Hawley Bennett-Awad top Canadian riding Jollybo, sitting in 11th place

Oliver Townend continued his quest to become a repeat champion at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by MARS EQUESTRIAN by putting in a strong performance on the cross country to maintain his top spot with Cooley Master Class with a score of 25.3.

American Boyd Martin stands second on 27.9 and holds down the top spot for the Land Rover/USEF CCI5*-L Championship, presented by MARS EQUESTRIAN, while New Zealand’s Tim Price stands third with Xavier Faer (30.9) in his quest to take his second leg in his quest for the Rolex Grand Slam.

Townend, 36, Ellesmere, England, was thrilled with his 14-year-old Irish Sport Horse. “He’s come out a lot keener this time than last time and he felt quite strong for him in places,” said Townend, the world’s number one ranked rider. “But he was definitely up for it. When he made up his mind on something, he felt more in control than I was. He knew his job today and this seems to be a place that he loves.

“He was definitely up for it today, more so than I’ve ever felt him,” he continued. “It didn’t matter the distance, his ears were pricked and his legs were out of the way. I hope he’s coming into his own; it’s his second (five) star and he felt like he knew more about his job this year than last year.”

Townend added 1.2 time penalties to his dressage score, an issue he felt was caused by his horse losing a shoe halfway around the course.

“I was very conscious of not having the shoe on and he had a bit of a slip turning back into the main lake,” he admitted. “I felt like I was balancing more than I normally would, I was not trying to pick up big distances, just trying to keep him in balance all the while being a touch more conservative than normally. You have beautiful ground here but the grass is just a little slippery.”

Martin, 39, of Cochranville, Pennsylvania, also noticed a change in his 12-year-old Trakehner from last year’s performance. “He gave me a fantastic ride actually,” he said. “My little guy felt a lot more seasoned and I have a better partnership with him. For a half-bred horse he’s got quite a good gallop and speed. He was just a gutsy little trier.”

Price, 40 of Marlborough, England was pleased with the 13-year-old British Sport Horse’s performance and fitness. “I had a good trip around on my horse today and I’m really happy with the fitness,” he said. “Especially when you’re coming from (across the pond) you have to be more up on your game. And it was just so demanding. It walked demanding, because it was quite complex throughout and there was no way to get coasting and make up time or regain the horse’s composure. But he threw himself over everything-not clumsy but he’s not always the most coordinated, but he was trying his hardest and stayed upright in all the most important places.”

Riders had expressed that Derek di Grazia’s cross country course provided a stiff test, and their concern seemed warranted when the first three riders out of the box came to grief. Two of them, Buck Davidson aboard Park Trader and Caroline Martin and Islandwood Captain Jack, fell at the straight route at the Normandy bank combination at fence 20. The fifth horse on course, Sara Gumbiner and Polaris made it through going the straight route, but the rest of the field assiduously avoided the straight route there until Philip Dutton did it on Z at the end of the day, followed by Martin.

“I’m stabled next to (Dutton) and we were kind of egging each other on to see who would do the fast way at the Normandy bank, but I was not sure he was going to do it,” Martin said with a laugh. “And then when I heard warming up that he did it, I thought ‘oh, I have to do it now or I will look like a big wimp.’ I realize that could have seriously backfired.”

“You guys both went straight? Now I feel like a wimp!” joked Price.

As predicted, the time proved very hard to get, with only three coming home with no jumping or time penalties: Martin, Price and Dutton, who now stands fourth. Will Coleman and Tight Lines also came home inside the time, but were awarded 15 penalty points for knocking down a flag in the water at 11A.

“For the most part the jumps worked in the way I thought they would,” di Grazia said of his course. “I think with a lot of the combinations there was variation of different strides in the obstacle and I think the riders used all of them. They had to work for it at the Head of the Lake with the brush jumping in and then having to reorganize for the step out. That to me was more the place where the riders had to work more than I thought they would.

“But, I set the track knowing it could go one way or the other,” he continued. “It was more that the riders had to make decisions and though they could have a plan A going in, at same time they had to have a plan B, depending on what actually happened on course. It wasn’t going to be something set you would have to do; that was my intention, it wasn’t that sort of course (and) I was happy to see everything was used.”

Of the 41 horses that started cross country, 31 will be moving forward to the final horse inspection. Twenty-six made it home with no jumping penalties. Four were eliminated on cross country: Deniro Z and Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp, Park Trader and Davidson, Martin and Islandwood Captain Jack and Colleen Loach of Canada aboard Qorry Blue D’Argouges. Halliday-Sharp was eliminated for a fall of horse; the other three were eliminated for rider falls. Two retired on cross country: Sharon White and Cooley On Show and Hallie Coon and Celien, and four others didn’t start. Davidson withdrew his additional two mounts after he was found to have broken his collarbone and Martin also withdrew her second mount Danger Mouse. Mara DePuy also withdrew Congo Brazzaville C before cross country.

The competition wraps up with Sunday in the show jumping for a nail biting finish, and the riders are making their plans to have their horses prepared.

“Mine is quite a straightforward horse, he’s a simple thinker, a gelding, though he is a little bit spooky so I’ll have to focus him,” said Price. “He’ll be a bit strung out after today, so I’ll school in the morning to repackage him a bit and then see what kind of course is presented to us.”

“I’ll get up in the morning and get dressed and see what we’ve got and tonight we’ll make the horse as comfortable as possible,” said Townend. “We’ll get him as well as possible, though he seems very happy right now, so one step at a time and then on to show jumping.

“I’ll give him a bit of work and jump after the inspection to close him back down after being so open at the end of course, and get him in as good a frame of mind as possible to jump,” he finished.

“He seems like he’s come through all right, he’s a fairly good, tough horse,” said Martin. “He can be a bit tricky in the show jumping, a bit awkward, so I’ll probably ride him a bit after the jog. I’m lucky, I came last year and jumped in some Kentucky show jumping classics in this ring, but it will be different atmosphere in that ring tomorrow. I’ll do my very best to try and ride him well and it will be what it will be.”

In the Dubarry of Ireland Nations Team Challenge, Team Great Britain/Switzerland (Oliver Townend/Cooley Master Class, Piggy French/Quarrycrest Echo, Felix Vogg/Calero, Leslie Law/Voltaire De Tre’) stand first with a score of 93.2, with Team USA in second (101) and Team Australia/New Zealand in third (143.9).

Results here.