Breen’s Derby dream comes true

Hickstead's Press Officer Victoria Spicer chats to the 2014 winner of the Equestrian.com Derby, Trevor Breen. 

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Just once, it would be nice if Trevor Breen’s Derby preparations went smoothly. Two months to go before the Equestrian.com Derby, in which he’s hoping for a repeat of his 2014 win, Trevor broke his ribs in a riding fall. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Irishman had then sat on a mounting block to recover, where he duly passed out through the pain and hit his head on the concrete floor of his yard.

But nothing will quell his drive to win the Derby for a second consecutive time. Less than a week after his fall, Trevor welcomes the Hickstead team, plus top photographer Matthew Seed, to his Buckinghamshire yard for a special photoshoot. He’s out of hospital and back on his feet, albeit moving a little tentatively. “To be honest, if the Derby was next week I’d be riding in it,” he says, making it clear how important Hickstead’s most famous class is to him.

He’s obviously itching to start riding again, but even holding ‘Addy’ – Adventure De Kannan, the ‘one-eyed wonder horse’ who took Trevor to his first Derby victory last summer – for the photoshoot is taking its toll. Addy is a perfect gentleman throughout the day, unfailingly patient, ears pricked for the camera, standing perfectly still during the lengthy process, but even the slightest nudge with his muzzle or tug on his leadrope causes Trevor to wince with discomfort. It’s hardly the run up to the event the rider would have hoped for, but then he and Addy are used to overcoming adversity.

The pair made their Hickstead Derby debut in 2010, where they finished on a very respectable 12 faults – just outside the prizemoney, but a promising sign of better things to come. Sure enough, the next year, they came equal seventh on eight faults, and in 2012 came tantalisingly close to winning, picking up just four faults at the water to take third place. Winning Hickstead’s Amlin Plus Eventing Grand Prix and then the All England Grand Prix that summer was some form of consolation, but the Derby itself remained unconquered.

Then came 2013, surely to be their year. Yet as the Derby approached, nothing went to plan. Addy had an eye complaint that was causing increasing problems – the decision was made to remove his right eye just weeks before the Derby. Trevor had to work out that he needed to ride him the exact same way he always had done, instead of trying to compensate for his lost eye, and fortunately soon they were back to jumping at the top level.

But then Trevor was bereft after losing his mother, Mary Breen, just one week before the show. In the Derby, they needed a clear to win, and the pair navigated their way round the famous obstacles: clear down the bank, clear over the Devil’s Dyke, then the water, their nemesis in 2012. This year the water jump caused no problems, only for the open ditch at fence 13 to fall. Four faults, and their Derby dream was over for another year. At the press conference afterwards, Trevor’s disappointment was palpable. He was happy for his friend Phillip Miller, who had won, but obviously devastated to have come so close yet again, only to be denied. “It would have meant a lot to me to win,” said Trevor. “It was definitely the worst second place I’ve had in my life.”

Last year’s preparations didn’t go any more smoothly. Addy picked up a minor injury on the Spanish Sunshine Tour, leaving him just a few weeks to get back to jumping fitness. But he made it to Hickstead and in the Equestrian.com Derby, the 2013 winner Phillip Miller had set the pace with a four-fault round, giving Trevor the chance to jump clear to take the title. Yet once again a faultless round eluded them, with the first part of the Devil’s Dyke tumbling. Both riders went into jump-off, and Phillip knocked the first element of the Dyke, clearing the way for Trevor. But Addy knocked the white oxer – one of the most straightforward fences on the course, meaning they had to jump the tricky Devil’s Dyke clear to win. This they did, and they continued round the rest of the course to win by just 0.2sec, the closest Derby final of all time. “I thought by the time I got to the water, I was fine, I could go easy. But actually there wasn’t much in it,” Trevor recalls. “Carter and Addy have beaten each other a lot at national shows and Area trials, and there’s not much between them – the Derby really proved that.”

Trevor is usually a pretty measured character but as he crossed that finish line 12 months ago, he lit up, punching the air in delight, collapsing on Addy’s neck to give him a hug. It was obvious how much it meant. “It was getting frustrating, having come so close to winning the Derby the previous two years. I knew Addy was good enough, and he’s won so much for me in his career, especially at Hickstead. To finally win, it was just ecstasy.”

The win made a number of headlines around the world, with papers picking up on the amazing ‘one-eyed wonder horse’, as Addy had become known as. Their profile naturally increased, but Trevor has remained level-headed. “I’ve tried to not let it change me. I don’t want to be one of those people who win a class and start to think they’re God’s gift,” he smiles.

Just a few weeks after their Equestrian.com Derby win, the duo took yet another of Hickstead’s most famous classes, the Templant Events Queen Elizabeth II Cup. Six had made it through to the jump-off, including Robert Whitaker, Laura Kraut, Guy Williams, David Simpson and Trevor’s Derby rival, Phillip Miller. But none could match the speediness that day of Adventure De Kannan. “He’s a fast horse, and if he’s on form, I know I can go into the ring and win, and he’s proved that over and over,” Trevor says. 

Theirs is a remarkable partnership. It was formed in Ireland, when Trevor began giving lessons to Addy’s owner, Karen Swann, who had showjumped the Kannan-sired gelding up to 1.20m level and evented to two-star level. Trevor took on the ride when Karen was recovering from an accident, and continued to compete Addy when Karen was pregnant with her first child. “I can’t say I got on him and knew straight away he’d go on to do all the things he has done. But I liked him instantly, and I remember saying to someone at the time that Addy was a horse I had to keep the ride on. Karen was fantastic to stick with me.”

As an eight-year-old, he didn’t set the world alight, picking up a few wins here and there but making mistakes along the way. “That’s what made him,” says Trevor. “I had other horses ahead of him, and Karen never put pressure on me, so this gave Addy time to learn his trade.”

At nine, Addy picked up his first major win at Hickstead, claiming the Bunn Leisure Speed Derby in 2009. Then Trevor sold his best horse at Dublin that August, and it was time for Addy to step up to be his top string, a position he has held ever since. “Straight away, he won a big class at his next show in Cavan, then won five Grands Prix on the bounce – and he hasn’t stopped winning since.”

In these days of specialist horses and a wariness of natural obstacles, Adventure De Kannan remains one of those elusive all-rounders, a horse that can jump in Derbies and speed classes to five-star Nations Cups and Grands Prix. He even won a six-bar in his early days. “The only thing he hasn’t won is a Puissance, and that’s only because I’ve never put him in one! He probably would win if I asked him to,” he jokes. “I can throw Addy on the truck, take him anywhere in the world and jump him in any class, and know I have a good chance of doing well.”

Nor did Addy’s career falter when he had his eye removed. He’d suffered with eye problems for a number of years, and by the end his vet estimated the horse had about 25% vision in his right eye. “We took the eye out at the beginning of the 2013 season, thinking, if he came back, brilliant, if he didn’t, it would be better for him in the long run.” Karen Swann had been devastated, assuming that to have the eye operation would mean the end of his top-level career. She was relieved and delighted to hear Trevor planned to continue just as he had been, and sure enough the gelding soon proved himself to be as good as he always had been.

Addy is now the poster boy for one-eyed horses. “Lots of people have been in touch after the Derby. One story in particular touched, a kid with a 13.2hh pony who’d lost its eye, and the daughter had lost interest and stopped riding him. She saw me riding the Derby and decided to get back on him, and a few weeks later they were placed at an event. Her mum got in touch to thank me for inspiring her, and making her feel like her pony is special, not a freak.”

Another moment that made Trevor realise how special Addy is to showjumping fans was when they won a big class at HOYS in October. “We were at a British show but it genuinely felt like the crowd wanted Addy to win, even ahead of John Whitaker, who is a national hero,” he recalls.

Addy is now 15, and Trevor is looking forward to another busy season with him. After this season, they’ll start to take each year as it comes, though Trevor is hopeful that the horse has at least another couple of Hickstead Derbies in him. When he eventually retires from top level competition, Addy will go back to live with Karen in Ireland. Last winter he went back to spend some holiday time with his owner, who took him to do a local combined training event that he duly won. “Karen entered him under the name Addy as she didn’t want any fuss, but the commentator then said how nice it was to see the Hickstead Derby winner there, and suddenly people swarmed round, wanting photos,” says Trevor. “He ended up winning a few competitions with Karen and came back to me with a 100 percent record!”

Trevor and Addy have now won every major Hickstead class aside from one – the €200,000 Longines King George V Gold Cup, the finale of the Longines Royal International Horse Show. Last year the pair were not eligible to compete, as they have to be part of Ireland’s Nations Cup squad to compete in the Grand Prix. But this year, Trevor is hopeful of getting a chance to complete his extraordinary Hickstead record. “If he won the King George, that would be the final piece of the puzzle, wouldn’t it?” says Trevor.

You wouldn’t put it past them, this cool-headed Irishman and the amazingly brave horse who has defied the odds to come back to win at Hickstead over and over again. “It’s testament to him and everything that he’s gone through, that he’s come out the other side and is still winning,” Trevor says. “He’s a phenomenal horse, and when he retires, he’ll be remembered as a superstar, and he deserves that more than any.”

This article first appeared in June 2015.

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