Waylon Roberts Top Canadian aboard Lancaster in 10th place

Oliver Townend returned to the Kentucky Horse Park a reigning champion, and he took a strong step towards defending his title with a dominant performance in dressage aboard Cooley Master Class at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by MARS EQUESTRIAN.

Townend, representing Great Britain, stands first with a score of 24.1, followed by countryman Piggy French riding Quarrycrest Echo (27.1). American Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg (27.9) is third, and has taken over the top spot in the Land Rover/USEF CCI5*-L Championship. Yesterday’s top ride, Felix Vogg of Switzerland on Calero, stands fourth with a score of 28.0.

“It’s obviously a great feeling to be back here to start with, this is one of my favorite events,” Townend, 36, Ellesmere, England, said of his return to Kentucky. “People here are very, very friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, the stadium is out of this world. If I had to pick a place to be the last event of my career, it would be this one. It’s such a special place to me.”

The morning dawned blustery and wet, and today’s riders had to contend with very different conditions from those who competed yesterday, though it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the 11,676 spectators in attendance. But Townend actually felt the more challenging conditions helped him.

“Today, Cooley Master Class was very good and it’s very nice to be in the lead after dressage,” he said of the 14-year-old Irish Sport Horse. “In the weather he was slightly looky, but that worked out better because he went in there and went to sleep on me. But, he got woken up by flowers in the corner before the flying change. I was happy with his performance. I’ve had the horse since he was four years old. He knows me and I know him, and how to go have a clear round and press the right buttons, and he did a very good test today.”

French, 38, Maidwell, Great Britain, found the conditions a bit more challenging but was still pleased with her horse’s performance.

“I was delighted with him,” she said of her 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse. “The warm-up this morning in the monsoon first thing was interesting and then he went back into stable for an hour. Though it was cold and stormy, I normally only do 20 minutes warm up at the big events because it keeps him fresher. But then he came out and it felt a bit like his tail was clamped and he was cold and tight and spooky. The wind felt really stormy, so I was so proud of him how he did his best work in the arena and felt very professional.”

Martin, 39, of Cochranville, Pennsylvania, felt the Tsetserleg’s test showed the increased maturity of the 12-year-old Trakehner.

“I was happy with my bloke, he put in a good test,” he said. “Dressage is always frustrating because you always wish you could go back and do it better. But, last year he was very green, and it felt like we scraped through all the phases. This year, he’s more seasoned and confirmed at the level and working very well. He’s a quiet horse and pretty relaxed, but he got a little stirred up in the warm-up, but we had time to get him relaxed.”

With the first of three phases behind them, the riders’ thoughts now turn to tomorrow’s test, Derek di Grazia’s commanding cross-country course. Despite his successful trip last year, Townend isn’t taking anything for granted.

“It always amazes me how much the course does change from year to year and even questions that you didn’t think everybody managed to get 100% right last year have disappeared and a new question arrives,” Townend said. “I’m a huge fan of Derek’s courses. I think he’s exceptional at what he does, and he has a real knack for knowing exactly what works for distances in combinations and also what a horse can see in terms of the lines. You can walk one of Derek’s course and think ‘how can they see that,’ and they lock on and turn like they are on rails.

“(However), this course is, I think, as tough as I’ve seen here and I think you need to be switched on every step of the way. You could have an easy blip without doing much wrong. It’s a true five star test, and definitely not a dressage competition. It’s a proper job from start to finish,” he finished.

Cross-country action kicks off Saturday at 10:30 a.m., as the horses and riders tackle the heart of the competition. Action wraps up on Sunday in the show jumping for a nail biting finish.

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 79.2, with Team USA in second (92.6) and Team Canada in third (102.1).