“Being Here is a Dream Come True”: Comeback Queen Bubby Upton Takes Thursday Morning Lead at Badminton

Bubby Upton and Cola make a poignant return to the top after a tough nine months for the 25-year-old rider. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

There’s something about the alchemy of the MARS Badminton Horse Trials – its deeply entrenched history, its butterflies (both nervous and excited varieties), the trials and tribulations and triumphs that it takes to get here – that always lends a depth of emotion to the best efforts. And this morning, as the first quarter of our field entered at A and put their first-phase scores on the board, we saw a particularly poignant start to the colossus of a competition to come.

Just last August, 25-year-old Bubby Upton was in hospital, facing the news that she’d badly broken her back – for a second time – and may never fully recover. But recover she did, through an extraordinary show of willpower, hard work, and support from her family, her team, helmed by head groom Katie Dutton, and the Injured Jockeys Fund – and today, to put a feather in the cap of her comeback, she took the Thursday morning lead at Badminton, posting a 27.3 with Cola and earning her longtime partner his best-ever score at the level, too.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Bubby. “It was amazing in there, and he did everything that I asked of him. I didn’t quite ride his last change well enough, which is his really solid one, so I’m a little bit frustrated about that – but just being here is a dream come true. I have amazing team of trainers at home, and I’ve worked tirelessly on his dressage, because he’s a horse that found it very easy to three star and then when it came to the changes in four star and five star, he really struggled, because he’s actually a really long horse. He looks very beautiful, but he’s not the easiest to get that kind of collection on. We’ve worked really hard on trying to improve him, but it’s all come down to his strength, and when you have the strength in his rideability, and you get them in that correct window, he’s a dream.”

Bubby Upton and Cola. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Even astutely analytical Bubby isn’t getting too caught up in the details just now, though — because just riding into the ring here represents so much more than a score.

“If you told me seven months ago that I’d be here, I wouldn’t have believed you. No one will ever really understand or know what we’ve been through as a team, so
yeah, it’s very magical,” she says through a wave of emotion that began after her final halt and salute.

Although a return to top-level competition, and to Badminton specifically, might have looked as though it was off the table last year, Bubby confesses that it has always been a powerful motivator in her recovery.

“I think subconsciously, I always wanted it,” she says. “Obviously in the first couple of few months, I was learning to walk again, so the thought of even just riding again was kind of out of the question. Then when I was able to get back on a horse again, I really had to learn to do it all again. I kept falling off to the side because I had no strength on my right side — but it got better and better, and the more work we did in the gym and in the pool with the Injured Jockeys Fund, and the stronger I got, my riding got a bit better again. I would say around January time, I started to be okay at riding again. And then I had my first jump, which was very painful, but we just kept pushing, and we never stopped dreaming of this.”

All smiles: Bubby Upton and Cola. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

It’s still, she admits, “pretty painful” to ride – “but I really don’t feel in a position to ever complain about it,” she says. To accommodate the discomfort, and the lessened shock absorption through her spine, Bubby has received dispensation to use a padded seat cover, but wasn’t permitted to use it in the ring today.

“I was told a few days ago that I can’t ride my test with it, so this is the first test I’ve done without it,” she says. “I was a little bit rattled a few days ago, because that absorbs all the shock through the saddle that my spine can’t take, so I had to grin and bear it in there. But just being in there, the pain goes away, and doing what I love makes it worth it.”

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF. Photo by Hannah Cole Photography.

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg took an early lead, though now settle for a very respectable provisional second, on their score of 29 – one of just two sub-30s that we were treated to this morning.

“I’m thrilled with him,” says Boyd of his stalwart seventeen-year-old, with whom he finished in the top ten at Burghley last autumn. “He went in there and went like a champion; he couldn’t have done much better. It’s hard to get a dressage test where everything just goes nicely – we’re in with a chance.”

While riders often have a preference between Thursday’s quieter atmosphere and Friday’s seriously electric one, ‘Thomas’, Boyd explains, is a rare sort who can thrive in either – a marker of the adaptability that’s made him such a standout in Boyd’s string in recent years, despite a less-than-promising first impression.

“He’s just unusual,” laughs Boyd. “When he came to me, he’d been through been through a couple other riders, and to be honest when he got sent to me, I didn’t think much of him – just because he’s pretty plain at home. He’s just a bit… normal. But then I took him to one Intermediate and I couldn’t believe how much a horse could change. He just grew, and had a great gallop and speed, and then all of a sudden I took him a lot more seriously. And he’s just been a tough horse too; he’s never been lame, and this is his seventh year at 5*. He’s just a Trojan horse. He’s a good guy, too – nice to be around, easy to ride, a laid back character, in a good way that I like – he stays calm and stays settled and lets you ride him. It’s different to some of the crazy ones where you’re nurturing them through the event. You can really push him along and go for it.”

Boyd, who was busy at Kentucky two weeks ago with three rides, brought the diminutive Trakehner along to the bluegrass state to keep up with his schooling before shipping him over a week ago. Since then, he’s been based at the Surrey yard of Australian rider Kevin McNab, who “kept him ticking over” with the help of groom Steph Simpson while Boyd competed in the States over the weekend.

“Then I flew over and started doing a bit of dressage on Sunday,” he says, apparently having never heard of ‘jetlag’.

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

But then, he’s got plenty of reason to have enough adrenaline to see a transatlantic trip, and no days off, through: if he completes Badminton this week, he’ll become just the second rider ever to compete all seven of the world’s five-stars. (The first was Tim Price, who also has completion at an eighth – the 2021 pop-up five-star at Bicton.)

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I started out in Australia so I did Adelaide for the first time when I was 19 years old when it had steeplechase,” he says. “I sound like an old man now, but I love 5*s – it’s what drives me along and keeps me motivated, and to be able to say you’ve done all the WEG’s and Olympics and actually get through this and have done all the 5*s, it’s something that means you can hold your head a bit higher. To be honest, though, I don’t want to just complete — the finishing or whatever is great but the winning — we’re going to go and have a go at it.”

And en route to that goal? A formidable Eric Winter course that he’s thinking very, very hard about.

“I’m sick to my stomach! I haven’t done this one very much,” admits Boyd. “I’ve only done it once, and I didn’t finish. I’m pretty familiar with, like, the Kentuckys and Luhmühlens and Paus, and even Burghley, I’m quite comfortable there now. But I’m going to walk it a couple more times than usual just to really get an understanding of where I want to be. It looks pretty tough to me. It just looks big – big jumps, and that circle, down the Vicarage Vee area, to me that just looks relentless. It’s just tough question after tough question. I feel like if I can get through that and I’ve got a bit of horse left, I should be alright.”

Georgie Goss and Feloupe. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

It’s been five years since we last saw Georgie Goss – then Spence – at Badminton, and since then, she’s got a new surname, a new nationality (the hugely successful Pony, Junior, and Young Rider British team member now flies the Irish flag), a new baby, and a new ride in 14-year-old five-star debutant Feloupe, who she took on in early 2020 from Australia’s Ben Leahy. Today, on her return to the event that she made her own debut at at the tender age of nineteen, she cracked the top three on the first morning, putting a 30.6 on the board with the smart mare.

“She’s an awesome horse – she’s one of those ones that does the exact same test every time, and she’s got beautiful change, so I could do with there being 20 changes in there and I’d be in the lead,” laughs Georgie. “She tried her little heart out in there; we just lost a little bit of rhythm in a couple of places, but otherwise, she was faultless. It would have been nice to get 29.9, but the judges seem on the grumpier side today, so I’ll definitely take 30.6!”

Georgie’s looking forward to giving Feloupe – or Lulu Lemon – her first crack at a five-star cross-country course, of which she says “the jumps look good, but the ground is a little bit squidgy.” But perhaps even more important than whatever the end result may be is the fact that now, upon her return, she’s doing Badminton as the heart of a family unit.

“I love being here having my husband and my little boy here to support — not that he knows what’s going on, but we can show him some pictures in a few years,” she grins. “It’s just a whole new dimension. It’s great to enjoy it as a family as well as enjoy it as a competitor. So hopefully it works out!”

Max Warburton and Monbeg Exclusive. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

At just 25, Max Warburton is one of the youngest riders in this year’s Badminton field, and both he and the former Andrew Nicholson ride Monbeg Exclusive make their five-star debut this week. All impressive enough accomplishments in their own right – but to throw down a test that betters most of your four-star scores and thrusts you into fourth place? That’s certainly one way to maximise the excitement of it all.

That’s just what Max and ‘Frankie’ did today, delivering a 31.7 despite a couple of early mistakes with breaks in the trot work. They pulled it back, though, with a very good walk section – and there really is rather a lot of walk in this test, so woe betide anyone who hasn’t put their practise in with this gait – and some excellent canter work, with well-established changes. We’ve seen this pair go sub-30 once at three-star and hit the mid-30s twice at four-star, so to split the difference on a debut at this topmost level is definitely something to celebrate.

Felix Vogg and Cartania. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Switzerland, one of eight nations in the hunt this week, rounds out the morning’s top five for us neatly with a smart test from Felix Vogg and Cartania, who return for another crack after an impressive 15th place finish here. They’ve begun their week in fine fettle; their 32.6 shaves a hair off last spring’s 33.1 and, explains Felix, represents a great effort from a mare who doesn’t always find this sort of pressure cooker environment particularly easy to deal with.

“She’s always a bit tricky — like, she doesn’t like the atmosphere, and she doesn’t like when the stadium was wide open,” he says. So it’s quite tricky with her, but I’m really pleased. Yesterday we had a good familiarisation to calm her down, and now, we’re looking forward to Saturday – that’s her favourite.”

After last year’s exemplary effort in tough conditions, Felix might be the sole person on site to confess that “I wished, a little bit. for more rain for Saturday!” But, he explains, discovering just how much gumption the Holsteiner has strengthened his faith in her ability to dig deep, come what may.

“[Before last year], she’d had a couple of runs [on wet ground] in Italy,” he says. “Of course not muddy like Badminton, or long like that, but I knew she would cope well with it, and she doesn’t stop running, even she’s tired. Last year, even at the last fence, she keeps going. So for me, it just made it even more clear that she’s suitable for these events, so I will try to attempt Burghley as well with her this year. It’s fun to have a horse like this.”

Felix’s wish for more rain looks like it’ll go unanswered, and while Cartania is untested on stickier, more holding ground, which we’re looking likely to have, the pair also have a great weapon at their disposal: their early draw as tenth out of the start box will mean that they can navigate reasonably fresh ground and pick their lines more easily.

“I think it will probably be sticky, and that’s as well hard for the horses. I’ve never had sticky ground like this with her, to be honest. But I think, because I’m so early on, maybe this gives me more advantage to cross country.”

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

US rider Meghan O’Donoghue laid down a sweet, conservative test with 18-year-old ex-racehorse Palm Crescent to post a 34.7, which is good enough for ninth place at this early stage – and while the score doesn’t rival the lofty heights of the sub-30 score the pair laid down at Burghley last year, it’s still a very positive start for a horse whose strength lies in the pivotal phase to come on Saturday.

“There’s a lot of atmosphere here,” says Meghan, who makes her own Badminton debut with her stalwart five-star partner this week. “It’s my first time here as well as his, so it’s a lot to take in, but I was thrilled with him. It’s definitely not the easiest phase in the world for him, but I thought he kept his head straight and he did a smart test.”

The Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event a couple of weeks ago played out as something of a showcase of the versatility and grit of the pure Thoroughbred, and ‘Palmer’, who has thrice contested that event and finished 11th in 2022, is flying the flag for the ex-racehorse this week at Badminton.

“It’s a true testament to just how much heart they have,” says Meghan, who’s looking forward to her first trip around the Badminton track – a moment she’s been dreaming of throughout her career.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she smiles. “I’m glad the sun is shining, though, because I think it could have been a whole different story had it not been! But I’m thrilled to get out there and it looks like a beautiful track. I did Burghley in 2022, and I’ve done Kentucky and Maryland, and I’ve also done Blenheim and Aachen, but this is its own thing for sure. You know, I’ve just been trying to look around, because there’s tonnes of history here and clearly some incredible horses and riders, and just the team that puts on this competition is in a league of its own, so I’mtrying to absorb it all. I think if you dream of being an event rider as a child, Badminton is on your bucket list. My first Thoroughbred would have definitely been a horse for this kind of competition as well, but I just never got that done, so I’m thrilled to have another one to be able to do this.”

The afternoon’s dressage will get underway from 14.15 BST/9.15 a.m. EST with Australia’s Bill Levett first up to bat with Huberthus AC. Cheg will be running in-depth live updates on each pair in the ring, and you can catch up on all the nitty-gritty from this morning’s efforts, too, by clicking here. Stay cool, ENers, keep applying SPF, and we’ll see you on the flip side.

The top ten at the lunch break on day one at Badminton.

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