The Bold and the Beautiful: Preview Ian Stark’s CCI5* Track at the Maryland 5 Star

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The imposing MD Crab Water at MARS Sustainability Bay, fence 15 on course. Photo by Abby Powell.

Well the moment we’ve all been waiting for is here, and it’s time to look ahead to the very first CCI5* track that British Olympic medalist and five-star winner Ian Stark has meticulously crafted for the inaugural Maryland 5 Star. The general consensus is, as expected of course, that there’s a lot to do here — and as EN’s Kate Samuels put it in our Slack chat this morning, ‘Ian must walk around thinking, ‘yeah that’s pretty scary, but wouldn’t it be better with a ditch??'”

Indeed, the track has the big, bold feel we were all expecting — with quite a few ditches in quite a few places — but one factor that will play almost the largest role here will be the terrain. We’re used to the mostly gentle rolls of the Kentucky Horse Park (albeit with a few strong uphill tugs), but this feels like an entirely different animal, even compared to the former Fair Hill International track designed by Derek di Grazia. Talking with the riders, the general feel is that this is a Burghley or Badminton type of vibe — and the dressage scores certainly won’t matter as much come Saturday evening.

Take a look at a visual breakdown of the terrain comparisons being drawn this week, thanks to CrossCountryApp:

It helps to remember that Ian Stark draws a lot of inspiration from longtime Badminton designer Frank Weldon — after whom many riders’ least favorite type of fence, the Weldon’s Wall, is named — as well as his days fox hunting. Generally speaking, the approach to one of Ian’s tracks is “when in doubt, kick harder”. However, despite his penchant for inciting sleepless nights on the part of the riders, he’s adamant that the last thing he wants to do is frighten the horses or present a question that they can’t easily understand.

Blue Clover Eventing’s new album cover. Fence 18B Fair Hill International Drop. Photo by Abby Powell.

“The biggest thing here is the terrain,” Ian told Nicole Brown on the USEA podcast. “It’s incredibly hilly…It’s really just for me to get a feel for the terrain and how it’s going to affect the horses. What I didn’t want to do is put out the longest, toughest track and find that 7/8 of the horses couldn’t complete it because they were exhausted. I’ve given them quite a lot of combinations, some proper five-star combinations and the odd let-up fence to sort of keep the confidence and keep them moving. And then because of the hills at the end, I’ve backed off of the intensity of the height and spreads just so that they can get home. I think the riders will probably learn a lot about me and a lot about the venue by Saturday night.” Be sure to tune in here for more commentary from Ian on the questions.

Walking the course this morning, it seems that this rings true. Despite some very big, imposing questions — and a lot of terrain to consider — nothing jumped out (at least to my eye which, you know, take with a grain of salt as I walked past the Young Event Horse jumping and wistfully thought, “well, I could jump that, at least”) as “hm, I’m not sure the horses will read this”. In that sense, the onus — as always — is on the riders to understand what the designer is asking and what type of horse they’re likely to have at a given point on the course.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…have a great ride! Photo by Sally Spickard.

The start box is quite close to the main hub of action, taking riders away from the grandstand area and winding through to the Sawmill Field and then back to the same area near the turf track for the finish. While in Kentucky, riders often have three or four fences to get them in a galloping rhythm, Ian gives riders just two single fences to establish their rhythm. Also key here will be the fact that the first few questions are all on a slight uphill, putting the horses right onto the terrain from the get-go and forcing the riders to mind their fitness and ensure there’s still some gas in the tank at the end. The first combination comes as two solid tables on a related distance at fence 3AB. This wouldn’t be one you’d anticipate to be influential in any way, and will be treated as a warm-up fence despite the fact that it’s a combination.

Riders will be tested on brakes and steering quite early as they approach fence 4AB, the first really technical ask on the course. At 4AB, the Viaduct to Ditch Brush comes on a steep approach to a steep downhill turn, bending right to a skinny wedge that reminded us of the very skinny Bicton 5* wedges. A horse that’s more on the muscle early on might slip and slide down the hill if the rider has to take a strong half-halt. Adding to that, there’s also the option, built into the rolltop fence, to slice the first fence at a more severe angle that will put them on a more direct line to the brush — but down a much steeper, sharper incline.

A look at fence 4AB. Photo by Sally Spickard.

I tried to properly convey what Ian said about this fence in his preview, but to be honest you’ll just want to watch it yourself as it includes a very entertaining demonstration of how a horse might go down this incline. I’ll save you the clicking and link it here.

Another combination follows at fence 5AB, the first of three water questions at Cecil County Tourism C&D Canal Water. These are two offset tables built off of inspiration from shipping containers that come off a tight approach. Riders will want to boldly attack the line here to give their horses a boost of confidence (and a reminder of straightness) early on.

The 5* riders will encounter the coffin combination (the Fair Hill Foundation Rail and Ditch + Wedge) relatively early, and it’s a big one with a sizable open oxer set about nine strides up the hill from the coffin approach. The open oxer could set a strong horse up to try to bowl down the hill, which will put them at risk to make a clean “up and over” shape at the rails into the coffin and thus avoid breaking the MIM clip. From there, there’s a steep approach up to the C element of the coffin.

The Ascending Oxer at 8, preceding the coffin complex. Photo by Sally Spickard.

The Fair Hill Foundation Rail and Ditch. Photo by Sally Spickard

Riders will then find mostly combination questions until they clear fence 13AB, which is a pair of upright, MIM-clipped Timber Rails that will also require a bold but careful ride as they’re set on an uphill. After that, we’ll find one of the better open galloping spots, though the caveat is that it’s almost entirely uphill so riders will have to be mindful of how much time they try to make up here as we’ve not even reached the midway point of the course at this point. And the question that comes up next will require a quick-thinking horse.

The uphill Timber Rails. Photo by Sally Spickard.

After the big pull, riders will find themselves at what will probably be the most popular fence for spectators and stands to be an influential question, and the farthest point in the course: the MD Crab Water presented by MARS Sustainability Bay.

The MD Crab Water at MARS Sustainability Bay. Photo by Sally Spickard.

This is a bit of an alphabet soup question, as here we see Ian make use of double-lettered fences to make riders think on their feet if they do run into trouble. The crab drop in — which will be interesting to see how it rides, as there’s a sizable spread and a good drop on the other side — is numbered as 15AB, followed by an up bank to a log at 15CD, followed by a brush arrowhead at 15E. Riders who have trouble here will need to quickly remember the alphabet (honestly, probably a large challenge when you’re in the thick of an adrenaline-fueled cross country run) to find their way to the option without getting themselves into a silly elimination.

You can watch Ian explain this question here.

A look at the alternate paths presented at this fence:

After the MD Crab Water, the riders will have a brief respite with some downhill terrain as they make the turn to find their way back home. But the questions that come will still entail much concentration and rideability, as you’ll see a big open oxer to a very big, airy corner on a yellow clip at 16 and 17, followed by the massive Fair Hill International Drop that is quite reminiscent of the Mount Fuji drop in Tokyo. After the drop, there’s an interesting line to two Camden Yards houses set at a very acute angle. Listen to Ian’s commentary on this question here.

Once riders are through this point, they’ll quickly find themselves back on an uphill pull for essentially the rest of the way home. The terrain on these tracks is always difficult to convey on a screen, but here’s a look at some of the hills we traversed on our walk this morning:

Another very interesting question comes at the penultimate combination, the Owl Corners at 25AB. Check it out — bet you’ve never seen a keyhole corner before!

This question comes after one of the last climbs and an upright gate at 24. “It’s quite technical and quite demanding after that climbing,” Ian described of the 65 degree corners. “And if there is a problem there’s an alternative for the B element, but it is going to sap even more energy.”

Peekaboo! Photo by Sally Spickard.

After this, you’re very nearly home, if you can just make it for one more last uphill gallop. The final fence comes after a stretch of plushy new turf, and riders will no doubt be punching the air with glee after finishing the very bold and very beautiful new 5* track. The optimum time of 11 minutes will certainly be difficult to obtain, what with the terrain changes and the potential for rain on Saturday that might make things a bit greasier on top.

I thought it was interesting to note a comment Sharon White made today, saying that for every uphill pull there’s a bit of a downhill breather, which will give the horses a chance to catch their breath. But, as Lynn Symansky commented in the press conference, every possible inch of uphill Ian could use, he did. Suffice it to say: it’s going to be a big day and you won’t want to miss a single moment of action! The course itself is gorgeous, beautifully constructed and decorated thanks to the hard work of builder Eric Bull of ETB Construction and the crew of volunteer decorators.

You made it! Last fence. Photo by Sally Spickard.

If you want much more intelligent commentary than what I can provide, be sure to check out Ian’s guide course preview (with fence-by-fence photos) on CrossCountryApp here — or, if you’re here in person, attend our course walk with RideIQ and Ema Klugman tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. We’ll meet at the start box and head out. Be sure to wear your walking shoes!

Go Eventing.

A few other shots from our walk:

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