article and photos by Regina Welsh
(first appearing in The Equiery‘s March 2013 issue)
Juliette Chalmers couldn’t understand why everyone was so insistent that she come to the Maryland Steeplechase Association Governor’s Cup year-end awards ceremony last June. It was out of her way, her parents were out of town, and as far as she knew, she wasn’t getting an award. Her Aunt Tracy (O’Brien) offered to give her a lift to the dinner, under the guise that she was attending to cheer for her Uncle Darren, Tracy’s husband, who was receiving the Leading Gentleman Foxhunter Timber Rider Award. Juliette accepted the offer and was there when her uncle was surprised to be called up to take the stage a second time, this time the recipient of the inaugural presentation of the Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual Trophy, one of the handful of awards whose winners are chosen by MSA board vote. Darren, who was commended for his partnership and performance with his trusty mount Tumultuous, on the racecourse and in the hunt field, wasn’t the only one who was surprised that evening.
The Jonathan Kiser Memorial Scholarship was next on the awards docket. This award is given in recognition of a junior’s race participation, horsemanship, sportsmanship, talent, and dedication to the sport of steeplechase racing. Expecting to cheer for one of her friends, Juliette was very surprised when her name was announced as the winner. “I only did two races last year. I was thinking, why do I need to go to these awards? I’m just going to sit there and watch everyone else who had more fun get awards. But, I was surprised,” recalled the 2012 recipient.
Immersed in Steeplechasing
A passion for horses runs in the family for this 16-year-old. She rides at home with her mother Alice, and foxhunts with Elkridge-Harford, Green Spring Valley and Mount Carmel with her father Bruce, and younger sisters, Caroline and Anne. It was hard not to be interested in steeplechasing and foxhunting, since living in Monkton made falling in love with steeplechasing easy. “Being immersed in the community, this is just what you do!” plainly stated Juliette.
Juliette credits her aunt with her initial interest in steeplechasing and her love of racing. “She was the first one who took me foxhunting. The first races I specifically remember going to were to the Manor Races with her. A jockey was carted off in a helicopter and I thought, “This is crazy, I’ll never do this.” After going to a few more races, Juliette realized what she witnessed at The Manor wasn’t the norm, and she was hooked. Besides Tracy, she give several people credit for her involvement in the sport.
“I looked up to Suzanne Stettinius,” said the budding jockey. “She was a girl, she raced, and she was cool. I did my first pony flat race when I was 10 on Emmy-Lou, Suzanne’s pony. I foxhunted twice a week for a couple of years and eventually rode in my first Field Master’s Chase on Smooth Flight, another one of Suzanne’s horses. I was nervous, but I knew I wanted to do it again. Suzanne prepared us pretty well and I hunted Smoothie a lot, so I felt good going into the race. I went several times a week after school to ride out for Suzanne. We had a lot of fun schooling cross-country.”
“It’s hard to find a trainer I don’t admire, but I do really look up to Billy Santoro and Alicia Murphy. Jazz Napravnik and Joe and Blythe Davies have also really helped me. People in the community are all very helpful, especially if it evolves free labor,” she laughed. “I really appreciate what everyone has done for me.
People have really taken a lot of time to teach me things. Every horse I get on teaches me a lot. Whether it’s the ones I fall off of, or the ones that I have the best gallops on. Jazz wasn’t afraid to put me on tough horses. Putting me in a situation where I was really challenged taught me to work out my fears in my head, to calm down and think about what I was supposed to be doing at the moment, instead of panicking, standing up, and jabbing them in the mouth. Working for Billy with the young horses taught me to get in their heads. Even if I didn’t realize what they were afraid of, he made me try to think how the horses were thinking.”
The Kiser Kid Experience
The “Kiser Kid,” as the Maryland Steeplechase Association board refers to the recipient of the scholarship, receives acceptance and admission to the summer steeplechase camp offered by NAPPA. The camp is a week-long experience focused on learning the ins and outs of steeplechase racing. Beginning in Virginia, the camp travels north to Saratoga Springs, NY, making stops in the major steeplechasing hotspots The Plains (VA), Butler (MD) and Unionville (PA). Students work with top steeplechase trainers such as Kathy McKenna, Ricky Hendriks, Jack Fisher, Richard Valentine, Janet Elliot and Neil Morris, to name a few.
Juliette was honored with her award and the opportunity to expand her experience in the steeplechase world.
The highlight of being a Kiser scholar for Juliette was getting to work for several trainers during the NAPPA camp. “I got to ride a ton of horses for different people and I saw different trainers’ points of view, each of their styles, and how they train. It was really interesting and gave me a good overview of the sport. I also think one big thing I took away from the camp is that attitude is everything. Even though you may not see how much your attitude affects you, how other people view your attitude is huge. It affects every situation you find yourself in.”
The Saratoga Racecourse stop on the NAPPA camp was a favorite among the campers. “Saratoga was so diverse. We saw the French trainer [Chistoph Clement] 50 feet away from us; right with people I see all of the time in Monkton. It represented racing really well. Going to the training track and seeing people from all over the world sitting on their horses chatting was pretty cool,” remembered Juliette, who also got to spend time with former MSA junior race rider turned top flat jockey, Rosie Napravnik, in the lady jockeys’ room.
School, Family and France
So what’s up next for the NAPPA graduate? “The past three years, I was dead set on being a jockey. I think that is something every young rider goes through. I still would love to be a jockey, but I look at it from a more realistic standpoint. I realize for me, there are just so many risks and there’s nothing ‘sure’ about it. I would like to have a career outside the horses and focus on doing amateur races.”
Putting school as a priority, Juliette said she is, “not going to drop everything to go racing. I’m focusing on school and will see how racing fits in to my life. I’d love to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup one day. Every time I go to the races, I think about how I want to ride in that race before I die.”
Juliette is a well-rounded young lady and her other passion is cycling. “I like to run, but I’ve been plagued with injuries, so I’m very into cycling. I wouldn’t mind racing professionally. It would be awesome. On a more serious note, I’m really into environmental science. It is the future. For my higher studies I’d like to go into environmental science or sports medicine. I think it’s pretty important.”
For Chalmers, this spring’s steeplechase season will have to be experienced via Facebook posts from friends and websites following the sport. “My mom is Franco-American and our family decided to spend a year in France,” Juliette’s voice crackled across the staticky Skype connection. She and her family left for their year abroad in August, a few weeks after her NAPPA Camp experience. Juliette has been riding as much as she can while she is away, but misses the hills of the Green Spring Valley and Elkridge-Harford foxhunting territories. “We do a lot of dressage here,” she griped, but she’s taking the “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” philosophy.
Juliette is taking her riding career all in stride. “I figured out I don’t need to do everything right away. I am okay with waiting, riding some flat races first. I know the more that time passes, the more mature I get and the better I get at my riding. I don’t know what exactly about the NAPPA camp taught me that, but I just got that impression from the whole experience.”
And if there is any advice Juliette would give to budding young pony riders it would be, “to breathe. Don’t think you have to rush everything or be the best at everything. When you get run off with—and you will get run off with—don’t panic. Everything needs to be calm, so take the time to breathe and remember what you are supposed to be doing. And in general, don’t rush anything.”