Austin O’Connor claimed his first five-star title when he topped the Mars Maryland 5 Star results today, calling the victory the “end result of a lifetime’s work”.
The 48-year-old Irish rider went into the arena in fourth place overnight and showjumped clear on his own and The Salty Syndicate’s Colorado Blue, despite one wild moment when the grey took off well away from the USEA oxer at fence seven. When the three ahead of him all had at least one fence down, he claimed Ireland’s first five-star title since Major Eddie Boylan and Durlas Eile took Badminton Horse Trials in 1965, 58 years ago.
“People like me – we’re not supposed to win five-stars, but it’s just happened, I think,” said an emotional Austin. “It’s the end result of a lifetime’s work really. Ultimately it’s all about the horse – he’s unbelievable, he’s been a champion for years and privately I was prepared to give him to somebody better because thought he deserved to win a five-star and I didn’t think I could win one with him, but here we are.”
Austin and the 14-year-old “Salty” have always excelled in the jumping phases since the horse moved up to five-star. They finished third in the tough conditions at Badminton this spring, with the fastest cross-country time of the day. After pulling up following an early run-out at Burghley Horse Trials in September, Austin decided to take the leap of faith and fly the horse out to the US for Maryland.
“It was actually Maryland committee member Tim Gardner – when I was having a bit of a down moment at Burghley, he put his arm round me and said, ‘You’ve got to bring Salty to Maryland’, because Pau would have been the obvious choice. He was the man that convinced us we should come here, I believed him and I’m delighted I did.”
Talking about his showjumping round today on Colorado Blue, Austin said: “I wouldn’t have come to Maryland if didn’t feel there was a strong possibility of him jumping a clear round, but the last couple of three-days he’s done, he’s ended up with a couple of cheap rails. It happens, but there was nothing really obvious and today I made a horrendous mistake and he got me out of jail.”
Austin has been involved with the horse from before he was conceived – he is by Jaguar Mail out of a mare by Rock King.
“I owned his dam and a great supporter of mine [Kate Jarvey] bought her from me. We had a breeding programme together and 20 years later here we are,” he said.
“He always looked a good horse but I guess a bit like myself, with age he’s got better – or luckier, whichever way you want to put it. He’s 85% thoroughbred, he’s all blood, he’s all class, he’s all heart, and he’ll try and try and try to the bitter end. From day one he looked a proper, proper horse.”
Maryland 5 Star results: two Brits on podium
Brits filled the other two places on the podium in the Maryland 5 Star results.
William Fox-Pitt held onto second with Amanda Gould’s Grafennacht, who just had the back rail off the oxer jumping into the Mars treble combination at fence nine.
He said: “She was great today –she can knock a jump or two or jump a clear. She’s not a showjumper although she’s by Grafenstolz – she’s not Lordships Graffalo, though we’re living and aiming for that. She can be a little bit economical and today she really could have jumped a clear round but she didn’t.
“I’m still delighted with one down – she’s the sort of horse she might lose an event with one down, could win one with a clear. There is a clear round in there, she’s great to work with and we can go on working. I’m glad I did have one down for Austin, we’re thrilled for him.”
Overnight leader Oliver Townend finished third with Paul Ridgeon’s nine-year-old Cooley Rosalent. He started out his round with a fence in hand and used up his life at 9c, but it was all over when the Buckeye green upright at fence 10 also came down.
“She was giving me an amazing feeling today,” said Oliver. “It was a baby mistake coming out of the combination – I felt everything was right going in. Then I felt it was me getting a bit too desperate at the next one, so perhaps she had one down and I had one down.
“For the future I’m not concerned about the showjumping phase – I thought she jumped a beautiful round and we had two mistakes. I can’t tell you how happy I am at the same time – I nearly cried for Austin. Austin is a good man and has been a good friend to me in fairly tough times the last few years.”
Austin’s round was the only clear inside the time today. Hannah Sue Hollberg just had 0.4 of a time-penalty on Capitol HIM to finish best of the home side in fourth, while her compatriot Mia Farley had eight faults to drop from third to fifth – still a very creditable first five-star result.
New Zealand’s Caroline Powell jumped clear with 0.8 of a time-penalty on Greenacres Special Cavalier to claim sixth.
You might also be interested in:
Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.