In all the expert analysis of the Belton field (and there was plenty), nobody quite managed to predict the final podium, which was almost totally reimagined after the commencement of the jumping phases.
101 combinations set out on Captain Mark Phillips CCI4*-S course at Belton International Horse Trials yesterday, and 66 of the 88 who completed came back without adding jumping penalties. Just four finished without adding time, and all four were rewarded with top ten placings – including our eventual winner, who delivered a seriously exciting FOD to secure a surprise victory.
Figaro van het Broekxhof (Tauber van het Kapelhof x Damira van het Heiderhof) might not be a household name – unless those households are particularly confident about clusters of consonants – but he’s hardly to blame, really. Rider Tom McEwen is no slouch, after all, but his spate of recent success (including top-ten placings at Badminton and Burghley and, you know, his part in that team gold medal) have all come with stable star Toledo de Kerser. Mr Fig, who has only spent a season with Tom so far, has really just slipped under the radar, despite finishing fifth at Houghton CCI4*-S and fourth at Blair Castle CCI4*-L last season.
Not so today. Bored of being the bridesmaid (and, perhaps, second in the queue for Polos), the 16.3hh Belgian warmblood produced two totally penalty-free jumping rounds to skyrocket to the top of the leaderboard, despite an inauspicious start of 33.5. Owned by Barbara Cooper and previously piloted by Jodie Amos, Sarah Bullimore, Anthony Clark, and Sarah Stretton, the fourteen-year-old was 26th after the first phase.
“I’m super happy with him. He’s gone as well as he could do,” said Tom. “I didn’t really expect to move up that much, but he really stormed round. We’re still getting to know him, and we’ve put a long old winter of training in with him, but we’re so excited about the season ahead.”
Mr Fig, who started but failed to complete Badminton with Jodie Amos in 2016, will now be aimed at a sophomore five-star at Luhmühlen this summer. In the meantime, Tom is enjoying having the big, amiable character on his yard: “he’s super relaxed about everything,” he said. “Just a lovely character and so chilled.”
“He was on the bridle the whole way,” said Laura Collett of the ten-year-old London 52, who added just 5.2 time penalties to his 28.8 dressage to finish second by less than half a point. The talented Holsteiner, owned by Laura, Karen Bartlett, and Keith Scott cruised to an easy victory in Blenheim’s prestigious eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S last season, but this is the first time we’ve seen him pitted against a field of this breadth, depth, class, and calibre. Though he’s at the beginning of only his fourth season of eventing, his ability and courage belie his relative inexperience.
Admittedly, this hasn’t always made him the easiest horse, though it did help him to rocket through the grades.
“It’s scary how easy he finds everything,” Laura told us last season. “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.”
Though he’s only roughly 50% blood, London 52 possesses an impressively easy gallop, and today, we saw a new level of adaptability added into its mix. His exceptional performance was one of three for Laura this weekend – she won the Advanced with Dacapo and finished fourth in the Grantham Cup CCI4*-S with Badminton entry Mr Bass.
“I’m so lucky to ride these three amazing horses, and to jump them all in one day reminds me of just how lucky I am,” said a delighted Laura.
Belton is becoming quite a happy hunting ground for third-placed Mollie Summerland, who won the under-21 Open Intermediate here last year with Charly Van Ter Heiden. This time, the pair took third place in the Grantham Cup, marking their career best result yet.
“The field was really strong, so to come here and get that result was amazing. I might have shed a little tear,” laughed Mollie. “He’s just a beautiful horse, and I’m very lucky to ride him. It was a shame about our showjumping fault, but I have to look at it that he’s getting better and better in each phase – he’s still a young horse, and still inexperienced at this level, but what an exciting future he has. He was so naughty as a young horse; I used to fall off him probably every day, so how he’s come on over the years is brilliant.”
Mollie, who is based with Wendy Coney and has produced her ten-year-old Hanoverian through the levels herself, also won the Polly Phillips Memorial Prize, awarded to the highest-placed British rider not eligible to wear a senior flag. In doing so, she became the youngest – and the highest-placed – winner of the prize, which was established by Polly’s husband Vere Phillips after her tragic death in 1999. This year marks the 20th anniversary of her passing, and 21-year-old Mollie is certainly a worthy recipient in this poignant year: the inexorably hard-working rider has already lodged a successful squad appearance at last year’s Young Rider Europeans, where she finished ninth with Charly, and she looks set to follow in the footsteps of the prize’s previous winners. These include Oliver Townend, Ros Canter, and Alex Bragg.
“My late wife Polly was killed in 1999 doing the sport that she loved, and she was, at that time, the number one in the world on her famous horse Coral Cove,” said Vere. “The public was so touched by this that they sent over £20,000 to set up the Polly Phillips Memorial Fund. The interest is given every year to the highest-placed rider who is not yet entitled to wear the flag. […] It’s a great thing to have won, because hopefully it means you’ll go on to represent the team in the future.”
Mollie was formerly based at The Billy Stud in Surrey, and she credits Pippa Funnell as being one of the major influences on her riding and her swiftly mounting successes.
“I was really lucky to be based with Pip for about two years with him, and she helped me so much – she really helped to transform the horse,” she said. “He’s only 18% Thoroughbred, so that’s where I learnt from Pip about hacking up the hills to get him really fit, and I really learned her methods for getting foreign horses up to speed. He’s got such an exuberant canter – I remember going up the gallops with Pip alongside one of her horses, and he really had to learn to gallop with another horse. He’s not naturally a galloper, so it’s been a slow process to teach him how to do it.”
That slow process paid off when the pair cantered home four seconds under the time, despite a technical glitch in the start box.
“He was so frisky in the start box that I couldn’t start my watch – I probably started it five or ten seconds late, so I wasn’t actually sure! I didn’t set off going, ‘right, I want to go inside the time’ – I just wanted to have a good crack round here, and I was in such a lovely rhythm that I thought I’d carry on, stopwatch aside.”
Mollie, who’s now based with Wendy Coney, is originally from nearby Leicestershire, so her great result here is doubly special.
“I’ve always come here and been in the lower classes, and I always thought that one day I’d love to ride in the ‘big boy’ class. To actually come here and do so well is really special for me and all my team, who work so hard behind the scenes with the horse. I knew it was a beefy track and would take some riding, especially at speed, but he’s so honest. I think, because I’ve had him so long, he knows me inside out – where I’m not quite right or a little bit messy in myself, he really helps me out. He listens to me so much as well; I don’t have to bring him back for every fence so I probably save two seconds at each one.”
For a young rider to beat some of the country’s most experienced pairings on her self-produced horse is enormously exciting, not just for her team, but for the future of the British team efforts, too.
“It’s very rewarding – I’ve never had the money to go out and buy a horse that’s gone out and done it. He’s very special, and it’s lovely because the people I bought him from in Belgium sent me a message saying they were watching on the live stream and cheering us on – I’ve got so much support from them, it’s a real team effort. We’re all delighted – he’s a superstar in the making, I think.”
Mollie’s mentor Pippa Funnell also made a great showing in this class, finishing fifth with one of her Badminton entrants, Billy Walk On. He romped home with 9.2 time penalties to add to his very good dressage score of 27.7, while Pippa’s second ride, MGH Grafton Street, was one of a number of high-profile horses to fall foul of the influential corner at 5B. He picked up 15 penalties for missing the flag there and then ran into some trouble at the final element of the sunken road complex at 20ABCD, finishing in 87th place.
“I’m really thrilled – this is by far my best result,” said Eliza Stoddart, who finished sixth with Dick O’Malley and 28th with Priorspark Opposition Free. “Dick O’Malley is owned by a huge syndicate of ten couples, who all came here to support us. He actually came to me to sell, and the lady who owned him, Audrey Johnson, gave me a month to try to organise a syndicate, and some really good friends of ours, led by Chris Newton, got it all together. It’s incredible – having great owners makes such a big difference. They’ve all really believed in me – we got the syndicate together at the beginning of last season, and this is our second season at this level, so now I feel like we’re really going to be competitive.”
The career-best performance comes as the result of an enormous amount of hard work by Eliza, who works with an enviable support team of trainers.
“There are lots of little things we’ve been working on, and our trainers Caroline Moore, Chris Bartle, and Amy Woodhead have transformed us,” she said. “It’s been a big team effort, but he’s a phenomenal jumping horse and so I really trust him to jump a double clear and I know he can go fast. From fence one I felt that both my horses got into a really good rhythm, and once I got over 5b, I knew I could crack on and have fun.”
Italy’s Vittoria Pannizon could easily be considered the Queen of Belton – she’s taken the Grantham Cup honours twice, first in 2007 with Rock Model, and then in 2013 with Borough Pennyz. Her former success here really does show in how she tackles the course: she rode all three of her horses as though she’d written the course plan, demonstrating blazing speed and efficiency every step of the way. This paid off in two of the three cases – she was seventh with ten-year-old Super Cillious, or Ken, who was fifth in last year’s Blenheim eight- and nine-year-old class and finished here on his dressage score of 37.4. She was also fourteenth on her exceptional Borough Pennyz, adding just 1.2 time penalties. On her final ride, however, she came unstuck: One Night Love tripped when jumping out of the C element of the tricky sunken road combination and Vittoria hit the deck.
France’s Camille Lejeune and his plucky chestnut Tahina des Isles impressed us at Burghley last year, and they were no less in sync here – they added just one time penalty over the poles and 3.2 across the country to finish eighth in their Badminton prep run.
Though Imogen Murray and Ivar Gooden didn’t quite deliver a score to rival their recent PB of 23.1, they proved once again that their technical prowess and boldness across the country is enough to make them one of the most consistently competitive combinations in the field. Their first-phase score of 36.9 had them in 48th place after the first phase, but a clear round in the influential showjumping and a foot-perfect cross-country, which added just 1.2 time penalties to their score, saw the former Glentrool Trophy winners perform another characteristic leap up the leaderboard. The most exciting thing? We never actually saw Ivar Gooden, or ‘Sir Charles’, hit fifth gear – he skipped around this tough track in cruise control.
British-based Australian Kevin McNab rounded out the top ten with a sterling performance aboard Willunga, who added 7.2 time penalties in what is only the twelve-year-old’s third start at the level. Previously, his promising first-phase results have been mitigated by slow runs across the country, while this weekend, we saw his usual high-20s scores slip into the 30s. Keep an eye on this one – now that he’s learned how to open up on cross country, he could be a very exciting campaigner for Kevin this season.
Turning the Corner
Though there were tough, technical challenges scattered around the course, the MIMS Technology Tables combination at 5AB proved to be the most influential. Comprised of a wide, inviting table at the A element and a seriously narrow corner at B, it could have been ridden on four swooping strides or five, with a slightly more aggressively squared-off turn. Though there was an option, which saw the B element replaced with another table on a circuitous route, most opted to go direct – but throughout the day, we saw even the most experienced horses and riders jump wide, run out, or fall foul of the flag rule. This rule has been revised this year, and now incurs 20 penalties, rather than the previous 50, unless less than 50% of the horse’s body is deemed to have passed outside the originally flagged area, in which case only 15 penalties are awarded. Clear as mud, right? The fences judges were certainly kept busy, anyway, and so were the live scoring systems, which generated a complete reshuffle of the leaderboard as each round was ticked off. Four combinations were deemed to have missed the flag, resulting in 15 penalties a pop, while fourteen were awarded 20s for run-outs.
It was this new ruling that ended up deciding the fate of the class, when Flora Harris and Bayano were deemed to have missed the flag at 5B. Without the subsequent 15 penalties they were awarded, they would have nudged ahead of Tom McEwen by just half a penalty.
Harry Meade, too, picked up 15 penalties at this fence with his Badminton ride Away Cruising, provoking much debate about what, exactly, we should be rewarding when judging these types of fences. We’ll be opening the floor for a healthy debate about the new ruling, with insight and commentary from some industry experts, so stay tuned.
Ups and Downs for Five-Star Entrants
Today’s competition saw mixed fortunes for many top combinations, alongside planned slow runs and a spate of withdrawals. Winner Tom McEwen opted not to bring entered ride Toledo de Kerser at all, choosing instead to refine his pre-Badminton prep plan. Dressage leaders Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around toppled a pole in the showjump arena and the eight-year-old was subsequently withdrawn, as were both of Izzy’s other rides in this class. Oliver Townend, too, withdrew his horses – the Badminton-entered Ballaghmor Class and Badminton and Kentucky-entered Cooley Master Class – before cross country, a common tactic for him at this venue. US rider Jenny Caras followed the same plan of action with Fernhill Fortitude, who jumped an eight-fault round before heading back to his new digs at Casa de Townend.
WEG silver medallists Padraig McCarthy and Mr Chunky retired on course after completing a little over half their planned slow run, while William Fox-Pitt‘s Oratorio II, Pippa Funnell‘s MGH Grafton Street, and Harry Meade‘s Away Cruising were among the Badminton-bound competitors to notch up cross-country faults. Kitty King and her Rio mount Ceylor L A N were eliminated in the showjumping after a bit of a kerfuffle between the first two fences led to two refusals.
Gemma Tattersall and Pamero 4 took a tumble at the fourth fence on course, the otherwise uninfluential Tower Equine Palisade. While Pamero was up immediately, Gemma was taken away for further examination. We’re delighted to report that she sustained no serious injuries, though saddened to confirm that Intermediate ride Billy Shania incurred an injury at the end of the cross-country course on Saturday.
“I’m home and not broken, just badly bruised,” she said in a Facebook statement this morning. “A few easy days and I’ll be fine. Pamero 4 is also fine, he is having lots of TLC. Thank you to the paramedics and all the people that helped at Belton. Billy Shania travelled home well and is comfortable, she will have lots of cuddles and TLC as well. Team Tatt have had better weekends but will live to fight another day.” All of us at EN wish Gemma and Shania a very speedy recovery.