Forgive us for being a little giddy, but Houghton International felt as close to normalcy as anyone’s been in a long time today: the sun and the picnickers were out in force, and a veritable smorgasbord of top horses and riders battled through the day to make a mark on the leaderboard and head to the bar to celebrate afterwards. This is, perhaps, the most exciting detail of all — a bar at an event in the UK is as rare a sight in these frustrating times as a 10 for a flying change, after all. But here we are, sunburnt and jolly, celebrating a great day of sport – and a return to the top of the leaderboard for our Thursday leaders, China’s Alex Hua Tian and Jilsonne van Bareelhof.
Though Alex enthusiastically dubs the horse “the most talented horse I’ve ever sat on”, it would be easy to write him off based on his record alone: the twelve-year-old Belgian Warmblood has started at just seven international competitions and completed four of them. But his unusual trajectory hasn’t been due to any lack of talent, as Alex explains: instead, it’s a horsemanship decision. Though the gelding is undeniably capable in all three phases, he struggles to keep shoes on, and so Alex has made the decision to target him at CCI4*-S success – a decision that’s being put into practice here with great success.
Sue Peasley’s showjumping course is always influential at Houghton: it spans an arena that rides much more hilly than it walks, and today’s course lured riders into wide lines that ticked the clock into the red time and time again. But for the savvy competitor – and certainly for those brave enough to ride boldly through the lines and turns – there were economical routes to be had, and the very best made the track look easy to tackle. For Alex and the extraordinarily scopey Jilsonne van Bareelhof, it was child’s play, but for 0.4 time penalties picked up along the way – “and now I have to go fast tomorrow,” laughs the rider.
Though Alex and Jilsonne van Bareelhof ended the day as the class leaders, the top spot was no sure thing for them – particularly after dressage leaders Kitty King and Vendredi Biats jumped a typically classy, tidy round to add no penalties. But for Kitty and her Olympic longlisted mount, Houghton isn’t an end goal – and so she stuck to her guns, and her post-dressage decision not to run cross-country, and withdrew after her leading showjumping round. This allowed Alex back into the top spot, and gave William Fox-Pitt and Little Fire the golden opportunity to step boldly into second place after adding nothing in this phase. They go into cross-country on 25.4, giving the leaders just one second in hand in tomorrow’s final phase.
Though Sarah Bullimore‘s day was marked with the frustration of an abandoned Luhmühlen dream and a disappointing green error in the CCI2*-L, five-star mount Conpierre surely sweetened the pie by jumping a solid, stylish clear that contributed to the 60% clear rate in today’s competition. That pops them into third on 27, setting them just five seconds behind the leaders and setting them up well for their rerouted long format run at Bicton’s Bramham replacement in a fortnight. Behind them, 2019 Burghley winners Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street lie fourth on 28.2, while Sweden’s Ludwig Svennerstal piloted Camelot to fifth place on a clear round with just 0.4 time penalties, marking the horse’s second international showjumping round in three years.
Great Britain leads the way in the Nations Cup competition, which persevered on despite some last-minute dramas: firstly, the withdrawal of Gemma Tattersall and Jalapeno III, which brought the British team down to the minimum three riders, and secondly, the withdrawal of Sammi Birch from the Australian team, which had started with just three riders and thus necessitated the last-minute substitution of Sophie Adams and Ridire Dorcha.
The tough marking of the last few days continued in this morning’s short team session, in which none of the assembled riders scored sub-30 – but clear rounds for each British rider allowed for the only aggregate score under 100. Tomorrow, each team will battle it out for valuable points in this first leg of the 2021 series – a quieter fight than we’re used to seeing, perhaps, with the lack of foreign entrants, but one certainly worth keeping an eye on nonetheless.
Tomorrow’s cross-country challenge commences at 11.00 a.m. BST, with a tough, up-to-standard track designed by Alec Lochore set to test the mettle of the top contenders. We’ve seen plenty of problems across the CCI2*-L and CCI3*-L classes, both of which tackled cross-country today, so much could change across the leaderboard through the day tomorrow. Take a look at the course here — and as always, Go Eventing!