Eventer Wills Oakden (GBR) had an extra reason to rise to the occasion at Blair Castle International Horse Trials this week.
In 2022, the Scotland-based rider won the CCI2*L at the legacy event, finishing on his dressage score of 28.3 aboard Keep It Cooley. On Sunday, he kept it in the family with A Class Cooley in the CCI4*L, riding a foot perfect show jumping round to take the win.
“It’s unbelievable,” exclaimed Oakden. “I thought winning one class here last year was massive, but to win two is beyond belief. We’ve been telling A Class Cooley’s owners all summer that we’ve been prepping at one-days for a big win, and now we’ve pulled it off—I’m not sure how, but we have.”
Astonishment aside, the significance of the Blair Castle event runs deep for the Scot.
“This event actually means the world to us, not just because it’s local, but also because we lost my step dad at the start of the year and this is his absolute favorite event. So to win it for him at the end of last year, when we knew things were going the wrong way, was special. But this is even more special to do it in his memory. And to do it on a horse that shares names with him as well, it’s just really nice.”
More astonishing still, the world no. 28 didn’t start the week in podium position with A Class Cooley. The pair were 11th after dressage, dancing to a score of 34.2 out of a field of 26. They leapt up the leaderboard into third in cross country, adding 10 time penalties to their total on a “rather wet,” even by Scottish standards, day that didn’t see any combinations come close to the optimal time allowed.
“Fair play to the horse, he dug really deep. I hope this will be a coming of age for him,” said Oakden, after their ride on Saturday.
Come Sunday, they made good on that wish. Oakden and A Class Cooley were one of only two pairs to jump clear in show jumping, clinching the win.
“It was hard work yesterday and he dug deep, he ground it out. I was so proud of him last night and to come out today and again jump on ground that he’s never jumped on before, it’s been a brilliant learning experience for him.”
Experience was, in fact, the order of the day when Oakden opted to contest the Blair Horse Trials with the Irish Sport Horse gelding. The pair has only contested two international events this season. They scored a career best, and only other podium, finish in the CCI4*L at Ballindenisk, IRL, in April. But finished 35th in the CCI4*S in July at Alnwick, GBR.
“We thought, eight years old, do you push him and go four-star? Or do you just let him really consolidate and find out a bit more about yourself? But we went with him to Blair because of the hills, because of the educational experience for him, for that benefit.”
The strategic decision delivered their first international win. At only eight, it’s still early days for the grey gelding.
“We love him to bits. He’s one of the yard favorites,” smiled Oakden.
Toshiyuki Tanaka (JAP) and Jefferson JRA dropped two rails in show jumping to settle for second on 54.5 penalties, but secured individual qualifying points for the Paris 2024 Olympics. Past Blair 4*L winner Rosie Fry clinched the third spot astride Romantic.
“I came here hoping for a good run, so a podium finish is the icing on the cake,” reflected Fry. “It’s very special to have another horse here after winning with True Blue Too, who I subsequently lost to injury. I knew she’d enjoy the course here, I’m so proud of her.”
*Wipes more tears*
Next stop for Oakden is next week’s Burghley Horse Trials.