Horsepower: Liz Halliday-Sharp Vying For First Olympic Team
by Karen Rosen
Liz Halliday-Sharp atop Deniro Z competes at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event on April 25, 2021 in Lexington, Ky.
When Liz Halliday-Sharp was the only elite event rider who also competed as a professional race car driver she had two goals: Make the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and make the U.S. Olympic equestrian team.
Halliday-Sharp, 42, just missed the podium at Le Mans in 2006, finishing fourth in the LMP2 Class and 19th overall with Intersport Racing in a Lola-AER.
She’ll find out within the week if she accomplished her other goal. The U.S. Equestrian Federation is poised to announce the three-person eventing team for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 based on results in a series of selection events.
That means Halliday-Sharp, so calm and controlled holding the reins or behind the wheel of a race car, is sitting in an unusual position.
“I’m sort of freaking out,” she said. “It’s been a very anxious month, so now we’re down to the last few days and everybody can tell you everything they think, but until you actually get the call you don’t really know.”
Halliday-Sharp was the reserve for Team USA at the 2018 World Equestrian Games and the traveling reserve at the 2019 Pan American Games. Upon returning to the United States full-time after spending 20 years in England, she was named USEA Rider of the Year, becoming the first female athlete to win the award in 39 years.
Halliday-Sharp and her horse, Deniro Z, are coming off a 10th-place finish among an international field at the prestigious Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in late April. The horse, as well as the rider, must also qualify for the Olympic Games, and Deniro Z has already gotten the nod.
“There’s an overall consistency that they look for,” said Halliday-Sharp, “and obviously the soundness of the horse is important, and being a team player.”
Halliday-Sharp said going to the Olympics has been a desire since she was a little girl. “It’s just taken me a bit longer,” she said, “to have the right horse at the right time.”
Splitting her time between racing and riding was also a factor. “I think I would have achieved bigger things in horse sport a little bit earlier had I not been doing the two together at the same time,” Halliday-Sharp said, “but it was a really great part of my life and I wouldn’t take it away for anything.”
Four Legs vs. Four Wheels
She drove her last major race in 2012 before retiring. Her father Don, a racing instructor who put her in a race car as soon as she had a driver’s license at age 16, passed away after a long illness “which took some of the wind out of my sails,” Halliday-Sharp said. In a bit of serendipity, at the same time she no longer had the level of sponsorship she needed to maintain her motorsport career, Halliday-Sharp made the USEF high performance list for the first time with one of her horses.
That made shifting gears easier.
“They’re both very thrilling, just in slightly different ways,” she said. “I think eventing is more dangerous, that’s for sure, because you don’t have a roll cage on your horse. But they’re both high-reaction speed sports. It’s hard to pick one over the other - certainly I love the partnership with a horse and obviously that’s what makes it very unique and I do love that side of the sport.”
For many years Halliday-Sharp also did motorsports broadcasting for Eurosport, but that has petered out a bit, especially since in 2018 she turned down an assignment to go to the Luhmuhlen Horse Trials in Germany with Deniro Z.
Eventing is the triathlon of the sport, with horse and rider competing in three disciplines: dressage, cross country and show jumping.
Deniro Z is good in all three, but particulary excels in the cross country phase. Halliday-Sharp said she has begun putting some of her racing knowledge to use. “Now I’m taking more of my experience with racing lines and trying to bring that into my cross country riding to help make me faster,” she said. “And why I didn’t think about that more when I was younger - I don’t know - but now I’m thinking about it a lot and it has helped.”
Raised in California, Halliday-Sharp is the only member of her extended family who rides. She was smitten with horses at a young age.
“My mom used to take me when I was really little up to see the horses at our neighbor’s place,” Halliday-Sharp said. “I was just obsessed with them. I was riding the tree in the backyard with a jumprope for reins and a towel across the tree. My earliest memories were I really wanted to ride, so who knows where it came from?”
Making a Big Move
During spring break of her junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was studying marine biology, Halliday-Sharp joined her parents in England. Her father, who knew he was getting sick, wanted to race some of the tracks in Europe while he still could. He also encouraged her to spend a year in a England and through family friends she got to know William Fox-Pitt, one of Britain’s best riders who has since won three Olympic medals.
“I just packed up and left, and that one year became 20,” said Halliday-Sharp, who now speaks with a hint of an English accent.
For a few years she and her husband, Al, who is English, spent winters in Ocala, Florida. Last year they decided to split their time between Florida and Kentucky and have a business called, naturally, Horsepower Equestrian.
In the peak of the season, Halliday-Sharp rides 10 horses a day as she develops them for future competitions and also teaches.
While her bid for the podium at Le Mans 15 years ago was marred by persistent engine and gearbox trouble, in riding Halliday-Sharp has to deal with the personality of her horses.
“Sometimes the horses can feel differently one day or another, just like people can, so part of the partnership you have with them is being able to tune into them and do your best to ride the horse you have on the day,” she said.
On the flip side, Halliday-Sharp joked, “You don’t have to feed the car in the morning or muck it out.”
She and Deniro Z have a special bond.
“He’s lovely,” Halliday-Sharp said of the 13-year-old bay horse with four white socks. “He hadn’t done much as a 7-year-old and and was bought to be a potential sale horse. No one really got on with him except for me.”
She said a few other people tried him, and although they didn’t ride him badly, “they just didn’t really click with him like I do. Deniro was a little bit quirky and I think most of my horses are a bit like that. Anybody who’s seen him at the veterinary inspections at events knows that he can be pretty flamboyant. He can be pretty naughty and stand up in the air and leap around.”
However, Halliday-Sharp added, he behaves in competition. “He is an absolute professional in the ring,” she said. “He would never do something cheeky when he’s actually in the real situation.”
The horse also gets along well with groom Claire Tisckos, who will accompany them if they go Tokyo.
A Real Fighter
“Deniro is happy every day to work,” Halliday-Sharp said, noting that on the cross country course, “part of what makes him a good horse is he enjoys it and he really fights for me.”
The horse and rider partnership, though, can also have a heartbreaking side. In 2016, Halliday-Sharp was trying to make the Olympic team with HHS Cooley. They were not selected, and later that summer had a fall in cross country at the Burgham Horse Trials. The horse suffered a fracture and had to be euthanized and Halliday-Sharp, who had a vertebrae fracture in her neck, raised safety questions after the accident.
“My broken heart hurts so much more than my broken neck,” Halliday-Sharp wrote, “and I cannot imagine going home and not seeing my gorgeous grey boy over the door.”
Four years later, she believes she is riding better than ever making this her most realistic shot at the Olympic team.
“It’s difficult with our sport because timing is so much of it,” Halliday-Sharp said, “developing a horse that is good enough and having them peak at the right moment and keeping them in one piece - all of those things come into play. It’s just taken a long time to be there, really.”
However, timing may not be in her favor.
Equestrian teams, which can include men and women, previously had four members plus a reserve. After Rio, the size was reduced to three to accommodate more individual riders from around the world and stay within the limit of 200 total horses.
Boyd Martin, a two-time Olympian and Pan American Games gold medalist; two-time gold medalist and six time Olympian Phillip Dutton, and Tamra Smith are all strong contenders for the spots.
Halliday-Sharp said that going to Lima, Peru, for the 2019 Pan American Games as the traveling reserve was educational and she was pleased that she and her horse, Cooley Quicksilver, were able to do the test ride for the dressage.
But the experience was bittersweet.
“It’s very tough knowing that we were that close to being on the team,” she said, “and I suppose that’s where a lot of my anxiety is. I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Please don’t send me as the traveling reserve.’
“I’m just desperate to be on that team.”
Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.