Irish Luck Helps Propel Austin O’Connor to Maryland CCI5* Win

Ireland’s Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue climb the standings all week to win the 20203 MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill.

After trail-blazing the 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star CCI5* cross-country course Saturday, Austin O’Connor (IRL) was focused on living in the moment with Colorado Blue. “We’ll enjoy today,” he said after jumping cross-country clear with 1.2 time faults. “We’ll do our best for him. And we’ll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.”

O’Connor didn’t have to worry too much on Sunday. Entering the show-jumping phase in fourth place, the pair jumped double-clean. As the top three riders each had rails down, the Irish Olympian found himself and the 14-year-old gelding at the top of the podium.

“Salty” and O’Connor climbed their way from 12th place after dressage with a score of 33.7. Adding their cross-country 1.2 times faults, they finished the overall competition with a score of 34.9. O’Connor is the first Irish winner of a CCI5* in 58 years.

Austin O'Connor
Austin O’Connor (IRL) celebrates winning the 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill CCI5* with Colorado Blue. O’Connor is the first Irish winner of a CCI5* in 58 years. © Amy K. Dragoo

How the Top Placers Reshuffled

William Fox-Pitt (GBR) and Grafennacht, who went into show jumping standing in second, stayed there after having one rail down to finish on 35.3. Overnight leaders Oliver Townend (GBR) and Cooley Rosalent had two rails in show jumping to end with a score of 37.1

Hannah Sue Hollberg (USA) and Capitol H I M, who finished cross-country in sixth place, moved up to fourth after show jumping. They had a .4 time fault in jumping to finish with a score of 40. And Mia Farley and Phelps (USA), who were in third place after cross country, had two show-jumping rails to slip to fourth place with 40.9.

The 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill presented by Brown Advisory, was held October 19-22, 2023, in Cecil County, Maryland. This is the event’s third year.

The Show Jumping Course

Fourteen horses and riders competed in the show-jumping phase of the 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star presented by Brown Advisory. The event, held in Cecil County, kicked off Thursday, October 19 and concluded Sunday, October 22, 2023.

Michel Vaillancourt of Canada designed the show-jumping course (see course below in photo gallery). He included 13 numbered fences with 16 jumping efforts at a maximum height of 1.30 meters. The efforts included a double in-and-out (Fence 4AB), a triple bar (Fence 6), two liverpools (Fences 7 and 11). Vaillancourt also had a triple combination (Fence 9 ABC) and a liverpool (Fence 11).

Michel Vaillancourt of Canada designed the show-jumping course for the 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star of Fair Hill. Courtesy, MARS Maryland 5 Star of Fair Hill.

Austin O’Connor on Show Jumping

Austin O’Connor and Salty, who placed third in the 2023 Badminton Horse Trials last spring, had some Irish luck with them in the show-jumping phase. O’Connor left out a stride from Fences 6 to 7 and was very long to the liverpool. “In the last couple of three days, I’ve ended up with a couple of cheap rails. It happens, nothing really obvious,” he said. “And today I make a horrendous mistake, and he gets me out of jail. … He’s an unbelievable horse. He’s a proper, proper, proper five star event horse.”

Salty is from the Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain (SHBGB) studbook and owned by O’Connor and The Salty Syndicate. O’Connor said he’s about 85% Thoroughbred.

Austin O'Connor
Of being first to ride Ian Stark’s CCI5* cross-country course, Austin O’Connor said, “It’s no one’s ideal situation, to be honest. It’s nice to see half a dozen and see what’s happening. But you just look at a drawing, and I’ve just gotta crack on with it. © Amy K. Dragoo

Austin O’Connor on Cross Country and Dressage

On cross country, they lost some time toward the end of the course because they took a long route at Fence 25ABCD because Salty was getting a bit tired and “I wasn’t going to risk it,” O’Connor said after cross country. “He’s a super horse and he tried all the way.”

Of the spectators on cross country, the Irish Olympian added that they’re very similar to those at the Badminton Horse Trials. “Seriously enthusiastic fans out there … It gives you a bit of a push and a bit of adrenaline.”

O’Connor and Salty’s dressage phase was “solid enough. I made a stupid mistake at the end,” O’Connor said after their dressage test on Thursday. “Can’t blame the horse for that.” The pair had been doing a lot of work on their canter–halts “that I basically halted early. … [But] he’s not here to lead the dressage.”

O’Connor decided to come to Maryland after retiring on cross country at the 2023 Defender Burghley Horse Trials in September. After that, he said a committee member from the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill, Timothy Gardner, convinced him to cross the pond. “It was a sort of an afterthought really after Burghley. But you know, I’ve heard loads about it, and the opportunity arose, and here we are.”

Salty’s Personality and History

After dressage, O’Connor said Salty is a little bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “In some respects, he’s a very laid-back character. But he’s also, like when he goes in the ring there, definitely a little bit of nerves. … He gets a little bit within himself. But whatever happens here, he’s been a great horse. He’s a great jumper, a great, fun horse, and loves his cross country, so I wouldn’t want to ride anything else.”

“He’s a little bit reserved. He likes his own space,” O’Connor continued. “He’s not a cuddly person, so to speak, but he’s a gentle horse.”

Austin O'Connor
Austin O’Connor, with his supporters, gives Colorado Blue a thank you during the awards ceremony following the show-jumping phase. “Salty’s” groom, Francesca Denning, holds the lead rope. © Amy K. Dragoo

O’Connor bred Salty, who’s by Jaguar Mail, out of Rock Me Baby, by Rock Kind. ‘I’ve had him from the very beginning, so we broke him in. So anything good or bad is my fault. … I was the first person to sit on him and brought him through the grades. And he’s always looked like a good, good, good competition horse from day one.”

“With age, he’s just got better,” O’Connor added.

The pair competed in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, finishing eighth in the team placings and 13th individually. They competed at the 2022 World Championships in Pratoni del Vivaro where the team placed fifth. O’Connor competed for the Irish team in 2008 Hong Kong Olympics and 2000 Sydney Olympics as an individual.

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht

Grafennacht had one rail down in show jumping, but five-time Olympian Fox-Pitt said he was delighted with her performance. “I was very pleased with her. She was great today. … I mean she can knock a jump or two down, and she can jump a clear round. I mean, she’s not a show jumper.”

Lillie is an 11-year Oldenburg mare owned by Amanda Gould.

“She’s the sort of horse that, she might lose an event with one down and she could win one with a clear round. So there is a clear round in there. And she’s great to work with. She loves the sport is my thing. … she finds it quite easy.”

William Fox-Pitt (GBR) and Grafennacht had a rail down in show jumping, which left them in second place in the MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill CCI5*. © Amy K. Dragoo

Additionally, Fox-Pitt, who has won 14 five-star events in his career, talked about retiring from the sport. “I’ve got to decide, could she give me a bit more fun and do I do her well enough? I think as an older rider, you’re increasingly worried about looking like an idiot. And I think that normally you’re out there doing the cross country, do your best and you attack. Nowadays I think, ‘Oh God, I hope I don’t look like an old man today,’ because everyone will be like, ‘Oh for God’s sake, just give up.’ So it’s getting close, but she’s keeping me in the game. She’s a lot of fun.”

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent

Although Cooley Rosalent had two rails down in show-jumping, Townend said it was a learning experience for her. “Every time I’ve really concentrated on trying to improve a specific part of her training, whether it be a flying change or more expression in the trot, she just comes up another level and another level,” the Olympic gold medalist said. “She’s learned an incredible amount this week. … She’s very happy with herself. So hopefully she’ll learn from the experience. And hopefully we’ll see an even higher level of performance next time.”

Rosie, a 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare, is owned by Paul Ridgeon.

Oliver Townend (GBR) and Cooley Rosalent had two rails down in show-jumping to slide from first to third in the Maryland CCI5*. © Amy K. Dragoo

Townend said they had two mistakes in the jumping phase. “It was a baby mistake, possibly, coming out of the combination [Fence 9C]. I felt that everything was right going in. And then I felt that it was me getting a little bit too desperate at the next one [Fence 10]. So perhaps she had one down and I had one down.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” Townend said. “At the same time, I nearly cried for Austin. He’s a good man, and he’s been a good friend to me in the fairly tough, tough times of the, of the last few years.”

How the CCI5* Unfolded

Earlier on Sunday at the Second Horse Inspection, riders presented 16 horses. The ground jury held two for reinspection. Piggy March (GBR) elected not to represent Brookfield Cavalier Cruise for reinspection. The pair sat in fifth place after cross country. The ground jury did not pass Erin Kanara’s Campground (USA) on the second jog. They were in eighth place after cross country.

The CCI5* kicked off Wednesday, October 18, with 26 horses. Jennie Brannigan, who fell off during the CCI3*-L cross-country course, withdrew Twighlightslastgleam before the CCI5* cross country began. During cross-country, only Mia Farley and Phelps rode a double-clear round. Additionally, 11 horses jumped clean cross country but had time faults. Five riders were eliminated and four riders retired on course. That left the 14 horse-and-rider combinations to show-jump on Sunday.

Here’s a look at the remaining top-10 finishers in the 2023 MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill presented by Brown Advisory:

The Week’s Competition Coverage

First Horse Inspection

Day 1: Piggy French Marches to the Lead in the MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill

Check out the CCI5* Cross-Country Course at the MARS Maryland 5 Star

Day 2: World No.1 Takes No. 1 Spot at MARS Mayland5 Star

Piggy March on training Brookfield Cavalier Cruise

Day 3: Townend Cruises around Maryland’s CCI5* Cross Country

Day 3: Scenes from CCI5* Cross Country at the 2023 Maryland 5 Star

Exit Harbour Pilot, Enter Capitol H I M

Thanks for following our coverage of the 2023 Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill, sponsored by Mane ‘n Tail Equine. If you missed any of it, click here for rider interviews, competition reports, horse spotlights, photos, videos and more!⁣

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