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Another American five-star success

We finished the 2021 campaign with a brilliant trip to the inaugural five-star event at Fair Hill, Maryland. It was Superstition’s second stateside sortie of the season, and while his 5th place at Kentucky in the spring was hugely impressive, at Fair Hill he couldn’t have made a more emphatic statement about his five-star suitability.


His preparation had been plagued by a persistent splint, which confined him to box rest or only walk-work for five long weeks from late-July to early-September. Consequently, our ability to produce a horse for the big occasion was seriously put to the test. Many felt it was unrealistic to target a five-star with a horse who hadn’t run for twelve weeks, but we managed to get him on the starting line properly fit and looking a picture of health and you’d never have known he’d had anything but a normal build up.


The transatlantic crossing for the European-based horses was slower than planned – the cancelled flight meant a long road-trip to Frankfurt before flying to New York.  Jess and the other grooms joined the horses at the quarantine facility, which was a frustratingly uncooperative set-up and a battle to make sure the horses were given the correct feed and their own haylage. We then met up with the horses and grooms on their arrival at Fair Hill, which gave us a few days to settle in and find our bearings at the brand-new site, which had been purpose-built for the five-star event.


Superstition’s owner, Mandy, flew out with Rosie, Molly and me. We stayed in a house on the Chesapeake water and set up base there for the week. Having done it for the second time this season we knew the drill well and it was a very happy camp during our visit.


The Fair Hill organisers couldn’t have been more welcoming, and although it was their first year, it felt like a well-established event. Most of all, there was a real sense of excitement, and this was infectious. 


With no course preview, photos or even a map of the course, the cross-country had remained a total mystery until the course was opened for walking on the Wednesday. The first impression was the endless hills. This was Ian Stark’s first, and long-overdue, five-star track; he’s one of the top designers and although his reputation is for creating imposing questions that border on unjumpable, he has a real feel for creating galloping tracks with sweeping lines and questions that are clear to horses. The best thing about them is they encourage and reward forward riding. This course was just that, with some wonderfully novel concepts such as the dragons which consisted of a double of spread owl-hole corners, a leaf-pit style drop to a seemingly impossible double of offset houses, a very A-level coffin complex and a Vicarage Vee style corner over a gaping ditch.


Superstition is an unusual horse, and it takes an unorthodox approach to get the best out of him.  We didn’t put a dressage saddle on him from the time that he left the UK until his dressage test, eleven days later. With lots of steady cantering to get him to breathe during the days leading up to his test, and some pole work exercises in the final warm up, he produced some outstanding work in the dressage phase. His trot-work was sublime, and he was trending on a score of 23 by the start of the canter, with 9s for his medium and extended. Having him right on the limit in the trot meant he was perhaps slightly too hot for the canter and this showed with some tension in the flying changes, putting him in tenth place on a score of 29. We know the changes are normally a strong point for him, and with such an improvement in the quality of his work over the past six months it’s exciting to think what he’ll be able to score next season. 


He gave me a sensational ride across country – perhaps one of the best I’ve had to date even compared to the likes of Midnight Dazzler, Wild Lone and Away Cruising, who were among the best cross-country horses of their eras. Superstition is athletic, bold and surprisingly rangey for his size. Previously, his weak link had been his footwork in front of fences – when things weren’t perfect, he could occasionally dive and hope for the best. Over the past twelve months we’ve done lots of footwork training, and although by Kentucky he was much improved it was not yet cemented in his armoury, whereas he is now fully fluent and has a 4x4 independence and quick-thinking nimbleness.


The only frustration was that the course wheeled far too leniently. At five-star level, courses have to be between 11 and 12 minutes long, whereas this measured at 10 minutes and thirty seconds. Not only was the distance too short, but the officials’ insistence to leave the time at 11 minutes in spite of the actual measurement coming up short, meant the speed of the course was closer to three-star speed (550m/min) than the prescribed speed of 570m/min for five-star events.


We feared this would make the cross country a non-event, which unfortunately proved to be the case, as the lack of time pressure meant the track didn’t sufficiently test the faster horses and riders. Superstition cantered around the second half of the course, took a long route at the last water and lobbed for the final minute before virtually trotting across the line, still fifteen seconds inside the time.


We finished cross-country day in fifth place but, to put it simply, the quite-good and stand-out performances were not separated. It takes a lot to produce horses to be properly fit and appropriately prepared in order to put on a competitive five-star performance; it's frustrating that this was thwarted by something as simple as erroneous measuring of the course by officials. The riders flagged the measuring inaccuracy on the Thursday morning, giving plenty of time for the officials to rectify it, but they didn't. There's no point in being an after-timer, but the results show the complaints were entirely justified and well-founded.


There's a total misconception that an unachievable optimum time encourages inappropriate riding, whereas history would suggest the opposite is the case: if the time’s within reach, riders ride to their watches and minute markers; but if the time isn’t achievable, they ride to the feel of their horse as they are not chasing a binary target. Furthermore, it creates a far truer result – imagine if in the dressage phase, any score better than 28 was disregarded and given 28, in spite of being a low 20s performance. The same frustration and imbalance is created when the cross country – the core phase and eventing’s USP – has little influence over the top of the leaderboard. Interestingly, the same situation was evident at Pau, with a similar proportion of finishers going inside the time. With the Olympic Games and World Championships now officially dumbed down to four-star level, if you can’t be sufficiently tested at five-star level, when can you be tested?


Putting frustrations aside, the course rode really well and it was a good day of sport. We were thrilled with how fit Superstition felt, reinforcing how effective our fast-work programme is. Jess gave him the usual first-class care post cross-country and he came out looking a million dollars on Sunday, ready to run again.


He jumped a peach of a round in the show jumping and was unlucky to touch one fence behind, finishing in 7th place. He's a great jumper and we couldn’t have been happier with his performance - his day will come!


At the US events, all European-based horses are stabled together in an isolated block and it creates a really fun and close-knit team atmosphere. At Kentucky, the overseas visitors dominated, and it was a similar story at Fair Hill as, of the six horses that had flown over from Europe, five finished in the top ten, making the international barn a fun place to be!


We do this sport for the fun, the journey, the dream, and the chance to work with, produce and show off such amazing horses. With Rosie and Superstition’s owner Mandy, as well as Jess and Molly, we had such a fun time and laughed a lot during the week. It’s wonderful to have that opportunity and this was an adventure to remember.



Click here to watch Harry and Superstition's cross country round.




The start of Superstition's journey to Frankfurt, before flying to New York.


With travel partner Jess, keeping him fed, watered and happy all the way to America.


Looking a picture before the first trot up


Harry's trousers from Cordings brightened up the overcast day


In the first phase

📷Shannon Brinkman


Heading to the start box


Touching down in the Blue Crab Water

📷Hannah Fitch


Game faces on

📷Hayley Walcott


📷Hayley Walcott


Leaping over America's answer to Badminton's Vicarage Vee

📷Shannon Brinkman


Post cross-country - spa treatment and a well earned feed


Gleaming at the second trot up


On springs

📷Shannon Brinkman


At the end of their second five-star this season - Superstition and his very proud and thoroughly deserved owner, Mandy Gray

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