‘It’s very hard to win a five star’ – O’Connor delight at historic win

  • 23 October 2023, 16:15

Austin O’Connor pictured ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Monumental win for Corkman at Maryland five star

Austin O’Connor wrote his name into the Irish equestrian history books on Sunday evening – for the second time this year – by winning the MARS Maryland Five Star.

The Mallow man became the first Irish event rider to win a five-star competition since Major Eddie Boylan and Durlas Eile won Badminton Horse Trials in 1965.

O’Connor was imperious on board Colorado Blue in Maryland, USA, all weekend and completed the victory with a clear show jumping round. The result comes off the back of a magnificent podium finish at the Badminton Horse Trials in May, which was the first time in over 40 years an Irish athlete had achieved the feat.

The 48-year-old and ‘Salty’, bred by long-time supporter of Irish eventing, Kate Jarvey, have been going from strength to strength – the striking 14-year-old grey gelding is owned in partnership between O’Connor and The Salty Syndicate. The pair were Ireland’s highest placed combination at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

They also helped Ireland secure qualification for the Paris Olympics as part of the team at the World Championship in Pratoni, Italy, in September 2022, as well as that Badminton podium finish.

It was an unorthodox route to win at Maryland, but following an unlucky 20 penalties and retiring early on the cross country at the CCI5* Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in September, O’Connor changed his plans. The stage was set and he was making the trip across the Atlantic with the goal of bringing home another big result.

“We went to Burghley and things just didn’t go right – that was that,” O’Connor told Horse Sport Ireland. “So we took the gamble to go to Maryland and I suppose it worked.

“One of the main committee members at Maryland, Tim Gardner, spoke to me at Burghley. He said ‘come on, head up and get over to Maryland’ and that’s what put the idea into our head, to be fair.

“Maryland actually wasn’t on the agenda until Burghley didn’t work out but once we got our heads straight, it became the plan.”

The result O’Connor comes home with is not just big, it’s historic. He is the first ever Irish rider to win a five-star on American soil and only the fourth ever Irish rider in the history of the sport to win at this level. One of the previous winners was another Mallow native, Captain Harry Freeman-Jackson at Burghley in 1963.

Cork’s O’Connor has been an integral member of the Irish Senior Eventing squad for a number of years now. He has represented Ireland at three Olympic Games – Tokyo 2021, Beijing 2008 and Sydney 2000 – as well as five European Championships and one World Championship.

Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue in action in Badminton.
Photo: Irish Eventing Times

Tough Competition

O’Connor was one of a number of riders who made the journey to Maryland in hope of a good result. The entry field included World Number 1 Oliver Townend, riding the Irish Sport Horse Cooley Rosalent, Piggy March, also on board an Irish Sport Horse, William Fox-Pitt and a strong contingent of American riders.

O’Connor completed his dressage test along with the first half of the 26-competitor strong field on Thursday, scoring 33.7 to sit just outside the top ten, making a result possible ahead of cross country on Saturday. It was never going to be a dressage competition thanks to Ian Stark’s clever and challenging cross country course design. O’Connor, like all the riders in the field, knew there was a lot to be jumped on Saturday.

“I was happy after the dressage. It could always be better, of course, but we were close enough after the dressage and then I was really encouraged when we walked the cross country and knew it was a real, proper, five star,” O’Connor added.

“Not like a four star or a four-and-a-half star kind of test. It was full-on, and that suits us. There was the obvious disadvantage of having to go first cross country, I was the pathfinder. But we roll with the punches and I stuck to the plan. There was no changing or messing about and as it proved, it was a tough cross country.”

Making her five-star debut American rider Mia Farley, riding Phelps, was the only rider to come home clear inside the time. O’Connor was the second fastest round of the day, picking up just 1.2 time penalties.

Going into Sunday’s show jumping phase, O’Connor was in fourth. With the riders jumping in reverse order the pressure was on – clear rounds were few and far between, with no rider jumping clear inside the time allowed.

O’Connor knew time would be influential and a fence down would be costly – a clear round was needed to move up the leaderboard and that is exactly what he delivered to finish on a score of 34.9. The round proved to be the only clear show jumping round inside the time allowed and propelled him to history.

“It was a huge relief at the end. To go clear inside the time, as you could see, I was delighted. I knew that nobody else had done that and that it was leaving me in with a shot – certainly at a podium finish.”

Two fences down Farley dropped from third place to fifth. William Fox-Pitt had one fence down to finish just behind O’Connor on 35.3 with Grafennacht. Oliver Townend was the final rider into the arena riding the Irish Sport Horse Cooley Rosalent, the only combination who could pip O’Connor to victory. Two fences down, however, dropped him from first to third place.

“Ultimately, he jumped a beautiful round and it was enough to give us the win. It’s very hard to win a five star and we came very close to winning one earlier in the year at Badminton,” continued O’Connor.

“Funnily enough, Harry Freeman-Jackson was also a Mallow man, which is a nice element to the story and I hope now that this can give eventing in Ireland a boost. Badminton was a great result and I hope this shines a light on eventing and shows the public that we are a force to be reckoned with in this sport too.”

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