When World Champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir showed up on the Blenheim CCI4*-L entry list, it felt like rather a sure thing — really, in this field of largely inexperienced horses or reroutes, how could anyone possibly live up to the standard they’d set?
But nothing’s ever quite as straightforward as all that in the horse world, and though the pair come here as previous victors — they won this class here in 2021 — there are no guarantees with horses, and their 2023 season hasn’t been totally plain sailing. They had uncharacteristic run-outs at coffins at both Kentucky CCI5* and the European Championships, with a historic CHIO Aachen win in between, and now, with the Paris Olympics less than a year away, it’s all about reconsolidating, ending the season on a high, and, of course, nailing down that long-format qualifying result.
Cross-country might, as such, be the main focus of their week, but before they get to all that, they started off on an extraordinary high note. They currently sit in first place — a lead that it’s hard to imagine anyone will pass tomorrow — on a 20.5, Yas’s personal best score at any international competition on any horse.
The clincher? A whole new mental outlook for the still-relatively-inexperienced French-bred 12-year-old (Nouma d’Auzay x Gerboise du Cochet, by Livarot).
“I’m always such a perfectionist, and I always want to try to be better all the time,” Yasmin says. “Today, he was really rideable and soft, and I felt like I could ask for more from him than usual, because usually we’re a little bit on the edge of maybe a slight explosion. It definitely always feels a little more fragile than it looks, but today it didn’t feel fragile at all, which is a really great feeling.”
The decision to come to Blenheim, just a month after that European Championships run with its shortened cross-country track, was almost circumstantial, Yas explains: “He came out of the Europeans so well, and we pondered for a little bit after that and thought, ‘It was at the beginning of August, all the other horses still have three more events to do, he has no one to go in the field with, and he ended up only running for about eight and a half minutes [at the Europeans]. So we decided that actually, it would be really good for both of us to go out and just finish the season on a good note. I think more than anything, it’s about positivity. I want to come out and just have a nice time and enjoy it.”
Although the Paris Olympics, for which the gelding was initially bought, is still very much on her mind, Yas is also focusing on the bigger picture, and working on just creating the best possible performances for where she and her exceptional horse are at.
“Obviously [the Olympics] has been a dream of mine since I’ve was tiny, running around on little ponies,” she says. “But what will be will be — as long as we do our best and hopefully have some good results, there’s not very much else we can do. At the moment, I’m just trying… not to forget about it, as it’s always in the back of your mind, but I’m definitely not hell bent or going to go absolutely nuts. I’d really like to have some good results, and then hopefully we’re still in the mix, but you just never know what will happen with horses.”
Gemma Stevens was among the first group of riders in the ring, and she and the former Karin Donckers ride Jalapeno set a standard that wasn’t met for a long time. Ultimately, they moved down just one place to overnight second on their very good score of 25.6, which sees them sit a margin of 5.1 penalties behind the overnight leaders.
“She’s an old-timer, and she knows what she’s doing,” says Gemma, “but it’s such a shame we’ve got an early draw. We’ve been drawn before some of the multiples, which is a real shame when you’ve only got one horse — and one that’s so established on the flat. She’s got the ability, as we saw at Badminton, to do low-20s. But she’s gone in there this morning and done a lovely test, and tried really hard, and we’re on a 25, so it’s okay! It’s not going to lead, but it’s a good start, and for early on Thursday morning, it’s good.”
We last saw Gemma and Jalapeno in an FEI event way back in May, when they contested that extraordinarily tough Badminton. They finished sixth there, which was the culmination of an extraordinary amount of rehabilitation and fitness work on the part of Gemma and her team after the mare had sustained an injury a couple of seasons prior. In bringing ‘Jala’ back, Gemma had learned how to fitten a horse without overusing the gallops — a technique that her prior top horse, Arctic Soul, had relished — and since then, she’s adhering to the mare’s newfound routine.
“She’s literally just done a couple of Open Intermediates to keep her sweet and happy,” says Gemma. “We know she can jump ’round, so she doesn’t need to go run at hundreds of events — she just needs the odd run for her fitness, and to keep her sweet. She’s been swimming and treadmilling and gently cantering; that seems to work with her, so we keep it going!”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that; you can catch Jala doing her best David Hasselhof at a community pool near you. Maybe.
Pippa Funnell and her seasoned Billy Walk On sit third on 27.1 after a smart test that began with one unfortunate mistake: “He was a good boy. It’s just a shame that he bobbed into canter at the very beginning, but I was happy enough with him – 27 is around his standard mark. He’s not the most impressive of movers, but he’s a good boy in his temperament, and he was actually, if anything, a bit brighter than normal,” says Pippa.
That, she explains, probably has something to do with how she’s managed his routine this week as we’ve collectively faced something rather like summer, finally.
“I just have to be careful that I don’t overdo the work. Possibly he was maybe a little bit more inattentive than normal, but I didn’t want to overdo the work, because the ground has been drying up recently, and a lot of the warm up is quite sort of bumpy lumpy. He’s done lots of hacking, so I’ve been on him plenty, but not worked him hard.”
Still – it was a sweet starting point for the gelding, and as someone else in the top five proves, there are always plenty of interesting ways to pick up an unexpected penalty or two, even on the most solid of horses.
“I had a bit of a brain fart,” laments Kirsty Chabert, who holds fourth place despite a bit of a miscalculation in her test with the experienced Opposition Loire. That miscalculation? A near error-of-course in the canter work, which ultimately saw them find their way to the desired route — but with a few unplanned tempi changes along the way, a stunning bit of overachievement that, unfortunately, doesn’t earn any extra credit on the scoreboard. Instead, they picked up two 5s and a 4, slightly hampering their sheet that had otherwise been chock full of 7.5s and 8s.
“She’s the most consistent horse I’ve ever had on the flat — like, she’s the same every day of the week,” says Kirsty of her 12-year-old homebred (Opposition Heracles x Brooks Carnival Spirit, by Carnival Drum). “If a horse could nap to go into an arena… she effectively gets there and kind of goes, ‘thank God for that! I’m in the arena now! What would you like me to do?’ She’s just the most beautiful thing to ride on the flat — so I feel a bit guilty!”
The goal for Blenheim, Kirsty explains, is to put a positive cap on a year of ups and downs.
“She was at Badminton, and I had a few not-very-great runs with her in the spring,” explains Kirsty. “She’s not a fan of unpredictable ground, so basically, we’ve just been going back to Open Intermediates and three-stars and trying to get her confidence back. She was third at Bramham CCI4*-L last year, so it’s not that I don’t know she can jump everything, and then she went to Ireland a couple of weeks ago and did a four-short and was fantastic, so my aim of this week is for her to have her ears pricked and a smile on her face on Sunday.”
Germany’s Julia Krajewski, our reigning Olympic champion, wasn’t necessarily planning her year around a Blenheim trip — but when two of her students in the Warendorf young rider training scheme, Calvin Böckmann and Libussa Lubekke, opted to come over and compete in the CCI4*-L, she decided to bring her two star nine-year-0lds along for the ride, too. One of those, Nickel 21, will compete in the CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds this week; the other, French-bred Ero de Cantraie, with whom she won this summer’s German National Championship CCI4*-S at Luhmühlen, is contesting his first-ever CCI4*-L here. And what a start he’s had to the week: at the end of day one, he sits in overnight fifth on 29.6.
“He’s really come on leaps and bounds the whole year,” says Julia, explaining her choice in dividing and conquering among Blenheim’s two classes. “One year ago, he couldn’t even do a flying change properly, so he really came on this year. He’s maybe a bit more of a big galloper, so I thought he’d enjoy the hilly terrain here, while [Nickel 21] takes a good breath and then goes to Boekelo. I think a lot of Ero; he’s maybe a bit disadvantaged in the dressage, because he doesn’t have a naturally flashy trot, so we still have to make that a bit more. On a good day, there’s more, and on a day when he’s a bit more cautious there’s not as much, but I do think he’ll be super, super nice.”
And his best trait?
“He really wants to please. He wants to do well, and I think that’s the most important,” says Julia, who intimated at Luhmühlen that Ero’s brain reminds her of that of Samourai du Thot, her now-retired Olympic partner and CCI5* winner.
Coming from continental Europe, where much is done on a surface at competitions, Blenheim’s expanse of grass is also a useful part of Ero’s ongoing education.
“We’ve ridden a test on grass before in our first two-star — and it was very bad,” laughs Julia. “I like riding on grass generally; I do a lot at home, but I actually think it’s probably the warm-up and preparation that’s a bit different, because when you compete on a surface you have a surface to warm up on, and a surface to train on at the competition. That’s a bit different for the horses and how they can move.”
Like many French horses, Ero isn’t necessarily totally straightforward in his brain — but careful production over the last eighteen months has meant that he’s chosen Julia as a safety net of sorts, and every confidence-building experience she can give him is a net positive in his overall production, particularly in busy rings like Blenheim’s.
“He was sweet, and he doesn’t really mind atmosphere. He can come in somewhere and be a little bit cautious, but he never forgets himself, and that’s really nice. I’ve only had him a year and a half, and when I got him he was quite insecure and didn’t know where to put himself — but I think he decided to put himself with me, and that’s fine!”
Today, she says, that translated to an often elusive quality: consistency.
“He really stayed with me. He came in and went, ‘oh! Okay. There are more people than yesterday. It’s exciting!’ There are no massive highlights, but it’s very even throughout, which means that if we get everything half a mark better, it’s a lot — you don’t have to rely on only the medium or the canter. The second flying change wasn’t as nice, but it was through, and that means we’ve had no late flying changes all season, which I’m really happy about because he really didn’t have a clue a year ago.”
One of the changes that Julia has implemented this week, which she introduced while contesting the CCI4*-S last month at Arville, is a double bridle: “He’s actually the first one I’ve ridden in a double. I find he looks more dressage-y,” she laughs, “and he takes it well, so why not?”
We’ve had one US competitor so far in this class, and that’s UK-based Tiana Coudray, who rerouted Cancaras Girl here after a couple of issues — and ultimately, a rider fall — at Burghley earlier this month. They sit 24th overnight on 34.3 after a sweet test, which is, Tiana explains, a means to an end rather than the goal in and of itself.
“She’s come on so much this season, and at Burghley I was so pleased with her because she really come on again,” says Tiana. “Today, no, it wasn’t the best test she’s ever done by any stretch, but there’s more maturity in the ring. This weekend is a little bit ‘after the fact’. She did a nice enough bit of work in there — nothing to get terribly excited about, but equally she didn’t misbehave or anything like that. So that’s fine! It’s a stepping stone, and then on to another 5* in the future.”
Rerouting to Blenheim, Tiana explains, works against her usual nature — but finishing the season on a high is a compelling override to her ordinary system.
“It’s been a bit weird coming here, because I think I’m quite methodical, and I’ve never come to an event just like ‘yeah, let’s go to this’,” she says. “I haven’t planned it out; I haven’t even had a chance to school the test before coming here, because off the back of Burghley she had a few days off and then a few days hacking and then it’s like, ‘right, let’s try again!’ So it is a bit weird being here a bit last minute. Not that she wasn’t prepped, obviously — she was prepped for Burghley. But it mentally for me it’s just taking me a minute to regroup and readjust to the goal.”
Though her Burghley was plagued with bad luck, including an extraordinary save at the Leaf Pit that lead to an inflated air jacket, which Tiana rode with for much of the rest of the course, she’s not letting herself take the easy way out in hindsight.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t ride well enough, you’re not going to go well enough,” she says sagely. “There’s no excuses — there’s plenty of things like I could have, should have, would done, or could do better. And then also, you do get a few things thrown at you that make it even harder. I think it’d be very easy to make excuses and say, ‘oh, you know, I’ have gone clear inside the time if that hadn’t happened!’ No, the reality is we should have been better and it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. So we go home and try to train harder and try it again. It wouldn’t go amiss for both of us to have a really good confident spin around here and go away happy with things and build off the back of that.”
Tomorrow’s CCI4*-L dressage recommences at 9.00 a.m. local time/4.00 a.m. EST with Harry Mutch and HD Bronze first in the ring — and while there’s no livestream for the first phase, as in the CCI4*-S, we’ll be bringing you all the news you need as the competition unfolds. Keep it locked on EN — and Go Eventing.
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