BRITISH eventing star Oliver Townend is determined not to let Europe’s air travel chaos deny him the ‘biggest moment of my career’ as he bids to keep his Rolex Grand Slam dream alive – after already spending £1,600 on a French taxi and planning to take a flight from Spain to Disneyland.
Former Holme Valley Riding Club rider Townend left his Shropshire base ahead of the Kentucky three-day event where victory will earn him £230,000.
With no flights from the UK due to the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, 27-year-old Townend drove to Crewe from his base in the village of Dudleston Heath, then caught a train to London, where he boarded a Paris-bound Eurostar.
After arriving in the French capital, he took a taxi to Madrid – a 14-hour journey costing around £1,600 – with the aim of boarding a US-bound charter flight, before then trying to get from Miami to Lexington, some 1,000 miles north through Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
"I got to Paris and I knew that I had to persuade someone to drive me to Madrid," said Townend.
"I just thought ‘Yorkshire’s not that different to French’, so I grabbed a bloke and explained that I had to get to Madrid.
"I am sitting in the back of a cab, trying to keep the driver awake.
"It cost me £1,600 and took 14 hours, but I am determined to get to Kentucky.
"My entire career has been building up to a moment like this and I am not going to let it slip away just because of a volcano in Iceland.
"I want to be there to represent Britain and this is the biggest moment of my career so far and the biggest event of the year."
Townend’s horses for the Kentucky event, which starts on Thursday, arrived there last week. The British rider is bidding to win consecutive Badminton, Burghley and Kentucky competitions, a hat-trick which would see him complete the £230,000 Rolex Grand Slam.
It is one of equestrian sport’s most coveted prizes, and has only been achieved once before, by Pippa Funnell in 2003.
Despite his trials, Townend remains upbeat.
"To be honest, I am trying to see it as an adventure - this is where the Yorkshire grit kicks in," he said,
"A lot of other people are going through far worse because of this situation but my attitude is ’I have a job to do and I’m going to do my best to make sure that I am there when the competition starts’.
"This has to be one of the most surreal situations I have ever found myself in.
"I am in the back of a taxi speeding across the Pyrenees and on Thursday, I will be on my horse in Kentucky. It doesn’t get much more exciting than this."
Townend faces another challenge when he finally arrives in the United States.
"Like everyone else, I am here waiting for a plane out of Europe," he said.
"This has to have been the most bizarre 24 hours of my sporting life.
"It is like a movie script, which is ironic because the only flight I can get out of here is a Spanish charter to Miami and Disneyland.
"Now, I have now got to find a way to get from Miami to Lexington, Kentucky - and of course that is where the story really begins."
The FIM MotoGP World Championship race in Japan on Sunday is the latest sporting event to be called off because of flights being grounded following widespread travel disruption.
The race, the second round of the series, had been planned for the Motegi circuit but fears that large parts of Europe could continue to be no-fly zones has led to the event being rearranged.
With the Spanish round at Jerez - a flagship home race for the series’ rights holders Dorna - due to be staged a week later, there had been fears over teams being stranded in Japan.
Despite the travel problems, this week’s prime sporting fixtures look likely to go ahead.
Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has no doubts the Spanish Grand Prix will run on May 9 despite teams fearing their preparations could be hampered.
UEFA also confirmed this week’s Champions League semi-finals would go ahead as planned although Barcelona and Lyon have been forced to travel by coach for their respective first-leg matches against Inter Milan tomorrow and Bayern Munich on Wednesday.
Barca had originally planned to fly to Milan today but instead set off by road yesterday afternoon, spending the night in Cannes before continuing on to Milan today - an overall trip of around 1,000 kilometres.
A decision will be taken "in the coming days" about whether Thursday’s two Europa League semi-finals between Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, and Hamburg and Fulham would go ahead as planned.