It was bound to happen, one day.
And Sunday was it.
In a dramatic finish to the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event (LRK3DE) in Lexington, Oliver Townend of Great Britain put paid to the three-year streak of German virtuoso Michael Jung and placed himself firmly within striking distance of a record of his own.
Sunday’s show jumping phase had all the makings for a nail-biting finale. Defending champions Jung and fischerRocana FST led the pack, the potential for a four-peat dangling within reach. But with less than a rail separating the top five, there was zero room for error and a challenging test ahead set by course designer Richard Jefferies.
Of the 32 horses to contest the course, only seven would jump clean within the time allowed.
One of which was Townend.
With two horses in the top five—he stood in third overnight on Cooley Master Class and was tied for fourth on MHS King Joules—the Brit had the advantage of contesting the course twice. And he put it to work.
Going early on King Joules, he lowered a rail with the 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse. It was a mistake not repeated on Master Class.
Third last to go, the bay gelding jumped his heart out to finish on his dressage score of 28.7 penalties, putting pressure on the final two— Australia’s Christopher Burton and Jung.
Burton caught two rails, ending his bid for the title. The LRK3DE was Jung’s to lose.
The German pair looked on form until a long distance to the triple bar at fence five. His 13-year-old mare tipped the front rail and, with it, the scales of fortune in Townend’s favor.
A disbelieving Townend covered his face with his hands and then did what 99% of the human population does upon realizing a long held dream. He dissolved into tears.
“Obviously it’s a fantastic feeling,” said the Shropshire, England based rider. “I had to do a bit of arm-twisting to get the horses here as there was no funding from Britain to come here this year. The owners gambled on me to win their money back, and I’m pleased the horses have come through with great results and that I’ve repaid the owners’ gamble on me.”
As the winner, Townend takes home a check for $130,000, plus an additional $14,000 for his seventh-placed finish on MHS King Joules. There’s also a one-year lease on a Land Rover Discovery, a Rolex watch and the potential for new record in the mix.
This latest victory marks his second victory of the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing, putting the British rider squarely in contention for the $350,000 cash prize that goes to the rider who wins the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton, Land Rover Burghley and Land Rover Kentucky in succession. Townend won Burghley last September aboard Ballaghmor Class. He plans to compete that horse as well as Cooley SRS at Badminton next week.
If he can capture Badminton, he’ll become the third person in history to take the Grand Slam. Previous winners were Jung in 2016 and Pippa Funnel in 2003.
“I’m very fortunate to have two nice horses also belonging to (Cooley Master Class’ owner Angela Hislop), and we’re living in dream world,” Townend said. “Angela came up to me about six years ago and said if she was going to own horses for me she wanted a four-star winner and a British team horse, and now we’ve had both. So, we’re both living in dream world, and hopefully it will continue for another week—please.”
Jung was forced to settle for second, but remains forever first in eventer’s hearts for quotes like this:
“I’m very happy about Rocana, a little more sad about me,” said the three-time Olympic gold medalist. “It was my mistake, I was too far away from this fence. My mare tried hard, and it was a good round, only one down, but it was one down too much. But it was a very nice week here in Kentucky. I really like this event, it’s beautiful and I’m happy to be here.”
Marilyn Little (USA) and RF Scandalous took third and the bulk of the weekend’s contentious social media chatter after blood was spotted in her horse’s mouth during the cross country phase.
So ends the 2018 edition of “the best weekend of the year.”