Pandemic or no pandemic, when Burgham — or, more specifically, course designer David Evans — builds his tracks, he builds them properly, offering a great feeling for those who get it right and an easy escape out the side door for those who don’t. There was much speculation across the two dressage days over whether he’d have managed to strike the balance, something that’s even more crucial than usual this year: the course would need to flow and encourage, allowing both horses and riders to remember all the gears and find that long-dormant special something that you can only tap into when your blood’s up, but it would also need to pack enough of a punch to make its own mark upon the leaderboard in the two fiercely competitive, top-class four-star sections.
153 combinations would start across the two sections, and straight off the bat, the course proved wholly jumpable — a point that would be proven throughout the day, with 141 of those starters completing to give the course a completion rate of just over 92%. (As a point of comparison, Kentucky CCI5* tends to sit at around a 58% completion rate, and although this is a level below — and notably, a short-format international — this number shows us that it clearly ticked the ‘jumpability’ box.)
Of those 141 combinations to finish the course, 126 would do so without adding jumping penalties — this time giving us a clear-round rate of just over 82%. If this is all sounding rather dull and easy, let’s take a look at another stat — and one that really did put a bit of pressure on the competitors today. That, of course, is the time.
An optimum time of 6:18 and a course full of twisting loops in and out of fields and over hills meant that romping home without accruing time penalties was going to be far harder said than done. In total, just eight of the 153 combinations would manage it. Those who couldn’t would find themselves clinging by a thread to their hopes of staying in situ on the leaderboard.
Neither of the two section winners would come home sans time faults, but despite the swiftly dwindling gap left by their modicum of time faults, the titles would go to both of the dressage leaders.
The first of these would be 2018 Burgham CCI4*-S winners Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class, who left the start box on a two-phase score of 22.2 after adding 0.8 time penalties in showjumping. Of all the rounds we saw through the day, this was the one that looked the easiest. The fences were, of course, no problem for the Burghley-winning combination, the lanky gelding made molehills out of the mountains, and the clock — so hard to catch for so many — seemed to tick along in stride. In the end, their winning score of 24.2 would set a new record as the lowest-ever finishing score in a CCI4*-S at Burgham. But the plan, remarkably, had never actually been to run for the win here, as Oliver explains.
“He’s at his peak in terms of everything he does, and how he feels, and how he looks. He’s been ridden on the flat maybe half-a-dozen times max since March; he’s just been hacking about and being himself. He’s done very little and been under no pressure at all. Then he had a run at Cholmondeley where he was very good and very professional, but he didn’t come here to win. He just came so I could remind him that he’s not retired. If he was in a position to win, we’d let him, of course.”
For Oliver, who rates the son of Courage II as one of the best horses he’s ever sat on, it was a given that Burgham would offer up a useful course and great ground — but the cherry on the cake was the quality of the competitive field, which saw one of the biggest CCI4*-S entries in British history. That Ballaghmor Class is just edging into the peak of his career certainly allowed the typically competitive duo to stay out in front.
“He found it very, very easy; he’s not been galloping as much as he normally would have been, but he tightens up very quickly now as an older horse. He’s very fit in his mind, too, and when he pulled up he was hardly blowing. It’s all very much within his comfort zone.
“I set off between fence one and two and thought, ‘right, I’m not going any faster — either that’s quick enough to win, or not. It doesn’t matter.’ We basically just stayed opened up all the way and picked up good distances where we could. He was very straightforward.”
Unlike many of the other competitors here, Oliver isn’t looking ahead to a long-format in 2020 with his top horse. Instead, he’ll leave Ballaghmor Class and stablemate Cooley Master Class for next season, while aiming for long-format runs with his second string — including Cillnabradden Evo and Miss Cooley, who took the two CCI3*-S sections here this week, too. This news could come as some consolation to his weary competitors — perhaps with two of the best horses in the world giving Pau a miss, everyone else might get a look-in — but if this week’s performances are anything to go by, Oliver and his string only get steadily more impossible to beat after a bit of well-earned time off.
Where Oliver found the whole competition rather easy, section M winner Ros Canter found the whole experience rather harder — but not because of any lack of experience or scope. Instead, she struggled to evade the pressure of her first major public appearance with her reigning World Champion Allstar B since they took that title back in 2018. Shortly after winning, Ros hung up her boots to have her first child, and although the pair tackled — and won — Ballindenisk CCI4*-L last year, they did so quietly, slipping under the radar to keep the pressure off.
“To be quite honest, I felt a huge amount of pressure. I can’t say I really enjoyed it,” says Ros of her competition here. “It’s been a long time, really, since I’ve competed him, and up against the top combinations. It’s also the first time we’ve been up against some of the riders’ newer top horses — the fresher faces. So I definitely felt the pressure. Alby’s a bit of a lazy old man anyway, so lockdown hasn’t been the easiest in terms of me getting the best feel out of him. But he’s amazing — he did one run two weeks ago, and within hours, he’d tightened up and leaned up and knew that he was off and running, and he’s been a pleasure ever since. He’s amazing like that, really.”
Ros and Alby’s win came after an unfortunate start to the day when Ros took a crunching tumble with her first ride, Pencos Crown Jewel, at a single table at the back end of the course.
“The mare was a little over-brave today; she was quite feisty to showjump, too, which isn’t like her. She’s ordinarily a very careful and thoughtful horse — normally you gallop in and she draws back, but that didn’t happen today. I was riding a different horse to the one I got at that jump,” she explains with a laugh. Both horse and rider were up and walking away quickly after the fall, and Ros admits to only a very minor amount of soreness after the semi-rotational. More pressing, however, was her need to mentally regroup.
“I can’t confess to being the bravest cross-country rider, so I had to give myself a talking to a little bit,” she says. “I had a first-time four-star horse to get straight back on, and he really rose to the occasion and gave me confidence. Chris Bartle did his usual thing; he didn’t give me the option and just said to me, ‘when you go inside the time…’ [with Alby]. So I had to just sit down and pep myself up a bit!”
This marks a first-ever CCI4*-S win for the World Champions, who would ordinarily use these classes as something of a glorified training exercise.
“He’s a three-day specialist, really — it’s easier for me if the jumps are a little bit further away from each other. The twists and the turns aren’t always easy; he’s a big lad and he takes a bit of time to turn and get into the shape. It felt very fast today!”
Taking the win here, amongst this company and under the watchful eye of a keen and waiting live-stream viewership, is a huge box ticked for Ros, who now feels she can get back to the important job of embracing the partnership she’s built with Alby.
“I keep telling myself I have to just enjoy him, too. He’s getting older now and I won’t have him for many more years, so hopefully after today I can really just enjoy it, and hopefully he can keep coming out and doing so.”
One of the most poignant parts of the competition was watching Laura Collett‘s Mr Bass tackle his comeback with aplomb after an injury at Badminton last season sidelined him for over a year. Prior to that injury, his ability to finish on his dressage score — or FOD, as those in the know call it — had become the stuff of eventing legend. This week, he made the best of his inaugural outing by doing exactly the thing he’s known for, adding nothing to his dressage score of 25.8. That would be enough to finish second to Oliver and Ballaghmor Class (but let’s be honest, first in the hearts of his fans).
Third place in section L went to longtime partners Sarah Bullimore and Reve du Rouet, who produced a steady, classy round to add 5.6 time penalties. Had they gone inside the time, they’d have won this section — but Reve du Rouet, or Blou, is 16 this year, and although he’s looking perhaps the best he ever has, it was great to see Sarah give him a fun run around his first international of 2020, rather than chasing the clock.
It was a good day for young British talent, and indeed for those who enjoy spotting tomorrow’s superstars today. Yasmin Ingham is the only rider to have won every single British title from Ponies through to the U25 title, and she’s become a formidable entity on the senior circuit, too. Today, she showed her knack for efficiency, piloting the striking Rehy DJ around to earn one of the rare clear rounds inside the time, finishing fourth after adding just 0.4 time penalties in the showjumping.
For last year’s winners Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, the win has been so near and yet so achingly far throughout each phase. Two mistakes in their dressage test pushed a potentially exceptional score down to a still-very-respectable 24.8, and they were one of many combinations to fault over Di Boddy’s big, square showjumping track. The addition of just 1.2 time faults saw them move from third to eventual fifth place, cementing another year of bankable form here, but precluding their chance for glory.
Sarah Bullimore, on the other hand, had much to celebrate with two horses in the top ten in this section. Seventh place went to 15.2hh homebred Corouet, who shares the same Balou du Rouet bloodlines as stablemate Blou, and is out of Sarah’s former European Championships mount Lilly Corinne. Though he’s smaller and less experienced than much of the field, he’s one of several young horses who looks to have found himself in the long break, and he tackled the course brimming with confidence to add just 3.6 time penalties and slot in behind Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin, who finished on their dressage score of 30.3 for sixth. Young rider individual silver medallists Bubby Upton and Cola finished eighth after adding just 0.8 showjumping time faults to their 30.9 dressage, while Hector Payne and Dynasty took ninth place after setting an early precedent with their fast clear round. Oliver Townend and Dreamliner, on whom he took the ride last season, popped neatly and conservatively round after taking a pole in the prior phase, finishing tenth and bookending the top of the leaderboard.
Like section M, section L was largely the domain of a bevy of exceptional British women – though the win, in the end, was a closely-fought thing between two of the very best. While Ros would eventually win out, she beat Piggy March and her 2019 Blenheim CCI4*-L winner Brookfield Inocent by just a nerve-wracking one-tenth of a penalty point when Allstar B’s 0.8 time penalties came up against Piggy’s penalty-free round, earned when producing the fastest time of the day around David Evans‘ track. Still, we expect Piggy might be bored of winning things now, after her 2019 season.
In any case, it’s promising form for the relatively inexperienced Brookfield Inocent, who stepped into Quarrycrest Echo’s enormous shoes as Piggy’s likeliest option for next year’s Tokyo Olympics after the team stalwart was sold to Japan over the winter.
One of the biggest question marks of the day surely hung over Izzy Taylor‘s Monkeying Around, the former Six-Year-Old World Champion who was day one’s dressage leader and record-breaker. Despite his obvious proclivity for the first phase and his undeniable ability in the second two, his record since moving up to four-star last year has been a bit of a rollercoaster. In six starts at the level, he started cross-country four times — and delivered a clear round just once. He also failed to deliver a single clear showjumping round at any of those competitions.
But some horses need a simple prescription to cure their issues: time. The Bertoli W x Donnerhall gelding is just a nine-year-old this season; he’s dressage-bred, rather than blessed with bloodlines that might make the job a fraction more innate; he’s big, rangy, and needed time to grow into himself, mentally and physically. It would be amiss to assume that one great week — in which he added just 0.4 time in showjumping and 1.6 in cross-country — means that he’s on the straight and narrow for life, but there was a marked difference in the way he tackled the job out on course here, and it’s safe enough to assume that the removal of pressure has been a significant contributing factor.
The same could be said — though to a different extent — for Laura Collett‘s London 52, who has always been a ferocious talent, but who had a few blips last season. His 2019, which was bookended by wins at Chatsworth’s Event Rider Masters leg and at Boekelo, saw him retire at Bramham, pick up a late 20 while leading at Aachen, and deposit Laura at the influential bird in the water at the European Championships. The rebuilding of confidence was certainly the name of the game, and the run-and-jump course at Boekelo served as a way to reintroduce the fun of the game to the horse. Now, after a long period waiting out the pandemic, Laura tells us he’s grown into himself mentally, has overcome his worrier mentality, and is confident and self-assured in his work. Watching him storm around the CCI4*-S track inside the time like it was a schooling exercise, there was never any doubt.
2019 Blair CCI4*-L winners Emilie Chandler and Gortfadda Diamond might not have been the most obvious top ten candidates in this enormous, star-powered field, but actually, they boast one of the most consistent records in the competition. Previously produced by Mark and Tanya Kyle, the Irish gelding hasn’t had a single cross-country jumping fault since Emilie took the reins in 2017, and in nine internationals together, they’ve finished in the top ten seven times — and never outside of the top twenty. A 25.2 in the first-phase gave them an easy edge — and bettered their low-30s average — and a clean, quick skip around the to add just 0.4 time penalties across the jumping phases saw them finish fifth, ahead of another Blair winning pair, Oliver Townend and Tregilder, who took the CCI4*-S there in 2018. They delivered one of the eight clears inside the time today, though a rail and 0.4 time penalties pushed them down the pack by a couple of placings.
Kiwi James Avery was probably rather glad for his recent move from Wiltshire to Yorkshire, where he’s now based with fiancé Holly Woodhead at her father Ian’s DHI Event Horses, because the relocation will have cut hours off his journey to get here. He was likely even more glad of the time spent ironing out Mr Sneezy‘s first-phase performances; their dressage score was a very good 26.9, lightyears ahead of the mid-to-high-30s scores they’d been totting up previously. Though their season ended with an annoying 20 at their first five-star at Pau, it’ll have served as a useful learning moment – and they seem none the worse for it, cantering home clear with just 1.6 time penalties here for seventh place.
Nicola Wilson was one of the stars of the show in her return to international competition following a broken neck last summer. Not only did she earn eighth place in this section with her European bronze medallist Bulana and sixth in section L with the exciting JL Dublin, she also delivered two of the just six FODs of the competition, putting herself firmly back on the radar for the Tokyo hunt.
Next year’s team will almost certainly be made up of stalwart campaigners, but one rider who’ll have her eye on future appearances is Yasmin Ingham, who appeared in both the section M and L top-ten this week.
Her ninth-place finisher Banzai du Loir only tackled his first Advanced national class a week ago at Aston-le-Walls, but the nine-year-old gelding, who was produced up until the middle of the 2019 season by France’s Axel Coutte, has been able to amass a wealth of experience with Yas over the last year or so. In their inaugural half-season last year, he ran well, though relatively conservatively, around Intermediate tracks as they cemented their relationship, and this year, through careful planning, he’s managed to enjoy six pre-Burgham runs, despite the pandemic. Now, with seven under his belt, he’s only finished out of the top ten once — and that was an 11th place at Aske. A 27.9 here didn’t quite threaten the leaders, but a classy clear over the poles and then a meagre two time penalties across the country proved that Banzai du Loir is a horse we should all be watching.
The section M top ten was rounded out by Bubby Upton and Cannavaro, who climbed the leaderboard after adding just 1.6 time penalties to their 28.9 dressage. This is an exciting result for the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood, who hasn’t historically been the quickest of Bubby’s string, finishing 12th here last year with 11.6 time penalties.
Though much of the day made for pleasant viewing, a few high-profile combinations did fall victim to the subtle complexities of the course. Fence eight — a wide table with a gently sloping approach — was removed between sections L and M after Ros Canter took her early, crunching tumble with Pencos Crown Jewel. Several would fault at the four-part final combination, too, including Barocca CCI4*-L winners Padraig McCarthy and Leonidas II, who parted company at the final element, leaving the Irishman slamming his fist into the ground in frustration. Tom Rowland withdrew the remainder of his horses after a tumble from MGH Maybe A Mission, and a loose Jims Pal very nearly joined Oliver Townend and Dreamliner through the final combination after depositing rider Michael Owen.
Now, we look ahead to the Blenheim replacement, to be held at Burnham Market from September 17-20. This will be a first long-format run in 2020 for many horses hoping to secure their Tokyo qualifications before the end of the season, while the eight-and-nine-year-old class will give us the chance to see the progression of some of the stars of the future. With performances like those given by Monkeying Around and Banzai du Loir, we’re expecting this to be a very hot class indeed, despite the achingly long gap in everyone’s records. If Burgham has taught us anything this week, it’s that anything that can be accomplished and learned over the finest tracks in the world can also be done at home and out of the spotlight, if you’re creative and determined enough. Let that be a good motivator for us all — particularly if you’ve written off your own 2020 season and are planning ahead for next year instead.
We’ll be bringing you a jam-packed gallery from the jumping phases later on today, plus some extra treats from a busy few days at Burgham. In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, and Go Eventing!