Martin Makes The Most Of A Muddy Fair Hill

Oct 29, 2009 - 10:00 PM

He and the scrappy Neville Bardos score their first CCI*** victory, and they do it for the red, white and blue.

Boyd Martin was feeling a little bit left out. Having won a one-, two- and four-star CCI before the age of 30, he had little to lament in terms of his career, but the elusive three-star victory was beginning to bother the Australian-turned-American prodigy.

“I’ve come second a number of times in three-stars in Australia and America,” said Martin, who changed his citizenship with the Fédération Equestre Internationale to compete for the United States this June. “Even though it doesn’t really mean anything, it was something that had been eating away at me a little bit.”

So when Martin, West Grove, Pa., thrust his fist in the air after clearing the final jump at the Dansko Fair Hill CCI*** in Elkton, Md., Oct. 14-18, it wasn’t just in celebration of winning a singular battle. He’d won the war.

“I’ve run second in three-stars in Melbourne [Australia] and at Fair Hill and a couple others, and I felt I got really close to winning and then just couldn’t quite do it,” Martin said. “So I had a little bit of pressure on myself. I think it’s a mark in my life that I’ve accomplished every level on every style of horse.”

Constant rains and temperatures in the low 40s tested the mettle of every horse and rider at this year’s U.S. Equestrian Federation National CCI***/CCI** Championship at Fair Hill, and Martin was proud to lead the victory gallop aboard his scrappy 10-year-old Australian Thoroughbred, Neville Bardos.

“When it comes down to a gladiatorial cage fight, you’re left with tough, hungry horses,” Martin said. “I think if you look down the list of the top bunch of riders here, they’re proven people that are experienced riding in conditions that aren’t perfect, on horses that’ve got a bit of grunt and can man up when things aren’t perfect.”

Though the horse has missed some competitions recently due to ill-timed minor injuries, Martin still thinks “Neville” (Mahayaa—Zambia) fits that description. In fact, he’s named after a character from the film Chopper, about a notorious Australian criminal and ex-convict.

The gelding finished fourth at his first CCI***, at Fair Hill in 2007, and ninth at the 2008 Rolex Kentucky CCI****—not bad for a horse Martin picked up as 3-year-old off the track in Australia for about $1,000. He initially tried to sell the chestnut gelding, but couldn’t find a buyer.

While they don’t typically win the dressage—they placed 16th at Fair Hill with a 51.0—Martin and Neville excel on the cross-country. With several inches of rain saturating the grounds, officials removed 10 fences from the course of 40 jumping efforts and reduced the optimal speed from 570 mpm to 510 mpm. Twenty-one riders withdrew, but Martin saw an open door and was ready to ride through it.

“He’s a real Thoroughbred, so he’s quite suited to these sort of conditions,” he said of Neville. “He really galloped on top of the mud and did it quite easily, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I was pushing him much at all.”

Martin shot to the top of the leaderboard with the division’s only double-clear cross-country round, past Karen O’Connor and Joan Goswell’s Mandiba, who were the only pair all weekend to break into the 30s in the dressage. They won the first phase on a 39.6 and dropped to second after cross-country with 15.6 time faults.

Martin had a rail in hand over O’Connor on Sunday, but the latter gave him a bit more breathing room when she lowered one pole herself. Martin didn’t know it when he entered the arena, however.

“Of course I wanted to win, but I try not to get stuck counting how many rails I can have down and on the mathematics of the course,” he said. “In moments like that, I wouldn’t have known if I could have one rail or two rails or a time penalty. You just want to try to ride each jump as best you can.”

Martin did knock the middle fence in the triple combination, but his final score of 55.0 beat out O’Connor by 4.2 points. He earned the famous Fair Hill Bronze, the Gladstone Trophy for the highest-placed U.S. rider and the Guy V. Henry Memorial Trophy for the USEF National CCI*** championship. O’Connor, The Plains, Va., claimed the reserve championship and the Beale Wright Morris Memorial Trophy for the leading lady rider.

Both riders agreed that the weather conditions made the event feel like an “old school” long-format competition. The course proved much simpler after the removal of several accuracy questions, but many less-experienced riders were still unable to support their horses in the heavy going.

“[The fence cuts] definitely made it not a true three-star, but with the conditions and mud and everything, maybe it was,” Martin said. “If it was dry ground, you’d maybe call it an advanced horse trial, but with the mud I think it was still a three-star test.

“In these conditions, he’s a real tough mongrel of a horse,” he added in reference to Neville. “If you look at all the top horses here, they’re not show ponies. If they were people, you’d see them win a bar fight. I think if you go through the list, the fancy, shiny ones that had European mothers and fathers and sisters and cousins are just dead meat in tough conditions.”

Second-placed Mandiba, however, is an Irish-bred Thoroughbred (Master Imp—High Dolly) from William Micklem’s Annacrivey Stud in County Wicklow, which also produced O’Connor Event Team stars Biko, Custom Made, Mr. Maxwell and Giltedge.

“I think he’s a tough prep school kid,” O’Connor countered with a smile. “He’s had a pretty privileged life. And he is pretty and shiny, by the way. But he definitely has some grunt. I’ve felt that on many occasions on him. But Boyd’s dead right—if you have conditions that are adverse, you’re going to learn a lot about your horse.”

Taking A Step Back

O’Connor’s been learning plenty of new things about 10-year-old Mandiba over the past few months, even though she’s had him for years. She and husband David broke him as a 5-year-old and brought him up from the very bottom, but after a successful lower-level career, the big wins haven’t been materializing.

Karen took Mandiba to the Olympic Games last year in Hong Kong, where he had runouts at two skinny fences on cross-country, and then to the Burghley CCI**** (England) in September of this year. There, the gelding ran out at a skinny early in the course, and Karen later fell at a double-corner combination.

“We got [the Olympics] done, but that was a stretch, and then his next three-day event was another step up,” Karen said. “You can always Monday morning quarterback, but I really wish that I’d taken him to Blenheim [CCI*** (England)] instead and confirmed him at the three-star level.”

Karen was ready to step the gelding down a notch, but five weeks before Fair Hill, she fell off her motorbike at Five Points Horse Trials (N.C.) and broke her scapula and three ribs. That meant David had to keep Mandiba tuned up, and Phillip Dutton stepped in to compete him twice before the CCI.

“When you’ve been with a horse for a long time, you tend to not notice some of the things that might need work,” said Karen, who only took the ride back the week before Fair Hill. “But they did a great job, because he was very straight for me at the accuracy questions this weekend, which have been a weakness for both of us.

“He’s been doing a tall order for about 18 months now, unsuccessfully, so it really has made a big difference to end his season coming back to Fair Hill instead of just ending it at Burghley,” she added. “He’s going to stay at this level until I’m confident he’s really ready to go back to the four-star level.”

Karen’s shoulder did grow tired by the end of the three-star course on Saturday, but she said it held up well to the rigors of riding two horses. In addition to Mandiba’s red ribbon, she took home fifth place in the CCI** (62.6) with Allstar, another horse who’s recently bumped down the levels to regroup before moving back up.

Both Mandiba and Allstar competed at the 2007 Fair Hill CCI***, but the former failed the final horse inspection after he spooked and stepped on himself on the way down the jog lane; Allstar had to be withdrawn after puncturing his stifle on cross-country, and then the following spring he stopped out at one event and fell at another. Karen now hopes that both horses have regained their confidence.

“If you don’t take them slow, they’ll slow themselves down,” she said.

It’s All Quite Simple

Waiting in the wings to accept Allstar’s two-star ribbon, Karen had a front-row seat to watch her assistant trainer Hannah Sue Burnett win the division. But when Burnett exited the arena aboard St. Barths amidst raucous applause from the members of the OCET, all she could manage to say to her bosses was, “I don’t want to talk about it!”

Burnett and “Nike,” a former ride of Karen’s, went into show jumping in the lead with a rail in hand, and they put in an effortless, picture-perfect performance over 13 of the 14 efforts. But then came the final vertical, which the pair completely demolished, and for a few harrowing seconds it wasn’t clear whether Burnett would win or fall off and be eliminated.

“I was worried about getting too close to the last one because it was a tight distance, so I went out a little bit too far,” Burnett said. “It’s all quite simple—I messed up pretty bad!”

Nike got in quite close to the fence and pushed the rails out in front of him, and Burnett felt like she was swimming through them all the way to the finish.

“I was looking for the finish flags to make sure I went through them, and I was trying to just stay on and get my stirrups, which took awhile,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t know I had a rail in hand. I was just proud that my horse took care of me and didn’t fall down when I messed up.”

Despite her now infamous spectacular miss, the 23-year-old rider is no slouch in the saddle. She rode her own horse, Keep The Faith, to 23rd place at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and has worked for the OCET for four years. Burnett earned the ride on Nike, who’s owned by Richard Thompson, by helping leg the horse up after his recovery from EPM last year.

While she didn’t enjoy the long and tedious strength-building hacks at first, Burnett slowly forged a bond with the horse, and after Karen and Thompson agreed she could keep the ride, they won the Cosequin Stuart CIC** (N.Y.) together this summer.

Thompson is a longtime owner for the O’Connors, and he now donates the Sea Horse Farm Perpetual Trophy, in honor of his late wife Vita, to the winning CCI** owner at Fair Hill. So when he won the trophy himself this year with the last horse Vita picked out before she passed away, it was a particularly poignant moment for the OCET.

“It was really special that he got to receive the award devoted to his wife,” Burnett said.

Nike, a 9-year-old Thoroughbred gelding (Salty Shoes—Canadian Red Lady), competed at the lower levels on the West Coast with Lindsay Pozarycki before the Thompsons bought him for Karen.

He isn’t tattooed, so it’s unlikely that he raced, but based on his penchant for running, Burnett and Karen think he started out at a track somewhere. That Thoroughbred spirit ended up clinching the win for Burnett, as she was one of only two riders in the CCI** to make the time on Saturday.

With a new CCI** scheduled at Poplar Place Farm (Ga.) in November, 32 riders chose to withdraw from the division before cross-country, and several more retired on course. Officials removed eight jumps and reduced the optimum time from 9:03 to 7:58 to match the shorter track.

“When we were walking the cross-country course I was kind of discouraged, because I had hoped to do better than 15th in the dressage,” said Burnett, who scored a 51.9. “But David pulled me aside at one point and said, ‘Don’t give up thinking you can be in the top five on this horse.’ That really kind of made me go for it. He’s a fantastic cross-country horse.”

The pair’s double-clear round put them solidly into the lead, and even with their dramatic rail down on Sunday, they won on a score of 55.9.

Made To Order

If anyone’s horse was suited for success in the conditions at Fair Hill, it was Doug Payne’s Running Order.

Tied for eighth in the CCI** after the dressage (50.3), Payne, Pottersville, N.J., was the first rider out on cross-country and set the standard with a blazing round aboard his Irish Thoroughbred.

“He steeplechased in Ireland with Enda Bolger and spent a season hunting over there, so I figured he’d probably seen conditions like this,” Payne said with a laugh. “I was lucky enough to be going out first, and I’d always rather go first than last. In these conditions, that’s as good as you’re going to get. And he’s quite a cool horse and a very good jumper, and I’m certainly competitive. So I wanted to take advantage of that sort of opportunity when it presented itself.”

Payne and Stone Hill Farm’s 7-year-old gelding (Luso—Ellen Gail), garnered just 4.8 time faults to move up to third, and even with one rail in show jumping on Sunday, they still finished second (59.1). Running Order also won the USEF National Young Horse Championship for 6- and 7-year-olds.

This was only the horse’s fourth intermediate-level competition, so he’ll likely do another CCI** in the spring before moving up. He won the long-format Virginia CCI* earlier this year, however, which Payne said helped him mature by leaps and bounds.

“That was really a key [experience], because we’ve really progressed a lot faster than I expected,” he said. “He’s a big, long, lanky horse, and he’s kind of the gangly, goofball type. But he was a lot more confident coming off that [long-format] and really grew up in the process.”

Payne got the ride on Running Order last June, after the gelding was imported as a show jumper but proved disinclined to continue on that career path.

“He could be a lot stronger and more focused, and the flatwork’s going to still take some time—he could still go quite a bit better, I think,” Payne said. “But he’s got a great gallop and tons of potential, so I’m really excited where he could go in the future.”

Category: Eventing
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