Beware the Rides of March: Piggy Takes First Four-Star of 2022 at Thoresby

No longer a bridesmaid: Brookfield Inocent takes the Grantham Cup with Piggy March, giving his connections plenty to celebrate ahead of his Badminton debut. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The first CCI4*-S of the British season is always an excellent early indicator of form ahead of Badminton, and though this year’s fixture took place at a new venue – Nottinghamshire’s grand Thoresby Spring Carnival of Eventing, rather than the nearby Belton House that ran its last in 2019 – the competition felt like a  familiar jumping off point for a typically top-class field of athletes.

106 combinations came forward to deliver a first-phase performance over the last few days, representing a cross-section of some of Britain’s top horsepower and brightest up-and-coming talent, and 94 of those would opt to leave the start box in today’s action-packed finale. Like Belton before it, Thoresby’s season-opening four-star was built with five-star preparation in mind – but unlike Belton, the Thoresby estate has a much smaller swathe of land to work with. While Belton’s capacious grounds allowed for a run-and-jump pipe opener to get the season going, Thoresby delivered a tighter, more technical track, which required focus and control to get the best of. Time, too, was predictably tough, with just five combinations coming home inside the 6.29 optimum – a challenge, inarguably, for this early stage of the year, but one that provided a necessary wake-up call after a long winter off games.

For some riders with five-star entries looming, that wake-up call might feel bittersweet: Badminton-bound competitors such as Ireland’s Susie Berry and John the Bull, Clare Abbott and Jewelent, and the USA’s Matt Flynn and Wizzerd picked up frustrating jumping penalties on course, though with five weeks until cross-country day in the Cotswolds, the opportunity to fine-tune will no doubt be warmly welcomed. There were also some non-completions among the Badminton contingent: Sweden’s Sofia Sjoborg and DHI Mighty Dwight parted company in a harmless, but wholly uncharacteristic, moment of miscommunication at 15AB, an airy set of timber rails on a tight four or open three to an offset brush, while Simon Grieve opted to retire a very fresh Mr Fahrenheit III. Mishaps were kept to a minimum, though, with nearly 82% of competitors coming home sans jumping penalties – a very different story to the tough showjumping course, which yielded just a 51% clear rate.

Ultimately, the win would go to the combination that had led the way from day one. Piggy March and the excellent Brookfield Inocent, a thirteen-year-old Irish Sport Horse owned by John and Chloe Perry and Alison Swinburn, added nothing to their first-phase score of 23.9 in today’s jumping phases, and their three polished performances felt, Piggy explains, like a significant step up in the horse’s development.

“He’s a cross-country horse above all, provided he’s not too spooky and fresh and we don’t do something stupid, so it’s the other two bits that were really cool here,” she says of her European Championships individual silver medallist, who won Blenheim CCI4*-L in 2019 and took second in his five-star debut at Pau in 2020. “We were so excited about the dressage, because I definitely felt it was the best test he’s done yet – and then the others [in the class] did really well, and he was still in front. His frame, his strength, everything has definitely gone up a notch.”

It might seem incongruous that a horse who has consistently scored in the low 20s at four- and five-star could be in need of any improvement – but while the difference might not be immediately apparent to the casual viewer, the major change has been in ‘Arthur’s’ newfound ability to relax into the work and focus, which allows Piggy to push for even more expressive steps. But, she says, she’s not about to get complacent.

“I know as well as anyone that keeping that or getting that again is not as easy as it sounds, and just because we’ve done it today doesn’t mean it’s going to happen [at Badminton]. But you know that it’s in there,” she muses. “He’s always been a very consistent horse, but it’s just great when you know there’s that extra bit in there, and he really gave me that the other day, so I’m really proud of him and where he’s come on in his character. He’s growing up, and I know he’s thirteen, but they’re all different – it wasn’t even a year ago that I was still trotting around and thinking, ‘don’t spook at the flowerpots! Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do whatever.’ So it’s nice to relax and feel that he’s showing himself off rather than still feeling like we could have had a silly mistake.”

Though their 2021 season ultimately ended with two medals at the European Championships, it wasn’t all easy – they were originally selected as travelling reserves for the Olympics, but withdrew after Arthur’s team of owners and Piggy decided not to put the horse under the strain of such significant international travel if an Olympic run wasn’t actually guaranteed. For Piggy, the disappointment was quickly shelved in favor of taking the opportunity to focus on what she could control.

“We never stop learning as riders and as partnerships. Every day you into the school, you figure out something different – it’s not alway the same shit every day, is it? There’s always something that you think, ‘oh, I think that was better — do I try that again?’ Or, ‘I think he’s got more core strength’, or ‘maybe I should ride him a bit more this way, or that way’,” she explains. “Last year was a very pressured year. He’s not a natural dressage horse; he’s more of a Thoroughbred horse, and he’s slightly downhill. He has really nice, balanced paces, but he’s not fancy, and his presence in his character is something you have to work on – so there’s a lot of things you need to squeeze the best out of him and get him to believe in it. After the Olympics didn’t happen I definitely wanted to take a bit of the pressure off myself and him, to not be unnatural with it and just get him to be a good, consistent horse.”

Now, as Arthur shelves his bridesmaid status to take his first win of the year, Piggy’s enjoying the extra confidence boost that comes with finding new depths to her horse’s ability.

“He’s been second so many times, and it’s fine – and now I’m just enjoying a nice horse that I’m getting ready for Badminton. And you know, I might not get this performance or that dressage feel for another six months, but the good thing is I know it’s there. I know our training is doing something, and that means it can come another time – and I’m going to try to keep getting it.”

Brookfield Quality gives Piggy a great feeling to finish just outside tenth place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Piggy also logged a great run on Brookfield Quality, who added 1.2 time penalties in showjumping and a further 5.2 on cross-country to his 25.7 dressage score to finish in 12th place – and though he might have lost out on a spot in the top ten, his bold, focused performance was considerably more exciting to his rider than a placing might have been.

“He was really great in all three bits – though I messed up in the jumping by adding the time penalties,” she laughs. “He doesn’t need 1.2 time in the showjumping, because I know I’m going to lose that on cross-country. I don’t find him as easy to be quick on as Arthur; he’s a very different kettle of fish, and I nearly gave him another OI run instead, as it usually takes him a few runs to not jump so up and down and get so high and waste a second and a half over every jump. But then it was like, does he actually need another run? With him, it’s all about the building blocks at the beginning of the year – and that was a lot of blocks built today.”

Those blocks, says Piggy, came as the result of clever course design, which offered a fair challenge for the first major run of the season – and minimised the need for further runs in the lead-up to this spring’s long-format events.

“There was enough questions, it rode twisty enough, and the time was tight enough to get – and there were different sorts of questions. There were real rider questions that made you think about whether you wanted to hold for your distances or go for your distances. It was a good enough test at this stage of the season that if my horse doesn’t run again before Badminton, he’s had enough to do. That’s all that matters, rather than thinking, ‘shit, I need to have another run, because that’s not given us enough of a wake up or enough to think about before we go.”

“It’s the stuff of dreams, really”: Bubby Upton takes second place with Cola III – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There’s no one who multitasks quite as impressively as 23-year-old Bubby Upton, who dismounted from her final ride of the day and immediately commenced a mad dash to Heathrow Airport. There, she got on a plane back to Edinburgh University, at which she’s in the final throes of her last year studying Sports Management. She’s spent the last few days writing essays in her lorry whenever she’s not riding, and today she had five horses to showjump and take cross-country across the Advanced and four-star sections – but her frenetic pace and hyperfocus paid off when she was crowned the leading rider of the event for having earned the most points across the weekend.

“What a weekend – it’s the stuff of dreams, really,” says Bubby, who also won the prestigious Polly Phillips Memorial Prize, given to the highest-placed British rider who hasn’t yet ridden on a senior championship team. “It’s been, and it still remains, a very stressful time with university, and it’s all pretty overwhelming, so it was great – and really, I’m quite proud of my team and I for the resilience and strength we showed this weekend with six horses and essays and dissertations and everything. Going back to the lorry was essay time; there was no time to relax, so I’m really proud of what we achieved.”

Her second-place finish in the Grantham Cup certainly contributed enormously to that honour. She and her Badminton entrant, Cola III, were the only pair other than the winners to finish on their dressage score, and their stylish, educated round saw them deliver a masterclass in tactical time management as they eked fractions of seconds out of their chosen lines.

“He really is an unbelievable horse,” she says. “He started off the year kind of acting like a four-year-old, and he was quite ridiculous in the showjumping at Lincoln Horse Trials, to be honest. But we kept the faith, and he was just fantastic this week, he really was.”

Part of the pair’s success this week can be contributed to a change of bit – after years of struggling with Cola’s tricky oral conformation, Bubby has found the sweet spot with a Bomber Happy Tongue bit for the first phase.

“He did a stunning test – we’ve really got to the bottom of [the bitting] issue, so he was lovely and light and soft, though I did mess up one of my changes,” she says.

Bubby, who made her five-star debut at Pau last autumn, has always been keen to put herself up against the highest standard of competition, and this weekend’s field provided a fitting challenge ahead of her first Badminton.

“It was a hell of a competitive section, and I do scroll through the results and think, ‘oh my god!’ for a second,” she laughs. “I know what [my horses] are capable of, but to put it all together and to beat some of those names is truly amazing. I think what massively played to my strengths today was the cross-country time; that’s his strength and it’s my strength, and he really shone in that phase, which was just fantastic.”

Bubby Upton’s Cannavaro takes sixth in early preparation for a trip tp Luhmühlen CCI5* in June. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Bubby also finished sixth on Cannavaro, with whom she scooped the national under-25 title at Bicton’s Bramham replacement feature last June. He added just 0.4 time penalties in showjumping to his first phase score of 29.5, proving his mettle early on ahead of his intended entry at Luhmühlen CCI5* in June.

“He’s a dude, and he’s the one that just keeps exceeding all our expectations,” she says. “I am kicking myself for that time fault, though – when you’re sat on a jumper like that, you just spend too much time in the air. I rang my showjumping trainer and was like, ‘I had a time fault’, and she said ‘Bubby — you idiot! You’re clearly just sitting and having far too nice a time!’ And that’s it! That is the issue – I just sit there and enjoy it so much. He’s such a privilege to jump; he’s just class, and I’ll probably never have a jumper like him again. And then I go and get a time fault!”

Cannavaro followed up that classy – if, okay, one second slow – showjumping round with a foot-perfect trip across Stuart Buntine’s cross-country course, romping home as one of the fastest of the day.

“He’s just coming on and on and on – you wouldn’t think it’s a time for them to be improving, at [the age of] fifteen, but he really is,” says Bubby, who also finished second and third in Advanced section K with Billy Liffy and Magic Roundabout. The sheer variety among her rides, which included two self-made horses, a prior Chris Burton ride, a Thoroughbred, and an inherited mount with a topsy-turvy record, meant that even her time away from her dissertation was something of an academic pursuit.

“It was really cool, because I had five go around the same track, and so it was so interesting comparing them. They all jumped everything so differently, and my minute markers went off at different times, and it was really interesting seeing where they all made up time or lost time.”

Though her pace isn’t set to slow down anytime soon — Bubby’s final university dissertation deadline is set for the Monday after Badminton, a fact she resignedly says “doesn’t bear thinking about” – she’s able to maintain her stride with the help of an excellent team, which includes head girl Katie Dumas and mum Rachel. Together, they even managed to find a solution when Bubby’s second groom for the weekend tested positive for COVID-19.

“That was pretty stressful but luckily it all got sorted – Katie’s friend, who’s a showjumping groom, ended up coming and being our knight in shining armour,” she says. “Katie’s just an absolute rock in my team, and I couldn’t do any of it without her. I’m so grateful to her, and my family, and my trainers and everyone, because to say it’s a team effort with what I put on my plate is an understatement. I couldn’t do it without any of them, and I’m just the lucky one that gets to pick up the prizes.”

Gold medallists Laura Collett and London 52 sail through the weekend on superb form for third place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Olympic team gold medallists Laura Collett and London 52 have become the benchmark to which everyone compares themselves, and their excellent form continued on apace with a third place finish in this class. They earned a 24.8 in yesterday’s dressage and added just 2 time penalties across the country today, making light work of the course’s technical questions along the way.

“He felt amazing, really confident – he’s come out super from last year, and it was a good run before Badminton,” she says. “It’s been a very long time since he did an event, because he finished in August, so it’s just an absolute pleasure to have him back out. He’s a phenomenal horse to ride, and I just feel very honoured and lucky to ride a horse like him – so I try to enjoy every stride and every moment, because I know he’s so special.”

Like Piggy, Laura was pleased with the course’s level of technicality, which she felt offered sufficient preparation for next month’s five-star effort.

“It rode really nicely. It had good questions, and positive riding was rewarded, which I think is really good for the sport. I really enjoyed riding it – and now the goal is just to keep him in one piece,” she says with a laugh.

Laura also enjoyed a double feature on the leaderboard: she claimed fifth place with her Aachen runner-up Dacapo, who continued last year’s upward tick of mature performances across the phases.

Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir look ahead to a Kentucky debut after a successful season opener. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

This weekend’s competition was something of a test run for last year’s Blenheim winners, 25-year-old Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir: if it went well, fulfilling their entry for this month’s Kentucky CCI5* would become a much more likely prospect. Their eventual fourth-place finish, in which they added just 3.2 time penalties to their first-phase score of 26.4, certainly makes them hot contenders for what will be the French-bred gelding’s first five-star.

“It’s the first international of the year, and you’ve got to come out of the box and go for it, really – and I’m so pleased with how he’s been in all three phases,” she says. “Obviously the dressage is always where you can gain marks, and with him being very able and lovely to look at, just trying to squeeze every mark out of him in the dressage is very important, because it’s all in there. And his jumping is usually very solid; he’s very consistent in that phase. On cross-country you put them in a situation to see how they’ll react, and today I had that: at the birch rails to the corner at 15AB I was a little bit off on the three, and he had an opportunity to run out, but there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that he was going between the flags. Those moments give you a lot of confidence, and it’s nice to know that he’s feeling that way and wanting to go. There’s lots to take away from today.”

Though their placing was a welcome bonus, Yasmin’s aim wasn’t necessarily to chase down a lightning-fast round this week, but rather to use the run for some fine-tuning – and along the way, she was pleased to take stock of his impressive reserves: “The time was fairly tight, and I wasn’t going hell for leather everywhere, so there was definitely more in the tank, but I think for this run, it was more important to get the combinations right. It would have been nice to make the time, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it – at a long format there’s so much more galloping, and I think that suits him better anyway.”

Now, Yasmin hopes, the wheels are well in motion for Kentucky — administrative details notwithstanding.

“I think we’ve been very last minute with it, because the entries shut earlier on this week – so we had to get the entry in to have our Plan A. It was all a little bit riding on today to make sure he was in a good frame of mind and feeling well, and I think we’re pretty good to go, though there’s a lot of extra logistics to think about — it’s a long old trip over the ocean,” she laughs. Though fans of the pair may have been surprised to see them opt to go abroad rather than to Badminton, for Yasmin and her longtime owners, Sue and Jeanette Chinn, it’s a move that makes sense this year.

“It wasn’t a decision that we made overnight. We thought about both, and then decided that Badminton might be better for him next year. It hasn’t been on for two years, so it’s going to have anyone who’s anyone there and it’s going to be big and bold, as Badminton always is. Sue and Jeanette have had horses compete at Kentucky before, and it’s an event they’ve loved and enjoyed – so the Kentucky option was very appetising for them, and it’s a great opportunity for me and the horse at this stage to hopefully go and do well.”

European Champions Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin are on form for a top-ten finish. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Five-star entrants largely dominated the bottom half of the top ten, too: in seventh place, Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin looked on excellent form in their first international since they became European Champions, and Emily King and Valmy Biats climbed to eighth place after crossing the finish line just one second over the optimum time. Both pairs are aiming for Badminton next month.

Emily King’s Badminton entrant, the micro syndicate owned Valmy Biats, quietly steps onto the leaderboard after three professional phases. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

British-based Italian Giovanni Ugolotti propels his Swirly Temptress to something of a dark horse finish, taking ninth place out of 109 starters. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It was a welcome surprise to see Italy’s Giovanni Ugolotti step into the top ten with the ten-year-old Swirly Temptress, who took ninth place after adding 1.2 cross-country time penalties to her dressage score of 30.5. This is a best-ever four-star placing for the mare, who finished third in 2019’s seven-year-old national championship but has taken some time to get consistently competitive in all three phases.

“She’s getting there! I always thought that she was going to be a very good horse, and everything is slowly coming together,” says Gio, who is based in Gloucester with his wife, Canadian eventer Kathryn Robinson.

Today, the mare hit two major milestones: she delivered her quickest cross-country round at four-star, and her first clear showjumping round, too.

“Today she gave me a great feeling in both phases — for her, the showjumping is always the tricky phase, and today she probably jumped the best she ever has. On cross-country she’s always been very, very good; she’s not the quickest, because at the end of the day she’s dressage-bred, but today I wanted to see if she could gallop — and she did, so I was super pleased. The fences are never a question — for her, it’s about learning to stretch her lungs.”

Though a call-up for this September’s World Championships could be on the cards for the pair, Gio is largely focused on continuing to develop her with an eye on the future and a focus on her strengths – and she’s certainly keeping it interesting for him along the way.

“She’s quite a bit of a princess, and we do actually call her Princess at home,” he laughs. “But I broke her in; I’ve known her since we was three, and we know each other inside out. She’s a bit of a spicy mare, but when they come good, they are really good. And to finish in the top ten in a field like this? It’s very exciting.”

Pippa Funnell gives Kentucky-bound Maybach a confidence-giving ride to round out the top ten. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Finally, Kentucky-bound duo Pippa Funnell and Maybach rounded out the top ten after delivering a solid round across the country for 4.4 time penalties. Though the 12-year-old Swedish Warmblood has largely gone under the radar in Pippa’s impressive string, in part because he missed the 2019 and 2020 seasons, he’s now clocked up four top-ten finishes at four-star and comes forward as a dark horse contender for top spot at his five-star debut.

Tune in tomorrow for plenty more bonus content from this exciting inaugural British event — plus, we’ll be bringing you lots of analysis on the field’s five-star entrants in our upcoming Badminton and Kentucky form guides. Until next time: Go Eventing!

The final top ten in Thoresby’s inaugural CCI4*-S hints at a hugely exciting five-star double-feature to come.

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