In eventing, we’re so often beholden to a cliché, and “it’s not going to be a dressage competition”, particularly, is one that we hear time and time again at these big, bold cross-country focused events such as Bramham. But more than ever before, that’s true this week — and not just because Ian Stark has built one of the beefiest Bramham tracks of his tenure this week. Instead, it’s because the judges are being kind of, well, mean.
Okay, maybe that’s overegging the pudding a bit: after all, it’s the judges’ job to set the standard, and as long as they remain consistent in their stringency, there’s no harm done. But across the three classes that took to the dressage ring today — the CCI4*-L, which saw its first 23 competitors; the under-25 CCI4*-L, which saw five, and the CCI4*-S, which put forth its initial 35 competitors — we saw just two competitors go sub-30.
The first to do so is now our overnight leader in the feature CCI4*-L class: Izzy Taylor, who won this class last year with Monkeying Around, posted a 29.9 late in the day with eleven-year-old Happy Days, taking over Piggy March‘s long-time lead with Brookfield Cavalier Cruise.
Though this is a rerouted plan for Izzy and Happy Days, who were eliminated on the cross-country at Badminton, the reigning title holder is excited to return with another great chance.
“He’s a very cool horse, and he just stayed with me all the time,” she says, explaining that developing his self-assurance has been key to producing him. “He’s taken a while to come around, which is probably not really fair to say, as he’s still quite young, but he’s grown in confidence. Usually he’s actually quite an introvert, and this week, he’s been full of himself so far, so that’s a good sign for him. He’s as happy as his name would suggest!”
Happy Days scored almost the same as he had at Badminton, where he put a 29.6 on the board — but this arena, Izzy explains, is actually tougher in many ways.
“Bramham is very different to, say, Badminton — it’s much closer, the crowd. We seem to be very close to the members’ marquee this year, which I believe is causing a little trouble. So it’s much more of a close-feeling atmosphere, so I’m really pleased that he didn’t get overexcited by that.”
As a slightly introverted soul, Happy Days has sometimes previously leant into going a bit too quiet in the ring. Today, though, his newfound self-belief gave him the confidence to really show himself to the ground jury.
“He’s very laid back — like, super laid back,” laughs Izzy. “But everyone expresses their worries differently — he’s super laid back, and then he gets worried and he goes too laid back. But now he’s beginning to realise that actually he’s alright, so he might show a few people a few things. But he’s very cool, very low maintenance in terms of, he likes to be loved and fed — food is the key to Happy’s life.”
Though Piggy March couldn’t quite hold onto the lead with her CCI4*-L debutant, Brookfield Cavalier Cruise, she sits less than a point behind Izzy on 30.8 and will hold second place going into tomorrow’s competition. She was one of many riders, though, who was disappointed not to see a number on the board that reflected the quality of the horse’s work in the ring.
“He’s a really smart horse and it was a clear round — we didn’t make any mistakes. There’s still more to come from him, just his development, strength, cadence, that sort of thing. But, it was pretty solid, and there wasn’t a mistake there, so I was pretty pleased,” she says. “He went how I expected, but I was a little bit disappointed with his mark. That’s the worst mark he’s had by quite a long way, and I would have understood that with mistakes, but he didn’t really make mistakes. There’s still tiny little bits to look like a very established horse still to come, but I thought there wasn’t really enough to knock him down, and 30 is usually a mark where there are a couple of mistakes in a test, and he didn’t have any. But they’ve continued with that — I haven’t watched any more dressage, but they’re obviously just on the slightly more negative theme, which if they stay that way, that’s fine.”
Brookfield Cavalier Cruise comes here having won a CCI4*-S section at Thoresby earlier this spring — a first international outing for the new-old partnership.
“He’s just recently back to me this year =- I had six months or so with him as a six-, coming seven-year-old, and I did his first intermediates,” says Piggy of the now ten-year-old, who was previously piloted by Tom McEwen and prior to that, Harry Meade.. “He’s a beautiful horse and I’m very lucky to have him. He’s a horse that’s won with every rider, at every level. He’s had a few riders through change of circumstances, or whatever it might be, and we do change around sometimes [in the Brookfield team] — we work on numbers sometimes, if one of us has more than than the other we swap around and we do work together as a team. I was the lucky one that got asked to take him. He obviously won very well with Tommy [McEwen] last year, and has looked very impressive with everyone, but I think with Brookfield Inocent being off and the top horses not being there, they decided to swap around to try and keep it even. I’m lucky to have him.”
Now, with that newer partnership in mind, Piggy hopes to use the week ahead as something of a fact-finding mission with the exciting young horse.
“This is his first time here, and his first time at this level for a Long. He’s a lovely big horse with a lot of potential, but this week will be very interesting. I’m not overly confident, but I’m not also worried — I’m interested and ready to give it a go.”
Badminton re-routers Aaron Millar and KEC Deakon sit third after delivering a smart test for 32.4 — not quite the very competitive 28.8 they put on the board at the spring five-star, but still enough to put them well in the hunt here. They’re followed closely behind by Canada’s Mike Winter and El Mundo, who hold fourth place on 33.3, and who also rerouted from Badminton, where Mike opted not to run the gelding cross-country. Now, they make their Bramham debut with high hopes for the weekend to come.
“I didn’t run cross country at Badminton, because I just felt some fast horses — and I’m maybe not the fastest cross country rider anymore — they were sort of knocking on 30 time penalties and more,” explains Mike. “I really wanted to get my Paris MER, and he’s the one horse I have, so I made the decision to reroute and Jonathan Nelson, his half owner, is from up here, so this was always his choice over Badminton.”
The 14-year-old gelding shone in the busy, buzzy main arena — a testament, Mike says, to the amount of exposure European and British-based horses get to atmosphere from a young age: “He’s really good, and he doesn’t mind it at all. I think that’s good about actually moving from North America — to produce a horse in this country is way easier, if it’s a championship horse, because they do this since, like, Osberton, or even some of the events like Wellington. They just have a lot of opportunities for them to grow up.”
For Mike himself, having a horse with the innate ability of El Mundo, who originally came to his yard as a young sales horse but, after a long rehab period from an injury, became part of the family, is also transformative.
“I grew up riding thoroughbreds that you couldn’t push and that like, you always had to work to keep them up. He wants to be uphill. He’s easy and has a good temperament, and so I’ve just got to let his engine work. Sometimes I’m happy with something that’s what I call sub-powered; just like, a nice test. Matt Ryan said to me at Badminton last year, ‘I think you almost got time penalties!’ Fair enough — dressage is not naturally my thing. But to have a nice horse teaches you, doesn’t it?”
The top five is rounded out by Sarah Bullimore, who sits equal with Mike on a 33.3 after a smart test with the nine-year-old Evita AP.
Britain’s toughest, most terrain-heavy four-stars are always the ones that draw the most significant field of French entries, and Bramham is no exception. France holds the crown in the prestigious under-25 CCI4*-L, but in the absence of last year’s winners, Heloïse Le Guern and her French team mount Canakine du Sudre, one of her compatriots is making a great effort to keep the trophy in situ across the Channel.
Morgane Euriat certainly isn’t coming here unprepared, either — she finished sixth in this class last year with the smart and swift Baccarat d’Argonne, romping home just one second over the optimum time in a typical open, French style. Now, a year later, she feels like she has an even better chance with the twelve-year-old Anglo Arab, who sits in first place overnight on 29.7 — the best score of the day across all the classes.
“Two months before we came last year, she had a cancer in her ovary, and now she has one ovary less,” explains Morgane. “Now, she’s been able to have more preparation to come to Bramham.”
Though the pair had led after cross-country last year, it was the showjumping that was to be their downfall: they pulled four rails on the final day. This year, though, Morgane has every intention of putting those demons to bed.
“We’ve tried a lot to do the show jumping on the grass, because in France, we are never show jumping on the grass and last year she was not too good about that,” she says. “I really want to come back here for a win and be good on the show jumping.”
Under-25 pathfinder Richard Coney holds onto second place overnight with the first of his two rides, 13-year-old Mermus R Diamonds, who posted a 31.3 to sit nearly eight points clear of third-placed Tom Bird and Rebel Rhyme (39).
This is Richard’s long-awaited return to this class after a fourth-place with Kananaskis in 2019, and in the meantime, he’s amassed some fairly significant experience: he was seventh in the Young Rider European Championships that summer, made his five-star debut at Pau in 2020 with two horses, finishing ninth with Mermus R Diamonds, and then, after focusing solely on national level competition through 2021 and the first half of 2022, returned with a bang to international competition last year, jumping clear around Blenheim and Boekelo.
“I feel a slight bit more experienced [than last time I was here], but I’ve not done too much,” says Richard. “I’ve been quite quiet over the past couple years; I’ve not done like, loads and loads. I had one horse last season at four-star, and he went to Boekelo and that’s sort of got me back into it a little bit.”
Also running alongside the two showpiece CCI4*-L classes is the CCI4*-S, which boasts 77 competitors and provides its own unique preparatory challenge. Ros Canter leads this overnight after delivering an exciting late-in-the-day performance from relatively new ride MHS Seventeen, who posted a 32.6 to edge out Steven Heal and Quidam de Lux, who had led for much of the day on a 33.1.
“I took him over just under a year ago from Nicola Wilson, who’d actually only had him for about six months herself, which is why he’s not that well known,” says Ros of the ten-year-old Irish gelding. “We’ve just been bumbling along, really. He won the three-star at Osberton, the long format, last year — that was only my third event on him — but we’re still getting to know each other.”
Though Ros explains that this class was always the aim for him, the tough British spring has meant that she’s been able to give him less of a robust preparatory lead-up than she’d have liked, and as a result, “we’ve come here very inexperienced,” she says. “He’s done one Advanced at Cirencester, which is when they didn’t have a water in because it was flooded, so, at the level, he’s very inexperienced. He did the dressage at Chatsworth, but that was it, so this is a feeling-out weekend.”
Part of the experience for the smart up-and-comer is gaining his first experience of a significant atmosphere – something that he dealt with admirably today, bar an expensive spook at the A end of the arena, which sits in close proximity to the busy hospitality tent.
“He went quite spooky in the top corner, but Chris [Bartle] was saying that lots of horses have done that today,” says Ros. “He changed at the end of his extended canter, which was a shame because that’s something he doesn’t normally do. The rest of it was just a bit green, and I’m surprised I’m in the lead at the end of the day with with a test that was a bit green, but on the other hand, his way of going in the last week has changed. It’s starting to feel proper where he was a bit pony-like before.”
Ros will be expecting to be kept plenty busy managing the gelding through the rest of the weekend, which will see them showjump in the hugely atmospheric main arena on Saturday morning before heading out onto a challenging cross-country track set by Ian Stark.
“He’s a lovely model of a horse; he’s a beautiful horse, and he’s a very careful jumper, but he would be spooky,” says Ros. “He could have a look at a filler; he’d be that kind of spooky. So I’m going to have to be on my guard a little bit round here. He did an intermediate last weekend actually, as we’ve been so short of runs, and he ran out at the third last, which was a white house painted with black stripes, having absolutely bombed round the rest of it. It’s been a really good wake up call for me — I’ve got to be on it right ’til the last fence. But he is really cool — he’s good fun, and he’s the right size for me!”
Tomorrow takes us into dressage day two, which will see another full day of CCI4*-S competition commencing from 9.45 a.m. and finishing at roughly 5.00 p.m., while the remainder of the CCI4*-L competitors will take to the ring from 10.30 a.m. to 3.08 p.m. The final six riders in the under-25 CCI4*-L will come forward from 4.00 p.m. to 4.45 p.m. Join us at the end of the day for a full report on the state of play, plus plenty more on Ian Stark’s bold, tough courses. Until then: Go Eventing!