Tom McEwen Takes Command, U.S. Riders Charge on Final Dressage Day at Defender Kentucky CCI5*

Tom McEwen and JL Dublin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We had to wait until the final group of the field to see World Champion Yasmin Ingham’s early lead shaken on Friday at the Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*, presented by MARS Equestrian, and it was a fellow Brit who would eventually topple her into second place.

Tom McEwen is no stranger to pressure or the taste of success, and he’s put himself in the driver’s seat with a lovely and expressive test from the thirteen-year-old JL Dublin (Diarado – Zarinna, by Canto), owned by Mr and Mrs J Lambert and Mrs D Johnston, to earn a penalty mark of 24.6 to slide in front of Yasmin and Banzai du Loir’s 26.0. While Tom admitted that he felt that it didn’t quite live up to some of the tests he and “Dubs” have ever produced, his effort still provides him with the overnight lead ahead of Saturday’s cross country challenge.

“I must say it’s quite atmospheric today,” Tom reflected after his test. “There’s quite a few people in there, it’s quite electric in there, which I think has shown with a lot of the tests here – probably everyone not quite getting scores of what they were hoping for, for example. [Dubs] put everything into it, but it wasn’t our best test work. For me, I think we can be softer, better, clear again, but we went in there and nailed what we had on the day. I’m delighted with him.”

Tom McEwen and JL Dublin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

When asked why he chose to come to Kentucky this year, Tom noted how much he enjoys coming here — but more importantly, the fact that he knew that in order to stand out to the British Olympic selectors,  he will need to be the cream of the crop this spring season. It’s no secret the defending Olympic gold medal-winning team has depth in spades — arguably more so than any other nation at this point in time — so it’s not hard to imagine that Tom’s idea of ‘cream of the crop’ means nothing lower than a podium finish at the five-star level.

“Honestly, it is actually probably one of the best venues in the world,” Tom continued. “We all hope, and we’d all love to be going to the Olympics in a couple of months time. So realistically,  the best way of doing it is come to the one best places in the world. Realistically, I’ve come here to try — our British team is so strong, as you’ve seen with four Brits inside the top 10 this weekend already so far — and every show we’ve been to, they’re so strong. You’ve actually got to go and show yourself, and everyone’s got a different way of doing it and different ideas on how to go about it — but for me, it’s to come and actually perform on a stage on the biggest day.”

Friday afternoon in the Rolex Stadium certainly felt like the biggest of days, with a palpable atmosphere rippling through the stands: “It really felt very busy in the dressage arena today. It felt very electric for the horses and actually being able to come out and expose them to something like that is perfect preparation.”

Tom has knocked on the door of a five-star win with the former Nicola Wilson ride JL Dublin, with whom he finished second here last year, but has yet to achieve that ultimate success of a 5* victory to add to his 2019 Pau win with Toledo de Kerser. While Kentucky is certainly anything but a dressage competition, it’s no doubt a nice feeling to have that coveted first position in hand. Even so, Tom has just 3.5 seconds in hand tomorrow on a course that’s historically tough on the optimum time, while the stats gurus at EquiRatings have him at a 38% win chance after dressage, followed by current second place holder Yasmin Ingham with a 30% chance. You can read more about how EquiRatings algorithm calculates its statistics here.

Tom McEwen and JL Dublin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There was a bit of drama during Tom’s test: unbeknownst to him, a hawk captured a squirrel and took it for a screaming spin over the stadium during the test. This caused quite a kerfuffle from the crowd, but luckily Tom and Dubs were focused enough not to notice. The rest of us are fairly traumatized, to be honest.

“I didn’t hear them because last year when I went in, it was quite quiet because there wasn’t really anyone here — and then one person whooped when I did a medium which was a little bit… I was wondering what was going on! So no, this year it was quite peaceful in there,” Tom chuckled when I asked if he’d noticed the aforementioned kerfuffle. I’m not sure the squirrel would agree, though.

Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We have a tie for third place now between two U.S. riders. First up was Lauren Nicholson with the evergreen Vermiculus (Serazim ox – Wake Me Gently xx by Be My Native xx), owned by Ms. Jacqueline Mars, who posted a 30.6 to slide into third earlier in the afternoon. At 17 years old, Vermiculus is among the most experienced horses in the field, and while he’s scored lower before, you wouldn’t have known it from Lauren’s emotions afterward.

“We’ve been very, very lucky,” she said. “He did his first four-long as an eight-year-old and his first five-star here as a ten-year-old and he’s done kind of two, three big three-days a year ever since then, for almost a decade now. Last year was the first season we missed, but we also knew we didn’t want to take any chances with the coming year — and every run on him at this point is just a blessing and fun.”

Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s a testament to Lauren’s program to have a horse of this caliber competing (and, you know, competing) at this level, something Lauren attributes to her team at home as well as the education she has received over the last two decades from David and Karen O’Connor. Lauren, an Olympian in her own right, also knows what it takes to get to a team selection, and she’ll definitely have Paris in mind as she sets out for cross country tomorrow. Vermiculus has a 78% clear jumping rating on EquiRatings at the 5* level and should put his Arabian blood and base of fitness to good use in the hotter temperatures on Saturday.

“If I’m going to go into a team championship at this point, I want to be as sharp as possible, and for me and my horses, I feel like doing a long format five-star and having that extra pressure and intensity is part of that process,” Lauren said on her decision to tackle the 5* — plus, Vermiculus does need a long format to be qualified for Paris since he had a light year in 2023. “But I think it also totally depends on the person and the horse and the four-star short here certainly is not soft by any means — it’s more of a five-star short, so I don’t think anyone in either division is going to leave feeling less than prepared if the Olympics is on the cards later in the year.”

Liz Halliday and Cooley Nutcracker. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tied with Lauren for third, having ridden later in the day in the final group, are Liz Halliday with The Nutcracker Syndicate and Ocala Horse Properties’ Cooley Nutcracker (Tolant R – Ballyshan Cleopatra, by Cobra). This is a first 5* for “Bali”, who Liz has had since the outset of his career. There’s always a notion of ‘prepare, but you don’t really know until you do it’ when it comes to a horse’s suitability for a 5*, but Liz has certainly crossed her t’s in prep for this debut. It was about halfway around the Galway CCI4*-L course last year (which she went on to win) that she knew the 10-year-old Irish gelding was ready for the next step.

“When he’s nervous, he suddenly tries to stop on me,” Liz laughed. “And so that was what he did in the first shoulder in, and so I rode him quite strong in the second one. He also does it sometimes going across the diagonal to change without me doing anything because he goes, ‘how about walk?’ No, no, please don’t walk! I think it’s just his nerves, and he did notice the camera in the extended walk. But he was a very good boy to go ‘oh!’ and just put himself back together again and be a professional. So I was proud of him for that. Like I say, there were plenty of green moments — it was not even close to a polished test. So for him to be in second with that is exciting for his future.”

A 30.6 leaves plenty of room for improvement for Liz, who’s skilled on the flat and well-known for her prowess at collecting sub-30 dressage scores. With a lovely test delivered today, it’s exciting to think about the potential that still lies untapped.

Sharon White and Claus 63. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Also making a stellar debut in the first phase is another rookie horse, Claus 63 (Catoo – Tina II, by Levisto), who is ridden by Pan Ams team silver medalist Sharon White to a score of 30.7 to sit in fifth place tonight. This weekend has been a reasonably long time coming for Sharon, who’s not had a 5* ride since the retirement of the great Cooley On Show and has taken her time producing Claus to this point. Purchased sight unseen as a five-year-old from Dirk Schrade in Germany, Claus has been tactfully produced through his tendency to be emotional and sharp, particularly in this phase. This spring, he’s not achieved the scores he’s capable of, but today he went in and delivered for Sharon.

“I’m so proud of him,” a very smiley Sharon said. “I was there for him and he responded in kind, so it was really, really satisfying that he was just there. And I thought he was so good, so obedient, so with me. Of course, there’s a little bit — or a lot of — distraction in there, but I thought he was really good and quite a professional, which is not always his strong suit, so I’m thrilled with him.”

“What I really wanted, I achieved, which is that we stuck together and he was with me,” she continued, noting that she had set a goal for herself and was slightly disappointed to not quite have gotten the score she hoped for. But slotting into second at the time is nothing to turn your nose up at, and Sharon remains realistic: “I was actually slightly disappointed with the score, but it’s fine and it is what it is and what I really wanted, I achieved, which is that we stuck together and he was with me, and the score is not up to me. It gives me a starting point, and it is so far from a dressage competition.”

Claus has a couple of Advanced and 4*-S wins under his belt, and of course it remains to be seen how he’ll handle the phases to come, but he’s in excellent, experienced hands with Sharon, who’s focus on mental fortitude has been supplemented this season by assistance from sport psychologist Natalie Hummel.

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Also newly added to the top 10 today are multi-Kentucky winner Oliver Townend with Cooley Rosalent (Valent – Bellaney Jewel xx, by Roselier xx), a young talent who impressed at Maryland last year and came in as a top horse to watch for the podium finish. “Rosie” didn’t quite have the test Oliver had hoped for, but he remained pragmatic about the 10-year-old mare’s future.

“I thought the exceptional bits were very good and the mistakes were the mistakes,” he said. “I felt she was good. She’s just still a baby. She’s only nine, coming ten years old still. And it’s the start of her career at this level. So, on to the next thing. I think she’ll learn a lot here and the judging is the judging.”

The Rookie Update

Several other rookie horses went down centerline for the first time at a 5* today, and I always like to check in as it’s often an opportunity to glimpse the future talents of the sport.

Christoph Wahler and D’Accord FRH. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

D’Accord FRH – Christoph Wahler

This wasn’t quite the rest the German rider would have hoped for. A 34.0 — a shade higher than what the horse typically scores, though of course the 5* test is its own animal — will slot this pair into 15th place overnight.

“The trot work [was] okay. I think it’s not necessarily something that comes very easy for him, but he was with me, he was willing to give as much as he can and I think I also did not such a bad job in the trot work. But then, yes, starting with the walk, he was holding himself back a little bit. Walk is our weakest link. I know that, but I think he did it alright. And then in the canter work, it was a shame that he spooked in front of that camera in the second flying change after the half pass because he’s not a spooky horse. He doesn’t really look at things. So I was a bit taken by surprise that he looked at the camera. So obviously that was a very big mistake and then afterwards, the rest of the canter work was alright. He’s usually very good with the changes. The rest was not as good as we can be. But I think for the first time in the five-star test with this horse, it was alright.”

Doug Payne and Camarillo. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Camarillo – Doug Payne

The feral pony officially made his 5* debut this afternoon, and while he didn’t quite get down to Doug’s initial goal of a mid-30s score, earning a 38.0, Doug was pleased with the effort the 10-year-old gelding made.

“You know, [it was his] first time in an arena like that– he’s not seen much of it, and he was exceptionally good. There was one little miscommunication at the very end, he thought halt and we’re talking about changing but aside from that, he was excellent. You know, it’s one of those things — I look at him absolutely as a horse for the future. He’s ten years old now, has just done three four-star longs, which I think just needs a lot of innate strength and confidence, and it’s just getting better and better.”

James Alliston and Karma. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Karma – James Alliston

A 38.5 is on the board for the lovely mare Karma (who yes, has an unofficial theme song sung by Taylor Swift), who’s traveled out from California for this first run. James is another exceptionally experienced rider in the field, having brought multiple horses to this level throughout his careers. Now he debuts Karma, who’s definitely a bit stronger in the jumping phases at this point in her career. She is capable of a lower-30s score, so there is undoubtedly still potential in there as the mare continues to develop her strength at this level.

“I was happy with the horse; she was really relaxed, and I was hoping for a slightly better score but the horse was really, really good. I’m happy with her. She had a good season last year at four-star, and you never know until you do it, obviously, but everything she’s done at four-star she’s done well. So hopefully, we can make the next step.”

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Caravaggio II – Bec Braitling

Bec Braitling did her first 5* centerline in 21 years today, bringing forward the 13-year-old British gelding for his debut today. They earned a 39.3 for 28th place. Despite the higher score — “Ernie” isn’t really the biggest fan of dressage, which is honestly very relatable — Bec was thrilled with her horse.

“I was pretty happy to get through that!” a very positive Bec said afterward. “He was pretty wired in there. He’s been so good all week! And then he got some braids in and came up here and went berserk. And I was like, ‘Cool…!’ Tamie [Smith] was like, ‘he looks great!’ And I’m like, ‘No, he doesn’t!’ And then I was in there just like, ‘oh my god, I have four changes’. I don’t get a change in, usually, and he did almost all of them! And then of course he trotted in the stretchy canter. I was like, ‘Oh, good boy’ and then he trotted. So yeah, a bit of amateur hour in there. But no, he was so good given that he gets so wired about this phase — it’s his nightmare. Small ring, big horse, you know — he doesn’t feel like he fits in there!”

Joe Meyer and Harbin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Harbin – Joe Meyer

New Zealand’s Joe Meyer also brought forward a debutant this weekend in the adorable Harbin, scoring a 40.4 to go into 30th place. Joe’s remaining realistic about the challenge ahead tomorrow, but he feels the experience the 14-year-old Irish Thoroughbred has gained at four-star will serve him well.

“After Blenheim when he went around so well, I thought he was ready, and the other four-stars that he’s done beforehand. I was wondering whether he had the legs, you know, because he does gallop quite high and things like that. But after Blenheim I got him very, very fit and in a really good place. And I think he’s… is he a Burghley horse? I’m not sure. But he is up for stuff like this Kentucky and maybe Badminton? I think that, he’s more than capable of.”

The Last Word

Will Faudree and Mama’s Magic Way. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There was one elimination in the dressage today. Lillian Heard and LCC Barnaby were stopped by the judges early in their test and subsequently eliminated. Lillian sent us the following statement:

“The ground jury decided today that Barnaby looked uneven in his test and eliminated me from the competition. The vets have looked him over back at the barn and there is nothing to report. My best guess is that tension made him take some short steps. I am clearly devastated but I also am happy to have a healthy, sound horse and if there is one thing no one can argue, it is that Barnaby owes me nothing. I am here now to cheer on all my friends competing and will be back as a competitor another day.”

We have one withdrawal ahead of cross country in this division: Will Faudree has made the very respectable decision to withdraw Jennifer Mosing and Sterling Silver Stables’ Mama’s Magic Way after he said the buzz in the ring got the better of him today in the dressage (he scored an uncharacteristic 40.1). “He’s done five five-stars and we want to be more competitive and the atmosphere got the best of him today and there is no point in running him,” Will commented. “We will go back to the 20×60 and get better and be back to win one soon.”

Now we look ahead to cross country, the preview of which I’ll have for you first thing tomorrow (you can also view both the 4* and the 5* track on CrossCountryApp here). It very much remains an open game right now, favorites or not, and the Derek di Grazia design stands to exert its influence. Cross country for the 5* begins at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow following the 4*.

You can listen in on a recap of dressage as well as a preview of the action to come on the EquiRatings Dressage Review Show with myself and Diarm Byrne of EquiRatings here or wherever you get your podcasts.

We’ll be back with much more tomorrow, including full live blogs from both divisions from Cheg Darlington. As always, we appreciate you waiting into the evening while I organize my thoughts, and hope you have enjoyed following along with the #BestWeekendAllYear so far. Go Eventing!

EN’s coverage of the Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event is presented by Kentucky Performance Products, your one-stop shop for science-backed nutritional support for all types of horses. Click here to learn more about Kentucky Performance Products.

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