Day One at Belton: The Funnell Factor

Piggy French and Vanir Kamira in front of Belton House. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Is there anything more British than a stately country home? Yes, perhaps–a stately country home nestled within an expansive deer park, cocooning an enclave of sporting activity; to wit, the pulling together of the very best event horses in the country as a centrepiece, with dog agility, ferret racing, and an almost competitive consumption of tea dotted throughout as minor attractions. Welcome to Belton House: the first stately home international in the season, the second leg in the Tristar League, and our home for the next three days as we follow the highs, lows, and heroics of the hotly-contested Grantham Cup.

The breadth and depth of the field here is astonishing–the number of entries in the CIC3* hovers around 150, and the list of horses and riders coming forward reads like a veritable who’s-who of eventing. As at the ill-fated Burnham Market CIC3*, many of the Badminton entries are here for a final-and, in many cases, first-pipe-opener before contesting the impending four-star.

Willa Newton and Moonlight Dance S – 13th overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Little more needs to be said about the unprecedented spate of cancellations in the UK and Ireland this spring, but with over 50 days of competition cancelled in the UK alone so far, horses across the levels are over-fittened and underrun. Ordinarily, a Badminton-bound horse would have a run or two in an Open Intermediate to get back into the swing of things, before a final run at CIC3* with the aim of riding a fast clear. This year, the riders of these horses find themselves in the tricky position of having to somehow do both–give their horses what amounts to an early-season confidence-building run, while equally needing to run them against the clock and ensure that both their horse’s and their own reaction times are quick and accurate. Team coaches and performance managers are out in force to ensure that the correct decisions are made this weekend, particularly with the looming prospect of the World Equestrian Games later this year.

Overnight leaders Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Where Burnham Market’s two days of dressage saw a remarkable number of personal bests, today’s action saw scores trending somewhat lower. But one factor remained consistent: as she had at Burnham Market, Pippa Funnell swept decisively into the lead.

This time, it was with the promising 10-year-old MGH Grafton Street. Produced as a four- and five-year-old by Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy, before being campaigned briefly by Aaron Millar and Andrew Nicholson, the horse is one of Pippa’s great hopes for the future. His results speak for themselves: but for two unfortunate rails in the final phase, he would have won the CCI3* at Blenheim last year, and he’s finished in the top 10 in 11 of his 15 international runs.

“He’s a lovely horse to ride in the dressage, but what’s so exciting is that he’s improving every time he goes out,” says Pippa. “The more he strengthens up, the more expressive he’s going to get, and he’s a nice horse to do a test on. He does normally score quite well so it’s nice to feel that all the time he’s getting more mature and stronger.”

On the possibility of finding herself in a competitive position going into Saturday’s jumping phases, Pippa is pragmatic and forward-thinking.

“It’s still very early days–I need to see how he feels and see what the ground is like. I think an awful lot of this horse; he had a great result at Tattersalls in his first three-star and then went very well at Blenheim–if he hadn’t had the rails he’d have won it. I know you can’t say ‘oh, if only this had happened…’ because the sport is always like that, but this is a horse I think so much of and am so excited about – and anyway, it’s a long time until Sunday!”

Emma McNab and Fernhill Tabasco – the early leader’s of the first day of dressage. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Australia’s Emma McNab and Fernhill Tabasco took an early lead with their score of 29.6, the only sub-30s score before the lunch break. Only a 10-year-old, the Tabasco Van Erpekom gelding finished in ninth place in both the 8/9 year old CIC3* at Blenheim and his first four-star at Pau last season, and fourth in the eight- and nine-year-old class the season prior. Today, he proved his consistency in the first phase, almost equalling his 2017 Blenheim score and producing a classy, mature test. He is aided, perhaps, by the fact that he and Emma have already managed a no-pressure run this season–they contested the OI, rather than the CIC3*, at Burnham Market, notching up a slow clear round.

Piggy French and Vanir Kamira are joint third overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Their lead was usurped early in the afternoon by another graduate of Pau’s top ten. Ros Canter – a Lincolnshire local and member of the gold medal-winning British team at the European Championships last year – rode Zenshera to a 28.9. This would prove enough to clinch them joint-third place overnight, an honour shared with Piggy French, who, aboard Burghley runner-up Vanir Kamira, performed a flowing, pleasant test.

Piggy was one of several riders to benefit from an intensive warm-up with dressage coach Ian Woodhead, and it was interesting to see how, even at this level, it’s nailing the basics that gets the job done. Throughout the day, he implored his riders not to be afraid to ride forward from their leg to their hand and to lift and straighten their upper bodies in order to allow their horses to lift in front, too.

Flora Harris and Bayano. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Flora Harris and Bayano posted a 29.2 to round out a very close top five, while fan favourites Gemma Tattersall and Arctic Soul didn’t quite repeat their polished personal best from Burnham Market. They sit in 10th overnight on 32.3.

Jonty Evans and Cooley Rorkes Drift after their test, which held the lead for most of the afternoon. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Second-placed by just 0.3 points at the end of the day, and a very popular temporary leader, was Ireland’s Jonty Evans riding Cooley Rorkes Drift.

“I was very pleased with him,” says Jonty. “He was very rideable in the arena, and felt like he’d really come on another gear from Burnham Market, where he did a good test–but here he just felt a bit more polished.”

Jonty Evans and Cooley Rorkes Drift sit in second overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Jonty and ‘Art’ are entered for Badminton, but each of their planned spring runs has been cancelled–they managed a dressage test at Burnham Market before the event was abandoned. That this CIC3* is to be their first and only run before Badminton presents its own unique dilemma: how to tackle the course. Jonty’s approach? Adaptability, every step of the way.

“I’ll probably see what the ground’s like on Sunday. Then, I’ll leave the start box and go to the first three fences in a competitive manner, and just see how he goes. If he feels like he needs it, I’ll slow down, and if he doesn’t, I’ll let him run on. When they haven’t had any runs, it’s really hard to know where they’re at, but I think that here, Mark Phillips has built us a track that will prepare us for Badminton, and if you can go around it in a good competitive pace then you’ll find yourself in a good place pre-Badminton.”

Tension marred Alex Bragg and Redpath Ransom’s test – with fit horses, too few spring runs, and an atmosphere in the ring, this wasn’t an uncommon problem today. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

With less than a point between the top five, the removal of the dressage multiplier is already showing its worth at Belton. As a result, it’s likely that we could see placings won and lost by mere seconds as we move into the jumping phases on Saturday. In the meantime, however, tomorrow’s dressage section list contains an embarrassment of riches where talented, low-scoring combinations are concerned, so stay tuned tomorrow as we bring you the scoop from the centreline, all the information you need on the movers and shakers, and a preview of Belton’s testing track, too.

The top ten after day one of dressage at Belton CIC3*.

Belton links: Live scores, EN’s coverage, times