Failed racehorse rewrites the record books in eventing

8 October 2021 Written by Debbie Higgs

Put a girl from Far North Queensland, a thoroughbred from Tasmania and an Australian billionaire together and what do you get? A fairy tale and some record-breaking wins.

As a racehorse Willingapark Clifford wasn’t much to write home about.

He didn’t even make a race day, having failed at his first barrier trial in Tasmania.

But he’s excelled as an eventer under the guidance of 28-year-old Hazel Shannon.

In 2019 Hazel pulled off a world class performance on board Willingapark Clifford with a win in the CCI5* at the Australian International 3 Day Event (Aus3DE).

It was a record-breaking victory, their third win together at the Aus3DE, the only CCI5* eventing competition in the Southern Hemisphere, making it three wins in four years – 2016, 2018 and 2019.

On the podium after the first win at Aus3DE in 2016 (Credit: Libby Law Photography)

As a result the pair added their names to the elite few who have achieved the feat of winning the same 5* event three times on the same horse: Great Ovation ridden by Captain Mark Phillips at Badminton (1971, ’72, ’74), Winsome Adante ridden by Kim Severson at Kentucky (2002, ’04, ’05), Andrew Nicholson riding Avebury at Burghley (2012, ’13, ’14) and fischerRocana FST ridden by Michael Jung at Kentucky (2015, ’16, ’17).

To join these illustrious names of the sport of eventing at just 28 years of age is remarkable, especially as Hazel, who was brought up in Far North Queensland, did not start seriously competing in eventing until the age of 17.

 Even more remarkable is that her equine partner in this feat, Australian thoroughbred Willingapark Clifford, was bred to race and ended up with Hazel by sheer luck.

Clifford was bred by Tasmanian Sue Devereaux in 2005, who ‘dabbled’ in breeding thoroughbreds and racing them, but Clifford’s heart was not in it. He dawdled out of the trial barriers and his laid-back attitude gave Sue the distinct impression that racing was not for him.

So he was sent to Sue’s sister, Wendy Ward in NSW who just happened to live next door to one of Australia’s equestrian Olympians and elite coach Heath Ryan.

In 2010 Hazel had also arrived at Heath’s training facility, Ryans at Newcastle, to pursue her passions of horses and eventing.

Her passion was born from tales her English mum Melanie told of the great English events including Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials.

 “Clifford popped into my life when I was asked by Heath to work ‘the thoroughbred in Wendy’s back paddock’. He was by no means a spectacular looking horse so everyone else was avoiding riding him,” laughs Hazel.

“But I hadn’t been working for Heath for very long and I didn’t have any horses of my own, so I jumped at the opportunity. Thank god I did!”

Cross country day on the way to winning in 2019 (Credit: Libby Law Photography)

In 2012 the pair started competing at international level competition in Australia with their first win in 2014 but their performances generally went under the radar, until an impressive winning streak in 2016 culminated in their first CCI4* (now 5*) win at the Aus3DE.

The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) changed the rating of competitions in 2019, so that the highest level of international eventing competitions changed from CCI4* to CCI5*. There are only seven CCI5* competitions per year: Badminton Horse Trials (GB), Burghley Horse Trials (GB), Kentucky Three Day Event (USA), Les Etoiles de Pau (FRA), Maryland 5 Star (USA) and the Australian International 3 Day Event (AUS). The Olympic Games and FEI World Equestrian Games exist in their own special category. Dressage and show jumping are held at the CCI5* level while cross-country is shorter and designed at the CCI4* level of difficulty to make the sport more accessible for countries where the sport is less established

“I went there (in 2016) just hoping to get around the cross country and prove myself as a rider capable at that level. Although I knew we had a good chance of going clear on cross country and I had a lot of faith of him, winning it was such a surprise and it all seemed to happen so quickly. It really was just ‘our day’ – everything seemed to just go our way throughout the event” remembers Hazel.

The quiet achiever, who slept in a swag the night of her first 5* victory as they travelled back to NSW from South Australia, returned to Adelaide to defend her title the following year but was one of several riders penalised as part of a new cross country rule regarding the technicality of the horse’s body passing through the fence flags – a rule that was subsequently changed. These penalties dropped her out of contention for another win but she and the newly renamed Willingapark Clifford still put in a clear show jumping round on the final day.

Clifford acquired his prefix thanks to his new owners, Terry and Ginette Snow of Willinga Park in NSW. They stepped in to ensure that Hazel and Clifford could continue their partnership together when Clifford’s joint owner and long-time partner of Wendy Ward, Allen Jenkins, sadly passed away leaving Wendy devastated and Clifford up for sale.

“When someone close to you dies, your life takes on different priorities and, although Wendy gave us time to try and find a way of coming up with the money needed to buy him, it was desperately hard to find a buyer, especially one in Australia, who would allow Clifford to stay with me,” says Hazel.

“We were running out of options so when Terry and Ginette came on board, it seemed like a miracle. I will be forever grateful. It was something that happens in a story, not in real life, and something I could never have imagined happening to me.”

“Buying Clifford was absolutely the right thing to do,” says Terry Snow, an Australian billionaire with a passion for the Australian Stock Horse. 

“Hazel is dedicated, hardworking and has shown that she has the making of an Olympian. Pair that with the soundness, tenacity and reliability of this Australian-bred thoroughbred and they are the making of an Olympic combination,” says Terry.

Terry and Ginette’s faith was rewarded when Hazel and Willingapark Clifford once again took the CCI5* win in Adelaide in 2018.

Terry and Ginette Snow (owners) and Heath Ryan (coach) with Willingapark Clifford and Hazel Shannon after the win in 2019 (Credit: Debbie Higgs/An Eventful Life)

“The second time was even more amazing in a way because it really showed that the first time wasn’t a fluke!” says Hazel.

“Even though we had done it before, it’s still really tough to get through a CCI5* competition and so it should be – it’s the pinnacle of our sport.”

Showjumping for the second win in 2018 (Credit: Libby Law Photography)

2019 certainly saw changes at the Aus3DE with the cross country course reversed and quite different to that of previous years, but it proved no problem for Hazel and Willingapark Clifford who moved into the lead, moving up from second place after the dressage to take a historic third win.

And the story doesn’t end there. At 16 years of age, Hazel says that Clifford is ready to tackle another CCI5*.

“I certainly think that he would like to do another 5*, if not more! He’s raring to go and not showing any signs of ageing so I hope we’ll be out there at top level a few more times. He knows his job so well now, he saves his energy for when he needs it but when he sets out on cross country, he gives his all and feels like he can go around again when we’ve finished.

“He is such a fast galloper and I often think about when they trialled him for racing – he must have been tricking everybody! I’m so glad he did and I’m very grateful to have this horse in my life.” - Hazel Shannon

Hazel and Willinga Park Clifford will compete at the Les Etoiles de Pau CCI5*from October 27th – 31st