Ben Verheij knows it all too well: breed a good-quality horse though you may, if the animal doesn’t end up in the right place you will never hear from it again. Fortunately, this is not the case with Verheijs’ breeding product Agana van het Gerendal Z. After this son from Aganix du Seigneur Z and Naminka (by Topas) had achieved fantastic results as a youngster under Verheijs’ daughter Jil, Agana was partnered to Lillie Keenan, one of America’s best young riders. And all the signs are saying that here the now 10-year-old stallion is maturing into an absolute world-class ace and a potential candidate for Tokyo. A few weeks ago the combination won a major class at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida.
Agana van het Gerendal Z @ Eliane Feltz
‘This may turn into a very fine story for these two. In retrospect I’m so happy that this horse went to her,‘ Verheij begins. ‘Initially I didn’t know her at all, I had never heard about Lillie Keenan. So in first instance I was a bit chagrined because of that but that proved to be completely unjustified since she is a really fantastic rider. Those two were born for each other, is how I see it. Seeing them ride such a good course simply gives me goose bumps.’
Lillie Keenan is 24 years old and already in her pony and Junior days was one of America’s best young riders. She has mastered the ultimate American riding style down to a T, learned from the best trainers and has a family who give her their full support. Lillie Keenan has unstinting dedication, works hard and is not just interested in jumping at the highest level, but also immerses herself in breeding and the education of horses. These days this American lady runs her own stables, Chansonette Farm, from Wellington in Florida, where she’s trained and coached by McLain Ward.
‘What we gave her was a diamond in the rough and they have honed it to a perfect polish, ’ Verheij continues. ‘I think it’s great, all credits go to Lillie and McLain. When you breed such a horse and put it on the market then you just need to be lucky enough that it ends up in such a yard. It doesn’t get any better than that.’
Agana van het Gerendal Z was rising seven when he was sold to Lillie Keenan via Abdel Saïd and Keenan’s former trainer Cian O’Connor.
Jil Verheij and Agana at the WC for Young Horses in Lanaken
Before that, the good-looking bay was already exceedingly successful under Jil Verheij, with one of the highlights being a 4th placing in the WC for Young Showjumping Horses in Lanaken . ‘Seeing my own breeding product doing so well under my daughter was the best thing that could happen to me. Those were the nicest years in my life,’ Verheij tells us.
‘But he has always generated lots of interest. As a 4-year-old he took part in the youngster classes in Geesteren. Back then I already knew that he was good, but I still hadn’t fathomed he was that good. I remember being at work as a dentist and how my cell phone was constantly in vibration mode. Everyone wanted him. And actually, the more they called the more I enjoyed it,’ Verheij laughs.
'Seeing my own breeding product doing so well under my daughter was the best thing that could happen to me’ Verheij tells
An enormously memorable event for Verheij was the top performance at the WC in Zangersheide. Breeding was always a joint venture between me and my dad and Jil finished 4th at the WC shortly before he died. He lived just long enough to know about this achievement. Looking back, that was a wonderful thing, his own breeding product with his own grandchild.’
But what exactly were Agana’s early years like, and why did Verheij choose to breed with the by then only 4-year-old Aganix du Seigneur Z? It proves to be an exceptional story.
Verheij: ‘Since 1993 we have been breeding with the Freiminka line. The first foal we bought from that line was the full sister of Agana’s dam, but we never managed to get her in foal. Subsequently this Limminka did pretty well in the sport with Emile Tacken and in the long run was sold to America at the age of eight for really serious money.
Then we purchased Limminka’s full sister, but this Naminka contracted an injury at a very early stage, after which she went fulltime into breeding. Naminka was in fact an even better horse than her sister. Anyway, looking back that turned out lucky for us. We started her in breeding and have had huge success with her direct offspring and now her daughters are also very successful in breeding,’ Verheij says.
Naminka, the mother of Agana van het Gerendal Z
It was via the well-known Belgian breeder Luc Henry that Dutchman Verheij found Aganix du Seigneur Z as a stallion for his mare. One day Luc called to tell me that he had a really good stallion. He had bought Aganix as a yearling and had never seen anything like it, he told me. So I went to check him out and true enough, that stallion jumped fantastically in freejumping as a 3-year-old,’ Verheij admits who then, in cooperation with Henry embarked on embryo transfer. That resulted in four young stallions. One of them died aged two, but the other three all jump internationally, with Agana clearly rising above the others. Agana definitely was her masterpiece.’
Aganix du Seigneur Z
Once Agana had been weaned Verheij took the young colt to Limburg to be raised. ‘I went to pick him up again at the age of three and took him to Jil and her mother Sandra.’
Verheij soon realised that he had bred a good-quality horse. ‘When I brought him to Jil and Sandra as a 3-year-old we promptly made him jump a bit when he came off the trailer. He had never done that, had never seen a jump before. But Jil and Sandra wouldn’t believe me. It was uncanny how much quality he showed right away with that first jump. From the beginning he had a great overview, knew exactly what to do and demonstrated a very fine technique,’ Verheij recalls.
‘Jil and Sandra have done a perfect job. The interest was there right from the first time he went to a competition. It was a horse that stood out instantly. He was just so clued-up and always jumped clear.’
Verheij had been planning to keep the stallion on until the age of nine, but some three years earlier was swayed to agree to a sale. ‘I was offered so much money, it would have been irresponsible to keep him.’ He was sold in December of his sixth year.’
Meanwhile Agana had been approved by the AES. ‘In retrospect I regret not having had him inspected by Zangersheide,’ Verheij admits. ‘But fortunately that is still an option. He is a figurehead for Aganix and has already earned close to € 80,000. That is really good for a horse of that age. I have a few phenomenal offspring by him. They jump superbly.’
So it sounds like Agana van het Gerendal Z is a true asset for showjumper breeding. ‘I reckon he’ll prove to be a very fine stallion for breeding after his sport career. My phone is constantly ringing with people who want to breed with him. I still have 200 straws from him, but I have agreed with Lillie that I’m keeping those for myself or in any case, that I’ll consult her first if I consider selling them to someone else. And if that happens, then absolutely for exclusive mares only.’ Verheij states. ‘I have an inkling though, that at some point he will come onto the market as a stud stallion.’
Before a stud career is on the cards for Agana, Lillie Keenan hopes to enjoy the stallion at the highest level in the sport for many years to come. ‘Since I’ve come to own him he hasn’t been used for breeding. He is so extremely important for me in the sport,’ she explains. ‘For the short term I hope to be very competitive with him at the highest level, scoring a few top placings at five-star events as the icing on the cake, but what I value and hope for even more is to give him a long and happy career at top levels in the sport and for him to stay happy. Then I’m sure that over time, there will probably come a phase when we will launch him in breeding. I absolutely want a few offspring by him that I can compete at events. It would be amazing if I could get another one like him.’
Keenan knows however, that combining careers in sport and breeding is by far not as easy to arrange in America as it is in Europe. ‘Over here we don’t have that kind of culture where breeding and sport go hand in hand like in Europe. But it would be great if he could produce offspring in the final years of his sport career.’
Keenan already has an interesting mare in mind for Agana. ‘McLain has already made a few jokes about pairing his top mares to Agana. A descendant from Azur and Agana, wouldn’t that be fantastic?’
Waxing lyrical about Agana as she may now, when she tried the stallion out she was not at all convinced she would be able to form a good combination with him. ‘When I tried him out it was not that I didn’t want him, but I had the feeling that I wasn’t really able to ride this horse, or rather more, wasn’t able to bring out the best in him. When I first tested him and cantered up to the first jump, a small cross pole, I made a huge miss. I was in doubt whether I would ever be able to give this horse the ride he needed, since I couldn’t even properly judge my distance!’
Pam Keenan working with Agana
But there was more that made Keenan wonder if Agana would be the right horse for her. ‘As a youngster he always jumped with such a good style, he was very competitive and very careful. And he just jumped incredibly well when we tested him,’ she remembers. ‘When you see so much quality in some horses that also raises doubts about their capacity. With Agana too that was a question mark for me. But I got it totally wrong, because every time when we asked him for a bit more and upped the level it was as if he moved up another gear.’
Luckily, Keenan’s mother Pam was instantly convinced about the horse. ‘This happened a few times before too,‘ Lillie recollects. ‘When I wasn’t sure about a horse but that it gave my mother a really good feeling and she said that we were going to buy it. With Agana she also said: “We’re going to buy him and you’re going to learn how to ride him”.’ Remembering it brings a smile to Lillie’s face. ‘She was so right.’
Mother Keenan is still closely involved in Agana’s career. Not only as a faithful supporter but also as his home rider. ‘My mother will be 70 this year. She is a very good rider, particularly in dressage. She rode as a Junior and was very successful but saying that, she’s also very small,’ Lillie tells us. ‘She loves the horse and has always believed in him and loves riding him.’ So that’s exactly what Pam Keenan does on a regular basis.
Pam Keenan always believed in Agana and she loves riding him
Lillie isn’t afraid that Agana might be a bit too much of a stallion for such a petite, elderly woman. ‘He is very much aware he’s a stallion when you take him to the field or trot him up for the inspection at a competition. But as soon as he sees my mother he behaves like a good pony. He grasps for 100% that he has to concentrate on everything she asks of him when she’s in the saddle. She rides him without spurs, with a little whip and a simple snaffle bridle. She canters across poles on the ground and pops small jumps. He truly is a dream horse for me as well as for my mum. I can always trust him with her. It doesn’t matter what time of the day she rides him, after he’s had a day off or when the neighbours are mowing their lawn at the same time; for her he is exactly the same horse every day. It’s as if he understands English and I can tell him what I want from him that day. It gives her joy, it gives me peace of mind,’ Lillie says lovingly. ‘But it’s a bonus too for us as a combination. She weighs so little, barely 50 kilos, and she gives him a full workout of 45 minutes. He’s so happy with her and for me it’s important that my horses are happy.’
Agana van het Gerendal Z & LIllie Keenan
Yet, when Lillie takes Agana to a competition he acts quite a bit differently. ‘A day later, when we’re out competing all his blood surges to the surface when I’m riding him. He is such a terribly smart horse, he knows exactly what it’s all about. It is as if he can read me, it’s hard to explain. The only reason I can come up with is that it must be genetically defined and that it is because of the way in which he was raised. The Verheij Family have done a great job if you ask me. Succeeding in raising and educating a horse in such a good way is an incredible achievement.’
Lillie Keenan still keeps in touch with breeder Ben Verheij. ‘I’ve bred horses myself so I know it’s something like your baby and that it’s nice to stay informed. And I’m convinced that the early stages of a horse’s life can make or break its career. The role of breeders who bring horses into the world, who bring them up the right way and take their time with them can definitely make the difference for a horse’s career.’
Ben Verheij, the breeder of Agana van het Gerendal Z
It’s remarkable how much interest Keenan has for breeding, especially in contrast with many of her American colleagues. ‘It’s such a key ingredient of our sport. I pay attention to pedigrees and find it interesting,’ Keenan says. ‘With our type of sport you have to be open to that. Finding the right horses is terribly difficult. So if you’re not able to keep buying expensive horses you have to produce them yourself and therefore need to be able to spot and recognise the talented horses at an early stage. Agana is proof that the best bloodlines can give you the best there is. I’m nowhere near an expert, but I’m very keen to learn about it. Ben shows me many of his youngsters and Agana’s babies and then I see a lot of similarities.’
Even though she may not have a deep-rooted knowledge of showjumper breeding, Keenan’s great advantage is that she knows exactly what qualities a top showjumper needs and what it takes to breed a good horse. Being in a relationship with Constant van Paesschen certainly is a contributing factor. ‘I’ve spent lots of time in Europe‘ she says. ‘I’ve seen the various breeding programmes. It’s a long process of considering a suitable stallion for the mare, right through to jumping at the highest level. Every step in that process takes lots of energy and time and sometimes gives you a headache too,’ Keenan laughs. ‘But it’s so rewarding when it works out. I’ve spent a lot of time with people whose horses were in the initial stages of their career, as well as with people who rode in a jump-off for Olympic Gold. If you experience that process from close up you understand that every step is important and that every single step is taken with the intention to reach that big final goal. If horses are not treated and raised well in those first five to six years I don’t think those horses will reach that final goal.’
So as far as that’s concerned Agana van het Gerendal Z looks like the ideal example of a top family, a good youth, a fantastic education and ultimately also a click with a suitable top-class rider.
‘Agana has the capacity, the quality and the technique, but to me his most crucial traits are his heart and mentality. That’s something you cannot teach a horse,’ Keenan knows. ‘If you had to construct the perfect horse you would build Agana. In addition to his qualities he is very beautiful and in terms of exterior he’s very well-built for our sport. Along with that he also has enough blood, but he isn't wild. He has got all you want to see in a showjumper, but his mentality and desire to jump clear rounds cannot be taught. That’s probably why he’s of precious value to me.’
Keenan is aware that on top of all his qualities there’s also a downside to Agana’s contributions to her career. ‘He has raised the bar unrealistically high for all horses that will come after him,’ she laughs. ‘But that too is testimony to the wonderful work Ben and his daughter have put into him. This horse has spoilt me. He has given me so much confidence, but I also know that it rarely turns out the way as it did with Agana. He is every rider’s dream.’
Keenan is convinced that Tokyo is an option for Agana. ‘The horse has it in him, I’m sure of that. The only one who could spoil it for him is me. The national coach and the team around him need to believe in me and I’m only 24. in our country it’s very difficult to be chosen on the team. There are so many good combinations. And with Fasther I have another terribly good horse who is also a year older. We’ll see. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen: it won’t change anything about how special Agana is for me.’