Saturday at Blenheim: A Long, Slow Pull and a Leaderboard Romance

The Old Guard and the New Head CCI3*

“There’s a first time for everything, isn’t there!” laughed a delighted Bella Innes Ker as she and her longtime partner Carolyn romped home inside the time around Blenheim’s CCI3* to retain the lead — the first time the pair has made the time in a CCI.

A dream come true: Bella Innes Ker and Carolyn hold the lead in the CCI3*. Photo by Adam Fanthorpe.

“It’s a dream come true, especially when you’re in that position,” she said. “I’m slightly beyond words! I was very lucky out there to be on such an awesome horse, and it was a bold, attacking sort of course, which is right up my street.”

David Evans‘ course proved to be much less influential than we’ve seen it in previous years, and 20 of the 95 starters managed to come home clear within the time. Still, it was, as Bella says, big and bold, and required a positive approach to get the job done and to maintain a workable pace on the long, slow pull up its steady inclines.

“We got into the rhythm very early on, and it all came up so nicely,” she explained. “She can be quite heady and strong, but we know each other inside out, so I knew I had to keep my hands down and, as Chris Bartle says, just trust the system. I owe a huge amount of credit to Chris — he’s worked with me to be brave and to stop interfering and checking, which helped us get the time today and will help us in the future, too.”

Pippa Funnell, who remained in second place with MGH Grafton Street, agreed with Bella’s analysis of the course.

“If you go out there and you’re not thinking about getting the time, it doesn’t put you in the right frame of mind,” she said. “You need to ride forward to make these courses ride well at three-days.”

Pippa made the executive decision to cut down on her string of horses this spring, and now campaigns a select group. The change of pace was spearheaded by the sale of Sandman 7 to young rider Yasmin Ingham, a choice that Pippa said was “one of the hardest decisions to make. But now I’ve got this really classy bunch of horses I can focus on, and I’m enjoying it a bit more, so I’m very happy.”

Two years after his Blenheim debut, the Padraig McCarthy-sourced MGH Grafton Street showed his maturity when he and Pippa had a minor blip on course.

“He felt great. He really helped me out at 11 [a wide oxer hedge followed by a timber parallel] — he jumped the hedge lovely, and I thought, ‘right — I’m not going to take a pull back here, I’ll just sit up’, and then he sort of chipped in and put down again, but he really took care of me. I had to hold my mouth and just trust him.”

Oliver Townend brings forward a new star in Ulises. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

A double-clear saw fourth-placed Ulises move up a placing with Oliver Townend, and though the Chatsworth CIC3* has flown under the radar in Oliver’s formidable string of top-level contenders, it was easy to see why Oliver had him on the list as one of his potential Burghley mounts.

“He’s very fast and has endless gallop, like [half-brother] Armada,” said Oliver. “He made it feel very easy; he could have gone round twice. If he comes out of this well, he’ll be ready to step up to CCI4* next spring.”

Any comparison to the great Armada is one that oughtn’t be ignored: Oliver finished second at Badminton in 2014 on the horse, who amassed an incredible number of enviable results at the upper levels with both him and former rider Andrew Nicholson.

William Fox-Pitt and Oratorio. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

William Fox-Pitt was another British rider to move up a notch on the leaderboard, as he and Oratorio made light work of the course, in a season that’s proving to be the making of the tricky horse. William, who first competed at Blenheim in 1990, joked that it was nice to have his ‘old mate’ Pippa Funnell to keep him company in a class full of young faces.

“Isn’t that romantic — Pippa and I right up there on the leaderboard! Most of the field wasn’t even born when I first rode here — I felt like the schoolmaster at the riders’ briefing, I didn’t know anyone’s names or faces! I’m missing so many of my mates here,” he laughed.

Oratorio is brimming with talent, but the nine-year-old, who is one of the four offspring of William’s Pau winner Oslo and out of a friend’s racing mare, doesn’t come without his quirks.

“He’s absolutely blood, and he doesn’t know the meaning of ‘hard’ in any phase, on any day, ever. It’s exhausting at my age — I’m quite looking forward to the day when he says, ‘right, okay, let’s go onto the bridle a bit now!’ At my age, I quite like them to purr around a bit, but he’s a double handful. Sometimes the ‘woah’ can take 25 strides!”

Oratorio went clear inside the time at Bramham’s CCI3* too, finishing eleventh there after knocking two rails on the final day.

“He’s potentially a four-star horse next year, now. In the old days, I’d have taken him to Kentucky without a doubt, but then, the funding was in place and the GB machine was a different beast. Now, there’s no way we could do it ourselves with our own funding. On a day like today, he’d eat Badminton up, so we won’t count it out.”

William had had his doubts about the firm going on arrival at the event, but he praised the ministrations of the team on site for making the going considerably more rideable. Thus, “it was easy — but today was a bit easy, wasn’t it?”

Amanda Ross and Koko Popping Candy. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Australia’s Amanda Ross moved up to fifth place — and finished the day as the only non-Brit in the top 10 — with a fast clear round aboard her ex-racehorse Koko Popping Candy. The pair were first reserves for the Australian team at WEG, and had planned to mount a British campaign in 2019, when their plans suddenly changed.

“Her owners and I were looking to come over next year with four or five horses for a big campaign — I didn’t want to come just for pre-WEG training if I was going to have to leave those horses behind, but then the selectors called and asked me to get on a plane,” explained Amanda. Although they didn’t get the final call-up, Amanda and the mare, known as Zazzie, were able to benefit from all the team’s training sessions with Gareth Hughes and Nelson Pessoa.

“She spent 40 hours travelling from door to door, and she got off the plane feeling like she’d been plugged into a USB port the entire time,” laughed Amanda. “So we were really able to enjoy those training sessions, and we got a lot out of them, so to aim here was a great alternative.”

Amanda first came over to the UK when she was 19, and admits that a visit to Badminton was “the straw that broke the camel’s back — I saw so much in terms of how things should be done.” In 1998 she was shortlisted for the WEG, and in 2000 she represented Australia at the Sydney Olympics, but a big European campaign is the missing piece in the puzzle. Zazzie will be aimed at a Luhmühlen entry for her first four-star, while Amanda hopes to run the gamut of UK events, including the Event Rider Masters series, in her season here next year. Used to the hard, dry ground of Australia’s eventing circuit, Amanda and her plucky Thoroughbred played to their strengths today.

“William [Fox-Pitt] said to me earlier in the week that the ground is the hardest he’d ever seen — I said, it’s great, I don’t want it any deeper than this!”

Kitty King had a day of mixed fortunes: she finished double-clear with Vendredi Biats, who had a run-out last year, and moved up to sixth place, but the experienced Ceylor L A N ran out at the influential corner at 4B, and she opted to retire.

Alex Bragg and Zagreb. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Her fellow countryman Alex Bragg must have found himself in similar mixed spirits: his CIC3* mount, Shannondale Percy, dropped from 2nd to 17th after knocking two rails, but both his CCI3* mounts produced double-clears. This moved Burghley re-router Zagreb from 9th to 7th place, and new ride Barrichello, formerly piloted by William Fox-Pitt and Caroline March, from 17th to 10th.

“It’s nice to be sat on a four-star horse going around a three star, but after Burghley I nevertheless had to keep my wits about me and think about rhythm, line, and balance,” said Alex. After an early tumble on Burghley’s course, Zagreb had a few days’ rest, followed by some physio treatment and plenty of stretching work — the result of which, laughed Alex, meant that the rangy gelding “felt like a seven-year-old at the first horse inspection — he was very fresh!”

Alex, who considers himself ‘a cross country rider, sitting on a cross country horse,’ rued the fact that the time wasn’t as influential as it could have been.

“Seven or eight seconds off the optimum time would have made it more influential; it’s not changed the top of the leaderboard much, which is a bit of a shame. But it’s a nice, inviting, solid track.”

Alex Bragg produces the results on up-and-comer Barrichello, who he took over this spring. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

The nine-year-old Barrichello impressed not only the crowds, but Alex, too: “He did a fantastic job, and really flew around inside the time. I’m really proud of him; this is a step up in terms of atmosphere and the amount of people around. Coming into the long water at the lake feels like something from a film, and I think everyone enjoys that.”

But Barrichello’s cross country wasn’t without incident.

“There was a swan in the water, guarding the bridge like a Jack Russell guarding a driveway — it looked really tough until it saw Barrichello’s big feet storming at him, and then he thought better of it!”

“Everyone wants him”: Selina Milne’s Iron IV proves to be the horse of everyone’s dreams. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Selina Milnes jumped into the top 10, moving up from 12th to 8th after a seriously classy round with Iron IV that had everyone — commentators included — discussing how on earth they might be able to sneak a ride on the long-strided horse.

“He’s not that blood, so we’ve done loads of millwork to get him fit enough to come here,” explained Selina. Her hard work has paid off: Iron IV had barely broken into a sweat and, as he cantered home, he looked as though he was just setting off. This isn’t just down to careful fitness work; his success today comes down to tactical management throughout the season, too.

“I run him slowly at one-day events, because he has such a long stride to work with. Here, I was adamant that I wouldn’t take a pull, because he only gets stronger if I do. I rode him this morning properly so that I could just do a five minute warm-up this afternoon — he tends to half run his race before he even goes if I try to do him normally, as he gets so buzzy when the tannoys are going. It’s something we’ve worked on — I’ve put up flags in the arena at home to try to get him to stay calm, and it’s making a difference.”

Selina sourced the horse from Ireland’s Richard Sheane, head of the Cooley enterprise, but she wasn’t convinced by him on first viewing.

“I didn’t even ride him because I had a couple of broken ribs, and when I watched him go, I thought he was just a bit slow looking. But I’m quite a forward rider, and everyone insisted that I’d make him fast.”

Emily Philp and Camembert make a habit out of double clears. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Emily Philp and Camembert were incredibly impressive at Blair, where they made a surprise appearance on the Event Rider Masters podium, and they proved today that it was no fluke: another double-clear sees them in 9th after a seven place climb. Something to mull over? Blair’s three-star marked their 20th consecutive clear showjumping round at an international. They will be formidable tomorrow.

A Coup for Collett in the CIC3*

Laura Collett and Dacapo. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Saturday morning at the SsangYong Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials saw the eight- and nine-year-olds tackle a formidable showjumping course set by Di Boddy, and if anyone thought they were in for an easy ride, they were swiftly proven wrong. A treble combination, approached on a curving line, saw perhaps the most action of the morning: many, having made a big adjustment for the first fence, came to grief at the second, and with a tightly-bunched set of scores, a pole here saw claims to the leaderboard tumble. Near the end of the course, too, a long and meandering turn back to the final couple of fences led more than one horse to fall asleep at the wheel, only to scatter a pole when presented with yet another obstacle.

James Avery and Vitali: a lost lead, but an impressive impression. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Overnight leaders James Avery and Vitali were the most high-profile pair to fault at the treble, and their four faults and two time penalties leaves them seventh on a score of 30.2 as they look towards tomorrow’s cross country.

But for all that, the young horse, who has historically become distracted in an atmospheric showjumping arena, looked focused and professional in his trip around the arena, and it was in fact a dropped rein that led to the pole: “If I’d been able to ride him at the fence as I’d planned to, he wouldn’t have had it down,” said James.

James Avery and Vitali: polished and professional despite a minor mishap. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Though Vitali is tackling his first competition at the level, and in fact has yet to run at Advanced, he’s an exceptional cross-country horse. In eight international runs, he’s only ever faulted once in the phase, in his first one-star last year. Since then, he’s been clear every time, never adding more than 1.6 time penalties at two-star. He’ll be an interesting horse to keep an eye on tomorrow — there’s a lot to be said for the psychological effect of being able to head into the toughest phase without the pressure of the lead.

Laura Collett and Dacapo move into the lead in the CIC3*. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

That honour goes instead to Laura Collett, who produced clear rounds on both Dacapo and London 52, who moved from 4th and 5th place to 1st and 2nd, respectively. Both horses have begun to accumulate valuable experience at this level: Dacapo finished 6th in Houghton’s CICO3* in May and 9th in his ERM debut at Barbury in July, while London 52 has three ERM results to his name. He was 2nd in the tough class at Arville, while Jardy saw him in 11th place, and he powered through the heavy rain at Blair for 8th. Today’s CCI cross country taught us one thing: the time won’t be influential unless the horses and riders don’t make it, so Laura will have to draw on that experience against the clock to maintain her position and cruise home.

Pippa Funnell and Maybach sit in third going into Sunday’s cross country. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

Pippa Funnell and Maybach, and Katherine Coleman and Monte Classico each produced clears as well, with Pippa rising three places to sit third, and a delighted Katherine rising from eighth to fourth. Monte Classico had to step up to the big leagues in a major way this spring: his first three-star was also his first team appearance, as he helped the U.S. team to second place in the Houghton CICO3* Nations Cup competition.

Katherine Coleman and Monte Classico make a move up the leaderboard. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Katherine has planned his entire season with this class in mind, and like Laura, she’ll need to accept nothing less than a double clear tomorrow.

Izzy Taylor and Springpower jump a double clear to sit in sixth place. Photo by Katie Neat Photography.

We’ll be bringing you all the action from the fast and furious cross country phase tomorrow, so stay tuned!

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