In a nail-biting finish filled with gasps and thrills, Oliver Townend of Great Britain did the seemingly impossible: he beat Germany's three-time defending champion Michael Jung at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Standing in third overnight, Townend jumped a gorgeous fault-free show jumping round aboard Cooley Master Class, finishing on his dressage score of 28.7 penalties and setting up the showdown with overnight leader Jung on Fischerrocana FST. When the German pair dropped a rail at fence 5, the victory was Townend's. Jung would finish second (31.5).
"Obviously it's a fantastic feeling," Townend, 35, Shropshire, England, said. "I had to do a bit of arm-twisting to get the horses here as there was no funding from Britain to come here this year. The owners gambled on me to win their money back, and I'm pleased the horses have come through with great results and that I've repaid the owners' gamble on me."
American pair Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous also put in a double-clear show jumping round to move up into third overall, and to win the Land Rover/USEF National CCI**** Championship as the highest-placed Americans with a score of 32.8.
"She is a diva and is notoriously a terror in the stable," Little, 36, Frederick, Md., said of "Kitty" a 13-year-old Oldenburg. "But she knows her people. Her groom is with her at all times, and she's very trusting. She has an incredible sense of the moment and loves performing for a crowd. She's a real princess, which was a concern early on, as we wondered was she too delicate and fragile and careful for eventing? But she's become a courageous horse, and she gives you 150 percent of all she has."
The morning started with a dramatic turn when Fischerrocana was sent to the holding box during the final horse inspection, as was second-placed Christopher Burton of Australia with Nobilis 18. As the crowd held their breath, the ground jury accepted both horses upon re-presentation.
Early on in the show jumping, rails fell, but it was also clear that course designer Richard Jeffrey had measured the course tightly, and even horses who were jumping clean were having multiple time penalties.
The first to post a double-clear round was Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Boarder (21/55.9) and the crowd roared their approval. As the top horses came in one by one, the tension ratcheted up. In the end, only seven would complete the show jumping with no jumping or time penalties, and those that could climbed up the order.
Townend had come into the show jumping with Cooley Master Class in third and MHS King Joules tied for fourth. He went early on King Joules and lowered a rail, so he cantered in aboard Master Class, all business. The bay gelding jumped his heart out, putting pressure on Burton and Jung.
Burton would lower two rails, and the crowd grew silent as Jung, the Land Rover Kentucky winner for the last three years, cantered in. At fence 5, his 13-year-old German-bred mare stood off the triple bar and just tipped the front rail.
"I'm very happy about Rocana, a little more sad about me," said a circumspect Jung, 35, the three-time Olympic gold medalist from Horb, Germany. "It was my mistake, I was too far away from this fence. My mare tried hard, and it was a good round, only one down, but it was one down too much. But it was a very nice week here in Kentucky. I really like this event, it's beautiful and I'm happy to be here."
When Jung faulted, Townend covered his face with his hands in disbelief before dissolving into tears.
Ultimately, three others besides Townend would finish on their dressage scores: Phillip Dutton/Z (33.7/4), Sharon White/Cooley On Show (35.6/7) and Will Coleman/Tight Lines (38.3/12).
Townend has had Cooley Master Class since he was a 4-year-old and says he has always been a barn favorite. "He came right at the end of a period where I had sold a lot of my good horses to set my life up and buy a property," he said. "He came right at the right time, and when I sat on him, I said 'one way or another we're finding a way to keep this one.'
"I was lucky to sell him to someone who let me keep the ride, and he's never really let us down," he continued. "He had a couple of niggles injury-wise, at certain stages in his career. At times we thought, 'Will he ever come through with what he can really do?' But these last two seasons he toughened up, and we learned more about him and how to manage him. He's always been cheeky and talented and I'm very pleased for him to come through with it."
Townend also finished seventh on King Joules. "(With) Joules, I'm just thrilled, really pleased. If you'd wanted me to sign a piece of paper saying I'd have one down before the round, I'd have happily signed for that. He is the most difficult horse I've ever ridden and also the most talented. For him to put up the performance this week he did, I'm just as happy as I am with the winner."
The winner takes home a check for $130,000, and for his seventh-placed finish Townend adds an additional $14,000, making it a profitable weekend for his team. MHS King Joules and Cooley Master Class are both 13-year-old Irish Sport Horses.
For his victory, Townend received a one-year lease on a Land Rover Discovery, and he got to take a victory lap in the car. He zoomed around the ring to the roar of the crowd. When asked how fast he was going, he replied with a dry laugh, "I don't know, the man in the passenger seat was screaming too loud."
Townsend, who also took home a Rolex watch for his win, has a reason to be happier than most with his win, as this victory is his second leg of the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing. A hefty cash prize of $350,000 goes to the rider who wins the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton, Land Rover Burghley and Land Rover Kentucky in succession. Townend won Burghley last September aboard Ballaghmor Class, who is entered at Badminton next week, along with Cooley SRS. If he wins there, he will be only the third person in history to take the Grand Slam. Previous winners were Jung in 2016 and Pippa Funnel in 2003.
"I'm very fortunate to have two nice horses also belonging to (Cooley Master Class' owner Angela Hislop), and we're living in dream world," Townend said. "Angela came up to me about six years ago and said if she was going to own horses for me she wanted a four-star winner and a British team horse, and now we've had both. So, we're both living in dream world, and hopefully it will continue for another week--please."
In the Dubarry of Ireland Nations Team Challenge, Team Germany/Great Britain/Australia/Poland (Jung/Fischerrocana FST, Burton/Nobilis 18, Oliver Townend/MHS King Joules, Pawel Spisak/Banderas) maintained their top spot, winning with a final score of 102.7, over Team USA (108) and Team Canada (244.2).
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About the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event
The Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event is the nation's premier three-day event. Known as "the best weekend all year," this multi-day competition features the world's best horses and riders vying for their share of $400,000 in prize money, as well as a shot at the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing which is awarded to any rider who wins the Land Rover Kentucky, Mitsubishi Motors Badminton and Land Rover Burghley Four Star Events in succession. Land Rover Kentucky is one of only six annual Four Star Three-Day Events in the world and the only one in the Western Hemisphere.
This event also serves as the Land Rover/USEF CCI**** National Championship for the American riders.
Also featured as a part of the competition is the Dubarry of Ireland Nations Cup Team Challenge, with each team vying for $20,000 in prize money. Four teams will line up for their share of the winnings.
The Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event will be broadcast on NBC on Sunday, May 6, from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. EDT. It will also be broadcast on the Olympic Channel on May 26, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. EDT. USEFNetwork.com will livestream the competition in its entirety. Competition will also be archived and available on demand.
For further information visit www.kentuckythreedayevent.com.