Well, we all knew it would be an exciting finale and the 32 horses and riders moving on to the show jumping phase on Sunday did not disappoint!
I started my day at the final horse inspection, which was not without it’s own dramatic moments. Of the 36 horses who completed cross country, 3 were withdrawn overnight (AP Prime and Leah Lang-Gluscic, Landioso and Mackenna Shea, Covert Rights and Colleen Rutledge), leaving 33 to present at the jog. The tension came along with the 4 horses who were held during the inspection (Spring Easy ridden by Caroline Martin, Nobilis 18 ridden by Christopher Burton, Paddy the Caddy ridden by Erin Sylvester and fischerRocana ridden by Michael Jung). I think everyone in attendance was holding their breath until Michael and Roxy represented and were accepted. The only pair spun from the final inspection were Paddy the Caddy and Erin Sylvester, unfortunately bringing the horse’s first 4* run to an early end.
After the final inspection, 32 horses in total moved on to show jump. The field was split into two groups to jump, the 12 lowest placed pairs jumping before a break to drag the ring, after which the top 20 pairs would jump. The first horse in the ring was Lillian Heard’s LCC Barnaby (jumping out of order as she was riding 2 horses in the first group) who started us off with a clear jumping round and just 1 time penalty. It was another 5 rounds before the first double clear of the day, coming courtesy of Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border (have I mentioned, my personal favorites?). This turned out to be our only double clear round in the first group!
In all, it was another 12 rounds before the next double clear, laid down by Will Coleman and Tight Lines. Later in the group, we saw 4 double clears in a row, from Copper Beach and Buck Davidson, Cooley on Show and Sharon White, Vermiculus and Lauren Kieffer, and finally from Z and Phillip Dutton.
As always, there were a few fences that came down more than any others. Fence 2 was the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing vertical, which was directly against the wall closest to the grand stand seating. Some of the riders who left the rail up seemed to overshoot their line and angle back a bit away from the crowds, which may have helped their horses from being distracted. The other fences that came down were the elements of the triple, 6ABC, which came immediately following a roll back turn to a triple bar (fence 5), many horses looked like they just didn’t get back in balance quickly enough after landing on a longer stride from the triple bar. The triple was also facing back toward the in-gate to the ring, so that could have been a factor also. Nearing the end of the course, fences 9-10-11 were a line coming directly toward the grand stand, a vertical to a liverpool oxer to an option of two verticals (one on a straighter line from the oxer and taking a longer line around to the next fence, one on a bending line from the oxer and leading to a quicker turn to fence 12). The liverpool oxer and the option verticals came down quite a bit as well, my assumption is the main factor was heading directly into the packed stadium crowd may have been a bit distracting for the horses. I think there were only 1 or 2 fences which did not come down at all during the day, a lot of horses looked tired from the tough cross country course the previous day, and many who were expected to go clear had an unlucky rail or two down.
Moving into the top 5, there was another double clear from RF Scandalous and Marilyn Little who were placed 5th coming into the ring, 1 rail down late in the course for Donner and Lynn Symansky, who were the top placed American pair in 4th following cross country, another double clear from the 3rd placed Cooley Master Class and Oliver Townend and 2 rails down for the 2nd placed Nobilis 18 and Christopher Burton. This put the overnight leaders, fischerRocana FST and Michael Jung exactly 1.2 points ahead of the now 2nd placed Oliver and Cooley, only 1 time penalty in hand. I don’t think there was a single noise in the stadium as Michael and Roxy entered the ring and approached the start flags. You could hear a pin drop as they jumped around fence 1, fence 2, fence 3, fence 4, around the turn to the triple bar at fence 5… they saw a long spot, the rail came down and the entire stadium let out a collective groan. They finished the rest of the course clear, with no time penalties, but the event was already won! The big screen immediately flashed to a ‘behind the scenes’ shot from the warm up area, where Oliver Townend and his team had been waiting during Michael’s round, to show a very emotional Oliver realizing that he’d just won!
One of my favorite parts of any sport is seeing the emotion when someone realizes that the thing they’ve been chasing, the endeavors they’ve put their blood, sweat and tears into has finally resulted in the big win they’ve been working for. Oliver came back out for the presentation of awards and when they asked him how he was feeling, having finally conquered the only 4* win in the world that had eluded him up to now, he said he was “a bit of a mess right now,” but that he was obviously elated to have ended up in the top spot. A more lighthearted moment from the awards presentation came when Oliver was presented the keys to the Land Rover which came with a 1 year lease for the winner. They asked him to take a test drive, and he was worried about operating the left-hand drive vehicle, as he was not used to it! He got in and did a few ‘victory laps’ in the car and seemed to be just fine racing around the arena.
I have to say, after 3 years with the same winning pair, this was definitely an exciting and somewhat shocking finale to a great weekend of eventing. One thing that I love about eventing is the cooperation and camaraderie between competitors. I was by no means rooting against Michael and Roxy, I think he is an excellent horseman and she is obviously a super-mare, and I would have loved to witness a historical 4th win for them, but another of my favorite things in sports is when the ‘underdog’ comes out on top! Oliver and Cooley are world-class competitors and I certainly wouldn’t call them underdogs, but I can’t tell you how many times over the weekend I heard “well, we already know who’s going to win” or some variation that this was a competition for 2nd place, the conclusion was already determined, or that our defending winners were unbeatable. This weekend served as a reminder that no one is unbeatable and that nothing is ever a sure-thing, especially when it comes to horses!