Down Under and Back Over - USA Vs Australia Non Pro Team Challenge

Author: Jackson, Gray

Down Under and Back Over - USA Vs Australia Non Pro Team Challenge

This article was written by Jackson Gray giving an inside perspective from the Australian team:

“It could be Albury, or anywhere in southern New South Wales” remarked Jim, husband of Aussie team member Lynda MacCallum, describing the landscape south of Rancho Murieta in northern California as the team drove to visit a local saddlery. “You can see why my father could move from here to Australia” was the reply from team captain Lori Mackay, a native of the small nearby town of Clements before her family shipped-off to Australia with the first ever quarter horses to arrive down under some fifty years ago. But while the Aussies appreciated the similarities to home and enjoyed the differences also, they had a goal in mind; to retrieve the USA/Australia Non Pro Challenge shield from inside the walls of the El Rancho Futurity headquarters and return it to Tamworth for another year.

Dormant for over a decade until its revival in Australia in 2015, the international non pro teams’ challenge was once a must-do on the bucket list of any non professional cutter. Held previously in Arizona, Texas and even Las Vegas Nevada, the 2016 Australian team captain and native Californian Lori Mackay shared her past experiences on the team with her fellow teammates, as they each arrived at what became a home away from home, the Marriott Courtyard in Rancho Cordova, east of Sacramento.

“I’ve been on the team several times; three times in Tamworth and once in Albury, and in the US at Abilene, Las Vegas and Temecula. All have been very memorable.”

Australian Team Captain Lori Mackay

Mackay, winner of the NCHA Non Pro Futurity on multiple occasions and Australia’s third highest non professional money earner, possessed all the skills to be captain of what was somewhat of an inexperienced group of cutters in comparison to her. From Goondiwindi in southern Queensland, an agricultural hub in the area known for its grand cotton production, the once regional town councillor led a team consisting of her daughter Jade Mackay, a former youth cutter and now a marketing and PR consultant based in Melbourne; Jackie Graham, an NCHA earner of almost $200,000 and a multiple major age-event champion and national title holder with her hall-of-fame gelding Spyderman; and Emma Stockdale, a five time major age-event finalist since 2014 and three times reserve champion originally from the Mornington Peninsula in south-eastern Australia.

- Highlights from the Final round of the USA Vs AUS Non Pro Team Challenge

Tara Phillips, a Shepparton native and NCHA national title winner also with her hall-of-fame gelding Dream Chaser (son of the great Australian export mare Dreams Of Oak), had been to Texas on multiple occasions prior to her 2016 El Rancho experience, as a former employee of Gary Gonsalves and Eddie Flynn. Geoff Saxby, an experienced campaigner and NCHA Non Pro Futurity champion himself earning just under $60,000, spearheaded a group of three team members from the New South Wales Hunter Valley region. Lynda MacCallum of Scone, a teacher, cattle producer and former campdraft competitor, was the 2016 NCHA Amateur Futurity champion, while close family friend and cutting competitor of not quite two years Matt Caban, a highly credentialed farrier and the 2015 NCHA Non Pro Classic Challenge champion, rounded-out a team of solid recent performers down under.

Hosted by US team member and NCHA Non Pro Hall Of Fame inductee Carol Ward, the 2016 event was unlike no other for the Australians.

Carol Ward has been instrumental in reviving the International Team Challenge

“The hospitality at Carol’s could not have been any better; she is just so generous”, declared Mackay when asked about her fourth trip to the US on the Australian team. “But their whole team was so accommodating, as was almost anybody we met.”

Holding the 2016 challenge at Ward’s incredible facility was the biggest reason the event was such a success, according to Mackay, as the Australian team was able to try their horses at her ranch next door to the Rancho Murieta equestrian complex the day before the competition, with the help of Ward’s head trainer Jason Taylor and Australian expatriate Gavin Jordan. Later that evening the two teams drew for horses and position in the herd at Ward’s beautiful home, while also rubbing shoulders with some of the industry’s greatest trainers including Chubby Turner and Tim Smith; but, the Australians had brought with them their own legend of the sport.

With his wife Jackie on the team in 2016, Australia’s top money earner (in excess of $2m) and hall of famer Todd Graham was on board for the trip, and was quickly recruited to coach and assist the Aussies in their pursuit of success.

“Todd was definitely our ace in the hole”, remarked Mackay, “we were so lucky to have him as a part of our team.” After a short, pre-competition discussion with Graham on the team coach, supplied by Carol’s ever generous fiancé Davin Harp, it quickly became obvious how focused the Aussie team was on reclaiming the shield the US had won just over a year prior.

During the first of three rounds of competition on Saturday September 20th, the Australian team put in a consistent display with no lost cows and no major penalties to lead the US by 25.5 points after a big herd of sixteen runs. Team USA member and earner of some $600,000 Alexis Stephis blasted to a personal round win with a 227 atop Ima Little Ichi, but it was the control shown by the Australians that placed them in a commanding position from the start. Jackie Graham, Jade Mackay and Lynda MacCallum each marked a 220 or higher, while the remainder of the team got shown well from the top to the bottom of the draw.

Alexis Stephas won the first round on Ima Little Ichi / shown here on her other horse Once You Go Black who she rode in the 2nd round and finals

As quickly became protocol, the Australians returned that evening to their hotel for a few celebratory drinks in the Lobby, but they knew the job was not yet done, fearing the US team would now be sprung into life. But the story would be similar on day two of the challenge, as Australia increased its lead to just under sixty points.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder as close allies on an international stage, both teams and all present witnessed an emotional tribute on the following morning of September the 11th at the El Rancho event, marking fifteen years since the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001. And then following the second rounds of both the Derby and Classic Challenge Open classes, the USA/Australia Challenge returned to the main arena for both great nations to vie for the title of 2016 champion. All competitors this time swapped horses with their counterparts for round number two and things picked-up where they had left-off the day before.

Once again a team USA member and well decorated young non pro rider in Kelsey Conn topped the second round of the challenge on Red Money Merada with a 224, ahead of countryman Hilary Watson atop RBR Lady Boone with a 221, a horse supplied by Gavin Jordan. Yet consistent performances by Matt Caban, Jackie Graham, Lori Mackay and all the Australian team, topped-off by Lynda MacCallum and Once You Go Blacks’ 218 and Emma Stockdale and Cheap Son Glasses’ 220 from last in the draw, ensured the Aussies would go into the final round with a commanding lead.

Kelsey Conn aboard Red Money Merada won the 2nd Round

With Graham in their corner, the Australian team were also well assisted by Gavin Jordan and another expatriate in Andrew Coates, to name a few.

“We also had a great support crew with the team. Jim and Jackson helped Todd with the cattle”, explains Mackay referring to Jim MacCallum and Jackson Gray whose partners were part of the team, “I think everyone was keen to be involved anywhere they could.”

Coate’s joked that his fellow Californian trainers would “give him hell” after he so eagerly helped Graham and the Aussies during the first two rounds, but as always in the spirit of cutting, all the trainers helped every competitor to the best of their ability.

“Andrew and Gavin were such a big help, but Chubby (Turner) Jason Taylor and Gary Gonsalves were there too.”

Before the final round, the teams had drawn for horses once more and on Monday the 12th, a large crowd had gathered to witness the remarkable event. The US hit back strong with some great runs including yet another big score from the eventual overall aggregate champion Hilary Watson in her team’s third round win, but the Australians hung on despite having the final three runs from the bottom of the draw. In the end, the entire competition consisting of forty eight runs came down to a difference of under thirty points, Australia the 2016 champions.

“This is the best and fairest group of team horses we have ever been given”, states Mackay in appreciation to the US team. “Having the event at Carol’s private venue (the Rancho Murieta Equestrian Centre) allowed us to group better as a team than on previous occasions.”

“This year’s challenge totally secures the event. I think as long as Carol wants to run it, it must stay at Murieta.”

Team Australia in front of their RV at El Rancho

While Mackay had to deal with the excess luggage at the QANTAS service desk in Los Angeles, now sporting a twenty five pound shield in her luggage bound for Sydney, the Australians hope and believe the USA/Australia Non Pro Challenge will continue to be invigorated on both sides from its success over the last two years. Both Carol Ward and Australia’s Ian Lavers have worked in unison to bring the event back to life after a decade long hiatus, and it now once again stands as a bucket-list item for any passionate and competitive non professional cutter.

Team Australia were presented the "Shield" by American Team Captain and host Carol Ward

While a fresh US team will head down under to Australia in 2017 with plans to reclaim the shield, the Australians will be running another qualifying system for next year’s team, while also brushing-up on their arena beach volleyball skills after a heartbreaking loss to the US at El Rancho…

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