#BadmintonAt70: The Realm of the (Ex) Racehorse

Gird your loins, chaps: the countdown is ON to the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, and we, for one, couldn’t be more excited — not least because this year is a special one. 2019’s competition is the 70th anniversary of the inaugural Badminton, and since its first running in 1949 the sport, the venue, and the characters within this epic story have changed and evolved significantly. To celebrate 70 years of brilliant Badminton, we’re going to be bringing you an extra-special inside look at the event and its rich and exciting history, every week from now until the competition begins on May 1. Consider the archives your own personal Gringotts, and EN your loyal goblin sherpas. 

This week, we’re delving into the rich history of the ex-racehorse at Badminton. Thoroughbred fans — this one’s for you!

There’s an age-old debate where the Thoroughbred’s role in eventing is concerned. Those in favour argue that a blood horse is a faster horse, a fitter horse, and a horse with more stamina. These qualities in tandem allow a horse to be more comfortable thinking and reacting at high-speed, with – in theory, at least – less chance of a catastrophic tumble when a quick change of plan is required. Those against point out that the sport has changed in favour of a horse bred to be as competitive on the flat and over the poles as it is across the country.

Whichever side of the argument you fall on, Badminton has seen a number of enormously successful ex-racehorses cross the finish flags — in total, nine horses with connections to racing have won the event. Seven of those were ex-racehorses, one would go on to race after its eventing career, and another enjoyed moonlighting as a racehorse between its top-level eventing runs.

The Thoroughbred was certainly the dominant force of early-era eventing. This can partly be attributed to the increased emphasis on cross-country – of course, we’re talking about old-school long-format eventing, with its multi-part cross-country phase.

The course map of the 1949 Badminton cross-country — all 847 phases of it. Image courtesy of Badminton Horse Trials.

The very first running of Badminton was largely experimental, but even then, horses and riders had to cover some 22km – that is, 14 miles – on cross-country day. This must have seemed almost merciful after the 1948 Olympics’ 22-mile cross-country, but compared to 2018’s 6750m – or 4.2 miles – it was a Herculean effort.

  • PHASE A (three miles, 22.5 minutes at 220mpm): First, Badminton competitors had to complete a roads and tracks phase, which took them at a gentle pace across to the village of Didmarton, where the steeplechase course was held. Roads and tracks was a game of forward planning – you didn’t want to waste any time, but nor did you want to waste any energy. Those riders who could strike a balance and use this jump-less phase to warm up and install some level of rideability would find themselves much better prepared to kick on at speed over…
  • PHASE B (two miles, 9-12 fences, 5.5 minutes at 600mpm): The forthcoming steeplechase fences. Once completed, there was…
  • PHASE C (five miles, 38 minutes at 220mpm): a second roads and tracks section – ostensibly just the hack back to cross-country, which began by the stables. Once again, tactics came into play: there was no ten-minute box to allow horses to recover before they set out to tackle…
  • PHASE D (three miles, 21 fences, 11 minutes at 450mpm): the cross-country. If riders wanted their horses to recover, they needed to complete the latter roads and tracks phase more quickly – a tricky catch-22 for anyone not sitting on a horse with a high blood percentage. Once the cross-country was navigated, there was just
  • PHASE E (1161m, 3.5 minutes at 330 mpm): a long canter stretch designed to help wind the horse back down and initiate the recovery period.

Of course, a high percentage of blood is no guarantor of fast recovery, but it’s a pretty safe bet that a pure Thoroughbred will benefit from increased stamina over a cross-bred horse. In the early days of eventing, many of the riders were off-the-track, too – plenty of National Hunt and point-to-point jockeys tackled the first few iterations of the event, looking for a new challenge for themselves and their game, gutsy horses. The pairing of high-class horses who were bred to run and jump with jockeys, who were capable of not only bringing a horse to peak fitness but riding them to conserve energy too, was a formidable one. It’s worth noting, too, that the early rules of eventing favoured aggressive speed – riders could earn bonus points for quick times in the cross-country phases, effectively allowing them to mitigate the effects of a poor dressage performance. The faster you rode, the more points you could knock off – and penalties for going too fast wouldn’t be introduced for some time.

Together, these factors created a sport in which speed and toughness was king. Before the idea of breeding and producing event horses ever occurred to anyone, the classic, hardy Thoroughbred had established its dominance.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Thoroughbreds were bred with one purpose in mind – to race. That meant that any Thoroughbred doing another job was almost certainly a byproduct – it was either being made useful following a career on the track, or it was a dud that had flunked out of training. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the very first winner of Badminton was inextricably linked with the racing industry.

THE STARS AND STRIPES AT BADMINTON

Golden Willow (Cloth of Gold x Pussy Willow) wasn’t a byproduct, per se – in fact, he was one of the rare few horses that was an eventer first and a racehorse second. Bred in the US in 1943, he was brought to the UK in 1948. The striking bay five-year-old easily won four hunter trials that autumn, showing an impressive length of stride and a remarkable toughness across the country. That toughness, however, was paired with a tricky streak – Shedden described the horse as being both lovable and terrifying all at once. In fact, the horse was so prone to fits of excitability that Shedden, frightened of falling and losing the animal, tied a length of twine from his belt to the saddle. That way, he hoped, he might stand half a chance of keeping a hold on the horse if he were to take a tumble.

Golden Willow takes the first Badminton. In a twist on what we now consider the norm, Golden Willow wasn’t so much an ex-racehorse as a racehorse-to-be.

Despite his quirks, the five-year-old Golden Willow found himself third after dressage. (Admittedly, this was, perhaps, due to his competition – many of the horses entered hadn’t ever been in an arena before, and spent most of their tests trying to figure out how to exit it at speed.) On cross-country day, he went so astonishingly fast that he leapt the Irish Bank in one, and finished the day having knocked 63 points off his first-phase mark. He was so far ahead of the pack that even a knocked rail – worth ten penalties in those days – saw him win with 26.5 points to spare.

Eleanor Home Kidston took home £150 (£5207 after inflation) for her horse’s win, and enjoyed another piece of the pie the following year, when her talented tearaway finished fifth. Now only a six-year-old, it looked as though Golden Willow was to become the sport of eventing’s very first legend – but instead, he became the sport’s first financial casualty. Dismayed with what she felt was insufficient prize money, Kidston was persuaded to send the horse into racing. Shedden, who was one of the country’s most accomplished horsemen, knew that Golden Willow’s tempestuous, busy mind wouldn’t be able to cope with the rigours of race training, and his habit of running away even in a strong gag bit would be dangerous, at best, on the track. But he was overruled, and his talented young mount was sent away. Shortly thereafter, Golden Willow bolted in training, galloping for fourteen straight miles and pulling up only when his tendons broke down. After a year and a half of rehabilitation, he was sent back into training and it happened again. This time, the horse’s career was over.

Apropos of nothing, a fun fact:
1952’s winner wasn’t an ex-racehorse – in fact, Emily Little was bought as a five-year-old with only the intention of competitive glory. But her rider, Colonel Mark Darley, came from illustrious Thoroughbred stock himself – his family was responsible for the introduction of the Arabian horse into English breeding. The Darley Arabian, of course, was one of the three founding sires of the English Thoroughbred. Not a shabby legacy.

THE FIRST EX-RACEHORSE

If Golden Willow was arguably a racehorse-to-be, then 1953’s victor was the first true off-the-track Thoroughbred to take the Badminton title. Starlight XV (Trappeur II x Dawn), ridden by Major Laurence Rook, was another striking stamp of a Thoroughbred. Like his American forebear, he had a difficult streak. While galloping and jumping came naturally to the horse, who had been intended for steeplechasing, he found dressage difficult at best, and garnered a reputation for being explosive in this phase. (Incidentally, his trainer on the track was Gerald Balding, who was Britain’s last 10-goal polo player before turning to racing –his granddaughter, television presenter Clare Balding, presents the television coverage of Badminton these days. Synchronicity, my friends.)

Laurence Rook and Starlight XV.

Poor Starlight had a questionable run of luck – at the Helsinki Olympics the year prior, he’d stumbled into a hidden piece of guttering on course, turning himself over and dazing Rook. Once the two were reunited, they still managed to notch up a bonus of sixty marks, but missed a turning flag in phase E, the run-in. They were eliminated, and the British team lost its grasp on the gold medal.

In 1953, Badminton a bit of a double feature – the competition wasn’t just a major event in its own right, it was also the home of the very first FEI Open European Championships. After the previous year’s blunder, and because of his horse’s unreliability in the first phase, Rook was dropped from the home team at the last minute. He was still allowed to ride as an individual, though, and he did so, confident that he could win by some margin. He did, and his replacements on the British team – Major Frank Weldon and the ex-racehorse Kilbarry – finished second.

Weldon, whose first love was racing, had bought Kilbarry with the intention of aiming for the Gunner’s Gold Cup, and the pair won their first point-to-point together in preparation. Unfortunately, a bout of equine flu meant that Kilbarry had to undergo a tie-back surgery at the end of 1952, effectively ending his racing career. Weldon had ridden at Badminton once already on another mount, and so he was quick to reroute the horse’s career trajectory. Rightly so: the horse would never finish outside of the top three in an international event.

Frank Weldon and Kilbarry in 1955.

Not insignificantly, the 1953 running of the event was considered a particularly tough one – the weather was unseasonably warm, and any fitness issues made themselves readily apparent part of the way through the course. Only 26 of the 40 starters made it through to Sunday’s showjumping phase, and thereafter, it was decided that there ought to be some sort of qualification process to compete at Badminton. It was, arguably, a year destined for the Thoroughbred horse.

In 1955 and 1956, Kilbarry and Weldon finally won Badminton, having finished second the two previous years. Once again, 1955’s running was a special Badminton: not only was it again hosting the European Championships, but bizarrely, it had moved to Windsor Great Park – the Queen’s back garden – for the year. Second-placed in this event was another racing combination – Bertie Hill had been persuaded to give the sport a go, and his £90 ‘dud’ Countryman ended up being syndicated by the Queen and winning the gold medal at the 1956 Olympics. Later on, he would be bought and piloted by the 11th Duke of Beaufort – the owner of Badminton estate – who would finish second with the horse in 1959.

David Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort, and Countryman knock a rail to narrowly miss the win at Badminton 1959. Photo courtesy of Badminton Horse Trials.

THE OVER-ACHIEVER

In 1961, a horse with the absolutely remarkable moniker of Salad Days would take the Badminton win. Piloted by Australia’s Laurie Morgan, he occupies a unique place on this list: he wasn’t quite an ex-racehorse, nor was he a racehorse-to-be – instead, he was a top-notch eventing horse who raced for fun in between his competitions. He was part of the 1960 gold medal-winning Australian Olympic team, and much of his preparation for the following year’s Badminton was done over hunter chase courses. Unsurprisingly, the pair were remarkably quick and clean across the country – and they needed to be. The day before the dressage, Morgan discovered that he’d learned the wrong dressage, and they went off-course in their test three times. Only their blazing speed on Saturday saved them from a frustrating loss.

Embed from Getty Images

It would be another ten years before a racehorse (past, present, or future!) would grace the top of the leaderboard. When the next one did, though, he made up for it by doing the double. Captain Mark Phillips enjoyed wins in 1971 and 1972 with Great Ovation, a horse he had very nearly given up on, admitting that he didn’t think the horse would make the grade. But instead of selling, he decided to give the horse, by Three Cheers, a season of hunting from his army barracks at Catterick. The following spring, the ‘never naturally brave’ gelding, with a penchant for hesitance in front of a fence, took his first title.

1971 was also the first year that the modern optimum time system was used – previously, points could be made up with bonuses for going fast across the country. Now, however, an optimum time was set for each of the five speed and endurance phases. Phases A and C, the roads and tracks, would garner one penalty per second over the time, while a second was worth 0.8 penalties on steeplechase and, as today, 0.4 on cross country.

Embed from Getty Images

Great Ovation’s 1972 victory is memorable for a slightly different reason – it’s the tightest winning margin ever recorded. Phillips and Great Ovation led the dressage, seven marks ahead of second-placed Richard Meade. But disaster struck as he set off for the steeplechase – he forgot to start his stopwatch, and racked up an expensive 8.8 time penalties in Phase B, and 38.8 further time penalties across the country. As they headed into the final day, Meade and his horse, Laurieston, led by 0.6 penalties. When Phillips jumped a foot-perfect clear, the pressure was on Meade to deliver.

And he did: he kept his notoriously fiery horse under perfect control to leave the course intact. As he rode away from the final fence, he was delighted to realise he’d won Badminton – but the faces of the crowd ahead of him told him that something wasn’t quite right. As it turned out, he’d finished 1.25 seconds over the optimum time. He lost Badminton by a sixth of a penalty.

(For what it’s worth, Meade and Laurieston won the individual Olympic gold later that year, so he probably wasn’t basking in his misery for long.)

A COLOSSAL MARGIN

After Great Ovation’s second Badminton win, keen ex-racehorse fans were in for a bit of a wait. Some 34 years later, Australia’s Andrew Hoy would win aboard Moonfleet, but in the meantime, an unraced Thoroughbred would leave a lasting impression.

Embed from Getty Images

In 1999, Badminton was celebrating a major milestone – it was the 50th birthday of the greatest event in the world, and anyone with even a passing interest in horses had piled into the Gloucestershire estate to join the party. Ian Stark, colloquially known as Scottie, had been the first-ever person to take first and second place at the event eleven years prior, but this year, he was back with an exciting up-and-comer. The New Zealand Thoroughbred Jaybee was only eight years old, but Scottie hoped he might be one of his future stars.

Embed from Getty Images

He certainly would – but what Scottie hadn’t quite expected was how soon that moment would come. Under the watchful eyes of the Queen of England, the youngest horse in the field triumphed, winning despite his inexperience in monsoon conditions that saw some of the world’s best riders walk home disappointed. Even Chris Bartle, himself a winner of the Badminton, retired at the third fence.

That year, the US cut a formidable figure in the form of Kerry Millikin and her ’96 Olympics mount Out and About, who finished third. ‘Outie’, like Jaybee, was something of a child prodigy — he was only eight when he won his bronze medal in Atlanta, nine when he finished seventh at the Open European Championships at Burghley in 1997, and eleven when he ran so well at Badminton.

Out and About and Kerry Millikin. Photo by Phelps Photo.

Out of Incardine and by the stallion L’Amour Rullah, Outie cemented his place as one of the greatest off-the-track American-bred Thoroughbreds in eventing history, and was posthumously honoured with a place in the USEA Hall of Fame last year. In a touching induction speech, Jimmy Wofford said: “About 25 years ago, a much younger Kerry Millikin came jogging by me on a loopy Thoroughbred, having just been run away with around the Preliminary horse trials course at Fair Hill. In somewhat of a disheveled state, Kerry said, ‘Jimmy, what should I do with him?’ And I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, upgrade him!’

Andrew Hoy’s Moonfleet, victorious at Badminton in 2006 after leading from pillar to post, was a remarkable example of an ex-racehorse. Originally known as Empty Wagon, he was sold for 50,000 guineas at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale in ’95, but only lightly raced as a point-to-pointer.

Embed from Getty Images

In his eventing career, he would win Badminton, finish second at Burghley in the same year, and then go on to win the latter. At 47, Hoy was then one of the oldest riders to have won Badminton and, perhaps more notably, it was the year in which the long format of eventing was dropped. The Irish-bred Moonfleet, by Strong Gale, would be the first horse ever to win a short-format Badminton, completing a remarkable week for owner Susan Magnier, who also had a victory in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket that weekend.

Embed from Getty Images

THE LAST TRIUMPHANT

In 2013, we saw our most recent ex-racehorse take top honours at Badminton. That was Clifton Promise, ridden by New Zealand’s Jock Paget, and I know I say this a lot, but he won in a truly remarkable year. For the first – and, I’d wager, the last – time, two riders came to Badminton in pursuit of the Rolex Grand Slam.

William Fox-Pitt found himself in contention when, after winning Burghley in 2011 and Kentucky in 2012, he was unable to contest Badminton due to its cancellation. Instead, it was decided that his bid could roll over to Badminton 2013 – but that meant that, should another rider win Burghey 2012 and Kentucky 2013, there’d be a face-off. Of course there was, and of course that rider ended up being Fox-Pitt’s oldest rival Andrew Nicholson, and it was all ludicrously exciting, until a Kiwi bricklayer who’d only started riding at the age of 18 came along and trounced them all.

Jock Paget and Clifton Promise take Badminton. Photo courtesy of Badminton Horse Trials.

Clifton Promise (Engagement x Darn Style) was registered as Bachelor Boy, but he was such a failure as a racehorse that he never even made it to the track. Instead, Clifton Eventers bought him at the sales for $3000, and many years down the line, he would help Paget become the second person ever to win on their Badminton debut.

THE NEW GUARD

Despite the loss of the long format and, as a result, less of a need for the sort of endless stamina that eventing’s earliest heroes demonstrated, Thoroughbred blood remains vital to the modern-day event horse. While the 7/8 Thoroughbred remains a popular choice, and lighter-boned warmbloods produce the first and final phase goods, the full Thoroughbred – and the ex-racehorse – remain a mainstay of the top levels, if in small numbers.

Arctic Soul and Gemma Tattersall speed around the 2018 Badminton course. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Arguably the most successful ex-racehorse currently competing at five-star is Gemma Tattersall’s Arctic Soul (Luso x Dream Cocktail, by Roi Danzig). A consummate warhorse, ‘Spike’ ran his first event at six; prior to that, he’d plugged away at a lacklustre National Hunt career in Ireland that saw him contest just four races, never finishing higher than eleventh for trainer Colm Murphy.

But as is so often the case, his form on the track has been no indicator of his success in his second career, and the sixteen-year-old has finished in the top ten at Badminton three times, finishing on his dressage score for third in 2016. Widely regarded as one of the best five-star cross-country horses in the game, he’s a favourite to take this year’s title.

In 2016, Badminton recognised the importance of the ex-racehorse to the sport by introducing the Retraining of Racehorses award for the highest-placed off-the-track Thoroughbred. Arctic Soul has taken the prize each year since its inception.

Lynn Symansky and Donner at Badminton. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Recent years have seen ex-racehorses make up the number across the board at key internationals: Lynn Symansky‘s Donner (Gorky Park x Smart Jane, by Smarten), who ran on the flat as Smart Gorky, is a notable fan favourite. He finished 22nd at Badminton in 2017 and has amassed a number of impressive results at the top level. His racing career, too, was short-lived: he retired at the age of three, having won just $2,870 in six runs.

Britain’s Ben Way has enjoyed several years at the five-star level with Irish-bred Galley Light (Turtle Island x Coola Cross, by Be My Native) — their best result was 12th at Badminton in 2016, but they also won the prize for best first-timers, named after Laurence Rook, in 2015. Jesse Campbell‘s Kaapachino (Kaapstad x Right Tune ) won Jesse his first international event outside of New Zealand, putting him on the map as a formidable addition to the global Kiwi contingent. In 2016, they made their Badminton debut, finishing 33rd.

Libby Head and Sir Rockstar at Badminton. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

If ever there was a compelling case for the toughness of the Thoroughbred horse, surely it would be Sir Rockstar (Rockamundo x How Unusual, by Great Sun): Libby Head‘s remarkable gelding finished 31st at Badminton in 2016 at the age of eighteen, following a racing career that spanned 16 runs. He didn’t begin his reeducation until he was ten, when 16-year-old Libby — who had only been riding for two years — found him malnourished in a field and decided to buy him. At 15.1hh, he was one of the smallest horses in the Badminton field, and although he struggled to produce a competitive test, his cattiness across the country allowed the pair to climb 42 places.

And that, folks, is just classic Thoroughbred coolness.

Author’s note: A previous version of this post missed out on one very special ex-racehorse who represented the USA at Badminton. Out and About, ridden by Kerry Millikin, has now been included – thanks to Kerry for reaching out! 

Comments