By Nancy Jaffer

A very tight race is shaping up after the dressage phase of the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, with only 3.9 points separating the leader, Marilyn Little of the USA, from fifth-placed Oliver Townend of Great Britain.

Three-time winner Michael Jung left the door ajar on Thursday with a dressage test that was not among his very best aboard FsherRocana FST as he aims for his fourth consecutive victory at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Marilyn waltzed through that opening yesterday with RF Scandalous, earning a score of 24.8 to Michael’s 27.1. But just 0.8 of a penalty behind was Australia’s Christopher Burton on Nobilis 18.

Oliver, Britain’s only entry in the former Rolex event, turned in an effective and efficient test this afternoon aboard Cooley Master Class to stand fifth on with 28.7, right behind the USA’s Kim Severson on another Cooley horse, Cross Border, marked at 28.3. Ollie is also equal eighth with 31.3 on MHS King Joules.

“I’m very happy with him,” Oliver said of Master Class, noting, “it’s his first chance at this level.”

Ollie blew a kiss to the “good few British flags in one corner” of the arena as he exited after his test, also giving two thumbs up to the 11,794 spectators who cheered for his performance. He saw the enthusiastic response of the fans as a plus.

“It feels very nice, especially on the horse that can take a bit of geeing up. He can handle the pressure and is probably a little better for the crowd and the atmosphere,” Oliver commented.

After the morning session, he said he was “happy enough” about King Joules’ performance, noting, “He’s one of the trickiest ones I’ve ever ridden in some ways. I’m the last in a long line that’s ridden him.”

He characterised the horse’s test as “a little bit tight,” mentioning the horse held his breath as he came toward C.

Comparing his two mounts, Oliver noted they are a study in contrasts.

“A completely different everything. Both are obviously very talented but different people altogether,” he observed.

Discussing the cross-country course that reverses direction from last year and has a number of new fences, Oliver called it, “Fantastic, cleverly designed. I think your man over here, [course-designer Derek DiGrazia] is exceptional at his job. I think a lot of people could learn a lot from this man.”

Kentucky has extra meaning for Oliver, since after his Land Rover Burghley victory on Ballaghmor Class last September, he’s in line for the Rolex Grand Slam. That trifecta also includes Kentucky and the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, where he has two other horses entered next week.

Asked if the prospect of the Grand Slam helped induce him to come to Kentucky, Oliver smiled and said, “Maybe a little bit.”

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Full report from Kentucky in H&H next week (issue dated 3 May).

Pick up the current issue of H&H (dated 26 April) for our Badminton preview, including course walk with Mary King and form guide for every horse and rider.