May 01, 2021

Why I love Kentucky: A Conversation with Oliver Townend

By Oliver Townend - As Told to Catherine Austen
Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class at the 2021 LRK3DE. USEA/Erin Gilmore Photo

My first visit to Kentucky was in 2009 when I finished eighth on Carousel Quest - with whom I won Burghley a few months later. My initial impression was, ‘Wow!’ Disbelief that the sport of eventing had such an incredible venue. That disbelief has never weakened. If I could event full-time at the Kentucky Horse Park, I would.

Carousel Quest
Townend and Carousel Quest at Kentucky in 2009. USEA Archive Photo


Driving in, you immediately feel the history. Cigar Lane. . . a lot of special horses are remembered in the Kentucky Horse Park, and it feels almost weird that Cooley Master Class, my Kentucky winner in 2018 and 2019, might soon be one of those celebrated there.

Outside the stadium is a huge, bronze sculpture of Bruce Davidson jumping into the water. It commemorates his 1974 World Championships win, which led to the 1978 World Championships taking place in Kentucky and the birth of eventing at this venue. That sculpture actually gives credit where credit is due to event riders. In the UK, Cheltenham Racecourse has a statue of the many-times champion jockey AP McCoy. Ascot has a statue of Frankie Dettori. Epsom has Lester Piggott. Where else in the world apart from Kentucky has a statue of an eventer to celebrate his or her successes?

Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class at the 2018 LRK3DE. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo

For me, the infrastructure of the place shows just how special an event with a well-organized system and permanent venue can provide for a sport. There is absolutely no reason for Great Britain not to have something of a similar standard - but it doesn’t. I ride up to that main arena in the golf buggy you are provided with, and I can’t believe it was built for nothing but the purpose of horse sport. It is such a shame we have nothing like that in the UK.

The enormity of Kentucky’s stadium is breathtaking - I could stand and look at it forever. As we proved this year, you don’t need a crowd to create an atmosphere; the stadium does that on its own, even without the hugely enthusiastic American crowds.

The facilities for horses - the stables and so on - are second to none. Everything is, again, purpose-built and immaculate, almost manicured.

I think this year’s #LRK3DE cross-country track was possibly the most technical I’ve seen at the CCI5* level. Land Rover Kentucky is somewhere that, for some reason, horses ‘get the trip’ even if they don’t necessarily at Badminton or Burghley. That doesn’t take away from the undulating terrain - Kentucky is definitely not a flat track. It’s more like the downhill slalom in ski racing; it’s very fast, roped tightly, you're always on a bend, and always working. At Badminton and Burghley you feel like you can get a breath into your horse; for me, Kentucky is more intense. You're always at it. And with the shortened time this year, the jumping efforts were even closer together.

Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class at the 2019 LRK3DE. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo


The feeling I had as I galloped across the cross-country finish line on Ballaghmor Class was one of pure relief - and slight disappointment that I didn’t have the opportunity to give him the smooth trip around I’d wanted. He lost a shoe at fence seven - with that shoe on, he could have cruised round in fourth gear and been 10 seconds inside the time.

I get emotional about what my horses do for me, and I think it might have surprised some people who saw me in tears at Kentucky this year after both the cross-country and the show jumping. Horses have always been my life and they mean so much to me.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class at the 2021 LRK3DE. USEA/Erin Gilmore Photo

My favorite moment of the weekend was crossing the show jumping finish line on Ballaghmor Class, thinking, ‘there aren’t many horses in the world that can show jump like that on the final day of a three-day event.’ It has been a bit frustrating that it is often highlighted in the media that he [Ballaghmor Class] can have a fence down at a CCI5*; they need to take into consideration that in the six very tough, stamina-sapping CCI5*s he’s contested, he has always been in a winning - or at least very competitive - position going into show jumping. Until last weekend, he has always had to jump on uneven ground that is victim to the weather during the event after between 70 and 90 horses have already jumped on it, having blitzed his way round the strongest cross-country tests in the world the day before. And it isn’t as though he has tapped his way around those show jumping tracks, lucky not to have several down - he’s jumped his socks off every time and just had a fence, for whatever reason. Kentucky showcased the jumper he really is, and it made me very proud.

Land Rover Kentucky took the opportunity to make itself into the most important CCI5* in the world last weekend, by actually running. I don’t think I have ever had so much recognition for what we achieved there from so many different people in countries all around the globe before; the amount of international interest in the competition was phenomenal. I just hope, now that Kentucky has happened and has been so successful, that it inspires other big events to do whatever it takes to make them happen.

Did you miss any of the USEA's Kentucky coverage? Catch up on it here!

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