Austin O’Connor Tops Maryland 5 Star Podium for First Irish CCI5* Win Since 1965

Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue: Your 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star winners! Photo by Sally Spickard.

It was a day when literally anything was possible at the MARS Maryland 5 Star, presented by Brown Advisory. Following an exciting and influential cross country test on Saturday, we were looking at a top five of horses all capable of jumping clear rounds, but without an individual standout with a stellar jumping record on the final day of competition.

When Ireland’s Austin O’Connor entered the arena with the Salty Syndicate’s Colorado Blue for his turn around Michel Vaillencourt’s track — which had already caused its share of influence, with no one achieving a double clear to that point — we wondered. Here was a horse who’s jumped clear rounds in important scenarios: he jumped a clear round to finish in the top 10 at Badminton in 2022, and also jumped clear in the second, individual medal final at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Austin O’Connor finishes a double clear show jumping with Colorado Blue. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Despite a close call at the liverpool heading toward the VIP chalets, Austin and “Salty” jumped a clear round, also finishing inside the time allowed of 77 seconds. At the time, Austin and the 14-year-old British Sport Horse were in fourth position. Their double clear put the pressure on the podium holders, all of whom would ultimately lower rails and open the door for Austin to become the first Irish CCI5* winner since 1965. That year, Major Eddie Boylan and Durlas Eile took the title at Badminton. Austin and Colorado Blue (Jaguar Mail – Rock Me Baby, by Rock King) finished the weekend on a score of 34.9.

“Unbelievable,” Austin said after his round, and after he’d gone on to take the overall win. “People like me, we’re not supposed to win five-stars, but hey, it’s just happened I think. You know, 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 I felt he deserved to win a five-star and I didn’t think I could ever win one with him, but here we are.”

Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Austin’s had the opportunity to know Salty quite well, as he was actually involved in the breeding of the horse with longtime supporter Kate Jarvey at Mellon Stud in County Limerick, Ireland. “We had a sort of breeding program together, and twenty years later here we are. The breeding was discussed, and we did come up with Jaguar Mail as the sire. In our minds, it’s the damline — obviously Jaguar Mail is a very good stallion, but it’s his damline. It’s a mare [Rock Me Baby] by Rock King, which was a Thoroughbred, and was actually a Thoroughbred and evented. And so we would look at the damline and go from there. I can’t say I was there when he was born, but I would have seen him within a month.”

“We wouldn’t have come to Maryland if we didn’t feel there was a strong possibility of jumping around, but saying that the last couple of three-days I’ve done I’ve ended up with a couple of cheap rails,” Austin continued. “It happens nothing really obvious, and today I make a horrendous mistake and he gets me out of jail. He’s eighty-five percent Thoroughbred. He’s all blood, he’s all class. To be honest, from day one he looked a proper, proper horse.”

Austin originally went to Burghley for his fall 5* with “Salty”, but a drive-by at the influential Leaf Pit fence would end their weekend early after Austin opted to retire there. In fact, it would be longtime U.S. eventing champion and event horse owner Tim Gardner who would put a consoling arm around Austin’s shoulders and put a bug in his ear: Maryland was waiting.

The first Irish 5* winner in 58 years. What a feeling. Photo by Sally Spickard.

“When I was having a little bit of a down low at the party, he put his arm around me and said, ‘You’ve got to bring Salty to Maryland’,” Austin recalled. “Because obviously Pau would have been the obvious choice. So he was the man that convinced us to come here.”

And perhaps manifestation is a real thing: “I did say something at Badminton when I was walking up to the podium this year. I did sort of say, tongue in cheek, ‘it won’t be long until there’s an Irish winner,’ and I did say, ‘I hope you’re looking at him’…completely bullshitting!”

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht. Photo by Sally Spickard.

British Olympic medalist William Fox-Pitt also elevated himself and Amanda Gould’s Grafennacht (Grafenstolz – Nachtigall, by Narew xx) despite lowering one rail, the A of the triple at 9, from third into second overall on a score of 35.3.

“I was very pleased with how she was great today,” William said. “She can knock a jump or two down, and she can also jump a clear round. I mean she’s not a show jumper, even though she’s by [Birkhof’s] Grafenstolz. I kind of wish she’d become Lordships Grafflo! She can just be a little economical, and today she wasn’t. She really very nearly could have jumped a clear round, and I was still delighted in one down. She’s the sort of horse who could lose an event with one down or win an event with a clear round — there is a clear round in there, and she’s great to work with.”

William has repeatedly said that this lovely mare has been one that’s kept him in the eventing game (please don’t ever leave us, William), but is he feeling the time approaching when we’ll no longer see him at these big events?

“I’m getting close. I think I’m coming to my senses quietly,” he mused. “I’ve not got any horses now. She’s the only five-star horse — I’ve got a six year old. So there is more time in my life now, which is quite nice. But I’ve got to decide, you know, could she give you a bit more fun? Do I do it well enough? I think as an older rider you are — you’re increasingly worried about looking like an idiot. And I think normally you’re out there doing the cross country, you do your best and you attack. Nowadays, I think ‘oh God I hope I don’t like ride an old man today because everyone would go, for God’s sake just give up!’ So it’s getting close, but she’s keeping me in the game. She’s a lot of fun. And of course, yesterday morning I was thinking ‘what the hell am I doing really?’ But by the evening I thought, ‘that’s what I’m doing!’ As we all know, it’s a drug and it’s a good one, so I’m enjoying her and goodness knows I think I probably should to come to my senses, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy watching anyone else ride her yet!”

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent. Photo by Sally Spickard.

World #1 Oliver Townend did not have a rail in hand to start the day, but William did give him a rail’s worth of breathing room with his pole down. In the end, he’d need it and then some, finishing Cooley Rosalent‘s second 5* with a final score of 37.1 and on the third step of the podium. This was yet another pair that certainly can jump clears, but has yet to do so at this level. The mare, owned by Paul Ridgeon, is just 9, though, and with more experience and strength Oliver is confident the clears are coming.

“She was giving me an amazing feeling,” Oliver said of Cooley Rosalent (Valent – Bellaney Jewel xx, by Roselier xx), who’s also known as “Rosie”. “I felt that there was a bit of a mistake possibly coming out of the combination. I felt that everything was right going in, and then I felt it was me getting a little bit too desperate at the next one, so perhaps she had one down and I had one down. But in terms of for the future, I’ve not got a concern about show jumping clears. I thought she had a beautiful round, we had two mistakes and that was that.”

Oliver Townend congratulates Austin O’Connor on his big win. Photo by Sally Spickard.

At the end, it was Austin’s victory that was also the cherry on top of Oliver’s weekend (though he’ll still be returning here until he wins, I think — this is his third podium at Maryland in as many years, but he hasn’t caught the top spot yet): “I can’t tell you how happy I am — I nearly cried for Austin. Austin’s been a good friend to me in fairly tough times of the last few years, and we share other lunatic friends so I would imagine there would be some get together at some stage for Burghley and Maryland.”

Finishing as the top-placed U.S. pair were Hannah Sue Hollberg and Christa Schmidt’s Capitol HIM (Con Air – O-Heraldika, by Heraldik xx), who jumped a clear with just one second of time to move up into fourth after starting the weekend in tenth. This was a first 5* completion for “Chito”, who came to Hannah Sue after first being purchased for Christa to ride. They did start the Kentucky 5* in 2022, but Hannah sadly fell from the horse not far from the finish on cross country.

Christa did in fact campaign Chito (she also currently rides Hannah Sue’s former 5* partner, Harbour Pilot, in the dressage ring) through Training level before handing the reins to Hannah Sue. “He was just a little bit too much horse for her, so I got to take over the ride,” she explained. “We didn’t really have extremely high expectations for him starting out — we just kind of slowly brought him up the levels, and every time we kind of asked him to do more, he would just step up and answer the questions, and he’s gotten better and better and better.”

Hannah Sue Hollberg points to her supporters after delivering a clear round aboard Capitol HIM. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Hannah’s kicking herself a bit for staying a little more conservative at the beginning of cross country, but she wanted to ensure her horse had enough left in the tank. “My only thing that I wish I had done better — well I wish I did a lot of things better — but biggest thing I guess is that on cross country, I didn’t know if he would go the distance — I don’t really know until they do,” she elaborated. “I kind of held him back a little bit more at the corners at the top before the crab water. I think I could have been inside that time if I had just let him go. I was worried about him getting tired, so it’s nice to know that he’s so able and eager and can do it.”

Hannah also noted that the 16-year-old Holsteiner gelding had been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease about a year ago, right after he finished the 3*-L here at Maryland 5 Star, in fact. Hannah withdrew him after cross country that year. “And the reason he was in the three-star last year is because of that. I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him all year. And I didn’t want to push him too hard and ask him to do more than he could do. And then once we figured that out and he got on the medication he needed, it just has completely changed his life and he’s become the horse that we always knew he was and it’s just, you know, building toward peaking at the right moment and planning the season and hoping it all works out.”

Mia Farley and Phelps. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Receiving the Amanda Pirie Warrington award for the top-placed 5* first-timer this weekend is 23-year-old Mia Farley, who delivered a solid round on a notoriously tough show jumper in the off-track Thoroughbred, Phelps (Tiznow – Boom Town Gal). Mia joked with me earlier today that David had comforted her saying, “hey, the worst you can do is fourteenth!” So the hope was to leave as many poles up as possible. Phelps struggles in this phase and as Mia says sometimes he can come out on jumping day a little more “protective” of his body. Today, she says, “he came out like, it’s Sunday!!”

“Today is the best I’ve felt him on any Sunday, and so his jump school this morning was promising and we kind of had to not really have any expectations for him in a way,” Mia said. “We know his past with how jumping is definitely not his strong suit, but today we can’t be more proud of him. Sure he had two down, but he was full of run and jumping well – better than normal honestly.”

Mia experimented with a pelham bit in the last few shows before opting to put the 10-year-old Thoroughbred by Tiznow back into a snaffle for today. “I really thought about it and thought ‘what if I just put him back into a snaffle, so he can jump into it more?’ We schooled him in a pelham and then we put the snaffle on and he felt really comfortable, jumping into it.”

Mia, of course, felt the nerves that come with defending a potential podium finish in one’s first 5*, but she also felt “pretty mentally stable all day” and says that peace came from acceptance and a “what will be, will be” mentality. “I’ve been pretty mentally stable all day, I’m not going to lie,” she laughed. “When I got on him, I was just like ‘he’s going to be what he’s going to be, and he’s either going to jump a clear round or he’s not.’ I was just like expecting — I don’t want to say nothing, but also expecting nothing. And so I think that’s what helped. I obviously was nervous, but I really felt good going into show jumping.”

Despite the lowered rails, Mia was good to finish fifth — a stellar debut for one of the most promising young riders coming up through the ranks. David O’Connor in an interview yesterday noted Mia’s soft way of riding and how well it sets her up to produce quality rounds, and we couldn’t agree more. Here’s to this only being the start for this scrappy pair.

Caroline Powell and Greenacres Special Cavalier. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Other notable rounds today include New Zealand Olympian Caroline Powell and Greenacres Special Cavalier, who jumped a class clear with two seconds of time to finish in sixth, followed by fellow Kiwi and World Championships rider Monica Spencer and another off-track Thoroughbred, Artist, in seventh. Andrew McConnon also secured his first 5* completion, though I know he’ll already be working on what he can improve after feeling a bit disappointed with his cross country time and four rails down today with Jeanne Schigo’s Ferrie’s Cello. It certainly won’t be the last we’ll see of this pair.

And with that, the third year of the MARS Maryland 5 Star is in the books. It was a true five-star weekend all around, the weather gods blessed us with mostly good weather, the porta-pot gods blessed us with well-maintained toilets, and the media center was kept stocked with snacks and coffee which is really the best way to motivate me to write 3,000+ words each night.

Before we go, let’s check in on the 3*-L National Championship. Veronica Green-Gott checks in:

Caroline Pamukcu Jet Sets to Chile on a USEF National CCI3*-L Championship High

Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Connor secure the USEF National 3*-L Championship. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

It was a day full of peaks and valleys in the USEF National CCI3*-L Championship at the MARS Maryland 5 Star. An influential day of show jumping left our first two placings untouched while the rest of the field was entirely rearranged.

Caroline Pamukcu and HSH Connor (Connor 48 x Galwaybay Merstona by Mermus R) owned by Caroline and Sherrie Martin as well as Derek Strine are your National Championship winners this weekend. The triumphant pair added nothing to their dressage score to go double clear across the board this weekend and finished on their score of 25.4. The talented 7-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding has a habit of being a bit of an overachiever, as this is the second time he’s finished on his dressage score this season, and third time in his career. Caroline, who is heading off to the Pan American Games and had to hop out of the press conference early to catch a flight south to meet her team horse, HSH Blake, is definitely leaving on a high note.

“This win is so emotional because I’ve had the horse since he was a four-year-old and there’s such a big community behind me. It was just emotional for me to remember his first jump school, his first flat school and then all the way to this moment,” Caroline said. “We were so close last year to winning the Young Horse World Championships, that for him to win the USEF National Championship 3*…It’s amazing. Hopefully it’s a good last show before the Pan Ams.”

Lauren Nicholson and Ms. Jacqueline Mars’ Larcot Z (L’Arc de Triomphe x Kocote De La Londe by Socrate de Chivre) added only 0.4 time faults to her dressage score to finish in second place with a final score of 28.6. The lowest score of Larcot Z’s FEI career, Larcot Z was produced by Will Coleman and Reagan LaFleur through the 2* and 3* levels. For Lauren’s first season with the 10-year-old Zangersheide gelding, she’s off to a stellar start — the pair have yet to finish outside of the top five of every event they’ve completed since partnering up.

“The Larcot horse is probably one of the most fun horses I’ve had in the show jumping. He’s so willing and brave but he’s such a freak about being careful. He makes the job easy because you really just kind of ride quite forward to everything and trust him to take care of the front rail,” Lauren said. “He was a pleasure to ride and you know, I’m so grateful to Ms. Mars for stepping up to get him because, I hope he’s the horse of a lifetime.”

Lauren admits she’d been “stalking” the horse ever since he was four, noting he was completely her type to ride. And when the opportunity came to take the ride, Ms. Mars stepped in to support her longtime rider. Lauren’s prioritized taking her time with this new and very special horse, acknowledging he also needed no “fixing” after taking the reins from other riders. She’s even worked with former rider Will Coleman in the transition to ensure she’s ticking along.

“He’s always been my type and you know, again, Coleman’s such a classical trainer and rider and our programs really mirror each other in that way,” Lauren explained. “And he’s just so committed to the fundamentals of basics with the horses and producing them so correctly and classically from the beginning and really following the training scale. So it’s very easy for me to pick up the ride from home and you know, I think some people these days get stuck into chasing things pretty early and the newest and latest trick and the thing is with horses is training horses isn’t new. And with young horses, you just kind of have to keep ticking the boxes and keep working on the training scale.”

“We always are pretty conservative about how often we run especially at this age, which I think is why in our program and the O’Connor program too, our horses last as five-star horses still in their late teens,” Lauren continued. “We consistently get to that level and they do it year after year, and this sport’s — I think it’s becoming even more important that horses last so long. So I think longevity in our production of them is very priority and how we train our horses.”

One rail bumped Caroline and HSH Tolan King from fourth place to sixth place, leaving an opening for Savannah “Woodge” Fulton and Nelson Warnell’s Cash Point (Cash and Carry x Up to Date 15) to take her spot with a score of 31.4. It was a banner weekend for Savannah and Cash Point, as their final score was their lowest yet, not only at the 3* level, but including their entire FEI career.

“I’ve had him since he was four and I feel like, with this sport especially, it’s really hard to put all three things together all on one weekend, especially with a baby. And so the goal for the weekend was just to make the time cross country,” Woodge said. “I don’t want to say the pressure was off, but yesterday was just fabulous. And if he came out this morning really tired and you know sort of feeling sorry for himself, I would just be proud of him for doing well yesterday. So the fact that he was able to jump out today and finish well was really exciting.”

Unfortunately, Taren Hoffos and Regalla (Sir Donnerhall x Rubiera A by Rubinstein 46), third after cross country had a rough time in the show jumping phase, after a fall just before the finish line resulted in elimination. Both horse and rider got up and walked off after the incident and are reported to be ok. We were so sorry to see Taren’s weekend end this way, but hope she is proud of what she accomplished on a challenging cross country track Saturday.

We now move full-steam ahead into a very busy rest of the fall season, with the eventing at the Pan American Games kicking off Thursday, October 26, as well as the final 5* of the season in France at Les Etoiles de Pau. We’ll then move to the Eventing Championships at Galway Downs the first week of November, and the season concludes with the 4*-L at TerraNova (FL) in mid-November. With that in mind, I’m off to get a bit of sleep and make my way back to California, and I’ll see you very soon with coverage from the Pan Ams while Tilly Berendt brings you coverage from Pau.

As always, thank you for reading and following along with us, give your horse a pat, and Go Eventing.

MARS Maryland 5 Star: [Website] [Final Scores] [Live Stream Replays (North America)] [Live Stream Replays (Outside North America)] [EN’s Coverage]

EN’s coverage of MARS Maryland 5 Star is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products.

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