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July 12, 2012

Liz Halliday Lives Life In The Fast Lane

Liz Halliday hopes to make the U.S. eventing team one day and become the first female driver to win the Le Mans 24-Hour race. Photo by www.fluidimages.co.uk.

As a professional eventer and racecar driver, this British-based Californian is making a name for herself.

“Look, the Hallidays don’t give up. You committed to this, and you’re going to push on through.”

This is a quote to which most equestrians, whether professional or amateur, can relate.

But what if you doubled that intensity? What if you took the effort and determination required to be a professional eventer and combined it with the commitment it takes to be a professional racecar driver?

The result: Liz Halliday.

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Halliday has been based in England for more than a decade, but she still looks the part of a California girl; she grew up in San Diego and studied biology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. And the West Coast is where she discovered and developed an insatiable appetite for speed that would, by the age of 33, lead her all over the world.

Halliday was 8 when her mother, Debby, finally acceded to her pleas for riding lessons. But if her father, racing driver Don Halliday, had had his way, he would’ve put his little speed demon in a go-cart rather than on a horse.

“After my first ride I was like, ‘Alright, when do I get to jump?’ ” Liz recalled with a laugh.

As many young equestrians experience, the bug bit quickly, and hard. When Liz was 11, she joined Pony Club, through which she got her first cross-country schooling experience, and there was no going back. She had her first eventing start at 13.

In her formative years, Liz faced the typical challenges of young West Coast eventers—taking off time to travel to distant competitions inevitably complicated the middle and high school experience.

So it wasn’t until Liz moved to Santa Barbara for college, and her trainer, Dan Sachey, told her she had the makings of a professional rider that she considered making a career of it. But after juggling school and horses for so many years, she wanted to be sure before she made the leap.

“I wanted to work with someone at the highest level to see what it took,” said  Liz, who put off finishing college in favor of a stint in England working with William Fox-Pitt. “And it was the world’s biggest shock. I was like the little kid away at camp, and I was 21.”

Little Fish, Big Pond

She wasn’t fast enough or strong enough. She didn’t know where anything was, and she didn’t know anyone or have any friends. But loving yet firm phone call from her father reminded her that “Hallidays don’t give up.”

Give up she did not. Instead, she just threw herself into more activities. After her first year in the United Kingdom, she decided to move away from Fox-Pitt’s yard, although she continued to ride there, and found her own base in Oxford.

Liz kept herself busy by studying with the British Horse Society, passing a series of tests for stable management, teaching and other related topics; and earning her qualifications at levels 1-4. Plus, it got her on as many horses as possible.

“Then I’d turn up at William’s and say, ‘I’ll ride anything you have,’ ” she said.

That consisted of schoolmasters, ex-jumpers, fat cobs and anything else Fox-Pitt didn’t have the inclination to spend time on—including some pretty troublesome characters.

But Halliday didn’t care. She would ride anything, and the more the merrier. Eventually that willing attitude earned her the right to hack out Fox-Pitt’s nicer mounts.

“William and I jogged around the cross-country course at my first show in the U.K., and he was like, ‘OK, come on. Get on with it,” Liz recalled, noting that Fox-Pitt’s style was far from the kind of training she was used to, but it forced her to think and act independently.

Liz was also able to find Bally Supreme, nicknamed “Cheese,” the horse who took her from the lower levels to advanced in little more than a year. In 2003, they tackled and completed their first CCI*** together (at Boekelo [the Netherlands], where they placed 38th out of 71 finishers). After three years with Fox-Pitt, in 2003, Liz moved to work with British-based New Zealand Olympian Joe Meyer (who has since moved to the United States).

But that’s when her father’s genes really began to kick in. Suddenly the prospect of professional race driving began tugging at Liz’s heartstrings more than ever before.

The Other Horsepower

Horses have always been her primary passion, but Liz started racing cars as soon as she earned her driver’s license. Her first car was a 1967 Datsun 510, which she shared with her father, who passed away this spring after a prolonged illness.

Liz raced a bit through high school and into college, but when she moved overseas, the passion finally took firmer root. In 2002, she earned the Driver of the Year title in the Kumho BMW Championship (U.K.), and the next year—her breakout season in both riding and driving—she scored her first win and broke a track record. She also became the first female driver to win a round of the British GT Championship in 2003.

Three years later, Liz clinched three wins and made seven podium appearances in the American Le Mans Series, finishing runner-up in the LMP2 drivers’ championship. These wins made her the most successful female competitor ever in ALMS history, and she’s traveled everywhere from China to Dubai for races.

That meant she was frequently “hopping off a plane and onto a horse,” she said, laughing at how international flights served as her only real time off. And she needed it; Liz soon learned that competing at the top level in two unrelated sports required total focus on the task at hand and the ability to completely block out whatever was looming on the horizon. There was no room to be worrying about two things at once. But that meant that after each competition, whether it be a race or an event, Liz had to put herself in “brain changeover mode,” as she calls it.

But Liz is the type of person who prefers being on the go all the time, and even after a long day of driving or flying, she would never turn down a chance to get back in the saddle. While she continues to race, her passion for eventing has been trumping the lure of the road in recent seasons.

Liz continued to train with Meyer until 2009, when she moved to her own facility. At that point, she’d successfully built up enough clients and horses to justify the purchase of her own “yard,” Chailey Stud Equestrian Centre in East Sussex. The farm boasts 30 stalls, indoor and outdoor arenas, a covered six-horse walker, a cross-country course and extensive turnout.

After competing Cheese and a second horse, Red Letter Day, to the CCI*** level, Liz hopes to advance her current top mount, Newmarket Malt, up to that level this year. Together the pair finished ninth in the Hartpury CCI** (England) last fall, and the 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding is already skipping around advanced courses.

While the “year off” Liz took from college has now stretched into 12, and she’s picked up a British accent along the way, there’s nothing this rider and driver wants more than to represent the stars and stripes.

“I’m still an American and proud to be an American,” she said. “I love Britain, but I’m not trying to be British.”

She’s attained her goal of owning and running her own yard, so Liz is getting the hang of juggling business and competition. But she still has two even loftier goals to achieve: gaining a spot on a U.S. eventing team and becoming the first female driver to win the famous Le Mans 24-Hour race in France.

“To do it at a high level, you have to throw your life into it,” she said. “Some days are hard. If anything you like to do becomes your job, it stops being that hobby you had as a kid. But secretly we all like the hard work.”

This article was originally published in the June 2012 edition of The Chronicle Connection. To learn more about the Connection and view a sample issue, go to chronofhorse.com/welcome-chronicle-connection.

 
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