Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street. (Apologies for the photos in this post, folks – your loyal British correspondent was battling both a broken camera lens and shooting into the sun all day!) Photo (shame-facedly) by Tilly Berendt.
“It’s such a shame,” ruminates Pippa Funnell, leader of CCI4*-S section B at the Barefoot Retreats Burnham Market International Horse Trials aboard MGH Grafton Street. “When he won Burghley [in 2019], he did it as a young five-star horse at eleven – and now, suddenly, he’ll be fourteen before he gets to Badminton. It’s crazy.”
Such is the reality of the ongoing pandemic where the production of a top horse is concerned, and it’s a sentiment that’s been widely echoed throughout the day by a number of riders facing yet another year of uncertainty. “I don’t have a plan for the year yet because I don’t know what’ll run,” is a common thread; “it’s hard to put in the hours without feeling as though you have an end goal” is another. Most, by now, have learned not to get excited about a major event until they’ve arrived and unloaded the horses – and that means striking a tricky balance between not doing quite enough to keep horses fit and prepared and overcooking the stew.
Nevertheless, it was a treat to see Pippa and her Burghley victor, known at home as Squirrel, back in action in today’s unseasonably summery conditions – particularly in this, a phase at which Jonathan and Jane Clarke’s cheeky gelding has historically excelled. His work today was sparky and fun to watch, a sentiment evidently echoed by the judges, who rewarded it with a 25.4.
“There were a few little bits where he was quite bright, but the highlights were very good,” says Pippa, who jokingly named ‘walking out of the arena on a long rein’ as the top of those highlights. “It’s a work in progress, but on the whole I was pleased.”
It’s not at all shabby, considering the horse didn’t run in any internationals in 2020 and still, Pippa tells EN, remembers the wild excitement of the Burghley prize giving.
“I was a bit poorly for a while and off games, and so the horses didn’t run [internationally] – I put them to bed,” she says, explaining that she gave the horse two national runs. Nonetheless, Squirrel’s unique character – which has occasionally caused some focusing issues in the past on cross-country – prevails. “He’s just cheeky; he’s a monkey. He thinks he’s a comedian, whether that’s in the stable, the field, the lorry…he’s always the one that’s doing tricks. He definitely comes out and is more excited to be out since Burghley; we forget the effect of the prize giving and all the goings-on. Now, he’s definitely a bit more like ‘oooh, we’re at a party!'”
Izzy Taylor edged into second place with Hartacker, who led in this phase last year at the Blenheim-replacement CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds. Though today’s 26.9 doesn’t quite rival his extraordinary 20.3 in that event, it’s an exciting test for the nine-year-old who proves, in just his second four-star outing, that he’s no flash in the pan. Though he ultimately didn’t take glory here last year because of a green mistake on cross-country, he finished his 2020 season with an educational victory in the CCI3*-L at Thoresby, and looks older, wiser, and stronger this year for his second attempt.
Ros Canter sits in third place overnight riding another nine-year-old – Lordships Graffalo, who finished second in that very same CCI4*-S last year after spending the 2019 season being piloted by Tom McEwen, deputising for Ros during her maternity leave from the sport. This is the gelding’s eighth international run; in his previous seven, he’s never finished lower than eleventh place, and he’ll certainly be a horse to keep a close eye on as the event – and the season – progresses.
New Zealand’s Caroline Powell elbowed her way into a sea of high-achieving Brits to take overnight fourth place aboard Up Up And Away, her fifteen-year-old CCI5* mount who returned to international competition in the latter half of last year, two years after his previous – and admittedly, rather up and down – season in 2018. Whatever Caroline’s been doing with him in that interim period has done wonders – his score of 27.2 today, and a 27.8 at Burgham last summer, are a marked step up from the low-to-mid 30s he’s consistently produced in years prior. For the striking grey gelding, this weekend will be all about redemption: their 2020 season ended with an unfortunate 20 penalties picked up in the tough CCI4*-S at Little Downham, curtailing their plans for a trip to Pau.
Piggy March and Sportsfield Top Notch. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
Fifth and sixth place are both held by Piggy March, who also sits first, second, and third in the other CCI4*-S section. Leading her charge here is 2019 Badminton winner Vanir Kamira, fifth on 28.7 – not, as a glitch in the scoring system proudly proclaimed for much of the afternoon, a 50.9 – follows by the nine-year-old Sportsfield Top Notch, who posted a 29.1 in this, his four-star debut. For Piggy and husband Tom, this is a particularly special up-and-comer, as they own him outright.
“He’s pretty green, and he can be a bit hot, so I was just delighted with the fact that we got through it. He’s had a good experience and hopefully he’ll come on a lot from that. He’s a nice, big horse, though he’s probably a little bit behind some of the fancy ones as he’s taken a bit of time to mature physically and mentally. He’s ours, so we’ve just given him that time.”
Though Piggy’s end-of-day results are enviable, the logistics of her day were, perhaps, less so: with an abundance of horses to compete today, it rather felt as though she was always either in the warm-up arena or the ring, with nary a break in between.
“I’ve done all five of them pretty quickly today, so I haven’t been able to get them out and work them a few times. That just makes such a difference when you get to the three-days and are there for a couple of days, but it is what it is! A horse like Vanir Kamira, she’s a pain in the arse at the best of times and so you really do need to be in the same place and doing things with her, but we just have to do what we can do.”
Whatever she has for breakfast, we want some. Tomorrow’s dressage continues – and concludes – with a full roster of competitors, including Kazuma Tomoto and Bernadette Utopia, Kitty King and former Six-Year-Old World Champion Cristal Fontaine, Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden, James Avery and Mr Sneezy, and Laura Collett and Mr Bass.
Burghley winners Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street lead the way at the end of day one in Burnham Market’s CCI4*-S B section.
Piggy March and Brookfield Inocent. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
It’s hard to imagine an off-form Piggy March after the last few seasons of total domination, and that got even harder today as she took a remarkable 1-2-3 in the first day of dressage for Section C of the CCI4*-S offerings. Leading the way is John and Chloe Perry and Alison Swinburne’s Brookfield Inocent, who we last saw finishing second in his CCI5* debut at Pau in October. Now, he’s at the head of Piggy’s formidable string of horses vying for a position on the Tokyo squad this summer, and as is his wont, he produced a typically elegant and expressive test for 25.9. Though it doesn’t quite match the low-20s marks he produced last year – including at Pau – it’ll prove a tough score to beat in a section that saw just Piggy’s three leaders slip below the 30 barrier. Nevertheless, Piggy felt that there was room for improvement in the test.
“He only had half an hour [of work] before his test and so he went very light in the canter, and just slightly got his tongue over the bit, which he can do but hasn’t ever done in a competition,” she explains. “So I never sat there thinking, ‘boom!’ But he didn’t really do a lot wrong – and he’s out, which is the main thing. You work hard to come to these events and do the best you can, but it’s also about being realistic: a lot of these horses are great competition horses and so they can’t just arrive somewhere new, and it’s on top of a hill and cold and sunny and bright, and do it perfectly every time. You have to just get on with it and take the good points.”
Though there had been some hope of seeing Brookfield Inocent on the entry list for Kentucky, which he had been aimed at in 2020, the decision was made not to make the long journey across the Atlantic this year with the horse, who both Piggy and husband Tom describe fondly as a rare horse who would suit any course. Still, says Piggy, the feeling of a countdown to something major is something she’s been missing enormously over the last year.
“I do envy those riders going to Kentucky, because it’s given them something to aim for,” she says. “It’s frustrating at the moment because you sort of think, ‘well, what’s the aim?’ You live in hope that the Olympics is what we’re going for, but in the same breath, what if it doesn’t happen? I know we’re luckier than many people in these circumstances, because we can still get out and do it, but it’s hard for these great owners and great horses. You’re missing a few years for these great horses who just don’t come around that often.”
Piggy March and Dargun sit second overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
Just a penalty point behind Brookfield Inocent sits Dargun, the former Emily King ride who joined Piggy’s string last year and has finished in the top three twice out of three FEI runs with his new jockey. He’ll go into Sunday’s jumping phases on a score of 26.9, which he earned when producing what Piggy considers her test of the day.
“That was my clear round,” she says. “I thought he was lovely; I really couldn’t fault him in any way. I had hoped he might have just squeaked a bit of a better mark than he did, but it’s very good.”
Piggy March and Fonbherna Lancer. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
Holding down the fort in third is yet another relatively new ride – this time, Izzy Taylor’s former mount Fonbherna Lancer who, for all his wonderful qualities, is perhaps most memorable for his striking likeness to an old Munnings painting. Though the early part of his test looked very slightly disconnected, it improved throughout and his canter work – after a small mistake in the first transition – looked focused, connected, and indicative of a horse who has physically strengthened over a long winter of careful schooling.
“It was rider error; I should have been brave and gone with it,” says Piggy of the mistake, which saw Fonbherna Lancer break to canter moments too early. In the test, Piggy opted to transition back down and then up into canter on the marker. “Other than that, though, I was happy with it – his changes were all clean and he was a good boy.”
Tina Cook and Billy the Red. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
It was rather a good day in the office across the board for the women of the British team: Tina Cook and Billy the Red hold fourth place on a mark of 30.2, which is rather higher than we’re used to seeing from the seasoned campaigners, who have worked hard to diffuse this phase after a spate of tension following the 2017 European Championships. A break in the trot work precluded a lower mark, though scores were earned back with plenty of quality work from the pair.
Sarah Bullimore and Corouet. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
Sarah Bullimore rounds out the top five on the diminutive – and occasionally opinionated – Corouet, who posted a rather higher-than-usual 30.9 after looking, like many horses presented today, slightly fresh and distracted in the ring. Now in just his ten-year-old year, the 15.2hh gelding out of Sarah’s former top horse Lilly Corinne and by the notoriously spicy Balou du Rouet has always had a sense of humour, but it’s this quality that has made him into a feisty, clever, and ineffably genuine horse across the country, too. Though Sarah will likely be disappointed not to put a mid-20s score on the board, we last saw the pair finish third here in last season’s Blenheim-replacement CCI4*-L, adding nothing to their first-phase score – and that’s a feat they’re certainly capable of recreating this weekend.
Nini French and Time For Harry soak up the sunshine. Photo by Tilly Berendt.
Tomorrow’s dressage session features another slew of heavy-hitting combinations, including Yasmin Ingham’s Bansai du Loir, winner of the Blenheim-replacement CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds last season, Izzy Taylor‘s CCI4*-L winner Monkeying Around, Laura Collett‘s Pau victor London 52, World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B, Kitty King‘s Bramham winner Vendredi Biats, and plenty more where that came from. How’s that for a Super Saturday?
Welcome to the Pig-pen: the top ten after day one of dressage in section C of the CCI4*-S is dominated by Britain’s leading lady.
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