“Are you going to start crying now?” whispered Pippa Funnell, sotto voce and grinning, to Piggy French as the national anthem started playing.
“Of course not,” hissed Piggy, a smile spreading across her face. After all, who’d want to waste time blubbing when there are the spoils of victory to enjoy – and one of your closest friends beside you to enjoy them with?
By all accounts, it’s been a good day for Piggy, who earned her tenth international victory of the season in the NAF International Hartpury Horse Trials today. Riding Jayne McGivern’s Quarrycrest Echo, who will head to Luhmühlen later this month to contest the European Championships, she was the only rider to stop the clock inside the seven-minute optimum time – and she did so by an impressive margin, too, finishing easily in 6:53.
“’Red’ was fantastic – he’s just such a pleasure to ride cross-country,” says Piggy, who finished in runner-up position in this class last year with the gelding. “He’s very easy, to be honest, and so it’s easy to be economical and to be quick.”
Piggy also took second place with Brookfield Inocent, a relatively new ride who joined her string in the middle of the 2018 season. When her husband Tom told me earlier in the day that the horse would be next year’s Burghley winner, I joked that I’d have to quote him on it – and after seeing the ten-year-old make easy work of today’s tough track to add just 1.6 time penalties, I’m sticking to my guns on this one. I expect Tom is, too.
Piggy certainly thinks a lot of the horse: “He may well follow in Red’s footsteps [in being a quick and easy cross-country ride], to be honest. People say I’m so fast, but I’m really not – with some horses, you can get in a gear and change the gear so quickly. When they’re confident, you can ride so much quicker in the rhythm and in the lines, because you leave the adjusting so late. That’s what I can do with those two, and having the quality of gallop that they have helps, too. They’ve been great today, and to finish first and second is really exciting.”
In eventing, you get by with a little help from your friends, as Piggy well knows – and so even as she was accepted her bounty of prizes, her mind was on Tina Cook, who had taken an incredibly unlucky tumble from Billy The Red as he pecked over the last fence. The fall came at the tail end of a quick and classy round, the sort we expect from this combination over this course – after all, it was a win here last season that saw them secure their ticket to Tryon.
“I just hope Tina’s okay, because she likes to come and win at Hartpury, and she was in a great position, so I know she’d have been trying,” says Piggy. “I wound her up at the start, saying ‘go on, old bird, kick on!’ So it’s always worrying when you hear that your mate’s had a fall. But we’ve heard that she’s fine – she just had a rattle, but it’s never nice.”
Pippa Funnell may have relinquished her two-phase lead on time penalties, but solid rounds with the reformed MGH Grafton Street, who added eight time penalties, and overnight leader Billy The Biz, who added ten, saw her finish third and fifth respectively nonetheless. The latter round, which came at the tail end of a long and phenomenally windy day of cross-country action, was achieved despite a forty-minute hold due to a fall for Tom Jackson, which stopped Pippa just after the open corners at 13 and 14.
“It’s never a good thing for someone my age,” she says wryly. “You have all these things going through your head – but my main concern as I was being held was for Tom Jackson, who I’ve helped a lot over the last few years. I was really worried about him, and so you have that going through your mind, and suddenly the dangers of the sport become very real, and it’s difficult – you just have to stay focused and positive and pick up and get on with the job. A few years ago I was held in exactly the same place with Biz, and then he picked up a little fresh, overjumped into the water, and I had a fall – so that was going through my mind as well. I was sort of a psychological mess by the time I started again! But I had a great spin on all of mine – I’m chuffed. I was never going to threaten Pig, I knew that, but I had great rides.”
Both Piggy and Pippa’s top two horses in this class also managed clear rounds over an influential showjumping course, which was moved, unusually, to the university’s indoor arena. Whether as a result of tighter and thus more technical lines, or because of a lack of match practice indoors, many reliable showjumpers knocked rails – and Toledo de Kerser and Tom McEwen, placed second after the dressage, opted not to showjump at all.
The reason for the move was the extreme conditions that moved over the Cotswolds overnight, bringing with them relentless winds that shunted and burst over the course at speeds of up to 50mph. With them came intermittent heavy rain showers, creating suboptimal conditions for several combinations.
“You feel very against the elements when it’s like that,” says Piggy. “In two of my rounds, I started off and the rain was sideways – it was face-on wind. I was galloping to fence four on Brookfield Inocent and I said to him, ‘I hope you can see something, because I can see nothing! You’ve just got your head down. No one likes the wind – it’s spooky, it’s tiring, and it’s noisy, and of course it changes the game a bit. The conditions vary from drying to slippery.”
But as Pippa points out, the efforts put in by Hartpury’s expansive ground crew ensured that despite the weather’s best efforts, the footing and the questions asked remained suitable, allowing for a positive and educational experience.
“A few places got a bit cut up, but I thought they were great courses, and they encouraged positive riding,” she says. “We saw a few falls and no, we never like to see falls, and maybe it was a bigger track than we normally see, but we need to have these bigger tracks if we want to go to Burghley or to a big three-day. It was a very good track, and I thought Eric did a great job. Horses had to be fit because of the conditions.”
Alex Bragg, who finished fourth on the inexperienced King of the Mill, agrees.
“The ground was great – they’d watered well anyway, and the grass coverage here has just gotten better and better over the last few years,” he says. “Yes, it was tiring for the horses towards the latter end, and you head to be careful, but they’ll be very comfortable tomorrow, because the rain really took the sting out of the ground.”
For King of the Mill, who contests just his sixth international at Hartpury, it’s another huge step in the right direction, and confirms the solidity he displayed when finishing seventh at Barbury last month.
“I’m thrilled for my young horse to finish fourth in a field of over 100 – he’s done great,” says Alex. “I’ve had him for a couple of years, and when I started him at BE100 he was always spooky, and I thought, ‘will I ever get him to Novice?’ And then he went Novice, and he was spooky at Novice, and then he went Intermediate, and he was spooky at Intermediate, and now he’s Advanced, and he’s spooky at Advanced! But he’s so talented – he’s one of the most agile horses you could ever sit on. He’s 17.2hh, and he’s a really big, rangy galloping horse, but he’s as sharp as you like with his legs, which is great for the cross-country. But he can also be sharp with his leg and dance around when you don’t want him to, so we need to master that a little bit! He’s a horse I would hope would contend Badminton and Burghley – he’s a real long-format character, and is over 80% Thoroughbred, so he has the stamina. You need a real blood horse to excel at places like Burghley. I’d like to have a podium finish there one day, and I think he could be the horse to do it.”
Sixth place went to Tom Jackson and Pencos Crown Jewel, who cruised home in 7:09 to execute a stratospheric climb up the leaderboard. The celebration, unfortunately, was short-lived – as Tom reached the latter stages of the course on his final ride of the class, Newmarket Prospect, he ran into trouble at fence twenty, causing the forty-minute hold that plagued Pippa. We’re pleased to report that Newmarket Prospect is absolutely fine, and all of us at Team EN wish a speedy recovery to Tom, who’s currently undergoing X-rays for a suspected broken leg.
Problems were widespread and not infrequent across Eric Winter’s track, which is built with long-format prep in mind.
“It’s not unlike Burghley, in that it starts out big, which gets the horses into a stride and really jumping in a bascule,” explained Tim Price yesterday. (His own horses, for what it’s worth, jumped planned slow clears to prepare for that big B.) “Then you’ve got to make some decisive action plans, particularly at the first water, where you see all sorts – it can be four and four, or four and five, or five and five…you almost want to see a flying Frenchman go through it and make it look really easy! The hill is a big influence too, so they have to be fit – it’s a good preparation.”
The course criss-crosses the hill in question, asking horses and riders to negotiate questions on both inclines and declines, as well as on a camber. 88 combinations started, while 69 would ultimately finish – and of those 69, 48 would cross the finish line without incurring jumping penalties, flag penalties, or knocked-pin penalties.
Fence 8AB, a hanging log to the first of two skinny triple-bars on a downhill related distance, proved the most influential, with six eliminations and two retirements occurring here. The first water at 6ABC saw four refusals or run-outs, which took place largely at the latter two skinny elements within the water, but in at least one case, the issue occurred at the first element, a rolltop in the water.
The open corner at 14, which acted as the second part of a related distance from another open corner, amassed five run-outs, two eliminations, and a retirement, while the final combination at 22AB – a brush to a corner in the woods, just two from home – notched up nine run-outs.
While the day might have felt like rather a dramatic one, the course was well-designed, well-built, and – if we’re allowed to embrace the superficialities for a moment – beautifully well-dressed, lending a three-day feel to this late-summer short-four. And for those riders preparing for bigger runs in the coming months, its difficulty will have served as a positive wit-sharpener. As US rider Lexi Scovil, who picked up an unfortunate 20 on courses, wisely says, “numbers are important, but they aren’t everything, and they certainly don’t encompass the positivity I feel about this weekend – Sprout jumped bravely around a spooky indoor showjumping, and felt amazing around most of another 4* cross-country, except when we both forgot to attach the big open corner. Still feeling on track for Blenheim!”
It was a great day for our other US representative, Katherine Coleman, who produced one of the most positive rides of the day at that tricky first water, proving how much the exceptionally talented Monte Classico has matured this year. This combination looks set to be an exciting option as we stride down the trail to Tokyo.
That’s all for now from Hartpury, which has been an exciting and enlightening last look at many of our Burghley and Luhmühlen entrants. We’ll be analysing how they did this weekend – and across the summer – in two enormous form guides, coming to you soon. For now – wrap up warm, avoid the winds, and Go Eventing!