Townend must dodge cloud to fulfil chance of a lifetime in Kentucky
By Mike Rowbottom
The volcanic cloud bedevilling European airspace is threatening to prevent Oliver Townend fulfilling an ambition this week that has only been achieved by one other three-day event rider.
Having established himself at the top of his profession at the age of 26 by winning at Badminton and Burghley last year, Townend is geeing himself up to complete the Rolex Grand Slam by winning in Lexington, Kentucky this week, which would earn him a £233,000 ($358,000) jackpot and match the performance of his compatriot Pippa Funnell in 2003.
Townend’s two horses for this event - Ashdale Cruise Master and ODT Master Rose - await him in the United States. As does the chance of a lifetime. If air traffic continues to be halted in Britain, he plans to cross over to Ireland and fly from there.
If there is any justice, nothing will prevent this exceptionally determined and talented young man from embracing his destiny.
You might assume Oliver Townend is posh. There he is, pictured dashingly in the papers, riding against William Fox-Pitt, or arm-in-arm with fellow three-day eventer Zara Phillips. And his name - that sounds posh too. But when you hear his level, down-to-earth Yorkshire tones, those easy assumptions becomes swiftly redundant.
Townend’s father, Alan, was a milkman in Huddersfield who had a gift both for eventing, and for spotting talented horses. Townend also inherited a love of horses from his mother, Eve, who showed side saddle at county level.
"Dad competed to quite a high level. That’s how I got interested in riding, being dragged around to watch him competing," Townend says.
"I started riding myself when I was seven and I joined the local pony club. Dad funded it all by buying and producing good young horses and selling them on."
Townend’s first success came when he was 11, with his pony Cool Mule at the Horse of the Year Show, and at 13 he represented Britain on the pony eventing team at the European Championships.
"When I came to leave school at 16, all I wanted to do was to buy and sell horses and keep riding. I was very fortunate that I had some good results in deals that funded me in what I wanted to do. I don’t want to mention the sums involved, but I had some seriously good results which made a life-changing difference.
"Usually we would buy a horse as a four-year-old and produce them to five or six years old, putting good form on them before selling them."
In a world where many of his rivals don’t need to fret too much about cash, Townend stands out from the crowd.
"I am one of the very few people in the whole world that’s willing to sell exceptionally talented young horses," he says. "I need to make a living out of the sport. Unfortunately some people see me as having a reputation of not being particularly caring, as being a tough businessman. But that is just how I have to be to make my living and carry on with what I love, which is riding.
"I’ve got a decent mortgage to pay. If I had the money which meant I didn’t have to sell my horses, I would love to keep them."
Townend (pictured with Zara Phillips) admits that his background, and his business ethic, have sometimes made him feel awkward in a world that is still, by and large, that of the privileged few.
"I have felt like the odd one out at times," he admits. "The best thing to do is just to perform and really concentrate on my job and keeping on winning. As long as you keep winning, people don’t seem to mind you so much…"
Is he kidding? Yes, the chuckle tells you that he probably is kidding. Because Townend’s dashing looks and heady achievements have established him with large numbers of followers on Facebook and Twitter - many of whom are of the female variety.
"It’s great to have a following," he says. "I’m definitely really, really enjoying that side of things. I’m slightly overwhelmed by it at times, but it’s great to think that you have got support for what you are doing, and that it may be having an effect on someone else’s life.
"As long as I can bring a little bit of excitement or enjoyment to people by doing something I love doing, I will be happy. It’s fantastic when I go to an event now and kids know who I am and come up to me asking for autographs.
"But one of the most important things for me is to show that if you really love this sport and are determined to succeed in it, you can get on no matter what your background."
Townend was stable jockey to British team trainer Kenneth Clawson in Leicestershire for three years before taking the big risk of setting up in business on his own in 2004, initially renting a yard at Lubenham Lodge, Leicestershire.
"When I started up on my own I started from scratch," he recalls. "I had very little no money, and I rented a yard even though I didn’t have any horses to ride. I had no car, I was on my backside really. It was a real struggle to survive.
"My first break came when a racehorse owner sent me four horses to work with, and after a while the phone started going. I knew a lot of people in the business, so things developed pretty well. I’d already been eventing to quite a high level.
"In 2005 I rode my first Badminton, on Topping, which was owned by the Hon William Russell, and I came twelfth," he says. "That was a big, big step forward for me. And then I was selected for the British team at the European Championships at Blenheim, which was another big boost."
Townend was well and truly launched. And so successful has he been in his business that a year-and-a-half ago he was able to buy Gadlas Farm, near Ellesmere in Shropshire, where he employs a team of eight to look after horses who include the three greys on which he has rested his highest hopes in the past year - Flint Curtis, on whom he won Badminton, Carousel Quest, on whom he won Burghley, and the horse on whom he is hoping to complete his hat-trick, Ashdale Cruise Master.
But he admits that his involvement in all parts of the sport can be taxing in the extreme.
"There are various different bits to it, the training, the riding. We sort of do the job lot. We train the horses and ride the horses."
And it’s fair to say his main rivals don’t have to concern themselves with so many different elements?
"It doesn’t feel like it," he responds, again with a chuckle. "Definitely not. I don’t see that as a pressure, but at the same time it would be nice not to have to spread myself so thin sometimes."
Townend was given the ride on Ashdale Cruise Master, an 11-year-old grey gelding, just over three months ago after its owners, Henry and Edna Harding, moved the horse to his Shropshire yard when its original rider, Emily Gilruth, became pregnant.
"I had Flint Curtis for three years before we won Badminton last year," he recalls. "And I had Carousel Quest for a year before we won Burghley. I’ve only had Ashdale Cruise Master for three-and-a-half months, and my biggest problem is that it’s a race against time on the dressage front.
"He’s definitely one of the best horses I’ve ridden. But it takes time to get to know a horse properly, to know how its mind works, when it gets excited, if it gets excited, how you make it keep concentrating on the event."
Townend is clearly confident, however, that his new ride will be up to performing at the highest level at the competition this week, which is scheduled for April 22-25, and beyond.
Badminton is looming up immediately after Kentucky. But looming over everything is the prospect of riding in the Olympics on home soil.
"Having London 2012 coming up is a huge bonus for our sport," Townend says. "I know there’s been a lot of controversy about holding the equestrian events in Greenwich Park, but I think it’s going to be fantastic for local people.
"They will be able to step outside their front door and watch a really great event. It’s a big opportunity for us to explain what we do to a new audience. I can’t think of a more exciting sport to be watching on a nice sunny day, whether you are interested in horses or not.
"Obviously if Ashdale Cruise Master develops as we hope he will, and I am fit and in form, we will be going for the gold. This horse has got all the talent in the world, and all the quality you need to bring home the gold medal.
"A horse has got to be a winner in itself, otherwise there’s no point in continuing with it. People have questioned whether horses are made to do this sport. If they don’t want to do it, believe me, they don’t do it.
"Ashdale Cruise is a complete and utter athlete, he’s got great movement in the dressage, a good turn of speed and he’s a very careful and good jumper. He finds life very, very easy.
"Riding in big events like Badminton and Burghley in front of big crowds is an ideal preparation for the Olympics. Last year at Badminton when I was in with a chance of winning I remember saying to myself ‘What am I going to feel like on the final day? How am I going to feel if I knock two fences down and lose the lead?’ But when I was actually competing I was thinking to myself 'Why are you so relaxed? You shouldn’t be.'"
Clearly, Townend was not so much relaxed, as perfectly focused. It is a state of mind he will be eager to replicate when he competes this week.
Although the prize for the Grand Slam is rich enough to distract anyone’s thoughts, Townend is striving not to concern himself with it.
"I prefer to focus on the competition rather than the money side of things. If I don’t win it, I won’t get the money anyway.
"I try to avoid thinking about my opponents, but naturally it’s what I do end up thinking about. Basically you come up against the same five opponents whatever competition you take part in. Having said that, you can never rest on your laurels by assuming that someone else isn’t going to come into the reckoning.
"Winning at Badminton and Burghley gave me a great boost and showed I could win the really big events. But you can’t be relaxed. You can’t say: ‘I’ve won Badminton and Burghley, so another win is bound to come along.’ That’s not how it works."
When he gets back, Townend will be turning his thoughts straight away to the next Badminton Horse Trials, which start on April 30. "But it’s running a day late because of the Bank Holiday this year,” he adds, "so I will have one day in bed when I get home."
No one could say he won’t deserve it.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames