Newly-named FEI world #1 Tim Price has his pre-cross country routine down to a T — top athletes in the making, take note here: the key to success lies in a sack of McDonald’s, maybe a beer or two, and a nice, mellow listen to the good ol’ Jack Johnson playlist on Spotify. You heard it here first, everyone.
Whatever the merits of that routine, something certainly is ticking on all cylinders for the Kiwi rider fresh off the podium, and despite the relative ease of the time once more this year — more on that later — Tim finds himself now atop the board on the first-time 5* horse Coup de Coeur Dudevin (Top Gun Semilly – Tiebreak Combehory).
At just 10 years old, with only one 4*-L under his belt in his short partnership with Tim, “Joker” has come onto the job quickly and surely showed his growing prowess by adding no penalties to his dressage mark of 27.4 to move into second overnight. The door had been opened when dressage leader Woods Baughman had some rideability issues on course that led to jumping penalties, dropping him out of competitive contention.
It’s a big trip to come across the pond — no less for a horse’s debut at the 5* level. But Tim says he’s believed in his horse to this point and knew the time was ripe to ask him the next question. What he’s left with?
“Vindicated,” Tim says. After all, you don’t know if you’ve got a 5* horse under you until, well, you’re out and over that first fence. At the high water, the MARS Sustainability Bay at fence 23 and 24, Tim said he felt his horse show his fifth leg — the marker of a true 5* horse, he says.
“The water at the top, with the crab, was where he grew another leg and used his own initiative, and made a much better decision than me to get the job done,” Tim said. “That’s the mark of a top event horse in general, that they think for themselves — especially at that stage of the course, at nine minutes or something, that he’s still able to have the presence of mind to make a good decision and then stay upright, and stay on his feet, and then keep thinking forward and ahead of himself. So I’m really pleased — he’s vindicated all the reasons I thought it was a good decision to bring him.”
A rider that’s invested so much time, money, and energy to get a first-time horse overseas for its debut has a difficult balance: you want the trip to be worth your (and your owner’s) while, but you want the horse to have a positive first experience. For all three of the top riders today (Tim and Coup de Coeur Dudevin, Tamie Smith and Danito, and Oliver Townend and As Is), their results are a testament not only to the course and ground conditions but also to the discerning nature of each rider to know what to ask, and how hard.
“I mentioned yesterday I was a little bit nervous, like, ‘is it the right thing to bring a horse halfway across the world that lacks experience?’, you know, because it kind of puts it all on the line,” Tim explained. “It’s a lot of investment from the owner and from ourselves. But I’ve always believed in the horse, and today was the perfect occasion for him with good conditions, and a great course that I could just go and try and give him a good education whilst being competitive. So it’s just riding that balance the whole way, but he was exceptional and really jumped beautifully.”
A fun fact: when Coup de Coeur Dudevin first came into the Price program, he was Jonelle’s ride to begin. I had to ask how he’d managed to swipe the ride from her.
“Normally when I get a good one off Jonelle, it’s because I’ve got her pregnant, but I couldn’t do that this time — we’re finished!” Tim joked (what is it with Maryland and the inappropriate jokesters in the press conferences? Lookin’ at you, Boyd Martin. Gosh, guys, get a grip.) “This horse is a big engine — he’s powerful behind. Everything’s going to sound like an innuendo now, isn’t it? She just felt like it wasn’t the horse for her, basically, and that’s part of it all. She’s small built, so she can’t ride every horse — we’re a bit more lucky that we can ride a range of horses. It was a reluctant decision, because she always said that the horse would be a five-star horse; she always rated him. So she let him come over to me.”
Tamie Smith and Danito‘s (Dancier – Wie Musik, by Wolkenstein II) owner, Ruth Bley, weren’t 100% sure of “Cheeto’s” ability to step up to this level. He also hasn’t had the most ideal lead-up to this event: in January, he had a freak accident in the crossties and wound up breaking his wither (which also took him down a notch in terms of height). Between this and Tamie’s ongoing prep for FEI World Championships, the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding had a rather light year, running just three events in 2022 leading up to this weekend.
“He’s been low on the on the competition miles this year, so to have him go out and and do that and step up… I was quite nervous because at Rebecca, Ian talked me into coming here with him but you know what, these first time five-star horses you just never know,” Tamie said. “He’s not got a high percentage of blood, and I ride a lot of horses like that, but I don’t really enjoy it. It’s a lot of work from the rider when you’re riding a horse that doesn’t have a lot of puff at the end, but he sure did. I’m super, super happy with him.”
Third-placed tonight on another first-timer is British Olympian Oliver Townend with the former Andrew Nicholson ride As Is (Meneusekal – Paraca, by Lacros). Despite a slightly hairy moment where the gray Spanish gelding banked fence 5, the Buckeye Nutrition Brush, Oliver said the horse grew and grew in confidence as he went around — in fact, Oliver would collect the fastest round of the day in 11 minutes, 12 seconds.
“He was lovely. He started off baby and grew in confidence as he went. He galloped very easily with his ears pricked; he’s a little bit of a terrier, you know, he’s a character. I enjoyed him a lot, and he’ll definitely have come on for the run as well. I couldn’t have been happier with how my horse grew in confidence, and I think if you’ve got hopefully a good jockey and hopefully a good course, that’s what you should see out of first-time five-star horses. Mine will definitely have come on for the run. He grew in confidence as he went and by the end of it, he felt like a proper five-star horse.”
As Is did come home showing some blood on his belly, just under the girth, but Oliver’s team confirmed that the blood was from either a brush that scraped him or possibly a girth rub, but that the gelding had been seen and cleared by vets and stewards following cross country.
Despite the chatter and the, um, bum-clenching that was happening ahead of this afternoon, Ian Stark’s sophomore design effort yielded mostly completions, save two pairs: Liz Halliday-Sharp and the Monster Partnership’s Cooley Quicksilver sadly retired up at the MARS Sustainability Bay after the tiring gelding ground to a halt atop the bank at fence 24. Our sole rookie pair, Zach Brandt, also retired Direct Advance at fence 9.
In total just three pairs that completed collected jumping penalties: Woods Baughman and C’est La Vie 135 ran into trouble at the C element of fence 24 (in hindsight, Woods said, he should’ve opted to go the long route there), Hayley Frielick and Dunedin Black Watch picked up 20 at 10A, and Astier Nicolas wound up off his line at the second of the corners at 21 and couldn’t quite make it up to collect 20 with Babylon de Gamma.
These issues aside, the track saw 91.6% completion rate with 12 pairs going clear inside the time and 79% of starters jumping clear.
The top five still shuffles, though, and looking to fourth place it will be Phillip Dutton and his Tokyo Olympic partner, Z (Asca Z – Bellabouche), owned by The Z Partnership, moving up from 11th after dressage.
“Well, he’s not the fastest horse so I set out quite fast,” Phillip explained, noting like many other riders that the space in between fences allowed him to make up some time. “I was a bit up on time, which was my plan — I was maybe too much up on time. But you know, when you go faster, obviously you’re taking the horse into account. But I trust him so much, and so it’s just a case of trying to point him where to go. He usually figures out how to do it.”
Fifth and mildly annoyed about the two seconds of time he picked up are Buck Davidson with Katherine O’Brien’s Carlevo (Eurocommerce Caresino – Ramatuelle, by Levernois), who finished the closest to the time in his four 5* starts. “He was good,” Buck told me. “I thought I was in big trouble at the top water. And then I just had to give him a bit of a break and he actually galloped home well. He actually came down the drop and the two houses and then he picked up and he ran home and I’m so really happy.”
Buck admits he’d like to have those seconds of time back, but he opted to make a horse-friendly decision at the MARS Sustainability Bay, musing that had he tried to go straight it may have been too big of an ask at that point to get it done with no penalties. “He’s not a Formula One racecar,” he continued. He’s got his his strengths, but, you know, he’s getting faster, and he’s doing it easier.”
Jennie Brannigan had herself a day with one horse (FE Lifestyle) in fifth and the other just outside the top 10 in 11th (Twilightslastgleam).
“There were some really short distances out there,” Jennie said after her first ride with the Gardner homebred Thoroughbred Twilightslastgleam. “He tries harder than any other horse every day. We thought that he wouldn’t be a five-star horse, but this year he’s just come into form and I just admire him because he tries his guts out.”
As for the 12-year-old FE Lifestyle (Leo von Faelz – Berina A, by Brandenburger), Jennie says, “he’s a real gem. I’m a little not happy with myself toady, I know with [FE Lifestyle] I could come real slow into something and get out, and I think I did that to him a little bit too much. I made him look a little too hard out there, so I’m sorry to him for that but he was brilliant.”
The course itself drew mixed reviews from the riders. Truth be told, it’s the competitive riders who want to see the time be more difficult to get. But as Ian Stark remarked in the press conference, “I’d rather have ten inside the time than five horses on the floor.” It’s an easy sentiment to get behind, but some riders commented that they would have liked to see more separation of the cream from the crop when the dust settled today.
Harry Meade, who collected one of the clear rounds inside the time with Mandy Gray’s and his own Superstition (Satisfaction FRH – Calendula), made it clear he wasn’t blaming any one party on his dissatisfaction but described his hopes that the time would be made tighter now that there is more knowledge banked about this terrain.
“I think there’s arguably a preconceived concern, which is unfounded after two years, that it’s very punishing terrain,” he elaborated. “That this is going to be super fatiguing, super tiring, no one’s going to make the time, there’s gonna be lots of tired horses. We don’t want to have tired horses but we do want to test horsemanship and horse ability and that needs tighter time.”
The time was the subject of discussion last year as well, but the general feel from the riders is that the event will grow from here.
“I mean, this was wonderful and galloping,” Harry continued. “A lot of it was like a steeplechase track the whole way up, the gallop up to the main arena, the whole way back from the main arena. And then it was only really the last third way it was more like a normal cross country course. It’s absolutely not a criticism of the track, of the fences, of the design. It’s a beautiful course, beautifully presented, brilliantly designed by one of the top experts in the world. Just too gettable in terms of the time.
“So I think going forward for the event, they can take confidence of the fact that these first two years have been a bit of an asterisk next to the results — that it’s been an unchallenging time, way too much — and hopefully, that allays any concerns that they may have in how they set up the course next year.”
For his part, Ian was pleased. “I think what’s made my day, actually, is the fact that the top three are riding first-time five-star horses,” he noted in the press conference. “The horses are incredibly lucky to have three of the best riders in the world, but they were magnificent in how they coped with the young horses and helped and encouraged them – and, as Tim says, the young horse helped him, too. That, for me, sort of highlights why I do this. It was thrilling to watch.”
“To be honest, I was pretty tight on the walking, and the technical delegates walked it separately – and the three of us were within 20 meters of one another,” Ian said when asked if he would have done differently with this feedback. “So how do you walk it differently? Do you cheat; do you lie? Do you make it tighter than it is? No, is the answer. Various people said to me last year – and it might be the same this year – that it would be a better competition if the time was unobtainable. But for me, if it’s an unobtainable time, there’s no limit to how much we push the horses to go faster. If you can’t make it, it’s too demoralizing long-term for the horses. Can I make it tighter? I’m not sure I can.”
All horses safely back in the barns makes Ian a happy designer, he says. “The reason, this time, is that I’m incredibly lucky here – the terrain is phenomenal, and the ground is phenomenal. I’ve probably very much gone for my philosophy in cross-country riding, which is ride from A to B – not going around in endless demented circles in a field. So I’ve made use of the gallop stretches, and maybe I can look at slowing them down a little bit by putting in slightly more technical questions. That might be something I think about. I loved today, and I’m kind of known as being a bit of a tough bastard sometimes, but this lot moved me to tears at the end of cross-country day. I was pretty emotional, because I thought it was a great day, and I loved watching it.”
The riders in the press conference had positive things to say, all echoing their appreciation for Ian’s efforts.
Tim summed it up perhaps the best: “We’ll come back here. This is a great competition — it feels like it’s a pioneering five-star, but it’s for very good reason that we want to come here and we’ll continue to come here and continue to encourage other people to come here. It’s got it. It’s already got it, but it’s got the makings of something spectacular for the future as well. So it’ll be fun to say that we went to the first few when we can see it in the future, just how amazing it’s going to be as well.”
We’ll now look ahead to show jumping tomorrow but first the 3* and 5* horses will trot up for the Ground Jury once more, with the 3* jogging at 8:30 a.m. EST and the 5* jogging at 9:15 a.m. EST. Show jumping will get underway with the 3* at 10:15 a.m. followed by the conclusion of the 5* at 2 p.m. EST. As usual you can view the live stream on USEF Network in North America and Horse & Country outside of North America.
Thanks so much, as always, for following along with us. Go Eventing!
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