Oct 21, 2023

"Another Ian Stark Masterpiece." Townend and Cooley Rosalent Conquer Cross-Country at MARS Maryland 5 Star

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff
Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Elkton, Md.—Oct. 20—When a cross-country course has riders like Piggy March, William Fox-Pitt, and world no. 1 Oliver Townend wondering if it’s a 5 ½ star, you know it’ll be an exciting day.

Ian Stark upped the ante in his third year designing the MARS Maryland 5 Star track, hoping to slow riders down and challenge them even more. Sixteen of 25 riders to start completed.

“I thought it was another Ian Stark masterpiece,” said Townend, of Great Britain. He held onto his lead with Paul Ridgeon’s 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare (Valent x Bellaney Jewel) Cooley Rosalent, adding 6 time penalties to finish on a score of 29.1.

Fellow Brit Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht moved up in place into second with 5.2 time penalties, and U.S. rider Mia Farley and Phelps were the stars of the day, moving from 10th to third with the only round inside the optimum time of 11 minutes 10 seconds.

“I thought that it was a serious, serious five-star,” Townend said. “It rode as big as any five-star and was definitely bigger than a lot of the five-stars that we've seen in recent years. I think it was a tough challenge, but a very fair challenge, and I think that it got an amazing result which is one inside the time. I thought that the horses coped very well, and when they did a good job, it looked beautiful.”

“Rosie” finished her first five-star at Luhmühlen (Germany) in June with 20 penalties on cross-country, so Townend was thrilled to show the world how special the mare is.

“Rosie has fulfilled my expectations of her,” he said. “We've always thought she was a superstar since the day we first saw her at age 4. And from literally arriving in the warmup to setting out of the box, I just thought, ‘God, you’re just something special.’ She was very keen, but in a beautiful way. Ears pricked and enthusiastic, and basically, she had a whale of a time. I couldn't be happier with her. She's fulfilled our dreams that she is the next hopefully big thing for five-star horses.”

Townend now has just 2.1 penalties in hand for tomorrow's show jumping. Should Rosie win, she'd be the first 9-year-old to win a five-star since Fox-Pitt's Oslo won Pau (France) in 2011, and Townend would take home his eighth five-star win, according to Equiratings statistics.

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

Fox-Pitt and Amanda Gould’s 11-year-old Oldenburg (Birkhof’s Grafenstolz x Nachtigall) completed Badminton (England) in May as the mare’s first five-star, and she stepped up to the plate today despite a nearly 15-minute hold on course, which he thought played to his advantage.

“I’ve known she's a lovely horse, and she gave me a great ride at Badminton, so of course, I've come here full of optimism, and you never quite know when they've done one five-star; are they going to be as good as the next one?” he said. “She's always been a very cool horse from a 5-year-old—it’s like she’s just walked the course. She’s just like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ She doesn’t really deviate anywhere. She’s so nice and easy to ride.”

Fox-Pitt, who has the most five-star wins of any rider at 14, agreed with Townend’s assessment of the course, commenting yesterday that he appreciated the “rider frightener” fences that are becoming less common in the sport today.

“He was very brave in parts, and really gave us a serious track that we had to think about and focus on,” he said. “I think that Ian very much had Murphy Himself in the back of his mind when he was walking some of those distances and fences, and I was rather wishing that I was on a Murphy Himself, but my mare coped very well, and I was very pleased with her. I think he struck a good balance. I think he asked very good questions. There were times when things maybe weren't quite so big. But he did test our horses, and to have one inside the time—I kind of thought when I walked it, there might be two. So that's a pretty damn good result.”

He added that he feels the sport is getting more clinical, and making sure riders are forced to make choices on course instead of riding in set strides is key to keeping cross-country the focus.

“I think you want to keep that little bit of adjustment there so that riders do have to think, so that horses do have to think,” he said. “They’ve got to react to what's happening, not just have sort of like a bit of grid work where it's just keep going down the line, which is what has been happening a little bit. I think Ian is great at doing that. We really need that in our sport, to get riders to adapt, to decide, am I going straight? Am I adding, am I turning left? That's what makes it interesting, what makes it eventing, not show jumping.”

Mia Farley and Phelps. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Farley crossed the finish line to an elated David O’Connor, who owns Phelps, a 10-year-old Thoroughbred gelding (Tiz Now x Boom Town Gal), and who she’s trained with for several years.

“Phelps answered all the questions, and I couldn't be happier with him,” she said. “Leading up to this week, I've been definitely a little bit mentally unstable. I called David one day, and I was like, ‘Are you in town?’ ”

It was a first five-star for both horse and rider. According to Equiratings, Farley was the first U.S. rider in over 10 years to make the time in their five-star debut. The previous rider was Daniel Clasing in 2013 at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

“When I started, I just wanted to get to the finish. And Phelps did that for me. I couldn’t fit in all the emotions of the past two weeks,” she said. “What I learned about Phelps today is that he's a true fighter. When I wasn't fully there for him, he was like, ‘OK,I got you,’ and it was a wonderful feeling for him to kind of step in and take over the reins in a way.”

At the end of the day, Stark was more than pleased with the way his track rode this year. But if you would have asked him before the final rider crossed the finish flags, his answer may not have been the same.

"I have to say, I felt pretty darn sick during that two hours between the three-star and the five-star," he said. "I went in my car, and I thought, 'I'll read my book,' and I had a half a cup of coffee and fell asleep in the sunshine so that got me through those two hours. I am very good at sleeping when I am under pressure, but I felt dreadful before we started and was very relieved when [the first rider] Austin [O'Connor] went around so well. It was great. I was stressing all day but as the day went on, I began to relax a little bit. I think people rode very well today."

Stark noted that the Maryland 5 Star in 2024 will be the last event he course designs for before retirement, and he felt like this year was a step in the right direction, especially in terms of the time allowed.

"The fact that it was the one Thoroughbred who made the time pleased me enormously," he said. "There were people who did get close but didn't quite make it. That was good and worked out well. I have spent all of the buildup just wanting to slow them down so they didn't make the time, and it kind of worked."

While the Maryland 5 Star next year will be Stark's final hoorah as a course designer, he will be staying on with the FEI in a mentorship capacity for upcoming course designers. He is looking forward to spending more time with his four grandchildren and spending the entire winter in the mountains skiing. He noted that his course design next year will be a play on the current theme that worked out well this year.

"It has taken me three years to get it right, and I think the riders thought it was quite tough, but fair," he said. "That is the thing I am always passionate about; the horses understanding the questions. If the riders get it wrong, that is their problem. If the horses can read it, then it works, and I am happy."

Four riders opted to save their horse for another day and retired on course. Lexi Scovil had a refusal at 9, activated a frangible device at 12, and then retired Chicos Man VDF Z at 13a. Arielle Aharoni pulled up Dutch Times just two from home at 26. “Dutch” was vanned off, but is reported to be fine. Zachary Brandt and Direct Advance had a little trouble at 13a leading to a refusal, and they later retired at 19a. Sydney Soloman had a refusal at 18 and another at 21c which led to their retirement.

There were also five eliminations on course, three of which were fall related. Sarah Kuhn and Mr. Cash Van de Start had three refusals throughout the course. Booli Selmayr and Millfield Lancando had two refusals on course and were pulled up by the Ground Jury for crossing their own path which is technically recorded as a third and final refusal causing elimination. Early in the day, Azure and Phillip Dutton had a fall at 19a, but both were up and walked away. After a refusal at 12, Jacob Fetcher parted ways with Fabian on the second presentation. And lastly, Boyd Martin took a tumble off of Contessa at 3b.

Jennie Brannigan had a fall in the CCI3*-L that led to her withdrawal from the five-star competition.

Sixteen pairs will jump in reverse order for show jumping tomorrow at 2:00 p.m.

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