Sam Watson’s sensational Imperial Sky

  • 2 October 2020, 17:14

Sam Watson and Imperial Sky (ISH), owned by Hannah Watson along with Tom and Cathy Byrne, celebrate after their superb victory in the 2019 CCIO4*-S Individual competition (Photo: Libby Law Photography)

“I don’t know if I’ll have another horse that will do what he has been able to do, six internationals where he has been in the top two. That’s hard to get in a horse, particularly an event horse” – Sam Watson

“He is a bit like Lazarus, Imperial Sky. He’s had ups and downs throughout his career, but he has given us some fantastic days and some great memories.” – Cathy Byrne

Imperial Sky (ISH)(TIH), affectionately known as Toby, has been in the ownership of the Byrne and Watson families since his international career began in 2006. Bought as a five-year-old by Sam and Hannah Watson from his breeders Stephen and Carolyn Lanigan O’Keefe, Tom and Cathy Byrne were interested in supporting Sam and Sam believed this horse had the potential to go all the way to the top. Little did they know that he would go on to score six back-to-back international top-two placings at three and four-star level, along with many top placings both individually and as part of Team Ireland.

A seven-eights brother to the mighty Bushman, Imperial Sky showed a lot of promise in his formative years with Sam describing him as: “a nice mover with plenty of power and scope, though his jumping technique might not be what you would typically look for.” Cathy adds: “Watching Toby jump, you always have your heart in your mouth. He’s like a new golfer – a bit radical.”

But as Sam says: “His jumping record is superb, and he’s got me out of trouble plenty of times. So we’ve just got to work with him and I mean he really wants to leave the pole in the cups and that’s the name of the game – whatever style he wants to do that, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. I just try make life as easy as I can for him, and his confidence has just continued to grow.”


It hasn’t been all plain sailing for Sam and Imperial Sky: “There’s been seasons where we’ve been really quiet and there was a period during the middle of his career where we saw the potential but we hadn’t just quite figured out how to unlock it as quickly as we wanted to,” Sam admits.

“It’s been about keeping the faith with this horse. I think any rider will tell you that the one thing you would most  hope for and hope that you find at the start of that owner/rider relationship is loyalty – that your owners will keep the faith when things get tough, as they inevitably will at some stage, and Tom and Cathy have absolutely done that.

Cathy and Tom Byrne celebrate at Camphire International after Sam Watson and Imperial Sky’s win in the 2019 CCIO4*-S Individual competition

“When he won Ballindenisk last year I just remember thinking this is going to be such a nice moment for Tom and Cathy, it was my first four-star long format win and that was such a big moment but it’s just got better from there! The Camphire Nations Cup win was a huge career highlight, to be on the same podium as Mark Todd as he was retiring, that was very special.” Cathy agrees that the win in Camphire was one to savour: “I’ve been to Badminton and Burghley but Camphire is one of my favourite events and I was thrilled when Sam won there.”


So, what was the key to unlocking Imperial Sky’s potential?

“Imperial Sky is what I would describe as a marginal gains kind of horse,” Sam explains. “Nutrition has been a major factor in helping him to reach his full potential. I mean we fuel him like a racehorse and it really works for him, that’s how you get the best out of him. Getting that right has got him going from strength to strength, both mentally and physically. It’s helping everything.

“We’ve also been lucky in that we’ve had access to good trainers through the Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) High Performance Programme. That’s one of the real benefits of being part of the programme, is that HSI encourages riders to bring their young horses to training to help them develop.

Sam Watson and Imperial Sky on their way to victory in the feature CCI 4*-L at Ballindenisk International Horse Trials in Co Cork

“It’s all in the details and my wife Hannah (Sparks) misses nothing. She is mad about Imperial Sky and she plays an important part of his programme early in the season by doing most of the fitness work with him. She weighs about half as much as me, so we go around the gallops and I can set the tempo on another horse in front and it’s just good for him to turn into a bit of a racehorse. We will get to a point in his fitness work where Sparks will say I can’t hold him anymore and then we know it’s time for me to get going on him.”

The global Corona virus pandemic has had a huge impact on the 2020 equestrian sports calendar, especially those athletes who were aiming toward the Tokyo Olympics but Sam remains positive: “As a rider I’m just so thankful to everyone who has helped make these recent national events happen, the venues especially. We’re training as best we can and there is a lot of effort being made by everyone. It’s been great to have these events to show we are still in tune.

“I’m delighted that we are still working toward Tokyo, the horses are still fit and healthy, so we just continue to try to make the best of it.”

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