Debbie Dolan Sweeney is the matriarch of a horse-loving family. A director at Bethpage-based Cablevision Systems, Dolan Sweeney, 47, learned her competitive drive as a showjumper.
She twice won the prestigious Hampton Classic (1995 and ‘97). And she met husband Brian Sweeney on the horse show circuit. The couple has seven children—and an eighth on the way.
So while Debbie Dolan Sweeney won’t be able to compete at this year’s Hampton Classic, which begins August 28, her husband and four of her children will. Triplets Hellen, Sean and Corinne, each 7, will be showing at the Hampton Classic. Brendan, 2, will participate in Lead Line.
When Dolan Sweeney isn’t at Sagamore Farms in Oyster Bay or trying to corral her kids, she serves as Director of the Dolan Children’s Foundation, a non-profit, which gives grants to fund health and education in the tri-state area. She spoke with Long Island Pulse about her long connection to the Hampton Classic and her love for horses.
Long Island Pulse: You have two victories at the Hampton Classic. What do they mean to you?
Debbie Dolan Sweeney: Those are really special—hometown victories. I grew up on Long Island. I learned how to ride there. My past trainers who helped me were there. It was just truly special.
The Hampton Classic is probably the premier event in the United States. To have that quality event in your backyard is terrific. And then to win there after having shown there for many years as a junior and up through the ranks was really an amazing feeling.
LIP: What’s unique about the Hampton Classic that keeps you coming back?
DDS: There’s a tremendous effort put into that horse show. The Grand Prix ring is a grass field. You don’t get that very often. There’s something special about that. It just looks really nice. You’re basically spending the whole summer—most people are doing the foreign circuit before that—getting ready for that event. That’s the premier event of the year.
LIP: Compare it to tennis or golf. Would you call it a major?
DDS: I would call it a major.
LIP: What part of the Hampton Classic do you look forward to?
DDS: Just to be there—the atmosphere is electric. You can feel the competition in the air.
LIP: How long have you been riding?
DDS: I was the tag-along little sister. I have two older sisters and three older brothers. I probably started riding when I was 5 or 6. I started because they started. But they didn’t compete. I just loved it. I was the one who just loved the competition.
LIP: What inspired you to come back for more?
DDS: I loved the horse and the competition; getting a relationship together with a horse. To do it at a high level, it has to be a passion.
LIP: How did you meet your husband?
DDS: We met through a mutual friend in the horse show world. We knew of each other, competed against each other for many years. The horse show world is like tennis or golf. Once you reach a national level, everyone goes to the same high-level events.
LIP: You once rode Quantum Leap, grandson of Secretariat.
DDS: He was a horse no one thought was a jumper. I saw him one day. We acquired him. He wasn’t supposed to do anything, but turned out to be a really fantastic showjumper. I started him out in the amateurs. I was probably competitive with him for 5 years. He had a whole [other] career. So I got him when he was a little older. We figured out he could jump high.
LIP: What type of relationship do you need with your horse to do competitive jumping?
DDS: It’s a little bit different for every person. I had my success really learning all I could about a horse and getting a good relationship with them going. I would spend a long time with them. Quantum Leap. Itsy Weeney was another. You spend a lot of years in the saddle and being around them. That’s one reason why I don’t do it at a high level now. I just don’t feel like I can put that time in to get a relationship going.
LIP: How in sync did you have to be to accomplish all you did?
DDS: I had to be really in sync. I wasn’t a good catch rider. Two of the horses—Quantum Leap and Itsy Weeney—were horses that no one thought could do the things that they did. They did it because we had such a great relationship. And they didn’t do it for anyone else. They only did it for me.
Those horses didn’t have raw power, which you see so much of these days. But they had a ton of heart. And I had such a nice relationship with them that they gave me all their heart.
LIP: Who are you riding now?
DDS: Neither Brian and I are riding at a high level. It’s hard to do with the kids. The kids definitely come first. It’s really fun for us that some of them are starting to ride. It gives us some time with the horses. And we love to watch the kids too.
LIP: Have you ever taken a spill in competition?
DDS: Plenty [laughs]. That’s the way you learn best. You learn by your mistakes.
LIP: What made you get back up?
DDS: You just love it. If it was possible to get back on, then I got back on.
LIP: And now that you have young children riding?
DDS: I can’t watch them [laughs]. Because I know all about the sport, it’s difficult for me to watch. My oldest does gymnastics. I can watch her because I really don’t know exactly what I’m watching. But with the triplets, it’s hard.
LIP: How have they taken to it?
DDS: They all really love it.
LIP: How does a 2-year-old ride a horse?
DDS: Not many do, but [Brendan] does.
LIP: How long can you ride competitively?
DDS: That’s the nice thing about this sport. You can do it for a long time. You can compete at the highest level into your 50s and 60s.
This year’s Hampton Classic will take place Sunday, August 28 to Sunday, September 4 on Snake Hollow Road in Bridgehampton. For more information visit hamptonclassic.com.