The first day of dressage got off to a competitive start, with a chocolate-box selection of some of the field favourites taking to the main arena for the first session. It was to be a fortuitous morning for Oliver Townend who, fresh off the back of his win at Kentucky and following on from his victory at Burghley last year, is in contention for the Grand Slam. His test on Europeans mount Cooley SRS scored a 25.9, a considerable bettering of the horse’s CCI3* average of 30.3. ‘Aero’ is contesting his first four-star this week, and Oliver, who won both previous legs on first-timers at the level, remains pragmatic about the task ahead.
“This is another horse that’s at its first four-star, so it’s just nice to get through it,” he said. “I made one mistake, and he made another, which didn’t help, but I’m happy with the score. With the Grand Slam, and with Badminton, we have to just take one phase at a time and see where we end up. He’s always had it in him – a good test, and the ability to do the job, and he wasn’t always the easiest, but he’s progressed exactly as we’d hoped he would.”
Angela Hislop’s eleven-year-old gelding was the pathfinder in Strzegom, and despite an uncharacteristic 40 penalties across the country, he came in closest to the optimum time on the tight course. Under the revised scoring system, we’ll be looking closely at horses who can be quick and clean across the country, and, despite that performance, Cooley SRS is an out-and-out contender. He’s finished in the top ten in 17 of his 23 internationals, and proven that errors in the second phase are the exception, rather than the rule. With stablemate Ballaghmor Class taking to the ring tomorrow, Oliver will have an exciting week ahead of him.
Although the Grand Slam is the question on everyone’s lips, he hasn’t had time to dwell on what it will take, nor what it could mean.
“All I’ve managed to do since Kentucky is get home, manage to avoid my own champagne, and that’s pretty much it,” he said with a wry grin. “The Grand Slam doesn’t bother me – I’m lucky enough to have been in this position twice, and I hope to god the outcome is different this time.”
Oliver’s previous attempt at the third and final leg of the Grand Slam ended in a crashing fall at the Hollow in the latter part of Kentucky’s course in 2010.
Fledgling partnership Gemma Tattersall and Pamero 4 looked in their element on the horse’s first trip around the Badminton arena, scoring a 27.4 and showing a solid continuation of form, which has seen them post five top-ten finishes out of five internationals together.
“Pamero and I are still getting to know each other – before today, I could count on one hand the number of times we’d been in an international arena together,” she said. “He’s usually quite calm, but this week he’s been quite excited. I just stuck to the plan, and even though he had a couple of tense moments, the judges saw his potential and gave him some super marks.”
The duo came into Badminton with just one run under their belts this spring – a third place finish in the CIC3* at Belton – but their success together hasn’t necessarily been as easy as it’s looked.
“He’s a long horse with a long, thin neck, so he can be difficult to ride in a soft outline with his nose out in front. We’ve been working on his right-t0-left changes at home, and he’s only just got them, so we knew we’d have trouble with those. But he’s such a happy horse, and he loves his work – his worth ethic is amazing,” said Gemma. “But honestly, I haven’t slept for a month for worrying about this horse – he’s one of the most challenging horses I’ve ever had to manage. All credit to my staff, who make sure he has his massages and hold his buckets for him so they can encourage him to eat. He’s a naturally skinny horse and it’s so difficult to keep him eating and looking well.”
To try to manage a drop-off in weight after Belton, Gemma got creative.
“He lives out now with a Shetland – she’s called Sootie, and I think she must be about 40, she’s ancient,” she laughed.
Mark Todd and Leonidas II sit in third place on a score of 27.9, after losing some marks for tension in the halt and rein-back.
“He just got a little bit tense in the walk,” said Mark, “he normally stands still, but he just wanted to take a step forward. It did mean that he was ready to step up into canter well, though.”
Fourth-placed at Burghley last year, Tom McEwen‘s Toledo de Kerser is perhaps one of the country’s most exciting up-and-coming talents, and he scored a four-star PB of 28.9 to slot into equal fourth place with Padraig McCarthy and Mr Chunky at this early stage. His score, too, was affected by errors, this time in the changes, which added expensive 3s and 4s to a largely 7.5-8 scoring test.
“I’m not sure what I was thinking at the end with that last change,” said Tom. “I’m super happy with the horse. We threw a few marks away – he got a bit excited about that last change; a bit like last year, knocking the final pole down!”
Equal sixth-placed Alex Bragg and Zagreb looked promising on their debut here last year, and their score of 29.6 set them up well for the week today.
“He’s very enthusiastic, and always enjoys and looks forward to his work,” said Alex of the rangy gelding. “Sometimes that can bubble over, but I’d always rather have that enthusiasm. We’re just looking forward to the cross-country – that’s my thing, and we love it. I’m not a dressage rider!”
Last year’s reigning champions Andrew Nicholson and Nereo didn’t quite live up to expectations in this phase, scoring a 30.3, a considerable increase on the horse’s four-star average of 27.9.
“I thought it was a good test, but just a little quieter in the powerful stuff than he can be,” he said. “He’s used to a big atmosphere, and there weren’t many people in there. He’s also a big horse, and it felt like he was sinking in the ground a bit, so I thought it was best not to upset the system and stay smooth, and show the judges what he can do rather than leave them wondering about what you can’t. I’ve never ridden in the arena when it’s been this soft, and it’ll only get worse, but as long as it’s consistent it shouldn’t bother the horses.”
We’ll be back with a full report from this afternoon’s dressage, which sees Lauren Kieffer and Veronica perform their tests, as well as Selena O’Hanlon and Foxwood High.