An Emboldening Day for the Sport: Tim Price Takes the Lead on Vintage Badminton Cross-Country Day

Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift demonstrate the incredible scale of the Badminton fences. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

It’s been a golden day of cross-country at the MARS Badminton Horse Trials, and not just because the sun shone merrily all day, steadily working the ground back to something like decent going – it’s also, from top to bottom, been a great showcase for our sport, with just one horse fall recorded. That came late in the day for Wills Oakden and his second ride, A Class Cooley, and was only a horse fall by the rules: the pair found a tricky distance to the final skinny stump at the Lightsource bp Mound at 26ABCD, and pecked on landing. The gelding stumbled, pitching onto his front end, and while his shoulder did touch the ground – the requirement to be considered a horse fall by FEI rules – his hind end remained upright and he swiftly righted himself, sans rider.

And so, that one relatively undramatic moment aside, there was much to celebrate. Problems were spread evenly across the course, with Huntsman’s Close at 7 providing the most action – ten riders faulted there – the Lightsource bp Mound at 26 not far behind with nine, the Sunken Road at 20 causing eight, six at the Lake at 10, and the LeMieux Eyelashes coffin complex at 15 causing three problems. The ground, which had raised so many question marks over the last few days – would it be holding, or very variable, or dead underfoot? – certainly did play a part, with riders having to manage their horses’ energy levels sensibly, but it was better than expected and improved throughout the day, yielding an average 16.3 time penalties, or just shy of 41 seconds over the time, and 32 of our 62 starters jumped clear, giving a 51.6% clear rate and a 66.1% completion rate. We’ll head into tomorrow morning’s final horse inspection with a field of 41, overnight withdrawals notwithstanding.

Tim Price and Vitali. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

But that’s tomorrow, and right now, we’re all about today. Though our pathfinders, Tom Jackson and Farndon, made the course look straightforward with a steady clear that bolstered the overarching feeling of positivity around the place, the day absolutely exerted its influence, and we end it with a new leader in the clubhouse. New Zealand’s Tim Price and Vitali now hold the top spot, having added just 4 time penalties – theirs was the fourth fastest round of the day – to climb up from overnight third.

The door was opened for that upward move by two significant moments. The first came for overnight runner-up Bubby Upton, who rode as though she’d never had the horrendous injury that saw her spend the end of last year relearning to walk: she and Cola looked a picture around Eric Winter’s track, finishing with 15.6 time penalties but, more crucially, with a frustrating 11 jumping penalties, too, for activating a MIMclip at fence 21, a silver birch rail set just back from a lip at the top of an incline. That drops her to eighteenth overnight.

And then it was the turn of last year’s champion, Ros Canter, who led the dressage with her 2023 Pau winner, Izilot DHI. That she had a MIM activation of her own at the deformable upright A element of the Lake at 10ABCD was a shock; that she went on to have a run-out at the final element, perhaps even more so. But the fact that she then opted to put her hand up and retire after circling back and giving the relatively inexperienced horse a confidence-boosting pop over the final skinny wasn’t at all – she’d been vocal after her leading dressage test that she intended to set out competitively but with a completely open mind, and would be ready to put her hand up the moment she felt her historically quirky, spooky, but hugely talented young horse might be overfaced.

“I’m very philosophical and positive about the whole thing,” she says. “It was always going to be a question mark as to how ‘Isaac’ was going to cope with the day today, and he didn’t quite cope with it. That’s absolutely fine — he went pretty spooky on the run up to the Lake, and then it just set the tone and that tends to be what happens with Isaac. Once he’s lost it, suddenly lots of things that aren’t normally spooky became extremely spooky, and that’s fine. But he’s a class horse, and I think the world of him. He’s one of the world’s best. We know what he’s like — he’s been like this all along. We either win or we don’t and when we don’t, we do it in very dramatic fashion. So at least you’ll remember him, one way or another!”

And so it’s all eyes on Tim and Vitali, now – a position they’ve been in before. They led the first two phases at Burghley last year, where they ultimately finished fourth after a three-rail round on the final day. That’s a work in progress – the gelding has had three rails at each of his four five-stars, and at the Tokyo Olympics — but Tim’s been hard at work on it, jumping the gelding in Spain over the winter and looking excellent in that phase at Thoresby CCI4*-S this spring, where he jumped clear in a tight arena. He’ll need that good juju to continue in order to take the win: he goes into jumping on a two-phase score of 31.7, which gives him a leading margin of just 1.3 penalties – that’s just three seconds in hand, but certainly not a rail.

Tim Price and Vitali. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

There may be a question mark looming over tomorrow, but today was another masterclass from the 14-year-old gelding and his world-class rider, who have never finished out of the top ten in those four five-stars thus far.

“He’s proper cross country horse, isn’t he,” says Tim with a grin. “I was just saying to Austin [O’Connor], it’s just so nice that even with these ones that have been around a few five-stars, they just keep getting better with knowing what it’s like to be pushing towards the end, and recognising themselves in that way, and just keeping on giving. And that’s what he did. He keeps thinking, he keeps getting in the air when it’s important, and he’s just a thrill to ride.”

Tim had a late draw – he left the start box after three p.m., three-and-a-half hours into the action, and while that can be a tough situation to manage with rather a lot of time to wait and worry, he used it to his advantage. Most pertinently, we saw that in action at fence 17AB and 18, the MARS Sustainability Bay water, which featured an upright rail to a drop in at 17AB and then a log at 18, placed perpendicular to the drop. Very nearly all the field opted to run up out of the water and, rather than turning at the last stride to find the line and pop the log on an angle, throw in a right-handed turn and circle back to jump it straight, which wouldn’t incur penalties as it was a separately-numbered fence. But Tim, having watched that so many times and having seen a couple of decent attempts at the straight route, decided to trust his horse, his line, and his process, and took it on directly, saving himself several seconds in the process.

“It’s hard, because we all say we want to watch some but don’t want to watch too many, and you don’t want to wait, but I just tried to keep making that a bit of an advantage,” he says. “You know, you’re not afraid to change your plan. I walked the course this morning and the ground was better than I expected, but then it rode a bit softer, and these are things we learn a little bit from the way that horses are dealing with them. So things sort of changed and manoeuvred; I walked with my good mate, [Brazilian Olympian] Carlos Parro, this morning. He’s really helpful — I find him very positive, and he’s got a good eye for the through-the-horse’s-ears kind of look at fences, and so that was really beneficial as well. But mostly, it’s just been a good day of quietly waiting till 3:13 this afternoon.”

Tim Price and Vitali arrive home in fine style. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Tim and Vitali’s class-leading round at Burghley last year was excellent on paper, Tim felt at the time that the horse didn’t feel as good as he perhaps could have on that run. This time, though, he was much happier with the feeling underneath him – an improvement that he attributes to changes in the gelding’s management.

“It’s just worked really well this time. We’ve got his body, his stomach, and the looking after him working well this time, and then he’s had good preparation,” says Tim. “We’ve had four good runs, which have all been in the soft ground, which in a way it turns out to be an advantage when you come here and you’re a little more on top of the ground, so I think that feels good for the horses. It was just a good run in. Burghley wasn’t the best run; we lost Gatcombe [in August], and that’s [a competition that] really sets them up beautifully for Burghley, but this time he’s had all his gallops and he’s felt very good. I think hopefully we’ll stay in a good stead for the three phases.”

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

William Fox-Pitt, who has been such a mainstay at this event since his debut in 1989, has been floating the idea that this might be the last time we’ll see him here — “it should be, shouldn’t it?” he mused after his dressage test – and if that’s the case, then he’s making sure he ends his reign on a high. He’ll go into tomorrow’s final day of competition in second place after nipping around the track for just 2.4 time penalties with his 2023 Maryland runner-up Grafennacht, returning home to the collecting ring to an electric wave of collective emotion and fondness.

“How lucky am I to have her in my swansong era?” he says. “Sometimes, you know, she really makes me feel like I can ride. I saw some long ones and I didn’t pull the reins. That was quite exciting! Particularly number one, I thought ‘bullseye!’ because I hook and pop number one like ‘here we go, nicely, all very calm.’ But I took a good shot, and she was cool there. I’m very proud that she did the job.”

Coming back elated isn’t always a given, as William well knows: there are the wins, such as those he logged in 2004 and 2015, and there are the retirements, the eliminations, the penalty-riddled rounds, and the ones, too, that come so close to being great but for the niggling little regrets. Today, though, there was only joy and pride in a job well done.

“So many Badmintons are ‘if onlys’ or ‘I wish I had’ or ‘I could have’ or ‘I should have’,” he says. “So I’m just so chuffed. She nailed it today, and I’m happy.”

William came achingly close to catching the time, but decided to play it safe, as nearly all today’s competitors did, and add a loop to the final element of the MARS Sustainability Bay water – a choice he doesn’t regret at all.

“She lost no time in the second half — the only time she lost was going the long route [at 18] and that was my three time faults. I’m afraid that was six seconds, wasn’t it? If not more? And I made that choice — I’m still right that I made it. But purely, I thought, ‘I don’t want any stupid ifs — ‘why didn’t I go long like everyone else?’ ‘Why didn’t I see that?’ I was totally going to go straight this morning. She would have gone straight, but what if you go home with a runout — I’ve done that enough times, so you know what? I’m sacrificing. At least tonight, I won’t be going ‘bollocks!'”

The rest, he says, “rode well, and I’m surprised that the ground rode as well as it did. I said yesterday, I think it’s a clever course. It was demanding, it was relentless with the S bending, testing that shoulder control, that straightness. But they’re always so good here with lovely big flags — I think that’s always a real Badminton flag. You know you’re here, but the flags certainly give you a bit more of a tunnel. You’ll go off to Luhmuhlen, and you’ll get a pokey one down there that they’re kind of hoping you don’t see. But at Badminton, they are there for the riding and I think that does make you get on it.”

William Fox-Pitt and wife Alice celebrate a super day in the office. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Everywhere around the course, William got the sense that the twelve-year-old, who finished fourteenth here last year and who’s the first mare he’s ever ridden at this event, was giving him her all.

“I missed a bit in the bottom of the Quarry [at 4AB and 5], but that was probably good to sharpen us both back up,” he laughs. “She was really good over the Eyelash coffin [at15abc], Because I thought she could well have thought that ditch was rather horrendous and straightened up to it, and it would have been a hell of an angle, but she stayed on her line there. I kept on saying to myself ‘shorten my reins!’ — I know my reins got a bit long, but she didn’t need any reins, did she? She would’ve gone around in a head collar! Anyone could ride her – she’s a good old man’s conveyance.”

Though Grafennacht finished last year’s Badminton with three rails down, that came after a much more gruelling run around the cross-country, and on ground in the showjumping arena that was much tougher than tomorrow’s is likely to be. Ordinarily, she tends to be more of a one-or-none horse; she had one on the final day at Maryland in October, but there are no out-and-out showjumpers in the current top ten, and so the competition remains, achingly, excitingly, enormously wide open.

“I’ve not been [in this position] in a while – tomorrow I’ll have to wake up!” says William.

Lucy Latta and RCA Patron Saint. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

In an anniversary year, as it is this year at Badminton, there’s naturally even more of a focus on the rich history of a competition such as this – but while the intricate threads of the past are so important, so, too, is the future of the sport.

That future was represented in fine fashion by a name that won’t be familiar even to many committed fans of the sport, who propelled herself firmly into the spotlight after delivering one of the most exceptional rounds of the day today. Ireland’s Lucy Latta isn’t just a Badminton first-timer, nor is she just a five-star debutant – she’s also a one-horse rider, who fits in training and competing her horse, RCA Patron Saint, around a full-time job as brand manager for drinks company White Claw.

But, she says, “I think whenever anyone here is like, ‘I have a full time job’ or anything like that, they’re like ‘oh, you’re an amateur.’ I don’t look at it like that. I have two jobs and I do both very professionally — as professionally as I can. So I wouldn’t let myself off the hook as easy as being like, ‘I can make a mistake because I’m an amateur’ — I don’t think like that at all. And I don’t think you can coming somewhere like here — you have to be in it and focused and really determined to get from point A to point B.”

Riding just one horse means, too, that she knows him inside and out – a great benefit when tackling the biggest, toughest course of one’s life.

“There’s pros and cons to it. Like, I’m not away at any events for weeks at a time. I get to train, me and him, all the time, all year round, so it means our partnership is extremely strong.”

The strength of that partnership certainly helped 27-year-old Lucy and ‘Paddy’ today: they delivered the fastest round of the day, coming in just one second over the time to add 0.4 to their first-phase score of 37.2, boosting them an incredible 43 places up the leaderboard to overnight third. She’s now 4.2 penalties behind William, giving him a rail in hand but nothing more.

“He was amazing out there, like, he just gallops all day long,” she says. “He didn’t look at any of the crowds. I wasn’t sure, because he hasn’t done a five-star before at an event of this calibre with the crowd out there — it’s just insane. But he stayed listening to me the whole way. He was so adjustable, so brave and just gave me everything that he had. I mean, I had every faith in the horse cross country, and to pull it off is something else. I would have taken hands and all if you told me we’d be in this position when we started the week.”

Staying up on the clock in the early part of the course was a key part of Lucy’s very near capturing of the time.

“I have blind faith in this horse, and I know he’d stay galloping, so I didn’t want to give away any time around the good ground in the first few minutes of the course,” she says. “I knew I’d be able to give him a breather if he needed more air in his lungs and to take time on the way home. I knew he’d get the trip. And it helped that I’d done Blair [Castle 4*L] — I finished fourth last year — and that was soft ground and it’s extremely hilly there. Granted, it’s a minute and 20 seconds shorter, and the fences were not as big as here, but I just had so much faith that he would get the trip.”

Also helpful is that looking at Lucy aboard Paddy isn’t at all dissimilar to the happy old sight of Ros Canter aboard her lanky World Champion, the late Allstar B.

“I’m only five foot two, which helps, and I’ve gotten myself as lean as I possibly can just so that those last few minutes would be made a lot easier on him,” she says. “I felt he needed a breather up at the top, jumping those three brush fences and the gate [at 28ABC and 29]. I felt like, ‘okay, maybe I’m just going to have to ease off him coming home’, and when he turned the hill and came back down and saw the crowds, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, he’s actually full of running’. I’ve every faith going to any event now that he’s well able to get the trip, and he’s able through these type of fences. It’s consistently so much bigger, every fence, than what you would get at four-star long. Of course, those aren’t small, but this is just a whole other level, and he’s just a professional at this phase.”

Horses might not be Lucy’s full-time occupation, but they’re certainly in her blood: her grandfather evented at top level, her mother evented at junior level, and her cousins Robbie and Esib Power are a top-level jockey and a top-level eventer, respectively. Esib, she explains, has been a particularly significant influence on her riding.

“[Esib] has been an amazing coach to me,” she says. “I’ve been based there for the five weeks in the lead up to the event. She’s given me so much advice and guidance on all aspects — dressage, cross country, getting them fit for show jumping. She’s a phenomenal coach — she’s done six Badmintons and is a brilliant rider in her own right. She has just helped me tremendously. I can’t thank her enough.”

Emily King and Valmy Biats. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Badminton is an extraordinary physical challenge, but one of the major tasks in nailing down an excellent performance is managing your headspace – and that’s even harder when in a competitive position at an event you’ve historically had bad luck at. That was the case for Emily King, who’s had more than her fair share of rotten luck at this fixture, and who still made the noble call last year to put her hand up when she felt Valmy Biats tire in the final third of the course, despite knowing she could retain a very good placing if she pushed him through it. And so karma, perhaps, owed her a good turn — and today, it came. She pulled off a remarkable feat of mental compartmentalisation to deliver an excellent, quick clear with the gelding, adding 8.8 time penalties to move up one place to overnight fourth.

“To be honest, I try not to think about the fact I’ve never finished before and more think — this sounds a bit silly — but it’s another competition,” she says. “So you have to try and just do what you know works. And I thought, at Thoresby he was awesome in the mud, and he really jumped around the dimensions of Burghley, which was the biggest he’s done. So I really tried to concentrate on the things I know make his performance go well, rather than get a bit swept away with ‘you’re at Badminton, you haven’t finished before’. I look at it this time, and try and just focus. I felt so nicely in sync with him that then, he could really concentrate on the little bits rather than having to work too hard and it all becoming a bit blurred.”

But, she says, “I’m not going to lie, I was thinking about it coming up that last avenue to the big roll top! I was like ‘you’re nearly there, don’t mess it up, come on!’ And there, I just let him gallop in between, but I wanted to really just set him up. I thought, you know, ‘I’ve got to this point before; I’ve just been a bit free and a bit brave [Emily fell at the penultimate fence in 2016 while in second place]. I thought ‘no, I want to get home — I want to be quick, I want to be competitive, but I want to get home’, and I think just giving him that extra lifeline helped his balance. He so wants to jump around, he wants to do a good job, so it’s up to me to just help his balance, and I’m glad I didn’t let him down.”

That balance is the key factor, she explains, to getting the very best out of the scopey gelding.

“He’s an incredible cross country horse, and the only mistakes we’ve had is when he’s actually too brave,” she says. “I’ve come and I’ve overridden and it’s gotten us into trouble, but it’s bloomin’ hard going out round there. You just want to just sit back and kick and kick. But with Val, it can cause problems. I’ve got to really hold his balance, be a touch extra balanced, and a touch cautious but whilst going quick — which, when you haven’t done a huge amount of five stars, you’ve got to just really believe in his scope. I tried to do that and he was incredible. He galloped so well at the end; I didn’t have to chase him. He just felt so within himself. It was actually fun!”

This season has seen Val looking on the form of his life: he and Emily won the Grantham Cup CCI4*-S at Thoresby for the second year running, and much of his success on softer ground can be contributed to how he’s managed at home. He lives out 24/7 on variable footing and terrain, and much of his galloping work, too, is done on grass, no matter the weather.

“He’s been so lucky having had a few runs this spring on the soft going. We’re so lucky at home — my partner’s parents let us gallop on the grass there, and I think he’s galloping in the sticky going at home, he’s used to, he’s conditioned. He’s not going on the all-weather gallops with a little incline. He’s so fit, and I think he’s come here and he’s within himself, rather than halfway round finding it a bit tiring. I’m really thankful to be able to get him that fit, but obviously, you can get them as fit as possible at home, and as fit as possible around the four shorts and the Advanceds — but the five stars, they just stretch them. Stretch their lungs, stretch their bodies and they come out and just find it that bit easier. And he did find it easy, which was lovely.”

Sarah Ennis and Grantstown Jackson. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

At the FEI European Eventing Championships last year, a little-known, low-mileage horse was handed the pathfinder role – and despite ground conditions even tougher than that year’s Badminton, diminutive Grantstown Jackson and his rider, Ireland’s Sarah Ennis, skimmed right over the top of the sticky mud and nipped home with just a couple of time penalties to show for it and no obvious diminishing of the petrol levels in his tank.

Today, they did just the same again in the gelding’s sophomore five-star start. They added just 3.6 time penalties to record the third-fastest round of the day, propelling them from 42nd overnight to fifth going into the final day of competition — and smashed every expectation that last year’s Europeans had placed on their shoulders.

“I’m so proud of him,” says Sarah. “He lived up to his name after Europeans. There’s been a pressure on about that: everyone’s like, ‘Oh, he’ll make the time, he’s so fast.’ I was just on it everywhere; he made it feel so easy.”

His easy speed, she says, comes down to “light feet, and the engine within him – he’s 80% blood with a Thoroughbred mother. He’s very funny at the first gallop of the year — he’ll bolt up the gallops, and you just let him go because there’s no point — when he gets to the top he’ll stop. He just has this will to run. When he was broken, he ran off a lot, and that’s the thing — he just likes running. He’s like Forrest Gump! That’s him. He loves running. He loves galloping. And he just got faster and faster. All the time I went, ‘good boy Jackie boy,’ and you feel him going ‘Oh, that’s okay, I did well’ and move on to the next one. You don’t want to go out of the startbox and put the gun to their head and think ‘we have to be the fastest’. I just decided I had to go out, let him hit up the rhythm, and then try and stay there as much as you can with straight routes. Because it just goes wrong when you’re chasing at the start. You just have to level your head.”

Sarah and Jackson’s scant time penalties came as the result of one long route: like much of the field, they chose to add in a circle to the separately-numbered final element at the MARS Sustainability Bay water.

“That was definitely our nine seconds, but I just didn’t want to take the chance at 18 with a little skinny log,” says Sarah. “He just wouldn’t be so cool when you adjust the last stride — h likes to be left alone. But what a cross country machine, like with no ‘oh shit moments’, as I call them, which was amazing around a track like that. I couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s incredible, but he took a long time to mature, and now he’s the ultimate machine. So I’d say to people out there who think that it’s not working, to actually hang on in there. Especially with Irish horses — they get better and better and better, and you end up with this.”

Caroline Powell and Greenacres Special Cavalier. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

One of the dominant themes of the day has been progression from this time one year ago, when horses and riders alike had to battle through extraordinarily tough conditions and many crossed the finish line with uncharacteristic penalties on their scoresheet, or didn’t cross it at all after their riders decided to call it a day.

One of the horses in the former camp was then-ten-year-old Greenacres Special Cavalier who, despite having jumped clear around her five-star debut at Pau the autumn prior for fifth place, picked up green jumping penalties early on the course. But rather than retiring, Caroline Powell decided to use the rest of the round to give her talented young mare experience of longer distances, trickier combinations, and the intense atmosphere of the Badminton course, and by the time the pair finished, ‘Cavvy’ looked to have matured considerably.

Since then, she’s gone from strength to strength: she finished in the top seven at CHIO Aachen, won a CCI4*-S at Ballindenisk, and then travelled across the Atlantic to Maryland 5*, where she finished sixth. And today, on her return to Badminton, she completed the circle, starting the course with the maturity she finished it with last year and looking throughout like a horse with years more mileage than she actually has. They ultimately crossed the finish line 33 seconds over the 11:19 optimum time, adding 13.2 time penalties to their tally and stepping up one place on the leaderboard to sixth.

“She enjoyed that, didn’t she? I think probably a bit more than I did!” laughs Caroline. “She loved it — this is the day she enjoys. She didn’t even notice the ground, which I didn’t think she would, as it’s drying out all the time.”

Caroline Powell and Greenacres Special Cavalier. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Caroline was one of the few riders to do the straight route at 17AB and 18, the MARS Sustainability Bay – but initially, she’d actually planned to add in the loop to the log that we saw so many other riders do today.

“I did have a rethink about the tree after watching Tim and Jonelle do the skinny thing so beautifully,” she admits. “I thought, ‘hmm, we might give that one a shot!’ But everything else was bang on [my initial plan]. She took a few tired steps just coming home and then she came through [the finish] and she’s just tanking [the grooms] home. So we’ll have to go home and calm her down!”

Caroline was also one of the first starters of the day with five-star debutant CBI Aldo, who she opted to retire at fence 20, the sunken road, after picking up jumping penalties there and at Huntsman’s Close – but he, too, will have benefitted from the exposure the day gave him, she says.

“I think the hard thing now is we’ve lost the Gatcombes, and we’ve lost the big atmosphere events, which is why I wanted to bring the other one here — just to give him that experience and bring him home safe. He’ll come out a better horse the next day,” she says. “He just went out a degree greener, and after his round, we then rewalked a few of the lines because they were very tricky. For her they were very easy, but that’s experience and that’s why both of them here. She’s had quite a good trip: we went to Maryland, she did Aachen, and she absolutely adored them — she just loves people and she loves showing off, which is a great attribute to a horse, isn’t it? She’s a bit of a diva!”

The consistency that Cavvy is showing now is a sweet payoff to a considered, committed development programme that previous Burghley champion Caroline has had her on since her international career began in 2019.

“She had her time of being quite tricky at 4* level, and we just kept running her and she kept making mistakes — and now she’s looking for the flags and she’s helping me out and doing her job, so it was well worth it,” she says. “We had a horrible year [in 2021] of having too many 20s to actually bring her through [the levels] and just let her learn. They’re not good horses until they’ve been here three or four times.”

Felix Vogg and Cartania. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

As just the eighth rider out of the box, Swiss five-star winner Felix Vogg had limited intel to take to the track with him, but he didn’t need it: his own plan was so robust, and so based around his own horse, that he was able to deliver the best round of the competition at that point with Cartania and show the riders to come that there was, perhaps, more that could be done on course than initially assumed.

“She was a bit strong at the beginning but she’s so clever,” says Felix, who felt that cleverness in full effect when he opted to take the seldom-used direct route out of the water at the MARS Sustainability Bay at 17AB and 18. The catty mare hung her left leg, but quickly rotated her shoulder to get out of her own way and landed safely.

“I didn’t hear that anyone was doing the loop – they all pretended like they would go straight,” says Felix with a laugh. “She jumped really well in — I’d said I’d only go the long way when she stumbles a bit, or something else happens, or she’s empty. But we walked it that way, and I rode it a bit different. I rode it a bit more direct. She left a little bit of leg, but she was really clever. That is a good thing about her — she really has her own opinion of what she wants to do, but at the end, when she comes in trouble, she still helps herself.”

The pair kept up a high cruising speed around the course, finishing with by far the fastest time at that early stage for just 10.8 time penalties and a move-up from equal fifteenth to seventh – but in hindsight Felix, who finished fifteenth here last year with the mare, felt that he could have made up even more time across the breadth of the track.

“I’m just a bit frustrated, because she had so much left when I came home,” he admits. “I’m a bit angry with myself that I didn’t go a bit faster earlier. But better home like this than last year [when the horses finished so tired].”

Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Pathfinder Tom Jackson took the knowledge he’d gained at the start of the day with Farndon, who finished clear with 14.4 time penalties to move up from 33rd to 14th, into his ride with top horse and 2022 Burghley runner-up Capels Hollow Drift, who was the penultimate starter this afternoon. But while ‘Walshy’ was characteristically game and gutsy at the fences, he found the holding ground trickier than his stablemate, and ended the course with 10 time penalties – a touch more, perhaps, than expected from this reliable second-phase star, but still a competitive enough performance to climb from 22nd to eighth and redeem a first-phase score that had been marred by the effects of the bum-cam yesterday.

“He was fantastic everywhere — he’s just an out-and-out cross country machine,” says Tom, who’s the only rider today to finish on two horses. “It wasn’t our best performance in the dressage yesterday, and I went out with a real determination to try and get as close as we could to the time. He was there or thereabouts, until he just started to tire. This isn’t his perfect going – his action naturally sends him down into the ground a little bit, so he gets a bit more stuck in it, so that didn’t help him out, but I’m over the moon with him. He  just tries so hard every single time, and you just can’t beat that in a horse.”

Pippa Funnell and MCS Maverick. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Last night, we got the news that Pippa Funnell had withdrawn her early-draw ride, the experienced Majas Hope, after an uncharacteristically tricky dressage that put him well out of the hunt. That meant that she was left with just one ride, her 2023 Bramham victor MCS Maverick, who was the last horse of the day to leave the start box, and who was making his Badminton debut after finishing eleventh in his first five-star at Pau last autumn.

Though MCS Maverick is a uniquely tricky horse – he took fright at the crowds at Wednesday’s horse inspection, nearly turning himself over, and has subsequently been getting escorts around the busy estate from hunt horses – he showed his innate toughness today, even at the tail end of the course when, while starting to tire, he had a couple of slightly sticky jumps at the Worcester Avenue Brushes at 28ABC. Though his steadier pace in this latter section contributed to his 13.2 time penalties, it was still enough to move the pair from first-phase twelfth place to overnight ninth.

“I’m really, really delighted with him,” says Pippa, who took the ride on just last year from fellow five-star rider and stable jockey Helen Wilson. “I know I’m going to get back to the lorry and think, ‘why didn’t I use his speed more?’ but it’s his first time here and again, I had to be escorted by two hunt horses [to get to the collecting ring and the start box]. For me, that’s where I’ve got to try and channel him so I can warm him up in the right way because to me, my warm up here was over the first five fences, getting the rideability before Huntsman’s Close [at 7]. I was actually down on the clock at two minutes because he was running just fresh, so I had to try and anchor him. He’s such a big, galloping, scopey horse, and I’m an old girl, and he’s not ready yet — he’s too naive yet just to let him keep trucking in there. I think just at the end through the brushes, I could have made it much simpler and kept a straighter line, but I think he showed by a little bit of pecking that he was weary. He kept galloping — he’s very fit, but he’s going to strengthen up. To me, it’s still a work in progress, but  to come for the first time to Badminton and to give you the feeling that he’s really ‘let me at the fence’… it was lovely to come down to the Vicarage Vee on a horse like him.”

Though she’s now in a competitive position to vie for a top placing herself, Pippa’s picked her dream podium-topper, echoing the feelings of so many here: “Oh, my God, I’m just so hoping for my old mate William to win. I will be very emotional [if he does]!”

Alexander Bragg and Quindiva. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

One of the most colossal climbs of the day came at the eleventh hour when Alex Bragg, the seventh-to-last rider to leave the start box, delivered a nimble performance with 14-year-old Quindiva, adding just 7.6 time penalties to climb from 51st place to tenth. Last year, we saw Alex, like Emily, deliver one of the commendable masterclasses in horsemanship when he opted to pull the mare up while she was running well and competitively, and today, his emotion at giving her the finish both horse and rider deserved was palpable.

“She was amazing — and it’s such an amazing feeling finishing here at Badminton,” he says. “I’ve started many times and not always come through that finish line. It’s been a tricky show for me. This mare is very sensitive, and at this time of year, mares are tough because they come into season and getting them this fit is hard. She had a tricky couple of weeks build up, so we weren’t sure if we were going to even be here, but she tried her heart out today, and coming to that last fence I was nearly in tears. I was like,  ‘open your eyes and don’t miss at this fence!’ I was just saying to one of my daughters, I punched the air before I was through the finish line, which is probably not very professional, and could have wasted one second, but when you finish like that and you have that much emotion and the crowd is going absolutely wild… thanks to all those guys in the main arena! You’ve just got to enjoy it, and all that hardship that you go through, all the bad weather we’ve had, it’s all been worth it for that for that one magic moment.”

Grace Taylor and Game Changer. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

It’s been a mixed bag of a day for the North American contingent at Badminton, who came into cross-country day with two representatives in the top ten thanks to excellent tests from Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF (fourth after dressage on a 29) and Tiana Coudray and Cancaras Girl (sixth after dressage on 29.8). Now, the best of the bunch is British-based Grace Taylor, the daughter of US Olympian Ann Sutton and British team selector Nigel Taylor, who produced a steady, classy effort with Game Changer to finish her Badminton cross-country debut with 19.2 time penalties. That’s catapulted her to 19th place overnight, up from a first-phase 31st.

“I’m really proud of him – he was amazing,” says Grace. “He stayed with me the whole way round. He’s a very laid-back horse, but his eye was taken by the crowd at the odd time – but once he was in front of the jump, he just jumped. I’m so grateful to him for what he did today.”

Tiana Coudray and Cancaras Girl. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Tiana Coudray logged an exciting clear round with Cancaras Girl, who proved her mettle as a five-star horse with some game, genuine efforts over the tough track, but slips from sixth to 26th overnight due to her 30.4 time penalties.

Regardless, though, Tiana is thrilled – and rightly so, after a decade of hard work since her last appearance here.

“I have a Badminton horse! I’m thrilled,” she says. “She had to fight in a few places – she pecked really badly jumping the Broken Bridge, and I think the whole crowd thought she was going to go down, but luckily I stayed in the middle and she came back up underneath me. She was brilliant. I’m kicking myself because I set out quite slow — I think it got in my head that it’s hot, and the ground is tough, and horses are finishing are struggling to finish, and I probably set off too slow. But having said that, she finished brilliantly, and she jumped round, and she’s had a fantastic trip — and hopefully it’s the first of many, so we can move forward and set out to be a bit quicker next time.”

Tiana Coudray and Cancaras Girl. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

The tough LeMieux Eyelash Brushes coffin complex at 15ABC was another place in the course where Cancaras Girl stepped up to the plate: like many horses, she peeked at the water in the ditch at B and ballooned over it, but despite the awkward jump, immediately locked onto the angled hedge at C and made a neat effort over it when a run-out would have been easy to cash in. But for ‘Nana’, Tiana says, running out was never on the agenda.

“It felt like it wouldn’t have mattered what her legs were doing — she knew where she was going,” she says. “She’s always been, from day one, so straight and so honest. In a couple of places she maybe locked on to the wrong thing, or saw it at the last minute and then went, ‘Oh, yeah — got it!’ That makes total sense!'”

This is a second five-star start and first cross-country completion at the level for the mare, who tackled Burghley last year but was eliminated for a rider fall after picking up 40 penalties early on.

“I think I went into Burghley full of confidence because she had been phenomenal around her four-stars — really tough four stars,” says Tiana, who placed in Bramham’s colossal CCI4*-L with Cancaras Girl in 2022. “And I thought, ‘this is the best cross country horse in the world, of course she’s going to jump around Burghley!’ So I was probably a bit too casual about a few things, and I paid for it. The good thing about Burghley was she jumped far enough around that I went, ‘she’s got the scope. She’ll do the distance. She’s a five-star horse — we just made mistakes.’ And I think I set out today much more conservative, thinking ‘dot your i’s, cross your t’s, make sure to get it done.’ And clearly she’s a proper five-star horse, so now I can afford to be a little bit braver. I know now what she does around a track like this, so we kick on a bit more next time — but my God, I was so proud of her.”

Cosby Green and Copper Beach. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Cosby Green, too, dropped down the leaderboard with 18-year-old Copper Beach after logging a clear round with 38.8 time penalties, which knocked her from 18th to 32nd place – but like Tiana, she was delighted with the bigger picture of her commendable round, which marks her first trip to Badminton and just her second-ever five-star.

thought it was perfect – well, obviously not 100% perfect, but as perfect as I can imagine!” she says with a grin. “He was just so bold out there, and we were so on the same page. I had to set him up a couple of times, but he was absolutely flying; you never know how they’re going to jump those big jumps, and he took it absolutely in his stride, so I’m pleased. It was an out-and-out clear round, so I’m happy with that.”

Cosby, who has embarked upon her second year basing in the UK with Tim and Jonelle Price, has benefitted enormously from training with the two superstar riders, and from their insight this week, too – but today, she wasn’t able to get valuable feedback from them on how the course might ride, because both had later draws than she did. Rather than letting that unnerve her, though, Cosby took on the mantle of Team Price pathfinder with composure and confidence.

“It was scary at the beginning, but with that said, I’m proud that I was able to go out first and put that behind me – that’s their good training on me reflecting back,” she says. Confidence, she admits, has been a key factor she’s struggled with – and today’s effort is an enormously emboldening one.

“I just feel like I need to pinch myself. It’s just going to really put me in the right direction; I struggle with confidence a lot, so to have two clear five-star cross-country rounds in my first two attempts is going to make me more confident in who I am, and make me better,” she says. To boost her confidence ahead of a momentous occasion such as this one, she explains, “I do a lot of envisioning, and just kind of telling myself I can do it – kind of faking it until I make it! This morning I got up and I told anyone who would listen that failure’s not an option. Even though I don’t believe that, if I say it enough times, I start to believe it. I tell myself I can do it, and then I do it.”

Jessie Phoenix and Wabbit. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Canada’s Jessie Phoenix and her ex-racehorse Wabbit added 21.6 time penalties and picked up 11 penalties for a safety device activation at fence 23, the Rolex Grand Slam Rails, which are effectively a ‘lead-in’ Vicarage Vee ahead of the real thing a few strides later. Nonetheless, their round boost them from first-phase 62nd to overnight 33rd, and Jessie returned thrilled by her horse’s efforts on the tough course.

“He truly was amazing. That horse is just — there is no bottom to him. He is all heart and he loves this job,” she says. “Every time he gets to go cross-country it’s like Christmas to him.”

Despite her pin at the rails, Jessie opted to continue on the direct route to the subsequent, even more difficult Vicarage Vee, which the pair cleared easily.

“We came down the hill [to the Rails] and he just got, like, a little tight behind. I thought, you know, should we just keep going to the Vicarage Vee, should we do an option? And then I saw this beauty distance and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And he just flew over it like nothing,” she says. “It’s definitely all about the ears you’re looking through, and [the course] rode pretty much standard for the way Wabbit goes, which is just amazing start to finish.”

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg had a tough day in the office, dropping from overnight fourth to 38th after a drive-by at the A element of the INEOS Grenadier Sunken Road at 20ABC – and that 20 quickly turned to a 60 when they crossed their tracks on the re-approach. They also added 25.2 time penalties, but ultimately completed the course.

“He’s a good old horse, and he was going great guns, but I think I just got to that point in the track and started thinking, ‘I’m in with a chance here’, and going a bit  too hard, and he was getting a bit numb in the bridle,” says Boyd. “I screwed up a  bit — I was worried he wasn’t going to make the three strides there, so I wanted to get a forward shot at the skinny, but it was ridiculous — I saw one off the turn and flapped my elbows and he ran by it. That’s definitely not how to ride that jump.”

With that behind them, Boyd pulled back on the pace and nursed Thomas home without further issues.

“I eased off a bit once he had a run out. It’s pretty hard out there — I’ve ridden a lot of 5*’s, and I thought it was quite challenging,” he says.

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Sadly, both Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent and Allie Knowles and Morswood saw their Badminton debuts end early with rider falls – Meghan was tipped out of the plate after a twisting jump over the A element of the Sunken Road at 20ABC, and though she looked, for a second, as though she might be able to make the save of the day, the steep downhill slope after the fence meant that gravity won the fight. Allie and Morswood parted company at the final element of the very tough Voltaire Design Huntsman’s Close at 7ABCD. Both riders were immediately back on their feet following their falls.

Course designer Eric Winter was delighted with how the day played out, and how his course — which was roundly praised by riders — worked.

“The ground was obviously an influence, and I’m really glad we moved back by a week, because it wouldn’t have been such a pleasurable experience last week,” he says. “Higher forces smiled upon us: from Tuesday we’ve had great weather, and it’s really dried out, which has made a huge difference. What I wanted to test was the same as always — rider skill. It’s always about jumping the fence and being patient and riding the turn; jumping the fence and having a little bit of ability to go, ‘I’m going to go on three, or four, to shorten, or lengthen’ — to trust your instincts and develop instincts with your riding. There were some great results; the more ‘mature’ riders in first and second, but as you look down the list, there was a whole heap of younger riders coming through that showed super skills today. That was as fulfilling for me as anything — that the next generation of the sport is in good hands.”

Since he took the reins as designer in 2017, 427 combinations have started the event here, and just two have finished on their dressage score.

“That’s proper cross-country,” he says with a grin.

Here, here – we’ll raise a glass to that, and to a great day of sport here at Badminton. Now, it’s onto Sunday, which begins bright and early at 8.30 a.m. BST/3.30 a.m. EST with the final horse inspection in front of Badminton House. Then, we’ll crack on with showjumping from 11.30 a.m. (6.30 a.m. EST), followed by the top twenty at 2.55 p.m. (9.55 a.m. EST). You can check out the cross-country results in full here, and catch up on all the day’s action with Cheg’s live updates here — and we’ll see you again tomorrow for lots more stories and analysis from this great weekend of sport. Go Eventing.

The top ten after cross-country at the 2024 MARS Badminton Horse Trials.

MARS Badminton Horse Trials [Website] [Entries] [Timetable] [Tickets] [Radio Badminton] [Livestream] [Cross Country Course] [Form Guide] [Ultimate Guide] [EN’s Coverage]

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