“I was listening to the television in my lorry, and Harry Meade and Ian Stark were saying that anyone who says they’re not nervous before cross-country either has no brain or is no good. I thought, ‘Shit, I’m not feeling any!'”
It would be amiss to assume that Oliver Townend‘s lack of nerves this afternoon could be attributed to either of the above — in fact, the prospect of riding his top horse Ballaghmor Class had just begun to look like a much easier proposition after the surprise success of his morning ride, Cillnabradden Evo.
“No one in the world believed he’d do it, but I knew he had it right at Pau before that stupid mistake,” said Oliver. “He’s a high-profile horse for good and bad reasons, and [owner] Sally-Anne Egginton has had a lot of flak for letting me ride him, but he’s done us nothing but good.”
With his chequered record, Cillnabradden Evo could have gone either way today – gloriously right or catastrophically wrong. Incredibly, it was the former we saw: despite the fact that he began to empty in the lattermost stages of the course, he overcame a couple of heart-stoppingly sticky moments to finish with 12.4 penalty points, moving him from 1st to 7th place overnight.
“If I’m looking stylish out there, he must be good,” joked Oliver, before continuing in earnest, “He started to empty on me, but I thought ‘At some point, this horse is going to have to go for me’ — and I couldn’t believe how much he galloped out of Huntsmans’, picked up down the hill, and jumped that final combination.”
After that, Oliver had a whole afternoon to pass before heading back out onto the battlefield with his odds-on favourite, Ballaghmor Class.
“I didn’t make it to the [riders’] tent this time at all — I was that relived, and that amazed, and that happy to get to the finish line on my first horse that I relaxed and thought, if Gary can get home, then I just have to press the right buttons with the grey horse. It’s a different world, isn’t it?”
And push those buttons he did, producing an impeccable clear to add just 0.4 time to his dressage and lead overnight.
“That’s his best round to date for me,” said Oliver. “He had an awful prep last year, when every event he was entered in was cancelled, but he’s been class all this season so far. You won’t see many rounds like that — they’re all excellent athletes and horses here, but when you see that you’re fourteen seconds down at the Lake, and you can just put your leg on and make it up, that’s something special. I got there and thought, ‘God, I’ve ballsed this up – I’m way down, and I’ve been enjoying myself too much’, so I opened him up and it was like nothing I’ve ever felt before – I’ve never finished a five-star so fast!”
Ballaghmor Class’ competent clear came as little surprise to anyone, but least of all to Oliver. “Apart from being a little het up and a little excited, I knew he could do it today. I think I heard about 50,000 people say ‘good luck’ or ‘well done’ as I cantered along, and he had his ears pricked all the way. I was actually thinking as I was trotting up the shoot that it was so nice, everyone was saying ‘good luck, good luck’, and I was going along trying not to look at anyone, because I’m a little bit strange and shy! But it’s fabulous; I imagine it’s what walking onto Centre Court at Wimbledon is like. It’s an amazing feeling to be British and to head out there. It’s the people who make it, the people who come out to support and not just watch us fall in the Lake. So thank you to everyone who has supported me — it helped us to float round.”
Piggy French‘s flying form continued today when she blazed around the course with Vanir Kamira, moving up two places into overnight second. They added just 0.8 time penalties to their 26 dressage – though Piggy initially misread the scoreboard as she crossed the finish line and thought she’d come home two seconds under.
“I was punching the air like a weirdo!” she laughed. “But she’s amazing, isn’t she, such a game little girl. She comes into her own around Badminton and Burghley; she runs round Intermediates like a scopeless yak, and I say that with all fondness! It never fills you with a lot of confidence, until she gets here – and then she turns into another horse. She grows and seems to say, ‘c’mon, mum, what are you so worried about?’ I sometimes feel like all I have to do is steer, but I’m not great at going flat-out to single fences.”
Despite an initial aversion to the Normandy Bank – “It’s a question I wouldn’t have minded out hunting, but not at Badminton!” – Piggy found that the course rode well throughout. “
“It all went pretty much to plan, and there weren’t too many swear words going on at too many points! I’m just cross with myself – she’s so fast and she finished with two minutes [of running] left in her, so that’s annoying. But I’ll forget about that now; I’ve moved up, rather than down, and a pole tomorrow will be more influential than two seconds.
Australia’s Chris Burton was in 9th and equal 11th coming into today’s competition, but they don’t call him the fastest man in the world for nothing – he delivered blazing fast clears on both Graf Liberty and the young gun Cooley Lands to finish third and fifth today.
“I’m lucky, really – he makes my job so easy, and he does it in a snaffle, for God’s sake,” said Chris of Graf Liberty, after they delivered the first double-clear of the day’s competition. The round was a redemption song for both horse and rider, who led after the dressage in 2017, but then had a run out at the Mirage Pond. “If there was ever going to be a mistake out there, we all know it was going to be me. I was holding him and calming him down out there, and I can’t believe how well he’s come back. He’s a lovely horse, and I feel like he owed me that one!”
While Graf Liberty is a longtime partner for Chris, Cooley Lands is less of a known quantity – in fact, Chris only rides him at competitions, while his owner Kate Walls takes the reins on a day-to-day basis. Even so, they came home with four seconds to spare, and made it look so obviously easy to do so.
“I’m very lucky and grateful to Kate for the ride on this horse,” said Chris. “He’s unbelievably fast over the ground. I was 10, 20 seconds up on the clock and just trying to chill him out, but he just desperately wants to do his job. Both horses are very fit, feeling really well, and I’m stoked – I can’t believe I have two inside the time and the top ten at Badminton!”
Swallow Springs has been steadily proving himself as one of the soon-to-be superstars of the sport, and his performance today confirmed this yet again, pushing him from 10th to 4th overnight. But it’s the performance of his rider, Andrew Nicholson, which really warrants our attention – yet again, he delivered a masterclass in enviable balance, educational lines, and knowing exactly when to leave your horse alone to take his share of the responsibility.
“I’m very pleased with him — he’s a very, very good galloper,” said Andrew. “He can be a bit flaky — you think he’s about to go at top speed, but then he shies at something. But I’d watched Chris [Burton] go round, and I’m a big fan of his riding. He made it look like a schooling round, and came back smack on the time on Graf Liberty, a horse I wouldn’t put in the same league as Swallow Springs. So I thought I had to go for it from the beginning. I’ve got in trouble with him before – if you see another stride, you think you’ll add one, and he ends up adding two or three, so I was careful today to just let the strides happen as they came up.”
Kiwi Tim Price put an earlier retirement on Bango behind him when he headed out on course with his 2018 Burghley winner Ringwood Sky Boy, and that commitment to forward thinking paid off. They, too, finished bang on the time, which allowed them to climb from 15th to 6th, just ahead of the dressage leader Cillnabradden Evo.
“I thought I was really close to the time, and I tried to look as I finished, but it was out of sight already,” he said. “‘Oz’ is just getting more and more the pro, and he’s got such a stride on him.”
It never comes as much of a surprise when the Antipodeans invade the leaderboard, but one name in particular did. Ginny Thompson arrived on the UK scene last year, having sold the entirety of her yard to be able to afford to move herself and her horse here to tackle their first Badminton. Since then, they’ve never quite had the rounds they’d hoped for at big competitions, but today, their commitment and hard work came good. Ginny and her fifteen-year-old mare sped around inside the time and catapulted themselves 49 places up the leaderboard to sit eighth overnight.
“She set off running, really, but my watch didn’t start, so I had to restart it at the one minute marker,” said Ginny. “I couldn’t have asked for more from her – she just kept galloping and jumping. She’s got the biggest heart I’ve ever known. I had a good chat with Jonelle Price, who knows me and knows the type of horse I’ve got — I’m the nana, actually, and she told me to stop patting so much and start kicking!”
The eleven-year-old Lassban Diamond Lift may have had a frustrating WEG last year, but he’s a firm favourite in Bill Levett‘s yard. Today, we got to see why: after adding just 8 time penalties in a smooth, mature-looking round, he climbed 20 places to sit ninth as we head into the final day of competition.
“He’s green, but at Bramham last year, he gave me a great feeling,” said Bill. “I wanted to start on the quiet side today, as he was a bit lairy at the WEG, and then the bugger can just say, ‘What are you trying to do here?!’ Badminton hasn’t been a lucky event for me over the years–I’ve had some good runs, but I’ve also had plenty of hiccups, so this is a nice feeling.”
Tina Cook and Star Witness might have started the day as favoured contenders, but Tina opted to retire the horse after an early mistake at the Shogun Hollow. Instead, it was her own WEG mount Billy the Red who shone, adding 12.4 time penalties, but still climbing a place to round out the top ten. Her time penalties were due, in part, to a discrepancy in timing — she was held on course, but stopped and restarted her watch in the wrong place.
“It was annoying, really – he was running really well,” Tina said. “I’d lost some time at the Mirage Pond corners, too, because I dropped my rein over the ditch, so I had to circle back around for the last corner. But he was great — he’s not very big, and I’m very big on him, and he’s not a full Thoroughbred, so he has to work hard on the jumping.”
William Fox-Pitt‘s Little Fire made his five-star debut at Pau last season, but it ended early there when William fell late in the course. Today, though, they both found redemption at Badminton, finishing with just 11.6 time penalties. This marks William’s first Badminton cross-country completion since his win in 2015, which preceded the catastrophic accident he suffered later that season.
“He’s a jolly good horse — he’s why I’m still going, and why I’m still dreaming,” William smiled. “Anyone could ride him out there. He finds it all easy — to ride him around the first of my two horses was a luxury, and it showed me what to do. I’ve been here loads of times and gone wrong loads of times, but I kept thinking, ‘Oh God, don’t do it on him, because there’s just no excuse!’ It wasn’t the most terrifying Badminton ever, was it, and as he gets older we’d like some more questions, but he never says ‘What’ — he always has the answers. That’s just how God made him – he never has any doubts.”
In keeping with tradition, last year’s Glentrool trophy winner Imogen Murray made the most impressive climb of the day, leaping 53 places up the leaderboard with Ivar Gooden to sit 12th after adding 1.6 time penalties.
“He’s incredible — he flies when I let him go on cross-country,” she said. “I could have let him go faster, but he looks great and feels fantastic now.”
Movers, Shakers, and Surprise Heartbreakers
It’s always a dangerous game to play favourites — after all, part of the magic of eventing is that it’s a sport that’s fuelled by the unexpected. But today’s competition saw a firm fistful of key contenders drop out of the hunt after glance-offs, surprise time penalties, and unfortunate faults.
Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser were the most high-profile of these faulters – they sat third after dressage on an impressive score of 24.7, and both horse and rider are considered among the best jumping performers in the game. But an awkward leap over the Wadworth Rails, a yawning triple bar heading out of the Lake, saw them pick up 11 penalties for a dislodged frangible pin. They also suffered from an unfortunate timing issue, and added 8.8 further penalties, dropping them to 16th place overnight.
“When I got up to the ring, I was told I had ten seconds to go, but when I got to the start box, I discovered they’d already started the clock,” explained Tom. “By my watch, I was there or thereabouts on the minute markers the whole way around. But the horse jumping stunningly, and just caught the MIM clip.”
As of this report, Tom’s time penalties still stand — he’s able to appeal them, and we’ll be sure to keep you posted if they’re removed. If they are, he could find himself moving back up to eighth place.
Laura Collett‘s Mr Bass is widely lauded as an FOD machine, and he proved this prowess at his five-star debut at Luhmühlen last year, where he added nothing to his dressage score to finish second. But today, despite delivering a bold clear round, he was stymied by surprise time penalties — he added 17.2 in total, dropping the pair to overnight 18th. Nonetheless, he looked hugely confident across the tough track — and this, explained Laura, likely contributed to his slower time.
“He was mega,” she said. “He’s so special, and it’s amazing to feel like that out there. It’s frustrating, because he can be so fast, but he’s only eleven, and he was so bold. I had to circle around at 18 because he landed over the ditch running, which is how you want them, but not when you’re trying to land and turn to a corner!”
Millie Dumas and Artistiek, seventh after dressage, delivered an incredibly classy round in Millie’s Badminton debut, but 34.8 time penalties saw them drop to 40th place overnight, while fifth-placed Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On picked up 11 penalties for breaking the Footbridge and a further 20 for problems at the Hildon Water Pond, before ultimately retiring. Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, who were sixth after dressage in Kitty’s return to the event after nearly a decade away, had a 20 at the Shogun Hollow before their day ended with a rider fall at the B element of the tricky Normandy Bank.
The US Invasion
And what of our American competitors? Well, it was a day of mixed fortunes for them after Jenny Caras and Fernhill Fortitude ran into problems at the Shogun Hollow and the Hildon Water Pond, and ultimately opted to retire.
As one of the last out of the start box, Woodge Fulton had had the dubious luxury of time — time to think, time to reflect, and time to see where others were making mistakes. When she finally got to start her round on Captain Jack, she delivered what the pair have become known for – a gutsy clear that saw both horse and rider dig deep, think fast, and have what looked to be an enormous amount of fun.
“It was definitely a little bit scrappier than I’d like to do next time, but like I said yesterday, he’s a cross-country horse — not a dressage horse,” said Woodge. “Everything happened super fast out there, but I’m really proud of him.”
Woodge and Jack added 43.2 time penalties and climbed 25 places to sit 55th overnight.
Breaking down the Day
79 horse and rider combinations started the competition today after the overnight withdrawal of Alex Bragg and Zagreb and Harry Meade and Away Cruising. Of those, 59 – or 75% – completed, while 47 – or 59% – finished without jumping penalties. Five pairs finished both clear and within the time. Of those who didn’t finish, four were eliminated, while a further fifteen opted to retire. Three of the twelve pairs who notched up jumping penalties but still went on to complete were only awarded penalties for broken pins, rather than stops or run-outs – these three riders were Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser, Padraig McCarthy and Mr Chunky, and Tom Crisp and Liberty and Glory.
The most influential fence on course ended up being the Shogun Hollow at 10AB, where twelve combinations faulted and five ultimately retired. Interestingly, this was a question we’d pulled up as one that was likely to change fates throughout the day — but it didn’t do it in the way we’d expected. With its narrow ditch and acute logs, it looked as though it would end up bringing the new flag ruling into play, but in fact, we saw its faulters either drop anchor at the base of the log or run straight past. In one unexpected twist, we saw Mark Todd‘s NZB Campino refuse at the innocuous ditch — they ultimately retired.
But how did course designer Eric Winter feel about the day’s sport?
“It all went how I hope it would go,” he said. “It showed the best off to be the best. The guys on top looked outstanding, and it showed everyone else where they have to work. That’s what good courses do – they show you how you need to improve, but they don’t hurt anyone. There was a lot of good riding today, and an awful lot of very good horses. Horses are amazing in their ability – if they’re trained properly to be able to read things. It’s all about knowing your horse, riding it properly, and staying balanced. How do you get to the point where your that good? You work, work, work, work, work.”
That’s all from us from an action-packed day of cross-country here at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials — we’ll be back bright and early tomorrow with all the news and a gallery from the final horse inspection, starting at 8.30 a.m. BST/3.30 a.m. EST.
The 2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials is brought to you in partnership with the team at Voltaire Design United Kingdom. Going to Badminton? Head to Voltaire Design on Stand 253 on Somerset Way and meet the team of Sports Saddle Specialists, arrange a free, totally no-obligation fitting for you and your horse, or indulge in the Deal of the Day. Put a deposit on a new saddle during the event, and you’ll receive a matching girth, stirrup leathers, and saddlepad – free! Looking for a bargain? Head to Voltaire Design’s sister stand, EquiTack, to check out their premium pre-loved saddles at rock-bottom prices.