Top five-star horse bows out: ‘I’ll be forever grateful; now it’s time for me to do something for him’

Alex Bragg and Zagreb at Burghley 2018. Zagreb, who finished in the top five at five-star level five times with Alex Bragg, has been retired from top-level eventing at the age of 17. “He’s looking so well that it seems crazy to retire him, but the mechanics of his body can’t operate as well as they used to,” said Alex. “I want […]

Top five-star horse bows out: ‘I’ll be forever grateful; now it’s time for me to do something for him’
Zagreb retirement: the five-star stalwart will step down from top-level competition
Alex Bragg and Zagreb at Burghley 2018.

Zagreb, who finished in the top five at five-star level five times with Alex Bragg, has been retired from top-level eventing at the age of 17.

“He’s looking so well that it seems crazy to retire him, but the mechanics of his body can’t operate as well as they used to,” said Alex. “I want him to go out on a high, not fade into insignificance.”

The horse, who belongs to Sally and Philip Ellicott, will stay with the Bragg family and be campaigned at junior level by Alex’s oldest daughter, Ellouise.

“That will be well within his capabilities,” said Alex. “She is doing one little event this weekend to get one in before the end of the season, then she’ll have the winter to train with him. She did one event with him in April as when Badminton was cancelled I decided not to event him in the spring so we thought she might as well do an event on him before we let him down.

“He’s a big horse and although it’s a great privilege to have a horse like that to ride, you still have to be able to ride it – it’s a little like passing your driving test and having a Ferrari, it’s exciting until you put your foot on the accelerator and realise what you’ve got to deal with. So she’ll have winter to get to know him and come out all guns blazing with him and her other horses.”

Alex paid tribute to Zagreb, known as “Rhett” after Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. His success with Rhett was a major contributor in allowing him to make the leap from riding as an amateur while working as a farrier to being a full-time event rider.

“The horse has done everything for my career but also done so much more than that,” he told H&H.

“It was for personal reasons that we found the horse for Sally and Philip Ellicott. They lost their daughter, Karen, who was involved in eventing, then Sally’s father died and she started to attend events with her mother Audrey to get them out and keep busy. That’s why we ended up finding Zagreb – to give them that interest in the sport and to be with people, going to different places.

“The horse came through that journey with them and with us and was developing into quite a successful horse. I was learning how to ride better and he was very patient and forgiving with that. It grew organically – we suddenly found ourselves at that five-star level and everyone was getting so much enjoyment out of him with little expectation. Every step forward was new and very exciting for everybody.

“Then on a personal level it started to get quite serious. I had my first good result at five-star, got more involved with the World Class set up and started doing more international shows. I was travelling across Europe as well as the UK, getting more exposure for me and Team Bragg and all of that really fell on Zagreb’s shoulders. He was the flagship horse taking us to those places and getting those results. I can’t express how grateful I am to the horse.”

Zagreb retirement: ‘I was exceptionally proud of him’

Alex named his first placing at Pau, fifth in 2016, as a highlight of his career with Zagreb.

“Being in that prize-giving was an immense feeling for me, I was exceptionally proud of him,” said Alex, who went on to finish in the top five at Pau three more times with Zagreb, as well as taking third at Luhmühlen five-star in 2019.

Alex also picked out the pair’s win in the Event Rider Masters at Jardy in 2018 and eighth on their Aachen debut in 2017 as times to savour.

“I don’t think there’s another outdoor show like Aachen in the world. To ride in those stadiums is just fantastic,” said Alex. “I’ll forever be grateful to have been given that opportunity by him.”

Asked what made Zagreb special, Alex said it was his willingness to bounce back.

“We made some big mistakes together,” he said. “We’ve always been competitive – whether his character was similar to mine or my character rubbed off on his, it really felt like we were a team working our way through it.

“When we hit the deck, we dusted ourselves off and never held anything against each other, but built from there and went on to the next event. That made him a great horse – he could pick himself up from a mistake or close shave. They say that’s the difference between a four- and five-star horse, a five-star horse can take those dodgy moments and push on to the next fence.

“In the last few years when we were established together, we started really to enjoy ourselves. His consistency was outstanding.

“He was so reliable to go from event to event and his margin of finishing, whether he had a good, bad or average day was very small – you could almost guarantee your finishing position would still be competitive. The horse never bottomed out and had a terrible day, which goes back to his commitment – he wanted to please you and gave 100% every time.

“He’s more of a mate than just a horse. I feel I’ve got a responsibility to do right by him. That’s why I’m making the decision to retire him now. I know he’ll enjoy himself for several years with Ellouise and I know him so well, it’s just the right time for that to happen. I don’t need him to do any more for me – it’s time for me to do something for him.”

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