Oliver Townend could be described as Great Britain’s eventing phenom or the bad boy of the sport. He’s fought hard to break into the elite ranks of the British eventers but often found himself selling his best horses to pay the bills. He rode as an individual at the European Championships at Blenheim (England) in 2005 and again as an individual at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen (Germany). He made his first team appearance a winning one with team gold at the 2007 European Championships in Pratoni (Italy). He’s never hesitated to state his opinion along the way.
In 2009, he won the Badminton CCI**** (England) on Flint Curtis and the Burghley CCI**** (England) on Carousel Quest. This 27-year-old from Ellesmere, Shropshire, Great Britain, sat down with the press to talk about his plans for 2010 and the pressure to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing.
Question: Which horses are you going to be taking to Kentucky?
Oliver Towend: The horse that is going to Kentucky for definite is a new ride of mine called Ashdale Cruise Master. I’ve only had the horse for a bit more than two months. He’s done two Burghley four-stars with his previous rider Emily Gilruth.
He’s another gray gelding by Cruising out of a Master Imp mare. He’s a really classy animal. He’s 11 years old. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the horse. He’s a horse that I’ve watched for a couple of years now and always thought he was fantastic. Emily became pregnant and has just had a child, which is the reason I’ve got the ride on the horse. The horse belongs to Henry and Edna Harding.
Q. Why have you chosen that horse and not Carousel Quest or Flint Curtis?
A. We decided a month ago that it probably wasn’t in Carousel Quest and Flint Curtis’ best interests to travel to the other end of the world at this stage in their life and their career. We’re going to give them a quieter time, seeing as they’ve been the main two boys for the last few years in my yard. We’re going to save them.
Possibly they’ll turn up at Kentucky later in the year at the World Equestrian Games. But we really decided they were going to take a step back this spring and give some of the younger, more up-and-coming horses a chance to come through and prove how good they are.
Although I’ve only just got the ride on Ashdale Cruise Master, he is without doubt an outstanding horse. The only problem for me at this point in time is the dressage, and, obviously, getting to know him. The dressage is his weak phase. To win the likes of Rolex Kentucky, then we need a good dressage. Apart from that, he’s a very good jumper. He’s got plenty of scope and plenty of gallop. We’re very positive for him.
Q. Given the success you had on Flint and Carousel last year, was there a strong temptation to go with either of them to Kentucky?
A. That temptation is there, but at the same time, I really do believe in this new horse. He’s been a talking horse for quite some time within the riders in Great Britain. Everybody’s had their eye on him and said he’s really got the potential. At the minute, for whatever reason, he’s not fulfilled his potential. Hopefully it will be down to us forming a partnership to release all this potential and try and win the Grand Slam. To sit on him is a dream. I’ve been very fortunate.
The other guys are 14 and 15. I’m not saying they’re ready to retire or to have a quieter life, but I want to not just focus on this Kentucky, but also the World Championships there. It isn’t my decision which horse will go to the World Championships if I’m lucky enough to be selected. That’s the selectors’ job. If either of the two older boys went to Kentucky this year, then they definitely wouldn’t be in line for the World Championships.
Q. It sounds like the World Championships are your real goal this year. That’s maybe a little different than it’s been in the past. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. Can you talk about how that mindset has changed for you?
A. It boils down to my business and my aims in the sport. Don’t underestimate how big a thing Rolex Kentucky is to me. It’s very important. My main focus at this stage is the Rolex. Whatever comes off the back of that is fantastic, but it’s one competition at a time.
At the moment all my worries, all my aims, all my dreams are hanging on Rolex Kentucky. The World Championships, yes, it’s obviously a huge competition. But I’m fortunate to have enough horses in the stable at a high level. So as long as I’m fit and well, and one of them is fit and well, and our form continues to be this good, then we’ll be there anyway. When the time comes for the World Championships, all the focus will be on that.
Q. If you manage to win the Grand Slam, do you have plans for the money?
A. The money is fantastic; I won’t lie. But at the same time, there is no money if I don’t win the competition. So all my focus is on winning the competition, riding the best I can, and trying to get the best out of the horse I’ve chosen to take there. Obviously if we do manage to complete the Rolex Grand Slam, then we’ll figure out what the money is going to be spent on. A few drinks, I would imagine, at that stage.
Q. The Rolex Grand Slam has only been achieved once before. You’ve always been a very driven individual. But did you ever envision that one day you would be in a position to go for one of the great prizes in equestrian sport?
A. To try and emulate what Pippa Funnell did in 2003 is a fantastic position to be in. She was an icon of the sport at that point in time. I imagined that I’d win Badminton last season. Without doubt, I was going there to win.
Burghley came as somewhat of a surprise. I’d never got round the course before. Obviously I was on a very good horse, and going into Burghley, I knew I had a fighting chance. It was the first time I’d arrived at Burghley on a horse that I believed was good enough to actually be competitive. He was class through and through.
Now it feels like a position that almost happened. No, I didn’t think I’d be in line for the Rolex Grand Slam. I didn’t think I’d be in a position to win a Rolex Grand Slam in terms of horsepower. Just as the two older boys are getting towards their later years, yet another gray horse turns up in the yard. It comes down to a huge amount of faith. It would be absolutely fantastic to complete the Rolex Grand Slam on three different horses, all gray. It would be almost a miracle to me.
Especially from my background, not being particularly what everybody thinks is a classic or normal eventing background, it’s just remarkable to even get to this stage. I’m very grateful to everybody that’s supported me so far in my career.
Q. Now that you’ve won these events and been on teams, do you feel a responsibility to give back to the sport or to help lead the sport? Or is this really just a business?
A. I love the responsibility, and I love the pressures it’s brought to me. Unfortunately, I have felt a little bit like the odd one out in the past. I have done a lot of growing up in front of the media, which isn’t always good or healthy for someone.
Now I feel a lot more comfortable in my skin about where I am in the sport. I always felt I had the potential, or felt I could ride so well, but obviously you need the equipment as well. You don’t get the equipment by continuing to sell it.
My main income is from selling horses, but at the same time now we’re completely down to sport. All I do and all I get up for is to try and get the best out of my horses and keep winning these big classes. I’m more hungry than ever. The business is established. My staff has been with me for a long time. We’ve got a good team, nine members of staff at home that I couldn’t do it without. Everything has become a lot more relaxed. I’m very fortunate now that I go to the big competitions probably more relaxed than I am when I’m at home.
Q. Last year in France you faced some criticism for running Carousel Quest and having so many rails at the Pau CCI****. [He was winning the October three-day, and Carousel Quest, who had won the Burghley CCI**** in September had seven rails to finish eighth.] How did you respond?
A. At the end of the day Carousel Quest was another horse that I don’t think had won a single class until he came to me. It’s alright for everybody to say how good the horse is, but it’s like racing: They’re not exceptional until they’ve done something exceptional and actually achieved what they’re cabable of.
Cressy [Clague Reading, his previous rider] had done an unbelievable job of producing him, but before he came to the yard, he was still a horse that needed to fulfill his potential. He filled it by winning Burghley. I’ve watched every Burghley since God knows when, and I can’t ever remember seeing a horse win Burghley as easily as he did.
He’s a horse that had issues with big screens and stadiums. Before he came to me, he was eliminated in two dressage tests at international level for throwing the towel in. He’s both physically and mentally a tricky horse in some respects. When we set out for France, he was in the best form of his life. It’s just people who don’t really know the full story or who don’t know the horse inside out that would easily criticize. It’s very easy to say that the horse was fantastic and ready when he’s got a red rosette pinned on the bridle. It’s those sort of people that point out how fantastic their form is when they win, but they don’t point out how fantastic their form is when they don’t win.
I think it’s a narrow-minded approach to say the horse didn’t win in France because he ran there straight after Burghley. Horses are horses. They don’t win every time, and they’re not machines. If we didn’t think Carousel Quest was in 100 percent top form before he went to Pau, he wouldn’t have gone to Pau, whatever money was at stake.
Q. You’ve got a tight time schedule in terms of Kentucky and then Badminton. Will you defend your title at Badminton, and do you know which horse or horses you will be entering?
A. I’ve got two horses that I’ve had since they were 5 at Badminton. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking. I’m very comfortable with Kentucky. Badminton, I don’t know how comfortable I am.
If you get given an advanced horse and get told to jump it around a big course, you think it’s advanced, and it knows what it’s doing.
These two guys, Golden Hue and Master Rose, I know inside out, and I still think of them as young horses that I’m still producing. They’re 10 and 11. Golden Hue went to [the Luhmühlen CCI**** (Germany)] last year and completed. He gave me a relatively good ride, but Badminton is a different question with the crowd and the atmosphere. I’ll definitely be there to try and win it. I don’t think you get horses to that level not to be competitive and not to get ‘round.
Q. What about your own tiredness? Will you be OK straight from the airport?
A. I thrive on that sort of thing. I only sleep in November anyway.