It’s been one hell of a season for Laura Collett, and in more ways than one: second in the Event Rider Masters series standings, a win at Houghton CICO3*, third at Haras du Pin CICO3*, and second at Luhmühlen’s CCI4* with Mr Bass, and top 10 placings at ERM legs at Chatsworth, Arville, Barbury and Blair makes for an enviable list of accomplishments by anyone’s standards. But when the World Equestrian Games team was announced last month, she and Mr Bass hadn’t made the cut, and the disappointment was staggering for Laura.
It’s a funny old sport, this, with its endless peaks and troughs, emotional buoyancy tempered by occasional skids along rock bottom. Had Laura gone to WEG, she may well have produced one of the phenomenal efforts we saw from the team yesterday. She may have finished well in the hunt for a medal, sitting out Sunday in anticipation of the biggest moment of her career thus far. Or, it could have gone the other way — perhaps, despite a brilliant form line, she might have had the sort of wobble that pushed the likes of Julia Krajewski, Sandra Auffarth and Boyd Martin out of contention. The what-ifs are endless, tantalising and damning, but one thing’s for certain: if Laura Collett had gone to Tryon, she wouldn’t have won at Blenheim.
The eight- and nine-year-old CIC3* at the SsangYong Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials is one of the most coveted CIC titles in the world. It’s bold, it’s beautifully presented, and its statistics are astonishing: since its inception in 2009, its victors have gone on to win four CCI4*s, often in the very next year. To win here is to begin to feel very safe in the knowledge that the young talent you’re sitting on is going to be something very, very special.
London 52, owned by Laura, Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott, has certainly been special so far. He stepped up to three-star at the beginning of the 2018 after several very good results at two-star in 2017, including second place finishes at both Ballindenisk and Millstreet. In May of this year he had never even run at Advanced; in the months since he’s finished second in the Event Rider Masters CIC3* at Arville, 11th in the Jardy leg, and 8th in the series finale at Blair, despite testing conditions and a technical course that proved testing for more mature horses. Today, he added just 0.4 time penalties to his dressage score of 27.5 to take the win.
“It’s scary how easy he finds everything,” said a delighted — and slightly breathless — Laura. “He’s pure class, and he always has been. He’s been a bit tricky in his brain, but that’s just because he’s so talented — he stepped up the levels so quickly that he never really had much time to think about it.”
Laura found the nine-year-old by Landos when she went to Peter Thompson’s yard to look for a cheap resale project. Instead, she found the 16.3hh London 52, who bowled her over with his obvious talent. The then-seven-year-old had never evented, but had experience showjumping at the 1.30m level. In mid-2016, he made his eventing debut, and the quick ascent up the levels began.
“It’s yet another young horse I don’t want to get rid of — I’ve got no business brain in me, but I love to find the good ones,” she laughed. That formidable talent — and its accompanying quirks — took some time to hone, but Laura has evidently found the key to getting the best out of ‘Dan’.
“Now, when I say ‘go’, he says ‘okay’, rather than doubting me. He’s not that blood, but he really covers the ground — sometimes he scares me with how quick he’s able to gallop. I have to shorten him and set him up more, and give him that extra time to assess the situation, but he just finds it all so easy. The scary thing is how much more there is to come from him.”
The win is doubly special because Karen Bartlett has been an integral part of the Blenheim steering committee for many years, though has never had a horse run in the competition herself. All being well, Dan will now head to Boekelo for next month’s CCI3*.
Laura also finished third on Diana Chappell’s Dacapo, who led after yesterday’s showjumping but added 3.2 time today to slip out of the top position. The Diarado-sired nine-year-old is quite a different ride to his victorious stablemate, but he, too, proved that his debut season at the level has been a productive one.
“He’s as honest as the day is long — as long as he can see the flags then he takes no setting up,” said Laura. “He takes longer than London 52 to get to that top gear, but once he’s there, you can keep motoring.”
Dacapo will finish his season now, as, explains Laura, he requires far more fitness work than his winning stablemate, but his early season plans are yet to be confirmed.
Time proved a far more influential factor in today’s CIC3* cross country than it had in the CCI3*: where 20 pairs managed to come home clear inside the time yesterday, just one managed it today. That was Izzy Taylor, whose reputation for blazing speed and efficient riding precedes her, and today, we saw her produce the goods on a relatively new face in her string. Springpower, who moved to Izzy’s yard in the latter half of the 2017 season, is “nearly pure blood, with a bit of pony back there somewhere, too — so he’s fast, he’s cheeky, he’s fun, and he reads a fence like a pony does.”
“He’s quick and he travels across the ground very well,” said Izzy. “I’ve had him just over a year, and he’s very much become my horse now.”
The Irish-bred nine-year-old (Power Blade x April Imperator) made his CIC3* debut in this class last year with Izzy, finishing 7th and best of the eight-year-olds. Since then, he’s undergone a learning curve at three-star, with a slow early run at Belton and a CCI3* debut at Bramham in June. A dressage score of 28.7 put them well into the hunt going into the beefy cross-country phase, but it was there that an unravelling occurred: an inexplicable and uncharacteristic horse fall saw them eliminated, and left Izzy puzzling over what had gone wrong.
“It was a bit of an unfortunate fall. He just didn’t quite get his landing gear down — I watched and watched the video, but could never really figure it out.”
Izzy opted not to run the horse thereafter due to the hard ground at the height of the summer season: “but that’s not to say we didn’t do our homework, and I wasn’t worried coming here.”
Any worries would have been unwarranted: Springpower motored confidently across the ground today, cruising across the finish with thirteen seconds to spare and looking as though he’d been Izzy’s ride all along. It was enough to see them finish second on their dressage score of 29.5 — a climb of ten places from the first phase and the only FOD of the class.
Izzy, who also finished 13th with eight-year-old Direct Cassino, runner up at last year’s seven-year-old World Championships, was full of praise for David Evans‘ course, which had to both challenge and nurture a plethora of precociously talented up-and-comers.
“It’s a hard class to build for,” she said. “David always does a good job of using the ground to make us all pay a bit more attention. My eight-year-old was given confidence and finished feeling really well, while the nine-year-old was able to come out and feel more mature and competitive, so it worked for both.”
Richard Jones followed up a career high at Burghley, where he finished 7th, by adding just 0.4 time penalties to his dressage score of 31.7 and finishing 4th with Kilballyboy Bob. The nine-year-old is a half-brother to Burghley mount Alfies Clover — they’re both by the American Thoroughbred Tajraasi — and they share a few pertinent similarities.
“They’re both fast, although this one’s faster,” said Richard of the Sean Beston-bred gelding. “They’re class horses and they want to do the job.”
Richard first saw Kilballyboy Bob as a four-year-old, but turned him down as he thought he’d be too small: “He was gorgeous, though, and I ended up getting him as a just-broke five-year-old. He’s very game and just wants to do his job, so he’s been super easy to train.”
Despite this, Richard had his misgivings about fence 6AB, the Ariat Dew Pond. Contrary to the main, long water obstacle at 11, the Dew Pond featured just a small splash of water, framed by a hanging rail on the entry side and a house at the exit point.
“He used to be a bit ‘watery’, so I thought that would be a real test, more so than the lake, because horses often don’t really like or read those little puddles.”
It proved to be no issue, and, in fact, Kilballyboy Bob caught sight of the crowds bunched around the string and went up a gear.
“He got a bit lit up and little bit on my hand, so I probably lost some time there,” said Richard, ruing the lone second that precluded an FOD.
Italy’s Vittoria Panizzon and the British-bred Super Cillious came in five seconds over the optimum time and climbed from 8th to 5th place. This is a second appearance at the level for the nine-year-old (Deans San Ciro Hit x Lady Priscilla), who made his debut at Arville in June but clocked up twenty penalties on course. Today he proved that he’d learned from his experience, but Vittoria’s week wasn’t without its hurdles.
“He had a sore toe on Friday, and I was off competing my youngsters at a one-day event, so my team and the farrier on site worked incredibly hard poulticing and icing him while I was away,” she explained. “He came out yesterday and felt absolutely fine, and then show jumped brilliantly, but I didn’t really get into my rhythm until the second part of the course today because I wanted to make sure he was okay. Otherwise, we should have been inside the time — he has a very good gallop stride and is good up hills, too. But then, my whole season has been a bit like that — good results on the surface, but quite a lot of paddling to make it happen, really.”
Vittoria has produced the horse from a four-year-old, and the qualities that helped him come second in 2013’s four-year-old Championships at Osberton have, she says, been present all along.
“He’s always been very genuine, very straight, and has always looked to stay between the flags. His balance has sometimes been a bit wobbly, but if you can get his head pointed at the flags, he’ll look to go between them. He’s more of a blood type to ride than he actually is on paper, and he’s always tried hard — he can just get a bit cheeky in the dressage, but he’s got enough charm that the judges seem to like him.”
Dressage leaders James Avery and Vitali were looking for redemption today after a dropped rein led to a dropped rail in yesterday’s showjumping, knocking them to 7th place. They got it, but only just: a classy clear round with just 2.4 time penalties allowed them to climb a placing and finish 6th, another promising result for the eight-year-old in his first three-star. Last year, he finished in the same position in the World Championships for seven-year-olds, having led the dressage and cross-country, and the confidence with which the Holsteiner gelding tackled his first CIC3* — and, in fact, his first Advanced dimension track — bodes well for the future.