Oct 22, 2023

O'Connor Captures First Irish Five-Star Win in 58 Years at MARS Maryland 5 Star

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff , Meagan DeLisle
Austin O'Connor and Colorado Blue. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Elkton, Md.—Oct. 22When Ireland’s Austin O’Connor earned a third-place podium finish at Badminton (England) this year with Colorado Blue, he jokingly said, “It won’t be long before there’s an Irish winner, and I hope you’re looking at him.”

Little did he know that by the end of the weekend at the MARS Maryland 5 Star, he’d be leading the victory gallop on the gray gelding and making history as the first Irish rider in 58 years to win a five-star.

O’Connor was rereouting from Defender Burghley Horse Trials where he and Salty retired on cross-country after incurring 20 penalties. Maryland 5 Star committee member Tim Gardner suggested he come across the pond to try his hand here.

O’Connor and “Salty,” a 14-year-old British Sport Horse gelding (Jaguar Mail x Rock Me Baby) owned by O’Connor and the Salty Syndicate, started their weekend at Maryland in 12th after dressage (33.7).

They climbed the ranks yesterday over Ian Stark’s tough cross-country track, jumping clear and adding 1.2 time penalties to move into fourth.

And today, they were the only pair to jump clean and within the time over Michel Vaillancourt's course.

When overnight leaders Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent dropped two rails, and second-placed William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht had one down, O’Connor and Salty took the victory.

Watch O'Connor's winning round via USEF Network:

“We wouldn’t have come to Maryland if we didn’t feel there was a strong possibility of jumping a clear round, but saying that, the last couple of three-days I’ve done I’ve ended up with a couple of cheap rails,” he said. “It happens—nothing really obvious. Today I made a horrendous mistake [at a liver pool where they left out a stride], and he gets me out of jail. If I had a fence down, I had a fence down, but everything was done in a way. He’s an unbelievable horse. He’s a proper, proper, proper five-star event horse—he likes to climb.”

O’Connor, 48, owned Salty’s dam, then longtime supporter Kate Jarvey bought her, and they started a breeding program together, so he’s known the gelding since he was born.

“He always looked a good horse, but I guess a bit like myself, with age he’s just got better. Or lucky!” he said with a laugh. “But he’s 85% Thoroughbred—he’s all blood, he’s all class, he’s all heart, and he’ll try and try and try to the bitter end. From day 1 he looked a proper, proper horse.”

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennact. USEA/Meagan DeLisle photo

Fox-Pitt was thrilled with Amanda Gould’s 11-year-old Oldenburg (Birkhof’s Grafenstolz x Nachtigall), known as “Lillie” in the barn.

“She was great today,” he said. “She can knock a jump or two down, and she can jump a clear round. She can just be a little economical, and today she wasn’t. She nearly jumped a clear round, and I’m still delighted with one down. There is a clear round in there.”

Fox-Pitt, who’s got 14 five-star wins to his name, is in the twilight of his eventing career, and feels Lillie’s given him renewed passion for the sport.

“She’s a great horse, she loves the sport, she finds it quite easy, she always says yes, she always has a go, she’s good fun. I think anyone could ride her, I’m just the lucky one at the moment. She’s keeping me going,” he said. “She’s keeping me in the game. Yesterday morning I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ but by yesterday evening I was thinking, ‘That’s what I’m doing,’ As we all know, it’s a drug, and it’s a good one. I’m enjoying it, and I think I should probably come to my senses, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy watching anyone else ride her yet.”

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent. USEA/Meagan DeLisle photo

In Oliver Townend’s three trips to Maryland across the pond from Great Britain, he has yet finish off the podium. This year, he and Paul Ridgeon’s Irish Sport Horse mare Cooley Rosalent (Valent x Bellaney Jewel) led the field from the second day of dressage through cross-country, but two rails today bumped them down to third.

Townend was very complimentary of “Rosie,” who is just 9 years old, and her performance throughout the weekend.

“She was giving me an amazing feeling,” said Townend in regard to his show jumping round. “I felt that there was maybe a baby mistake possibly coming out of the combination. I felt that everything was right going in, and then I felt that 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 the future, I've not got a concern about the show jumping. I thought she jumped a beautiful round, and we had two mistakes and that was that. I can’t tell you how happy I am.”

While every rider wants the win for himself, Townend was beyond thrilled to have O’Connor at the head of the podium.

“I nearly cried for Austin,” he shared. “Austin is a good man and has been a good friend to me in fairly tough times over the last few years. Well done to him.”

Hannah Sue Hollberg and Capitol H I M. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Hannah Sue Hollberg finished her five-star weekend with Capitol H I M (Con Air 7 x O-Heraldika) in fourth place and earned the honors of top-placed U.S. rider as well. She has been partnered with Christa Schmidt’s 16-year-old Holsteiner gelding since 2019, but this was their first five-star completion together.

“He was actually bought for his owner,” Hollberg shared, “but he was just a little bit too much horse for her, so I got to take over the ride. We didn’t really have extremely high expectations for him starting out. We just brought him up the levels and every time we kind of asked him to do more, he would just step up and answer those questions. He’s just gotten better and better and better.”

Hollberg and “Chito” started out their weekend in ninth after dressage and moved up to sixth after cross-country. While only the winning pair went double-clear today, this duo was one of two to only add just 0.4 time penalties to their score.

“He jumped better than he ever has in his life today,” she continued. “He just felt amazing, fresh as a daisy like he hadn’t run at all. My only thing I wish I would have done better is that on cross-country, I didn’t know if he would go the distance—you don’t really know until they do. And I kind of held him back a little bit before the corners at the top before the big crab water, and I think I could have been inside the time if I would have just let him go. I was worried about him getting tired, so it is so nice to know that he is so able and eager and can do it, which is awesome.”

Mia Farley and Phelps. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

The crowd went wild for U.S. rider Mia Farley aboard David O'Connor's 10-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Phelps (Tiz Now x Boom Town Gal) as they finished their show jumping round. Two rails brought the five-star first-time pair down to fifth from third, but their amazing efforts throughout the weekend, including being the only pair in the entire five-star field to make the time on cross-country, were still enough to be awarded the Amanda Pirie Warrington Award for the top first-time five-star rider.

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