“I said that I was speechless yesterday, but today really is a complete dream come true,” said a delighted Bella Innes Ker in the collecting ring as all around her, the frantic scurry of prizegiving prep whirled around her. A moment later, runner-up William Fox-Pitt appeared and threw an arm around her.
“Absolutely brilliant, wasn’t she — and she’s only 24!”
As quickly as he’d appeared he was gone again, swallowed up by the hubbub, but the smile on Bella’s face was even bigger than it had been before. And who can blame her? Her victory in Blenheim’s CCI3* wasn’t just the biggest of her career — her previous best was fourth in last month’s Blair Castle CIC3* — it was also an incredible victory in its own right, with a colossal field of 101 horse-and-rider combinations vying for the title at the UK’s foremost autumn event.
To win is one thing, but to lead from start to finish is another beast entirely, and that’s exactly what Bella and Carolyn, owned by Bella’s mother, the Duchess of Roxburghe, did. Together, they posted a 24.4 dressage — a personal best at the three-star level, and equal to their personal best across all levels — proving that their upswing in scores this season has been no fluke.
The ‘dressage diva’, known at home as Princess, might have all the sparkle (and occasional sass) of royalty, but the young rider and her horse have grown up together over their seven year partnership, and Bella has learned the ins-and-outs of the fourteen-year-old Carolyn.
“Sometimes it’s her way or the highway, but I’ve learned how to do things her way. If I please her and do it by her system, then she’s great,” she said.
Saturday was always going to be a big test over David Evans‘ huge track, but for Bella and Carolyn, who had never yet made the time in a CCI, the pressure was on to maintain their lead. They did exactly that, romping home exactly on the optimum time to lead without a pole to spare on the final day.
Though some had lamented the fact that the cross-country phase had been perhaps less influential than in previous years, Di Boddy‘s showjumping test more than made up for it. The time was tight and the fences were up-to-height, with related distances and combinations that didn’t allow for a moment of lost focus. As the poles started to tumble, Bella suddenly found herself with a fence in hand as she entered the ring.
As it turned out, she’d need it — the pair added four penalties but, as they landed over the last, the pin-drop-quiet crowd erupted and Bella’s elation was writ large in a beaming grin and a celebratory fist-pump. They’d done it.
“I’m thrilled for the whole team,” she said, extricating herself from a mass of well-wishers. “Carolyn has done her best all week, and has outdone every expectation, and I knew I just had to keep my cool in there. She’s one in a million, she really is — she’s a wonder horse. She’s a quirky little thing, and I’ve probably fallen off her more times that not, so it’s amazing to do this together after the journey we’ve had.”
Bella admitted that she’d taken a moment to dream earlier in the week, when she spotted one of the prizes on offer for the eventual winner.
“I looked at the winners’ rug on Thursday and wondered if I’d ever get my hands on it,” she said. “Now it’s mine!”
It was a fitting end to Bella’s time in the UK — she heads to Ireland to start a new job on an eventing yard this autumn. But there was one person missing when her big moment came: “The one person I’m gutted for is Gill Buckley, who’s been with me for nine years, but couldn’t be here as she had a baby last week.”
With a CCI3* victory under her belt and the blank slate of a new home and new job awaiting her, what’s next for Bella?
“We’re going to regroup and maybe think about Badminton in the spring — it’s scary to even say it!” she laughed.
“It was all very jolly, wasn’t it — it was my lucky day!” said William Fox-Pitt, who finished second on Oratorio. They added nothing to their dressage score of 28.7 to climb from an initial fifth place, and the tricky but talented young horse proved what he was made of throughout the week.
“I certainly came here hopeful of being up there, especially after he showed us at Bramham that he’s competitive, but when it’s a competitive field full of top four-star horses like Ceylor LAN and Zagreb, you sort of think the writing’s on the wall.”
Although their first-phase mark wasn’t quite what William had hoped for, the takeaways for the horse’s ongoing education were exactly what he’d hoped they would be.
“I was a bit disappointed after dressage — he can be quite flash, but it was just a bit lacking,” he said. But on the cross-country course? “He’s absolutely blood, and he doesn’t know the meaning of ‘hard’ in any phase, on any day, ever. It’s exhausting at my age — I’m quite looking forward to the day when he says, ‘right, okay, let’s go onto the bridle a bit now!’ At my age, I quite like them to purr around a bit, but he’s a double handful. Sometimes the ‘woah’ can take 25 strides!”
Brimming with an enthusiasm only matched by his undeniable scope and talent, Oratorio finished Saturday’s test looking as well as he’d started, and he didn’t disappoint on the final day, either.
“He’s come out so well — dare I say, he’s a tough old chap. He doesn’t jump like [his sire, four-star winner] Oslo, but he gallops better. He’s got that go in him, and he’s a bit of a fighter, but when you go in before Pippa and Oliver, you don’t expect to climb — you just hope not to fall down the leaderboard.”
A Badminton campaign could be next on the cards for Oratorio, who will be aimed either at the spring feature or at Luhmühlen for his debut.
“We’ll work this winter on a bit of control and beauty. He’s never sorry or fragile — he’s just class, although the showjumping has always been his weaker link. I said to his owners that a clear round would come, he just won’t purr.”
Alex Bragg and Zagreb posted a pleasing result in their Burghley reroute, finishing on their dressage score of 29.6 and rising from 9th to 3rd place.
“The aim was to come in the top three, but I didn’t think we’d done enough on the first day,” admitted Alex. “I think the time being tight in the showjumping made up for the cross country, though.”
The fourteen-year-old gelding is well-established at the top levels now, but after an early fall at Burghley, Alex was doubly pleased with how Zagreb, known at home as Rhett, went.
“He’s feeling so well being here — he was jumping around in the trot-up and very lively in the dressage, and for a fourteen-year-old horse to feel that well is something special.”
Alex also finished ninth with new ride Barrichello, owned by Sarah Hughes. They rose from 17th after the dressage, cementing a developing partnership throughout the week and adding just two time penalties in the final phase to their 30.9 dressage score.
“I’m really pleased with him. He really showed his class, and those clear rounds are what it’s all about.”
Fourth place went to Selina Milnes, whose long-strided, plucky Iron IV had captured everyone’s attention the day before. They finished on their dressage score of 30.2.
“It’s all just gone to plan, to be honest — I’d have liked to get into the top ten, but I honestly didn’t think we’d be this high up!”
Kitty King‘s week might have ended early with her Olympic mount Ceylor L A N, who refused at the B element of fence four on Saturday and was retired, but redemption came in the form of a fifth-place finish with Vendredi Biats, who picked up 20 penalties here in 2017. Below them, Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street relinquished their grasp on second place with a single pole that saw them finish sixth, and seventh place went to Emily Philp and Camembert, who recorded their 21st consecutive clear round over the poles in an international competition and rounded out a fantastic autumn campaign, which also saw them finish on the podium in Blair Castle’s ERM finale.
Franky Reid-Warrilow, a former winner of the Mark Todd Bridging the Gap scholarship, which helps talented riders transition from the young rider programme into senior competition, finished 8th with Dolley Whisper after a steady climb from 20th in the first phase. Australia’s Amanda Ross and her Koko Popping Candy rounded out the top ten and made the only non-British appearance in the upper echelons of the class — an exciting finish to the competition for the pair who travelled over as first reserves for Australia’s WEG team.
And that’s a wrap on what has been one heck of a week for eventing fans the world over — I’m off to rewatch the final five minutes of the WEG showjumping on an endless loop while quietly and happily sobbing into a bucket of gin (no tonic, in true Tryon fashion). Catch you all at the next one — in the meantime, Go Eventing!