March 9, 2010 -- Taking risks is nothing new for eventer Oliver Townend, 26, who was known on his way up for being tough and driven, perhaps even ruthless, doing whatever he felt was necessary to get to the top.
Now he's there: The No. 1 rider on the British eventing list last year won both the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials and the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, two of the world's most difficult and standout events. That gives him a shot at the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam as he heads to another 4-star event, Rolex Kentucky, next month.
In the history of this triple crown, which goes to the rider who wins Burghley, Badminton and Rolex in any order but in succession, only one person has claimed it--another Brit, Pippa Funnell, in 2003.
So with that kind of challenge and that much money at stake, you'd think Oliver would want to ride one of his two most famous horses in Lexington this year: Burghley winner Carousel Quest, fifth at Rolex last year, or Flint Curtis, who took Badminton.
But no. He said today via a trans-Atlantic call that he'll be up on a new mount, Ashdale Cruise Master. The horse does have one thing in common with his celebrated 4-star-winning stablemates, however; he's a gray.
As Oliver puts it, "grays have been good to me," but he insists he doesn't look for them. Rather, they come looking for him.
Oliver comes from equestrian stock: His father rode at Burghley, and his mother was a devotee of side-saddle. He quit school at 16 to event and came to the task with little capital, but a wealth of determination and talent. That propelled him to his current elevated status in just six years, when he started with only 1,400 British Pounds in his pockets.
His image wasn't always apple pie.
"Unfortunately, I have felt a little bit like the odd one out in the past, and I have done a lot growing up in front of the media, which isn't always good or healthy for someone," he conceded.
"But at the same time, I feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin about where I am in the sport. I always felt I could ride so well but you need the equipment as well, and you don't get the equipment by keeping (on) selling it."
Now he has the luxury of keeping horses and lasering in on the competition, as he states, "I'm more hungry than ever."
The top 100 rider list he heads was dominated over the last decade by two very big names, William Fox-Pitt and British-based Andrew Nicholoson of New Zealand, so the fact that Oliver's on top definitely proves has the keys to the kingdom.
Want to get the inside details on Oliver? Go to www.olivertownend.com, but be aware that much of the website is "members only" and will cost you 15 British Pounds to become an official fan. Obviously quite the businessman, Oliver is wisely taking advantage of his fame. He's done a "laugh and learn" Champions Tour series of riding, lectures and entertainment with show jumping jokester and former British team member Geoff Billington.
His financial situation dictated how he did things during his rise. In the period when Oliver was desperate for money, he would--unlike many other riders--sell his top horses. But there was always another coming down the pike, and now they're arriving at his door even faster.
Cruise Master is a case in point.
"I've only had the horse for 2 1/2 months," he said, noting he got him when former rider Emily Gilruth became pregnant. With Emily, the 11-year-old son of famed Irish stallion Cruising competed twice at Burghley, where he was eliminated in the show jumping in 2008 and finished 26th last year.
"He's a horse I've watched for a couple of years and always thought was fantastic," said Oliver. "We decided a month ago that it probably wasn't in the best interest of Carousel Quest and Flint Curtis to travel to the other end of the world at this stage in their lives and careers," he said, explaining why he chose Cruise Master.
One of the older horses may be a possibility for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall at the Kentucky Horse Park, which also is the venue for Rolex, he noted, "but we really decided they are 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."
Calling Cruise Master last year's "talking horse," that is, the one that everyone was talking about, he said his only weak phase is dressage. That could, indeed, scuttle Oliver's chances for the Grand Slam, as it's rare these days that a sub-par dressage test can be cancelled out by brilliant cross-country and show jumping performances. At Rolex last year, for instance, Bettina Hoy and Ringwood Cockatoo were first in dressage, followed by Lucinda Fredericks on Headley Britannia. All they did by the time the ribbons were handed out was switch places; their domination of the leaderboard wasn't really threatened.
On the other hand, the "phenomenally talented" Cruise Master is a good jumper with lots of scope, so that should serve him well if he can get within shooting distance in the dressage.
While Flint and Carousel Quest are far from retirement, it's possible that if Oliver is chosen for the British team (and one wonders what could stand in the way of this equestrian juggernaut) Cruise Master could make a return trip to Kentucky in September for the WEG.
"I think he's got two Kentuckys within a year in him without even a shadow of a doubt," he said.
Rolex Kentucky is not taking a back seat to the WEG, despite the high profile of the World Championships.
"Don't underestimate how big a thing Rolex Kentucky is to me," warned Oliver. "Its very, very important. My main focus at this stage is the Rolex.
"It's one competition at a time. At the minute, all my worries, all my aims, all my dreams, are hanging on Rolex Kentucky. The World Championships, yes, it's obviously a huge, huge competition. I'm fortunate to have enough horses in my stable at a high level. As long as I'm fit and well and one of them is fit and well and our form continues to be good, we'll be there.
Now, however, "our main focus is Rolex Kentucky and trying to complete the Rolex Grand Slam."
It may have been a premature question, but I just had to ask: "What will you do with the Grand Slam money if you win it?"
"Obviously, the money's fantastic," he said. "At the same time, there is no money if I don't win the competition. 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. If we do manage to complete the Rolex Grand Slam, then we'll figure out what the money's going to be spent on."
A quick pause and then, "A few drinks, I would imagine, at some stage."