Almost as though inspired by Piggy March’s three-way lead yesterday (plus that bonus fifth and sixth place), the second day of dressage in Burnham Market’s two CCI4*-S sections saw a number of repeat appearances in the top ten. Chief among those was dancing queen Laura Collett, who now leads both sections after impressive performances from both her top horses and up-and-comer Dacapo.
No one is ever surprised to see London 52 atop the leaderboard after this phase, and he emerges for his 2021 season looking, somehow, even more polished and professional than before. Though his 23.8 doesn’t threaten to topple his previous four-star personal best of 20.3, it was a joy to watch the now twelve-year-old Holsteiner work both in the collecting ring and in the arena. While it might feel rather la-dee-dah to compare dressage to poetry or its ilk, there’s been something musical about London 52’s extraordinary mastery of this phase over the last couple of years – but now, Laura has levelled up his physical strength over the winter and his showpiece trot work is further embellished by as much upward thrust as there is forward thrust, giving the gait a hint of what almost looks like passage.
That he’s stronger physically – and, almost certainly, mentally – should come as no surprise after his wire-to-wire victory in his debut CCI5* at Pau last year. His excellent half-season also saw him win the CCI4*-S at Little Downham and finish fourth at the same level at Burgham, and Laura credited his victory in Boekelo’s CCI4*-L at the end of the 2019 season as being the catalyst for his newfound competitiveness after what had otherwise been a largely educational year for the relatively inexperienced gelding. Though he’d only begun his eventing career in earnest as a seven-year-old, his early successes had ensured that he had the spotlight firmly on him as he climbed the levels – a double-edged sword in the sport of eventing, a discipline in which most young horses have to overcome some genuine, green errors in order to learn and grow. 2019 was the year for that growth for London 52, and while he and Laura have reaped the benefits of both the lows and the highs in his ongoing education, they’ve had to do it with the beady eyes of the eventing world on them throughout. But if Boekelo proved their point and strengthened their resolve, Pau will have done so twofold – and now, Laura and London 52 look truly unstoppable.
If anyone can commiserate with Laura and London 52’s tumultuous 2019, it’s Izzy Taylor. She won the Six-Year-Old World Championship back in 2017 with her own and Mark Sartori’s Monkeying Around, a dressage-bred Hanoverian, and this cemented their own place in the spotlight. Upon returning to Le Lion d’Angers for the Seven-Year-Old World Championship, though, they clocked up a green 20 penalties across the country – and then they did so again in the gelding’s first CCI4*-S at Burnham Market in 2019, and again at the same level at Chatsworth a month later, and then again in his CCI4*-L debut at Blenheim at the end of that year. In 2020, after Covid-19 stretched the off-season on until July, they emerged to take third place in the CCI4*-S at Burgham and then win the CCI4*-L held here in September. What changed? Just the same as what changes for any other young horse: he made the necessary green mistakes and he learned from them.
“Because he won Le Lion as a six-year old, everyone thinks he’s about twenty years old – but he’s only ten. It’s easy to get frustrated, but sometimes I have to give myself a shake and think, ‘come on, he’s ten’ – or nine, last season. And, touch wood, I think we’re heading in the right direction. He’s an exciting horse, and it’s so rewarding because I’ve had him since a four-year-old,” says Izzy, who posted a 25.9 with the gelding to move into joint second place overnight, sharing the spot with yesterday’s leaders Piggy March and Brookfield Inocent.
“He thinks it’s all quite fun – and if it’s not fun, he’ll make it fun,” she says with a laugh. “We named him Monkeying Around for a reason. He’s a fantastic horse and so talented – I love him, which is a good thing, because sometimes I don’t love him so much! But he’s growing up, and for the first time I actually thought, ‘this is a little dull’ in the trot.”
That, Izzy explains, is a turning point for the gelding, who has consistently scored extremely well in this phase with his extravagant work in the ring.
“For the more grown-up horses, there’s no atmosphere here – there never is, and that’s not anyone’s fault,” she says, referring to the quiet, utilitarian dressage arenas on top of the hill at the venue – far closer in feel to the maze of arenas at a one-day event than those at the major three-days or, indeed, like the main arena at Le Lion d’Angers, where the horse excelled in his six-year-old year. “We’re getting to the point now that we’re both excited to add in the crowds and the big atmospheres.”
Among Izzy’s other rides here this weekend is nine-year-old Hartacker – sixth overnight in section B – who led the dressage in the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S here in September but then faulted across the country – a fair and educational mistake for a horse with just two years of eventing experience under his belt at that stage, but one that was more heavily scrutinised purely by dint of his prominence in the class.
“If he hadn’t been in the lead, no one would have noticed,” she shrugs, pointing out that the phenomenon is much the same for any high-profile young horse whose progression is under close observation: an error, or several errors, due to inexperience doesn’t mean that the horse won’t be capable of a highly successful top-level career, it’s simply that more people are watching them make the common mistakes that most young horses get to make long before anyone has ever heard of them.
Kitty King and a bleached-in-the-wash Vendredi Biats have been formidable in this phase on several occasions, but the gelding’s personality is as big as his range of movement, which has sometimes caused expensive errors in the past. Today, though, he looked every inch the seasoned campaigner and produced a ‘clear round’ test for a score of 27.5, earning them overnight fifth place behind Piggy March and Dargun. They’re followed by Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir – winners here in last year’s Blenheim eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S replacement – on 27.8 and in sixth place, and Oliver Townend and his experienced CCI5* campaigner MHS King Joules, seventh on 28.1.
Though reigning World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B were smooth and largely fault-free in the arena, the lack of atmosphere precluded any of the extra sparkle that can see them score in the very low 20s and below. Instead, their test was workmanlike and functional, earning them a 28.2 for eighth place going into tomorrow’s jumping phases.
Ben Hobday‘s Shadow Man II was another horse to emerge from the off-season looking as though he’d been bench-pressing hay bales through the winter, and he closed out the day’s proceedings atop the hill with a smart, expressive test and a final score of 28.5, which was slightly scuppered by a not-entirely-square halt at the end of the test – but members of the Event Horse Owners Syndicate, who have been been able to ‘buy in’ to the horse for just £250, were delighted to get the chance to see the eleven-year-old gelding in action and looking so well ahead of an exciting year, in which Ben hopes to step ‘Fidgy’ up to CCI5.* Rounding out the top ten is Bubby Upton and her 2019 Young Rider Europeans silver medalist Cola III on a score of 28.7.
“Chuck felt like he could actually do dressage!” laughed Laura Collett as she emerged from the ring aboard Mr Bass, who leads section C on a personal best score of 24 – though that’s not to suggest that he’s been a slouch in this phase previously. Though the gelding – who Laura has previously joked is ‘built like a wheelbarrow’ – finds dressage much harder than his twinkle-toed stablemate London 52, he’s a consummate trier, putting scores in the 20s on the board without fail and then, more often than can be considered normal, finishing on those scores. But that innate inclination to try has sometimes made the job harder than it needs to be for Chuck.
“It’s led to mistakes because he’s just that character that thinks he knows everything. He thinks he knows what you’re going to do, and so he wouldn’t let you actually ask for it,” she explains. “But now he’s physically stronger and mentally, he’s in a great place.”
Because taking the double lead just isn’t enough, Laura also produced a 25.1 aboard Dacapo to sit in second place as we look towards tomorrow’s showjumping and cross-country. Though he’s delivered scores like this a number of times before – including a 23.3 in the CCI4*-S at Bramham in 2019 – he’s equally capable of fluctuating up to the low 30s, as he did on both his international outings in 2020. But his work today looked mature and established – perhaps a sign of consistency to come in 2021.
Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden begin their season with very nearly the same dressage score they ended last season on – they posted a 25.4 today to sit fourth behind yesterday’s leaders Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street, while their last international saw them earn a 25.5 in the debut CCI5* at Pau, where they ultimately finished tenth.
Sixth place overnight goes to China’s Alex Hua Tian and the twelve-year-old Jilsonne van Bareelhoff in what is just the horse’s seventh international. They earned a mark of 26.5, half a mark better than in the gelding’s level debut here in September, when they finished 14th.
Not content with just occupying a spot in section B’s top ten, Kitty King nabbed ninth place overnight in section C aboard Cristal Fontaine, who stepped up to the level here in September of last year, finishing third in the CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds held as part of the Blenheim replacement fixture. They earned a 28.1 for their test, which was only marred by one minor mistake in the lengthy walk section, in which Cristal Fontaine opted to add in an unwarranted halt in one of the pirouettes.
“He’s very good at standing still,” says Kitty wryly. But, she says, “His way of going is improving all the time and I was really pleased with him, particularly how he coped with the uneven arena in balance.”
For Kitty, making plans for the year ahead is as foggy a prospect as it is for any of her compatriots, but she’s combatting that by keeping her options as wide open as can be.
“He hasn’t done a CCI4*-L yet, so he’ll do one somewhere – perhaps Bicton – wherever we can get to, really,” she says breezily.
Tomorrow sees the jumping phases play out in their entirety, with showjumping starting just before noon and cross-country commencing shortly thereafter. You can sneak a peek at Alec Lochore’s cross-country test here. We’ll be back tomorrow with a bumper final report from Britain’s first international of 2020 – so keep it locked onto EN and Go Eventing!