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Maryland proves five-star eventing is right here to remain

  • Former Olympic team gold medallist, four-time Badminton winner and leading cross-country course-designer, Mark Phillips, reflects on the autumn US five-star and events going paperless

    Last week I went to Maryland five-star en route to course-design duties in Florida and North Carolina. This second running was a considerable improvement on the inaugural event, especially for horses and riders.

    It was sad, though, that organisers did not heed advice on the site layout, which still needs an overhaul with regards to people flow, tradestands, food outlets and so on.

    Ian Stark seemed a lot more comfortable this year in his five-star shoes and did a good job, though with half the field inside the time, some might say it was too easy. But five-star design is a learning process and it takes a new designer three years to get it right, whatever the track.

    In Maryland, there is a lot of terrain and everybody thought this would have a major effect. The fact is that here, it doesn’t, especially as Scotty gave horses a breather at the corners at fences 20 and 21 halfway up the hill.

    Last year the measuring of the course gave the riders a 15-second advantage. This year it was measured well, but on near-perfect footing it again rode easy. Next year Ian will have to find other ways to slow horses down and not rely on the terrain. Such is the learning curve.

    I really hope Ian’s talent is given the opportunity to shine at five-star in Britain before he decides to retire.

    Tight margins

    We saw at the eventing World Championships the advantage of finishing close to the optimum time when Tim Price pipped Ros Canter to the bronze. Here in Maryland, he rode a measured, calculated round, albeit surviving a moment at the crab water, to be just three seconds under the time. In the end no one finished on the same score, but with scores so close, this is increasingly becoming a factor, not to mention the energy saved for the last day.

    After their team silver in Pratoni, the Americans seem to be riding with a new confidence and are largely better mounted than yesteryear.

    For the Brits, Harry Meade overcomplicated his dressage warm-up with disastrous consequences, but cruised around the cross-country with typical Harry fluency on Superstition.

    I felt Oliver Townend and As Is were not generously marked in the dressage, but they were still only just over two marks behind the leader. Oliver worked hard on the cross-country but produced yet another clear in the time.

    These days the showjumping is nerve-tingling, edge-of-the-seat stuff, so close are the scores. Rails came down all over the place with the early riders until Harry Meade jumped a super clear to rise eight places to seventh – if only that dressage had been different!

    But when it came to the top four, they all jumped clear – Phillip Dutton, who has found this phase so difficult in recent times rode his luck on Z, Oliver Townend was immaculate, Tamie Smith was lucky at the navy blue upright and finally, Mr Cool himself, Tim Price.

    If there was proof that the five-stars are here to stay, it was here in Maryland.

    And also…

    Maryland followed other big events by trying to go paperless. I know it’s the way forward, but results and running orders need to be easy to find online. Also, there has to be a middle ground where paper is available for riders, grooms and coaches. They don’t have time to be searching on phones.

    In other news, I was pleased to hear Adrian Ditcham is gradually making Boekelo a genuine four-star, which is good news as next year the Nations Cup series, which culminates there, will produce a qualifier for the Olympic Games in Paris. The last fence had to be taken out after a number of falls, but he will have learnt from that, which is good news as he too is a significant part of the future of cross-country course-design in Britain.

    As a postscript to the showjumping at the World Championships – one of the most exciting finishes ever at a championship – I was upset to learn that the poles were in 18mm deep cups instead of the usual 25mm ones. This is a game changer; the FEI should not allow this without notifying teams in advance.

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 20 October

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