Every year at Bramham, the biggest crowds form — and the biggest cheers are heard — for local superstar Nicola Wilson, who has long said that winning the CCI4*-L here is one of her greatest career aims. But her absence, as she continues to work through her recovery after her crashing fall at Badminton, means that Bramham has a rather different feel to it; this year, it’s a competition that feels almost defined by someone who isn’t here.
But what sport does serendipity better than ours? Though she’s not on the leaderboard herself Nicola is, in a way, winning Bramham: her up-and-coming star Coolparks Sarco has stepped into the top spot on the CCI4*-L leaderboard, delivering a 23.3 that nearly brought the house down with Nicola’s great friend Piggy March in the irons.
“I’ve had him for two weeks, and I was going through the whole thing not having a bloody clue what I was doing, to be honest,” says an emotional Piggy, whose aim for the week is simply to give the horse, her friend, and everyone involved with them a nice experience and a glimmer of hope.
“We want to enjoy him, and I just want to make sure he’s okay. I got given this last-minute opportunity, which is wonderful, but obviously it came with a lot of mixed emotions,” she says. “It was from Nic that I heard, and she basically told me that yes, this is what I was doing. And so I agreed and it’s with pride and honour that I did, because she’s amazing — she’s been a wonderful teammate and just a friend in general. I ride him this week with honour, but I just want to get him back, so it won’t be with my usual ‘right, come on, I can win this’ [attitude]. Every little bit I do, I’m wanting to figure him out and hopefully just do the best we can for her team, and her owners, and her family who are here. This is a big week and we want it to be a happy one.”
Piggy, who was buoyed out of the ring by an extraordinary roar from the crowd, honoured Nicola further by ensuring ‘Jeremy’ wore her trademark Yorkshire Rose quartermarks: “That was a very emotional moment, and I have to say, I’ve never had a cheer that big. It’s just for the love of Nicola, which is so wonderful. I just hope it’s a week that we can just do her proud. I have to keep quite strong because we miss her; this result is a credit to her through and through. He’s got her stamp on his bum, the rose, and that’ll stay there always, as far as I’m concerned, as long as I ride him.”
Coolparks Sarco was a relatively new ride for Nicola, who took the ride on the now-ten-year-old over from Andrew Nicholson early last year for longtime supporters Jo and James Lambert.
“Nic hasn’t had him that long — he’s quite an Andrew horse, and Nic’s done a lot in a year,” says Piggy. “So bless him, he’s probably not got a clue what’s going on. I had a run at Rockingham, but Rockingham’s not Bramham — but I did have a competitive run and sort of try to kick on. He’s a very sweet horse, and I’ve spoken to Nic two or three times, which has really helped. He’s a different horse to mine; he’s strong looking, and I was like, ‘are we fit enough?’ But Nic’s horses always are, so we discussed what he’s done and he feels great; he’s obviously just a different horse and used to different work. It’s been an interesting last couple of weeks, and the weekend will tell. But all credit to her — he’s a lovely horse. This will be a big week for him anyway, with where he’s at in his life and what he’s done and physically, too, with the terrain and the hills and his age. He’s done Boekelo, and that was flat. So we’re taking each day as it comes, each bit as it comes.”
Whether Piggy and Coolparks Sarco remain in the top spot through the week or cruise their way to an educational, steady finish, they’ve already accomplished something extraordinary: they’ve made those closest to Nicola remember that even in the very toughest of times, there’s a little bit of magic in eventing that can’t be underestimated — and the story isn’t over until the book has been closed.
Though Izzy Taylor‘s relatively inexperienced Monkeying Around can still be something of a wildcard across the country, he’s enormously reliable on the flat — unsurprisingly, perhaps, when you consider his dressage-heavy breeding. He sits second in the CCI4*-L class at the end of the first phase after producing a polished, sparkling test for a 24, which puts the pair just seven tenths of a penalty – or less than two seconds – behind the leaders.
“He was fabulous,” says Izzy, who also sits seventh with Ringwood Madras, who she describes as having a ‘delightful brain’. “[Monkeying Around] is beautiful, and he can do beautiful dressage, and he felt very, very good here today.”
Though we’ve seen many horses shrink away from the huge atmosphere and busy crowds around the main arena, Monkeying Around drew evident inspiration from it: “He enjoyed having a crowd, and he hasn’t had one for a very long time, so he was like, ‘this is fun!’ He has fun in the arena, whereas Ringwood Madras is very serious, so they’re very different, but they both put such a smile on my face.”
Third place is held overnight by Ros Canter and the smart Pencos Crown Jewel, who finished third in Chatsworth’s tough CCI4*-S last month. They posted a 28, putting themselves in a competitive position as they head into tomorrow’s cross-country challenge.
“She knows her job now,” says Ros of the British-bred thirteen-year-old. “She’s always Little Miss Consistent; she’s not the biggest or flashiest in the world, but she’s secure in all her work. I wasn’t expecting to top the leaderboard after the first day, but to be there or thereabouts is good enough.”
Though ‘Jasmine’ hasn’t previously competed at Bramham, she certainly has experience over tough terrain: she was ninth in the Bramham replacement CCI4*-L at Bicton last June, and returned to the venue to take fourth in its Burghley replacement CCI5* in September, adding 7.6 time penalties in each run over the Devon hills.
“We’re just having a bit of fun with her, really,” says Ros. “She’s got all the stamina in the world, so that’s never a problem with her, but it’s just about trying to get it right on the day and giving her a good ride.”
Kirsty Chabert stepped smartly into a close fourth place after delivering a 28.1 aboard Opposition Loire who, like Pencos Crown Jewel above her, is an ambassador for British breeding in this class. Though the eleven-year-old has previously posted a couple of very impressive mid-20s marks, she’s much more consistently spotted in the low-to-mid 30s, and so Kirsty was particularly pleased to eke one of her best-ever marks out of her on Bramham’s big stage.
“It’s quite an atmosphere for her to go into, and she actually went in the arena and went ‘ooh, mum, what would you like me to do?’, so I’m chuffed,” says Kirsty, who narrowly missed out on a Badminton run with the mare, who was a waitlisted entry. “I think she would have been the next one to get in, so she was fit for Badminton and she’s had kind of a stop-start spring with prep. We ummed and ahhed about going to Luhmühlen, but Bramham is my most favourite event of all places and I didn’t have anything to bring, so we’ve done that instead.”
Newly married Gemma Tattersalls — who will soon be appearing on leaderboards as Gemma Stevens — rounds out the new-look top five with the former Liz Halliday-Sharp ride, ten-year-old Flash Cooley, who posted an excellent 28.5.
“I think the judges are pretty hard to get marks from [this week],” laughs Gemma, “but I’m really pleased with him — he went in and did everything I asked him to do, and apart from a little trip down the last centreline that he sort of overreacted to, I couldn’t be more happy with the whole test. He’s only ten, and this is his first four long, so he’s a young horse at this level — there’s more to come, and more strength, so we’re really happy with him.”
Yesterday’s leaders, Tom Carlile and Darmagnac de Beliard, are one of just two Thursday competitors to remain in the top ten after today’s tests; they sit in sixth place on their 29.3 ahead of tomorrow’s pivotal cross-country phase.
“It’s a lot to pull off — it doesn’t happen to people like me,” says a tearful Alex Holman, who leads the under-25 CCI4*-L going into cross-country with the expressive Carrick Diamond Bard on a score of 30. At just ten years old, the gelding has a mere nine FEI competitions under his belt already, but young professional Alex — who makes his Bramham debut in the week of his 25th birthday — has produced an exceptionally timed peak. This is the horse’s second-best score and well eclipses the mid-to-high 30s he’s earned in his last couple of events.
“He was one of the first horses I had as a sort of business project,” says Alex, who rents a yard in Somerset and trains and teaches from it to fund his riding. “I was meant to sell him and for quite a long time I did want to, actually! But after doing a bit more with him, I realised he’s actually quite good. He’s a bit quirky, a bit funny, and he was always quite difficult. He’s very sensitive – I don’t wear spurs on him and don’t normally carry a whip at all – and he was just quite a tricky young horse. He’s really scared of funny things on the ground – there’s a patch of differently coloured grass in the warm-up that I couldn’t go near because he’d jump sideways, and if the roads are wet and then drying out while we’re hacking, he’ll spook.”
Both Alex and ‘Jerry’ make their CCI4*-L debut this week, and they do so with some prior experience of serious terrain behind them: they won on their second-ever two-star together in 2019 at Devon’s Bicton International, which is known for its relentless undulations.
Phoebe Locke, who has been on British medal-winning teams at the Pony, Junior, and Young Rider European Championships, helped Alex wrestle this class back from the impressive French continent with her smart test aboard Bellagio Declyange, putting them just one second behind the leaders on 30.4. But though her efforts did help to push this prestigious class back into the clutches of the home nation, she does have a connection to one of the French competitors: “[Fourth-placed] Julia Simonet‘s mother Karine used to ride him, so it’s quite a nice story because they haven’t seen him since I brought him over four years ago,” says Phoebe.
The eleven-year-old gelding achieved one of his best FEI scores today; previously, his marks have been slightly marred by wobbles in the changes, which are much more established now.
“The changes have been a little bit difficult to get, but today we managed to get both of them,” Phoebe says. “It’s quite a big atmosphere in there, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and I’m really happy with how he dealt with it. I just don’t know if maybe [the judges] could have eked a couple more marks out for him; I thought that was better than his test at Houghton a couple of weeks ago [where he got a 29.3].”
Though this is the pair’s first time tackling Bramham, they did compete in Bicton’s replacement for the class last year, finishing fifth.
The rest of the top five is a French whitewash, with yesterday’s first- and second-placed riders, Morgane Euriat and Heloïse Le Guern, sitting third and fifth respectively. Between them, 20-year-old Julie Simonet makes her CCI4*-L debut with sixteen-year-old Sursumcord’Or, who was also previously ridden by her mother, Karine: “I broke my leg and she took the horse and never gave it back,” laughs Karine. The pair have since had considerable success at Junior and Young Rider level, competing at five European Championships, winning five medals and never finishing outside of the top ten. They start their Bramham with a competitive 31.9.
“The horse was a bit more tense than he usually is; there’s a lot of people and he was a bit stressed,” says Julie. “But I’m very happy, because all three French engaged in this class are [in the top five], so I’m very happy with my friends.”
There was plenty of change in the CCI4*-S class, too, with yesterday’s leaders Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent slipping down to third at the culmination of the phase. Taking over their spot at the top is Ros Canter, whose nine-year-old Izilot DHI proved his consistency on the flat with a very good 23.5.
“He’s still young and green, and he’s a very spooky horse — he’s a sharp lad,” laughs Ros. “So I’m never quite sure how he’s going to cope with things, but he’s actually level-headed, so I know he’s not going to blow up. It’s just whether he can cope with the flags, the atmosphere, and with people moving about; that can make him quite nervous.”
But, says Ros, “he’s by far the most talented horse I’ve ever had to ride on the flat. He’s beautiful to ride, so it’s all about me really learning to press the right buttons that I’ve never had to press before with other horses, so that’s very exciting.”
Izilot DHI is still inexperienced at this level, having stepped up at the end of last year at Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S. Though they picked up a 20 on course there, it was an educational one: he returned to four-star at last month’s tough Chatsworth revival, jumping a classy clear and finishing just outside the top ten. But results aren’t the goal for now because, as Ros tells us, he’s a very different horse to Lordships Graffalo, the rising ten-year-old with whom she finished second at Badminton: “We’re still at the stage where I wouldn’t necessarily go for the time, and it’s a bit tricky with him, because he often tops a leaderboard [in dressage]. But he’s a horse for the big time in the future, and he’s a horse that needs time; he’s not going to go around Badminton next year like Lordships Graffalo. He’ll build up and we really hope that there are really big things to come in the future.”
One of the most consistent first-phase performers at this level is Alex Hua Tian‘s exquisite Jilsonne van Bareelhof, who once again delivered the goods to sit second on 26.5 after the first phase.
“I’m very happy with him, because he doesn’t come out that often, so when he does, he can be a bit fresh,” says Alex. “He’s either boom or bust, but he’s a very, very talented horse that just physically can’t run that very often. I’ve spent quite a few years looking after him and then he’s hit four-star and he’s been like, ‘holy shit, this is good fun!’ I’ve never sat on something that’s as talented as he is in all three phases.”
Alex goes into tomorrow’s jumping phases with two horses in the top ten: ‘Chocs’ is joined by his Olympic ride Don Geniro, who sits sixth on 28.6 after a smart test yesterday with an expensive sat-nav error in the walk work.
Piggy March‘s very good day was bolstered by a lovely effort from Brookfield Quality, who sits fourth ahead of yesterday’s runners-up Tom McEwen and MHS Brown Jack on a score of 26.9, despite a mistake in one of the changes.
“I missed a change, which was expensive, and I probably went in the warm-up for ten minutes too long,” laments Piggy. “I’ve not done masses with him; he’s felt like he’s been doing a 20 dressage the two times I’ve sat on him for half an hour, and I thought we might get up here and just be a little bit brighter. So I gave him forty minutes [of warm-up] before we went in and actually, he felt like he needed ten. It just went a little bit flatter, and a little bit back end out — it was fine, and it was a nice test, but I prepared him to do a 22, and then when you make a mistake it doesn’t quite happen.”
Tomorrow takes us into an eye-wateringly busy day of action, with the CCI4*-S competitors heading into showjumping from 8.30 in the morning and cross-country from 2.35 p.m. The CCI4*-L cross-country will begin at 9.30 a.m., followed by the under-25 cross-country at 1.05 p.m. You can follow along with all the action is it happens on Horse&Country TV, and take a good look at Ian Stark‘s seriously big and beefy track here. Until next time: Go Eventing!