Blair Castle: Townend Heads Event Rider Masters Finale

Oliver Townend and 2016 Blair ERM winner Cillnabradden Evo take the lead in the finale leg of the 2018 series. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Was there ever any doubt? After his total domination of the non-Masters CIC3* class, Oliver Townend entered the arena a man on a mission in Blair’s ERM. Riding his 2016 winner Cillnabradden Evo, he produced an unbeatable score of 26.4, giving him a narrow lead of half a point over second-placed Chris Burton and Graf Liberty.

Despite the impressive score, Townend admitted he hadn’t felt the test would lead.

“It felt disastrous, really,” he laughed. “But I think that I’m on form, and the horse is on form, and obviously it’s nice if you’re feeling like you’re having a disaster and then you come out in the lead! But he wasn’t really with me in there much at all, and he was very, very bright – which is good for some bits, not the dressage, usually – but look, he’s very well, and he’s happy, and we’re still in it.”

Cillnabradden Evo and Oliver Townend. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Cillnabradden Evo is no stranger to the top of the leaderboard – he’s won or come second in six of his last ten international runs, nine of which have been at CIC3*, and led the first phase at this month’s British Open Championships at Gatcombe on a remarkable score of 19. But his recent form has shown some uncharacteristic hiccups – he was retired on cross country at both Gatcombe and at the Arville leg of the ERM, and withdrawn from Barbury’s leg following a disastrous 20 penalty showjumping round. Normally, we can depend upon ‘Gary’ for impeccable showjumping rounds and quick, attacking cross-country performances – but there remains a question mark over his head, which Townend will be aiming to remove in today’s jumping phases.

Second-placed Chris Burton left few marks on the table with Graf Liberty, posting a 26.9 to maintain a comfortable foothold on his quest for the series title. He currently sits atop the 2018 ERM leaderboard, with 96 points accumulated so far. But competitive placings are worth a small fortune in series points, and the margins at the top are slim: in second-place, Laura Collett sits just behind him on 86 points, and third-placed Tim Price boasts 81, leaving the door wide open for a change at the top. A top placing in an ERM leg is worth 30 points, while second place is worth 28, third 26, and so on – so nothing is guaranteed here.

Series leader Chris Burton and Graf Liberty sit a fraction of a penalty behind Oliver Townend after the first phase. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But with just one phase down, there’s still plenty to be done – and current leader Burton is a rider known for his immaculate, high-velocity cross-country performances.

“I’m very happy with [Graf Liberty],” he said after his dressage test. “It piles some pressure on, when you’re in a series like this, and this guy is always a work in progress in this phase, but he’s very good cross country.”

Chris Burton and Graf Liberty. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Third place is held overnight by recent Bramham CCIU253* winners Emily King and Dargun, who produced a score of 27.1. Though Jane del Missier‘s ten-year-old gelding has had some niggles in the cross-country phase, the 2018 season has seen him on the up and up, following up his impressive Bramham win with a fourth-place finish in Gatcombe’s British Open Championship CIC3* earlier in the month. His performance in this phase, too, has been solidified – he’s now a consistent upper-20s performer, knocking a smattering of marks off his averages of last season.

“I’m over the moon with Dargun,” enthused King. “He’s such a special little horse, and each year he’s getting stronger, which means he can perform the movements that he already does so accurately with more flair.”

Though not a contender for the series leaderboard, King has her sights set on another top result for her most prolific upper-level horse.

“Hopefully we can get to the top of the podium – he’s a really good show jumper and has been fantastic around the bigger cross-country tracks recently. He’s a very bold, brave little chap, so we should be grand.”

Emily King and Dargun sit in third place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Series contender Laura Collett piloted the relatively inexperienced London 52 to a 28.5, good enough for fifth place behind Marcio Carvalho Jorge and JCR Winner‘s 27.8. Though only in his debutante season as a three-star horse, London 52 has had some promising results so far this year – he took second and eleventh placings in ERM legs at Arville and Jardy, respectively, and although this weekend’s test doesn’t quite beat his level PB of 28.3 at Jardy, it puts another very good mark onto his fledgling record.

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“He’s trying so hard,” said Collett of the Landos nine-year-old. “He’s so inexperienced, and to come into an arena like that and for him to try like he did was amazing. He’s been thrown in at the deep end at this level; he’s done three ERMs and so far, he’s been fantastic.”

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Collett admits that a track like Blair’s presents a real challenge for a horse still in the early stages of his education.

“Like Arville, it’s unknown territory with the Blair hills, and he hasn’t really seen anything like this before – so fingers crossed he’s feeling bold and ready to gallop!”

Last year’s leg winner Shane Rose slipped behind fellow Australian Bill Levett and Shannondale Titan (6th) into seventh on a score of 28.9, this time riding the striking CP Qualified. Based back in Australia this season, Shane hasn’t been the familiar face on the UK circuit that he was last year – but the pair reunited to take a top-20 place at Luhmuehlen earlier this summer, and could be a formidable combination across Blair’s tough track.

Third-placed series contender Tim Price brought forward his 2014 Luhmuehlen CCI4* winner Wesko, who has been absent from competition since early 2016, but was gently brought back this June with ON runs at West Wilts and Nunney.

Tim Price and Wesko make good on their return to the top. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Together, they produced a 30.3 test, adding a handful of marks to the mid-20s scores they’ve been posting in their return to competition this season.

“He’s feeling fantastic; unfortunately, today that meant that he was a bit hot for the job,” laughed Price, noting that wife Jonelle, too, struggled with some minor exuberance in the ring, and joking that perhaps they were feeding their horses too much.

“There’s a Porsche under there and sometimes it’s just purring, other times it revs a bit – today we were revving! It’s not the work that we’re capable of, which is a bit of a shame, but there we go. It’s actually probably a good thing that we’re not in the lead – he’s a super jumper and I’m hoping that he makes it look easy tomorrow.”

Jonelle Price and Cloud Dancer II. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Jonelle Price and Cloud Dancer II added just two-tenths of a penalty to husband Tim’s mark to sit behind him on 30.5. The eleven-year-old San Remo gelding, owned by the Marley and Me Syndicate, has won his last three national runs, but has failed to complete his two international competitions since 2016 – at Wiesbaden’s ERM he was eliminated for refusals, while Price opted to retire on Arville’s tricky track.

But this isn’t to say he’s to be discounted in this weekend’s competition: in 2015 he won Blenheim’s 8/9 year-old class, and in 2016 he finished third in the CIC3* so the talent and the tenacity are there. Somehow, Jonelle doesn’t strike us as the type to drive a horse all the way to Scotland without giving a fast clear a jolly good bash.

Jonelle Price and Cloud Dancer. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Missed the fun? You can rewatch the morning’s dressage action in full on the Event Rider Masters website. The competition resumes this morning at 9.40am BST/4.40am EST, with the 23 competitors tackling the tough showjumping course before heading onto Blair’s influential cross country at 1.25pm BST/8.25am EST.

The top ten in the ERM after dressage.

Land Rover Blair Castle International Horse Trials: Website, ScheduleLive Stream, Event Rider Masters, Live Scores, EN’s Coverage