Day two of Badminton started extra early today in order to ensure a two-hour midday break for the Coronation of King Charles — and so it all feels rather serendipitous that our new leader from the morning’s efforts should be a King in her own right. But to consider Kitty King and Vendredi Biats‘s 22.3 simply an act of kismet would be a discredit to them as athletes: the pair led the first phase at Burghley last year, too, and have consistently gotten better and better over the years between the boards. Today, the Selle Français, who was once prone to the odd naughty moment, danced sweetly despite the deepening mud and worsening rain — or perhaps, because of it.
“I know he’s great in sloppy ground — he led at Burgham in similar weather,” says Kitty. “Although he’s lovely and white and pristine because of my amazing groom, Chloe Fry, he loves to slop around and be a dirty, muddy Frenchman so he was having a great time splashing about!”
That reformed inclination to lose focus is something that’s always been easier to manage at long format events: “He’s just got so consistent in this phase, and he really comes into his own at the three days. At the one days he’s a bit normal, and then you go into a big arena and he’s just so with you. He couldn’t have gone any better.”
Though ‘Froggy’ always looks a consummate first-phase specialist, with his round, uphill build and big movement, Kitty explains that it actually takes rather a lot of quite basic work to encourage him to use himself correctly.
“We basically spend our entire life working on trying to keep him round and through, because he likes to fall in against the leg and stick his head up in the air most of the time,” she says. “How he came out of the arena, with his head in the air and his ears up my nose, that’s how he’d like to go all the time. That’s his natural way. So he spends most of his life living on a serpentine with a ten meter circle in the top of every loop — he spends his entire life during that in trot and canter, basically!”
Now, there’s plenty to focus on for Kitty as she prepares to better her Burghley result with the gelding, where she finished sixth after activating a frangible pin — but like many of the riders we’ve spoken to today, her first priority in the tough conditions tomorrow will be listening to her horse and giving him the ride he needs, whatever that may be.
“There’s lots to jump out there,” she says. “It’s big all the way, and the ground’s obviously going to play a massive part, so we’ve just got to go out and ride our horses as we find them; just use our feel and give them a good experience.”
Some slightly stuffy flying changes precluded a leading score for Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser, but nevertheless, the perennial favourites shone in the gloom of this morning’s session to put a 23.6 on the board, earning them a provisional seat in fourth place, just 1.3 penalties — or three and a bit seconds — behind the leaders.
Despite his thorough soaking, Tom was delighted with the circumstances of his test, in large part because he’d expected empty stands for his early morning start time.
“Toledo’s not one for early mornings and smaller crowds — but it’s amazing to see, even at eight o’clock, how dedicated everyone is. They’re all up in the rafters under cover,” laughs Tom. “He loves performing and if people weren’t there, I was actually a bit worried — for him, an empty stadium is the worst thing that could possibly happen. So I was really hoping for a Friday afternoon test for him.”
All’s well that ends well, though, and even without his preferred draw, he was able to pull a very respectable test out of the bag with the enormously consistent French-bred gelding.
“I’m delighted with him — the way he went about it was fantastic,” says Tom, who gave the walk work — typically Toledo’s weakest pace — a nod as being a personal best effort. “It’s a little bit of a balancing act between having all power to get the real high marks, to then actually getting the walk and the stretch and the balancing in between.”
And while the lead may have eluded him, Tom remains wholly pragmatic about what that might mean for the two days yet to come.
“To be honest, all you’ve got to be is there or thereabouts to get into the top mix — the rain is coming down and it’s forecast across the day, so I think it could be very influential on the course tomorrow.”
Furthering that pragmatism is the memory of last year’s Badminton, where he and Toledo came in as firm favourites, but took a hugely uncharacteristic tumble at the solar panel bounce in the latter stages of the course. This time, he’s taking his week one stride at a time.
“I came last year with the mindset all about winning and this year, for me, it’s more about actually just enjoying the horse I’ve got,” says Tom. “This year, I’ll be riding the horse I’ve got underneath me, enjoying the situation. He’s been in most situations more than most [horses], so definitely with his enthusiasm I think I’d prefer to be on him than any other.”
Also on his side? That little trip to Kentucky last week, where he finished second with the former Nicola Wilson ride JL Dublin, and gave himself some valuable pipe-opening mileage that’s knocked off rust in a way other riders have struggled to do in this fractured spring season, plagued as it’s been by cancellations.
“I didn’t quite realise how much of an advantage Oliver has had for so many years,” jokes Tom. “Going away and seeing an amazing course and amazing ground and an amazing place, it fills you with confidence. It’s actually great to go and see a big track considering how hard everyone’s tried this year to put on any shows. They’ve done an amazing job all round, but most of these horses haven’t seen as much cross country as they usually have.”
William Fox-Pitt makes a decisive move into fifth place with the five-star debutant Grafennacht, who was initially intended for a Kentucky run but was rerouted here after the loss of so many of the spring’s prep events. The eleven-year-old mare continued her 2023 run of sub-30 scores with an impressive — and rather better than projected — 25.8.
“I’m dead chuffed with that,” says William. “She is quite good on the flat; she’s always had it in her to be to be good, but she’s inexperienced. She had last year off, pretty much, so she’s been a bit raw this year and looking everywhere — so to go in there and behave like that, I was dead chuffed with that, actually. I’ve always thought she could do a good test one day, but to do a 25 today — good girl!”
While it’s a heartening start for the horse, who was second at Boekelo in 2021 before her year out, the enormously experienced rider doesn’t think the first phase will have any bearing on the competition once tomorrow’s competition begins — especially as the rain continues to fall.
“I think we forget the dressage, I mean — what a complete waste of time,” laughs William. “It’ll be a good old Badminton [in this weather]!”
Where rain — and shelving doubts — is concerned, he has some quantifiably excellent experience in his back pocket: “Tamarillo won it in the rain [in 2004]. I nearly didn’t run him: I remember the ten minute hold and Yogi Breisner going ‘do you, don’t you? It’s awful, but why don’t you just go and see how it goes and jump the first few?’ Oh god, the steeplechase was horrendous — I mean, literally, plastered in mud wasn’t the word. I was at the end of the day, I was just going to jump the first few, and he just flew round — so we all must stop faffing around and get on with it.”
The first rider of the morning session, who entered the ring at a rather unsociable 8.00 a.m., was one who had rather slipped under the radar among the big name horses and riders here — but Aaron Millar and KEC Deakon roundly thrust themselves into the spotlight with their smart test, which earned them a 28.8 and put them into ninth place at the halfway point of today’s action.
“It’s a very good start, and I’m really pleased with the horse — he went in there and knuckled down and really tried,” says Aaron of the thirteen-year-old son of Chacoa. Though the Irish Sport Horse has always done a respectable enough test, he’s tended to be a low-30s scorer, both with previous rider Millie Dumas and with Aaron — but a new trainer in the Millar camp has helped him to peak at the perfect moment.
“He’s a bit of an introvert, so he can come a bit inwards sometimes, but we work with [dressage rider] Dannie Morgan, and he’s just amazing in the way he trains them,” says Aaron. “Even outside here, it’s like I’m at home having a lesson rather than at Badminton, and I think that massively helps, because he knows me and the horse inside and out and can get me to be brave outside and say ‘come on, get on with it’. Whereas if I was by myself, I think I’d play it a bit more safe. Dannie’s definitely been the key to this horse.”
Though the rain’s been coming thick and fast, Aaron was the first of a number of riders today to find himself pleasantly surprised by the conditions in the arena, which still allowed horses to show themselves well.
“The ground’s actually, surprisingly, really good in there. He felt like he was cutting in, but he’s got big studs in, so he wasn’t slipping, and it wasn’t holding ground — I always worry more when they get sort of stuck in the mud. But it rode really well in there.”
Now, he joins the ranks of riders who have completed the first part of their week and now have to focus their attentions on planning how to tackle tomorrow’s tough track and tricky conditions.
“This horse has done Pau before, but it’s a big test for him, and a big ask — but this is why we have horses,” he muses. While it’s a Badminton debut for the horse, it’s a welcome return for the rider, who competed here in 2009 with Stormsay.
“It’s been a long time — I’ve got a few more wrinkles since then,” laughs Aaron. “It’s really good to be back; the first horse I had here was a bit tricky on the flat but an absolute machine across the country; he was clear inside the time and things, whereas Deakon is a very good jumper, but I just want to look after him a bit out there and make sure he’s got enough energy to get home.”
Canada’s Mike Winter slotted into provisional equal 25th with the extravagant El Mundo after posting a 32.2, though he was frustrated to lose two marks for an error of course after forgetting the stretchy canter circle at the tail end of the test.
“I’m always pleased with him, but I don’t know what I was thinking,” says Mike. “I think I’ve been saying it that way all morning to myself about the stretch circle, and then I did it without the stretch circle, so I feel like I let him down a little bit. But I love riding the horse, and I love being here.”
The second of our US competitors, Lillian Heard Wood and the very experienced LCC Barnaby, sit 45th on a 39.5 in their twelfth five-star together.
“He’s not very good at this bit,” laughs Lillian. “He’s done a lot worse — the score is actually the worst I’ve ever gotten, but he has been much more crazy in there before, so walking out I was happy — and the qualities that make him not very good in there are what make him very good on cross-country, so I’ll be happy to be on him tomorrow!”
Barnaby’s expansive US fanbase will have been disappointed not to cheer the pair on around their home five-star this year, but, as Lillian explains, she was keen to come back and tick the Badminton box before the end of the gelding’s career after an early end to their week last year.
“I’ve done Kentucky lots of times, but if I had been successful here last year, I probably would have left the money in my bank account and not come,” she says. “But I thought, I’ve got one more year, and I want to give a try. Also, because he’s not very good at this phase, Badminton and Burghley actually suit him better, because they’re such cross country competitions.”
We’ve got a long break now as the Coronation of King Charles plays out on big screens across the venue, but we’ll be back in action from 13.00 BST (8.00 a.m. EST) with the last 15 horses and riders, which include last year’s runners-up Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo, Burghley and Kentucky victors Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class, and Maryland winners Tim Price and Coup de Coeur Dudevin. Our first rider after the break will be Emily King — quite fittingly, all things considered — with her recent Grantham Cup winner Valmy Biats. We’ll be back with a full report from the culmination of dressage this afternoon. Until then: Go Eventing!