his wife: “Charity, I just saw this big, gray horse. If he ever runs for a claiming price, we have to claim him.”

Charity said OK and a few starts later the Donnans took him in the name of their A and C Stable for $9,000.

And became heroes.

Courageous Comet, the Donnans’ new horse, had begun the precarious slide from NYRA runner to Finger Lakes allowance horse to cheap claimer. The Donnans and trainer Bill Strange ran the horse seven times, won twice – for a $4,000 tag – and soon faced a decision. Courageous Comet stood at the edge of obsolescence. Nobody really wants a $4,000 Thoroughbred.

Unless you’re the Donnans.

You see, in addition to running a few racehorses at Finger Lakes they operate a foxhunting barn and Thoroughbred resale business in the Genesee Valley. Courageous Comet went home to the farm, learned to foxhunt, got sold as an event prospect and kept getting better.

And now, he’s in the Olympics. Yes the Olympics. In Hong Kong. Right now.

Now 12, Courageous Comet competes in three-day eventing and he and rider Becky Holder are one of the best combinations in the world. As of 10 p.m. Saturday, Courageous Comet stood fifth after dressage while the American team was third. Next comes cross country (Courageous Comet’s strong suit) and then show jumping (which can be his nemesis). The Finger Laker could get a medal.

“Can you believe it?” said Charity Donnan Saturday afternoon. “It’s pretty cool. We had some horses running at Finger Lakes back then and Aaron just liked the way he walked in the test barn – he was a beautiful mover.”

Still is.

Courageous Comet competes at the top of the eventing world. From Holder’s Minnesota base, he routinely places in major events and was second in America’s top event, Rolex Kentucky, this spring at the Kentucky Horse Park. Owned by Holder and her husband, Tom, Courageous Comet made the Olympic team based on that finish, his superb dressage, and his brave cross-country habits.

As a racehorse, Courageous Comet couldn’t cut it.

He lost 32 times, including 23 in a row at one stretch. Purchased for $30,000 at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga in 1997, the son of Comet Shine peaked by placing third in the Times Square Stakes (part of the New York Stallion Series). Then trained by David Donk for John Behrendt, the gelding just missed winning his state-bred one-other-than condition (losing by a head to Galactic in 1999).

“It’s a great story for the horse,” said Donk. “You’ve got to feel good for him. I don’t know a thing about what it takes to be an event horse, but he was a big, scopey horse with nice balance. But he was too one-paced to be much of a racehorse.

Don’t blame him. Racing just wasn’t his bag – he wanted something else – and eventually told enough humans and they found it.

Like many owners and trainers, Behrendt and Donk made a business decision to send the horse to Finger Lakes trainer Kathy Mastin. They got another win out of the horse, but lost him in the process. Thankfully, the Donnans dropped the slip – and hung on to him through several more claiming starts.

Once he got off the racetrack, Courageous Comet blossomed in his new life on the Donnans’ farm in Piffard (about halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo). Turned out in a field, he caught the eye of Jack Lambert, a visitor from Ireland, who needed a foxhunter for a day with the Genesee Valley Hounds.

“Can I hunt that one?” asked Lambert.

“Well sure, I guess so, but he’s never foxhunted,” said Charity Donnan.

Lambert didn’t mind and neither did Courageous Comet, who went foxhunting for the first time that day. Eventually, he showed so much promise that he became an eventing prospect. Holder and her husband then bought out the sponsor and are in Hong Kong as Olympic contenders.

“It’s pretty cool to see him over there,” said Charity Donnan. “But it’s cool to see each one we sell go on and do big things. They could be Tweedle-Dee in the next stall one day and in the Olympics the next.”

As long as you see them in the test barn first.