After a Saturday that split opinions, it’s been enormously exciting to have an action-packed afternoon of influential competition at the MARS Maryland 5 Star.
Though our top three would ultimately remain unchanged after cross-country, the short and sweet showjumping finale was jam-packed with action and excitement, with a beefy, technical course of 16 jumping efforts. Both the time and the course itself — which featured jumper-style lines including a rollback turn between fences 8 and 9, followed swiftly by a sharp square turn to a treble combination at 10abc — proved influential, and just five of the 21 starters would deliver faultless rounds.
Cross-country leader Tim Price wasn’t one of them. He came into the arena with less than a rail in hand over Tamie Smith and Danito, who had just delivered an exceptional clear, adding 0.4 time to stay just one-tenth of a penalty ahead of Oliver Townend and As Is, who had added nothing in their round. Like Tamie and Oliver before him, he cantered through the starting line on an unseasoned five-star debutant and, again like those before him, crossed the finish on a newly-established superstar. In doing so, he took his fifth five-star title — won, quite remarkably, aboard a fifth different horse.
“I’m very proud of Coup de Coeur Dudevin,” says Tim of the ten-year-old Selle Français, who he rides for breeder Jean-Louis Stauffer. “In fact, I think all three of these top horses are incredible. It’s exciting for the sport; it’s exciting for us personally; and it’s just so unexpected to have a top result like this. I came in hoping that I would have a top-five finish with this horse, but I expected there would be a couple of things that showed his lack of experience. Luckily, we were able to do that while keeping a nice, low score.”
Tim’s goal this week has been to educate the young horse, who was originally produced by Switzerland’s Robin Godel and, latterly, Chris Burton, before briefly joining wife Jonelle’s string last year. It was that modus operandi that allowed the rider to keep his cool coming into the pressurised final phase.
It’s been one heck of a year for second-placed Tamie Smith, who gave it her all in her efforts to keep the Maryland title in US hands with Ruth Bley’s 15.2hh first-timer Danito. Although the diminutive 13-year-old Hanoverian is a force to be reckoned with on the flat and across the country, before this weekend, he’d not made the time in a long-format since his second-ever CCI2*-L, nor had he kept the rails up in an international since 2020. But with plenty of guts and gumption on his side — and on that of his plucky Californian rider, too — he made both things happen here, adding just 0.4 time today to his first-phase score of 29.4.
“I actually haven’t even produced a clear round on Danito at CCI4*-L — but we kind of all joked that he broke his wither this winter and it gave him another two feet over the jumps,” laughs Tamie. “But he really has come out outstanding, and he really jumped out of his skin. There was a couple of places where it definitely didn’t go to plan, but you go as quickly as you can to to Plan B. He’s such a mighty little horse and he tried his guts out, soI’m super proud of him. The ring would be difficult — it’s small and things come up quick, and so it was good to produce that result.”
The result caps off a year that’s gone from one mishap after another to something of a dream come true for Tamie.
Her best-ever five-star finish isn’t the only affirmation Tamie got from her result today: finding herself between two of the most prolific competitors in the world was also a particularly special feeling.
Four combinations managed to finish on their dressage scores in this year’s field, and the highest-placed of those was Oliver Townend, who, like Tim, has recorded a podium finish in both runnings of this new event. Though his eleven-year-old Spanish-bred Sport Horse As Is occasionally looked a bit green in the ring, and gave the fences a fair amount of airtime as a result, they stayed on the right side of the clock to take third place, climbing from first-phase tenth through the weekend.
As Is, who was formerly campaigned by Andrew Nicholson, is owned by Sir John Peace of Caunton Stud, for whom Oliver began riding earlier this year.
“I’m highly delighted with him, and [this result] is very special for me — it’s the first time I’ve had a job since I was 21, so to deliver results for the people that are employing me for the first time this year is very special to me,” says Oliver. “There’s a lot of people behind the scenes at Caunton, and at home at Gadlas, so it’s been a very different year this year for me — but one that’s just been so, so positive.”
Oliver began riding As Is just this spring, and has had a spate of exciting results with the gelding already, including a placing at another Ian Stark-designed event at Bramham CCI4*-L in Yorkshire.
“For us to deliver the result that we thought he was capable of… you never know, he’s a new horse and it’s five-star, so anything can happen,” he says. “He went out a little bit green yesterday and a bit careful and I just thought last night, ‘well, let’s just hope he’s as careful in the show jumping tomorrow as he is on the cross-country course, and we’ll be alright’.”
This isn’t the first horse Oliver has taken on from longtime friend and mentor Andrew, from whom he’s previously inherited top horses such as Cillnabradden Evo, Swallow Springs, and Armada — but today, he knew he had a particularly stellar jumping record to live up to.
“I actually felt a little bit of pressure,” he says. “I said to Andrew Nicholson on the phone that I used to feel no pressure going into showjumping on Armada, because we all knew he used to destroy the place, but to know that you’re on such a good jumper, it was down to me to press the right buttons and get the right distances. But he was, I think, very, very special in the ring today, and it’s just hugely exciting for my team at home and the new team at Caunton that we have a horse of this caliber.”
It felt a little bit like 2008 at Kentucky all over again when Phillip Dutton and Z crossed the finish today, well inside the time and clear to boot. Though that didn’t quite clinch them the win, it did allow them to take fourth place, a healthy climb from the eleventh place slot they’d occupied after posting a 30.5 in the first phase.
“He’s a great jumper, it’s just that sometimes we lose a little bit of the rideability because of tension,” says Phillip, who was delighted to find that the experienced 14-year-old Zangersheide felt well-settled in the atmospheric main arena after a great warm-up with show jumper Lauren Hough. That was particularly necessary, because the unique arena and tough course at Maryland demanded so much of the horses while constantly testing their focus.
“It rides harder than it walks, certainly size-wise, and it’s all pretty related and a smaller arena,” says Phillip. “I mean, I think every venue is a little unique; you know, all the five-stars throughout the world. And this is unique: it’s a bit smaller, but the really good horses win anyway. The atmosphere is great.”
Even more moving than the excellent result was the memory of his late coach and mentor.
“I was a little bit emotional because my good friend Richard Picken was here last year, and Michelle Kauffman said to me, ‘it’s bringing back memories’ — so I started to flood over, but luckily I was able to pull it back together,” says Phillip. “He was a great friend, and my showjumping coach, and he had a big influence on me.”
Jennie Brannigan put a cap on an excellent week with her duo of rides, finishing fifth on her dressage score of 31.5 with FE Lifestyle and sixteenth after a trio of rails with Twilightslastgleam, both of whom she rides for longtime owners Tim and Nina Gardner.
Having two rides in the class allowed her to make great use of the intel she gleaned the first time around with her second ride, FE Lifestyle — but those were just two of many rides she had this week, a decision that, in hindsight, might have been a touch too much.
“I’m exhausted,” she laughs. “Riding five horses here was probably a little ambitious! But it was a beautiful week, and this is my hometown event, so it’s been great.”
Sixth place went the way of Will Coleman and DonDante, who had a frustrating, rare rail but nevertheless climbed from 10th place after cross-country, on which they were clear inside the time yesterday.
“I’m obviously bummed about the pole, but my horse tried really hard,” says Will of the 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse, who was fifteenth here last year and seventh at Kentucky this spring. “I think he didn’t have his best stuff today — he was a little stiff from galloping up all those hills yesterday. But he gave me everything he had and just toed one, and I can’t be too upset. It is what it is, and you do what you can do. I’m very pleased, and now we’ll look to the future and try to be better.”
For DonDante, who came to Fair Hill to compete in the Young Event Horse Championships as a five-year-old, it’s a full-circle moment to come back here and finish in the top ten — and a testament to how productive the young horse pathways in the US can be.
“It’s cool; it’s very gratifying. I really enjoy that,” says Will, remembering that first trip here with the gelding. “You know, we’ve had most of ours we’ve had since they were young, which does make it pretty rewarding, and each step you get like a little adrenaline from. Then they do their first three-star; they do their first four-star… I think that’s cool, and I think we’re just constantly trying to get better at raining them well and bringing them along confidently and happily. It’s a big part of what makes this whole game worth doing.”
Great Britain’s Harry Meade had a tricky start to the week with Superstition after a disruption to his warm-up meant that the horse was nervous and reactive to the point of explosiveness in the dressage ring, scoring an enormously uncharacteristic 37.4 to sit 21st. An easy clear inside the time yesterday, though, boosted the pair up to fifteenth — and though the relative lack of influence of Saturday’s competition precluded a higher climb, today offered a stiff enough challenge to see significant movement on the board. That meant that their clear round inside the time today was enough to catapult them to a final seventh place.
“I’m thrilled with the horse and thrilled with how he was all week,” says Harry. “Sometimes, you’ve got to make just make the best of the hand you’re dealt; we didn’t have a nice time in the build-up to the first phase, but that’s by the by. You forgive and forget.”
Harry was one of several riders to levy constructive criticism at the event, particularly for its uninfluential cross-country phase, a trend that continued on from its inaugural running.
“The cross-country, like last year, was a bit of a non-event,” he says. “I can’t fault my horse; he was absolutely beautiful, and that’s a long way to go to not even scratch the surface — he feels as though he’d be great to go to Pau in two weeks’ time! But it’s always lovely to finish on a clear showjumping round — it means everyone goes home on a high.”
Today, though, he was pleased with the influence and difficulty of the course.
“You want the jumping phases to separate the really good horses, and this was a really interesting course,” says Harry. “One to two was quite open, and actually, the terrain in the arena is more extreme than you might think, so heading down to fence five was super short. It didn’t walk short, but it rode short. Then, after the treble, you had to turn up to the square oxer — it was a big fence up a hill. It was a great course and it sorted them out — we saw such a high standard of jumping out there, and it made for a great end to the competition.”
Allie Knowles earned herself her best-ever five-star result, taking eighth place with the excellent Morswood after tipping just one rail late in the course. That’s her second personal best of the week: her first came in the dressage, where she earned her best five-star score, a sparkling 28.8 that put the pair into third place going into cross-country. Though their 6.4 time penalties dropped them out of contention into twelfth place, Allie was delighted to make the climb back up the order today — though already, she’s thinking about what’s next to work on.
“It was a great week, but I’m quite critical, so there was room for improvement in all three phases,” says Allie. “But that’s a could-a, should-a, would-a type of thing, and that’s my best result in a five-star. He did everything I asked, so I’m super happy overall, and I’ll be looking forward to the next opportunity to do it better! But it’s cool to know that I’m on a horse that’s so suited to doing something like Badminton in the future.”
Doug Payne and Quantum Leap might be the most seasoned pure jumpers in the ring — in fact, most of the gelding’s competition mileage this year has come at jumper shows — but Ken’s tough course was tricky to conquer even for them. They tipped the first and had a pole down at the ninth fence, positioned on a rollback turn, but were ultimately able to stay in the ninth place spot they’d occupied after cross-country, wherein they’d added 2.4 time penalties.
Finally, the top ten was rounded out in fine style by Hannah Sue Hollberg and Harbour Pilot, who retired from competition at the impressive age of nineteen after his round, which saw him rub two poles but only slip two places.
“I’ve been riding him since 2008, so he’s been with me forever, and it’s weird to think about not competing him anymore,” says an emotional Hannah Sue, who has tackled eleven previous five-stars with the gelding. “He doesn’t feel his age at all — he feels the same as he did five, seven, ten years ago. He’s a tough horse, and I’ve tried to take care of him really well by not running him if the footing’s bad or if he’s not just right at the show.”
Hannah Sue had made the decision to retire ‘William’ at the end of this event well before it started, which meant that throughout the week, she was constantly reminded that each phase was her last with him by commentary over the tannoy. That announcement was exactly how her showjumping round began, too, which made the practicalities of actually jumping the course a little tough.
“I started crying before I started, which wasn’t very helpful!” she laughs. “But I didn’t really mind — I felt like that all week, and I was just proud to be on him and finish his career like that.”
Just one odd moment marred the afternoon’s sport: Lauren Nicholson, who had been sitting seventh with Landmark’s Monte Carlo, was awarded 13.2 time penalties in her one-rail round due to some confusion with the starting bell, and despite appealing to the officials, she was unable to get the penalties removed, which pushed her down to seventeenth place in the final standings.
“Patty produced a really lovely round today, but sadly his popularity resulted in confusion at the start,” writes Lauren in a post on her Instagram account. “Due to the crowds [sic] cheers, the bell was not heard by myself (and from what I understand, no one in the crowd either). Despite my multiple salutes, gestures of confusion, and asking the crowd if they had heard the bell, the clock was started and we were given a devastating 13 time penalties, knocking us from 6th place to the bottom of the field. After an extremely long discussion with the ground jury, which was headed by Christian Landolt, they decided that they would not remove the penalties. The ground jury acknowledged that it was clear that I had not heard the bell, and that I had made multiple gestures waiting for it to be rung. The head of the ground jury stated he could not have rung the bell a second time even if he wished to because it was not legal. Although, we presented them with a rule clearly showing they could ring the bell a second time at their discretion. Which he admitted to not knowing that rule but tough nuts for me.”
You can read Lauren’s post in full here.
It’s been a beautiful — and educational — week of five-star competition in the sunshine here in Maryland, and already, we’re curious and excited about how this buzzy, vibrant new event will further develop for its third renewal next year. We’ll be back with more content from the weekend that was, but for now — Go Eventing, and Go Tim Price!
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