Three-star event rider Maya Simmons spent her Thanksgiving like mothers all over the country - welcoming family into her Southern Pines, N.C., home to splurge on turkey and stuffing while reminiscing on the past year's blessings. While most mothers returned to their desk jobs Monday morning, Simmons traded her apron for a helmet, heading to Half Pond Farm to ride her two upper level Thoroughbred geldings Ill Conceived and Archie Rocks.
"I feel like a lot of times I have two personas," Simmons joked in early December. "I'm Maya Studenmund with the horses, my maiden name, and I'm Maya Simmons at home. I'm at preschool with all these moms dressed up to go work out and I'm in my ugly riding pants."
Following a head injury from a motorbike accident, Simmons took a break from riding and celebrated the birth of her twins Grayson and Ada in 2012. Upon her return, Simmons searched for a few sale horses to flip while reestablishing herself in the eventing community. Instead, she acquired two horses of a lifetime.
"They're only an inch difference in height but they're like a Hummer and a Ferrari - it's a little different," said Simmons. "Having these two geldings is such a dream. They're both competitive, they both make me look good, they're both so happy to do their job. They're kind and quiet and it's a dream come true really."
Once considered a hopeful for the 2012 Kentucky Derby for trainer John Servis, Ill Conceived ended his racing career in June 2013 with a bankroll of $160,332 from 21 starts, including a second in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes and a seventh in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes-G3 at Turfway Park in March 2012.
The 7-year-old gelding acquired his name after his dam Catsuit was mixed up with another mare and sent to be bred to Spanish Steps instead of Lion Heart. Simmons acquired the horse from a friend's off-track rescue in the fall of 2014, and the pair has competed in four preliminary level events since, planning a move up to intermediate in early summer.
"He loves cross country and show jumping he's so cool," said Simmons, who calls the gelding Bertie. "He jumps with his knees to his eyeballs almost every time. He's strong, you can tell why he was a good racehorse - he has an incredible gallop. He gallops a little bit low and I'm a bit small so he's a big horse for me.
"He is so brave and a fierce competitor. You take him to horse shows and he is all business. At home he spooks at the jumps that are changed, or something falls and he pretends to be terrified. At shows he is amazing. It's really neat to see him at shows."
After 30 starts racing under the name Smittys Messiah, the 2008 Michigan-bred by Le Monde appeared on a Facebook advertisement in the spring of 2015. Simmons quickly snatched up the gelding, renamed him Archie Rocks after her grandfather who served as a pilot during Word War II, and have since dominated the world of eventing.
The pair finished sixth in their most recent outing at the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI** in October, only a year and a half after beginning his eventing career.
"This horse gives me such a special feeling. I came out almost crying because I had never been not sabotaged in the ring by a horse," said Simmons of Archie Rocks' dressage test, scoring a personal best of 51.1. "He was my least experienced horse at this level so far and he gave me the most, he tried the hardest.
"He loves cross country. I always go out and say I'm going to give him a quiet, steady ride and I'll be the fastest one in the division and I won't even know how it happened. He literally gallops with his withers and head up looking to the next fence, you just kind of close your leg and he's just on it."
Archie was the highest placed Thoroughbred of the two-star division. Simmons plans to move up to the three-star level this spring, with hopes of competing at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in 2018.
"It's fun to be back to the upper levels after taking time off and it's fun to be on a horse that loves it so much and it's fun doing it on a Thoroughbred and it's fun to be doing it on a horse with a good story. The whole package is so neat," said Simmons. "Him and Bertie are such a pleasure to ride every day. I have two of the classiest Thoroughbreds and I love the idea of rehoming these horses because eventing is one of the best places for them to be because they thrive in this environment. It's hard work, it's exciting, it's galloping - all of the things they're the best at."
Ill Conceived's race record, courtesy of Equibase
Smittys Messiah's, race record, courtesy of Equibase