A career with horses, probably wasn’t the route many would have foreseen for horseman Julie Gomena. She grew up in Oregon, in a non-horsey, non-athletic family, and the notion of becoming an upper level eventer, winning Rolex Kentucky, and making the successful transition into being a Thoroughbred trainer would have been largely dismissed. But, who’s to say what’s in the heart of a person, and how committed they are to realizing their dreams. Gomena will saddle Country Cousin in Saturday’s Aiken Spring Steeplechase’s feature race, the Budweiser Imperial Cup, a race she won with the son of Lear Fan in 2011.

“I had wanted to ride horses always as a kid,” said Gomena. “I didn’t start riding until I was 12. I wanted to ride, so I started taking once a week lessons, and the place happened to be an event barn. “

The horseman became passionate about the sport, and her interest continued to grow over time, the more she rode.

“I loved it, and I just kept going,” said Gomena. “Oregon isn’t the most English riding-friendly place. I knew if I wanted to get better, I needed to come to the east coast, so that’s what I did, and it worked out.”

Gomena made the decision to shift her tack to Unionville, Pa., and to ride for the multiple Olympic Gold medal winning eventer Bruce Davidson.

“I packed up all of my horses and drove across country,” said Gomena.

The horseman would eventually relocate to Middleburg, Va., and would reach the upper levels of the sport, where she would enjoy success with an off the track Thoroughbred that she bought as an investment horse. The horse’s name was Treaty, and the rider/horse combination would go onto win the 1994 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event CCI***.

“I happened to get this delightful horse, a five-year-old Thoroughbred,” said Gomena. “I thought he would be a good kids horse. He kept going on, jumping bigger jumps, better and faster. He started to move like a proper dressage horse. So, it all culminated in winning Rolex. The American Thoroughbreds are my favorite breed.”

But, the racetrack wasn’t something foreign to Gomena. She had always galloped racehorses while eventing, and she had a predilection for it.

“It’s almost a breakaway from the discipline of eventing,” said Gomena. “I galloped every morning my whole career.”

However, it would be a propitious event at Sunny Bank Farm in Middleburg, where the confluence of circumstances, people and events would find Gomena moving closer to the sport she would eventually transition toward.

“The woman who trained there, Dorothy Smithwick, said to me, ‘I entered you in the ladies timber race.’ So, my parents had never allowed the thought of riding over fences, and now all of a sudden I’m doing it, and it went from there.”

It was a natural transition from eventing to timber racing for Gomena, and it coincided at the time when the sport of eventing began to change from the the long format to its current short format.

“All the fitness started to change, no more steeplechase,” said Gomena. “So, it all worked out really well and easy. Like I said, I always bought horses off the flat track. I let them get a little unfit, and then I start teaching them how to jump.”

A number of horses in Gomena’s barn have come through the claim box as she is not afraid to look for her next racing prospect via the claiming ranks.

The horses that go through Gomena’s program are very well broke and can do preliminary dressage.

“I teach them how to react to your hand, go both directions, do flying changes in both directions,” said Gomena. “It helps with their fitness and soundness, going from the flat track, where they’re going left, but they go both directions with me, and some of the steeplechase races go different directions. So, it’s worked out well.”

The horseman is spending her fourth winter in Aiken, and third at Chime Bell Farm. Gomena loves Aiken because of the variety of ways it offers a horseman to train.

“I like the hills,” said Gomena. “I’m an event rider. I’m used to training on hills. I go to the (Hitchcock) Woods and I think that’s great for young horses and older horses. They go have a fun day out, and gallop out around in the woods. I’ve never missed a day of training here. I love Aiken. I think there’s no better place.”

Gomena and her husband Robert Bonnie own the 285-acre Over Creek Farm in Middleburg, Va. They have a barn full of racehorses, and another barn full of ex-racehorses turned foxhunters.

“I did some work on my gallops,” said Gomena. “Dougie Fout helped me. I changed my gallop. I have a mile and a-half, two-minute lick gallop that I go use, and it serves me very well.”