By Nancy Jaffer
A weekend of brilliant riding on the ever-improving Cooley Master Class won Oliver Townend not only the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, but also a shot at the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing as he heads to this week’s Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials.
The tension was high among the 21,260 fans as Kentucky’s dramatic showdown unfolded. Standing third going into showjumping at the Kentucky Horse Park, Oliver produced a clear round to remain on his dressage score of 28.7 penalties, but then had to wait before he learned his fate.
Australia’s Christopher Burton, who had been second on Nobilis 18 with 27.9, dropped two rails to plummet to ninth place. Then all that stood between Oliver and victory was the man people call the greatest eventer ever, multi-gold medalist Michael Jung of Germany and his super mare, FischerRocana FST.
Michael, who went into the jumping with a total of 27.5 penalties, had no room for error, which came at fence five. The mare knocked a pole and before it hit the ground, Oliver had won the title he sought.
“I’ve had a rough couple of years one way and another and it’s a hard grind at home, but this is an absolute long-term dream of mine,” said an emotional Oliver. “I just want to thank every single person here for sharing that dream day with me.”
He took on Angela Hislop’s Cooley Master Class at the age of four, and knows the 13-year-old gelding well.
“I had an awful lot of faith in him. It’s his first time at this level. He really dug deep for me. He felt to enjoy it. He had a smile on his face…and that’s really important to me,” said Oliver.
Coming to Kentucky “took a bit of arm-twisting to get the horses here because there was no funding from Great Britain,” Oliver noted. He thanked his owners, Angela and Tom Joule who owns seventh-placed MHS King Joules, for taking a gamble on his chances.
As the winner of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in September, he was determined to try for the Grand Slam. With two legs of the challenge won, if he takes the top prize at Badminton, he will collect $350,000 to become only the third person to earn the Grand Slam title. The others who have won it are Pippa Funnell and of course, Michael.
Michael, who has been the world number one, appears to have been overtaken by Oliver for that ranking. When someone advised him of that, the Kentucky winner said with a smile, “about time.”
Today’s result was a big letdown for Michael, who had hoped to win a record fourth Kentucky. But it really wasn’t his day. At the final horse inspection, his mare was put in the hold box, and Michael’s normally impassive face reflected the tension he felt until FischerRocana was accepted after being re-presented.
As for the downed rail, Michael took the blame.
“It was absolutely my mistake,” he said.
“I was too far away from this fence, but my mare tried hard and it was still a good round. It was a very nice week again here in Kentucky. I really like this event. It was really beautiful.”
The top American was Marilyn Little, who jumped a clean round to finish third on RF Scandalous with 32.8 penalties.
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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.