“It was a bit of an eye-opener for [Azure] and it’s certainly the toughest thing she’s done.”

— Phillip Dutton

“Here at Bromont there’s coffins, banks, hills, gulleys, drops… it’s a true cross-country test. And Derek builds right at the limit for each level.”

— Boyd Martin

“This was the hardest course either [my horse or I] have ever seen.”

— Maya Clarkson

The obstacles were big, the tracks were hard, the time was tight.

That was the consensus from MARS Bromont CCI on Saturday. Famed course designer Derek DiGrazia built the CCI4*-L, CCI4*-S, CCI3*-L, CCI2*-L, and CCI2*-L U25 cross country tracks to height, a decision applauded by German Olympian and guest coach Bettina Hoy.

“I think it’s very important that this event stays up to height,” said Hoy. “What we really want is to educate riders and horses as to height, fitness and technicality because that’s what it’s all about.”

But even DiGrazia conceded the 4*-L course in particular was a beast.

“The 4*-L — that was a challenging course with lots of different things to do.” shared the designer. “But at the end of the day, I thought there were a lot of good vibes. Obviously some people did have problems going around, but they maybe had a problem and then they went around and finished the course, so that’s good.

“To me, I always try to believe that [the courses I build] are fair. And that it’s something that is very possible to do. You believe that horses at the four-star level are trained to a certain level of proficiency and they should be able to handle what you put out there. But the biggest thing really is to make sure it’s fair, that they are really able to understand what the question is and then be able to go ahead and execute.”

Eighteen combinations contested the track. Thirteen made it to the end. None did so within the time allowed.

American Olympic medalist Dutton came closest with Azure, completing the challenging track on just 0.4 time faults to jump from 15th position into the lead on 36.8 total penalties.

“The course was difficult, with the combination of terrain, jumps and the time that was hard to get,” said Dutton.

“The terrain is undulating, you’re constantly up and down which probably takes about 15% off your speed when you’re trying to go fast. But [Azure] knows me pretty well now and I trust her, so I’m able to shave off time on the approach to the jumps as well. We’re forming a good partnership and hopefully it will grow from here.”

Arielle Aharoni (USA) and Dutch Times sit in second, finishing 8.4 time faults for a total score of 41.3 penalty points. They moved up from 8th. Hannah Sue Hollberg (USA) with Capitol HIM moved from 12th into third with a clean jumping effort and just 6.8 time penalties to finish on 42.4.

Overnight leader and top Canadian, Colleen Loach with FE Golden Eye, jumped cleanly but added 15.2 time faults to drop down to fourth on a score of 42.8.

With just over one rail of penalties separating the top five, Sunday is still anyone’s game.