Emily King and Piggy March Victorious in Overhauled Thoresby Finale

The weekend’s champions: Emily King and Valmy Biats. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In many ways, it feels like I’ve split this week between two — or more — completely different events. On Thursday evening, I arrived at the Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby Park on a warm, sunny afternoon to see a very small early group of four-star horses and riders complete their tests. We sat on the ground! We were warm! I think I might have actually taken my coat off at one point! The next day, though, the rain poured down all day, while scores of horses rattled through their tests in worsening ground and the mood around the place plummeted. Then, Saturday dawned, grey and dreary but mercifully dry, but at that point — after all that mud and a CCI2*-S showjumping session that had left everyone’s sanity in tatters due to the conditions — an enormous number of withdrawals had already been logged, and many of the riders I chatted with were considering whether the ground on Sunday would even be functional for a much-needed run ahead of this spring’s five-stars. And then we had today: gloriously, unexpectedly sunny (and truly, it’s not often that the forecast is wrong in a positive way), blessed with a ground-drying breeze and a by-now unfamiliar wholly unfamiliar feeling of overwhelming positivity about the place.

And you know what? They really did pull it off. Stuart Buntine and his team at BEDE Events have moved mountains — or, at least, arenas — to try to find the best going in the park, which saw CCI4*-S showjumping hoiked up to an unused patch of ground near the lorry park and the former main arena space, with all its trade stands and food trucks, turned into a bustling country fair and activity zone instead to keep the tradesmen and the punters happy. Fence 10ABC, a table-open corner-table combination in front of the house, bid adieu to its final element, a decision Stuart had kept in his back pocket in case the ground wasn’t quite up to par. Take-offs and landings were reinforced with stone; times for classes were shifted around a bit, and the show went on. For those who had opted to stay and cash in their run, it turned into a very good day at the office indeed: we saw just 34 runners in the Grantham Cup feature CCI4*-S, and 31 of those went on to complete, while in section P, 25 of the remaining 29 starters, most of whom were on inexperienced horses, completed.

Alex Bragg and Quindiva. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

While it’s disappointing for the organising team that so many of their original field of 148 didn’t start, it’s also understandable: Thoresby is a new venue, and is in just its second year of hosting the fixture that was previously run by the same team at Belton. The joy of longstanding events is that riders get to know them; they know how the ground will react if we’re in a dry patch, and they know how it’ll react in a wet month, and they know which segments and fields will get deep or choppy or difficult, purely because they’ve run so many times, in so many years and so many different conditions, that they’ve gained an intimate familiarity with the place. In the case of an event like Thoresby, though, we’re all still just on a second date asking it what its favourite colour is and if it has any mental exes lurking in the woodwork that we need to hastily block on Instagram. This isn’t yet a long-term relationship; it’s still a getting-to-know-you venture, and so riders and owners alike had to make a tough decision with limited knowledge of what was to come.

For organiser Stuart, this has been slightly frustrating — but, he hopes, this week’s event will have helped to foster confidence in competitors for the years to come, because they now know that the ground can actually take a serious beating and then still deliver on the most crucial day.

“When we lost Belton, we were looking for somewhere that had ground as good as that,” he explains, “and in my heart of hearts, I knew this ground would work. But I’ve only had two years’ experience here, too, so it’s a bit of a wing and a prayer. Five days ago, I was really confident because the forecast looked good — and then it went down again. But my commitment was, at the beginning of the week, to give the big boys that run for Badminton, and that was what I set out to do. And so we had to sacrifice those early classes. Probably against my better judgement, we accepted all the four star horses [in the entries], because we originally had 110 [and would waitlist the rest]. And we’ve pushed that up to 160 this week, which nearly doubled the workload on the arenas and all that type of stuff.”

Wills Oakden and Arklow Puissance. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

That decision, though, came as part of his desire to ensure any horse with a big event on the horizon would get the experience, and the crack at a qualifying result, that it needed — even if it meant resorting to plans B, C, D and beyond to make it happen.

“It was an interesting one, because I had two choices: move the showjumping, or cancel the event,” he says. “There were times when you were looking down the barrel and thinking, ‘are we right continue on?’ Thursday night, I was pretty worried. Friday night, I was even more worried. But we got there. I knew there was other ground we could use for showjumping, and okay, that we had to make a sacrifice with the dressage, but these guys do lots of dressage — what I didn’t think they’d got enough of  [this year] is cross country rounds. I suppose what’s disappointed me the most was I kicked out 200 riders [in the cancelled national classes] to give the big boys a chance, and then a lot of them went home — and I don’t think today, anybody can say a word against the ground.”

This result, he hopes, will encourage riders to wait a little longer in future before withdrawing — but, he says, there also needs to be further engagement between riders and organisers through the event so that everyone can stay on the same page.

“We did do a riders’ briefing every night, and it’s disappointing when they don’t turn up and they don’t engage,” he says. “The big guys like Piggy, Pippa, Harry [Meade], people like that have been engaging all week, so we could talk through and be open with them saying, ‘look, I think this is right’. It helps, but it’s disappointing when so many people don’t even engage. And it’s hard for us as organisers, because we’re trying to do the right thing. If they don’t engage, it makes it it makes it difficult, because it shouldn’t be them versus us. Our absolute passion and aim is deliver a really great event.”

It’s always better to end the week on a more positive note than it started on, though, and Stuart’s happy in the knowledge that that box has been ticked — and the spectators turned up in their droves today, too.

“I remember listening to [Chair of the Organising Committee] Seb Coe before London 2012, and he said, ‘if you provide the best facilities in the best situation, you get the best competition. If you get the best competition, you’ll get the best crowds.’ And that’s the frustrating thing from my end, that I had people turning up today because we had good competition and we did get good results. So that’s the sad part. But hopefully, they’ll learn from us and trust us.”

Emily King and Valmy Biats accept the Polly Phillips Trophy from Vere Phillips. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The rider who’ll perhaps be happiest she trusted in the system is Emily King, who came into cross-country still in second place having delivered an easy clear round in the showjumping aboard Valmy Biats. When overnight leaders Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir opted for a steady clear and picked up 18.8 time penalties, the door was opened — and when the pair crossed the line having picked up a relatively scant 14.4 time penalties, they stepped into top spot, winning the coveted Grantham Cup ahead of their second Badminton bid next month.

“I can’t really believe it — it’s like it didn’t really happen,” says a beaming Emily, who also won the Polly Phillips prize for the best-placed British rider who hasn’t yet ridden on a Senior team. “He was just fantastic all week; this is his first run of the season, and so if he’d been a bit feisty in his test, I’d have fully forgiven him. But he was a really good boy, and then this morning in showjumping he was superb — I couldn’t have asked for anything more from him.”

Emily King and Valmy Biats. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

On cross-country, she explains, she wanted to balance giving him a suitable prep for Badminton — which requires putting some pressure on these more experienced horses — with keeping him confident and running at a sensible pace, which was a communal ethos across the class.

“I wanted to let him travel on the good ground and look after him; there were patches that were deep, but we knew that from walking the course, and so I made a conscious effort to just go steady through them. I wanted to go a bit speedy but my number one priority was that he was perfect on the fences for when he goes to Badminton, so I was like, what will be will be with the time.”

Designing a course for this part of the year is a tricky ask, because when a wet month hits and horses miss early national runs, it’s often the case that they come to the first international on no runs at all — and that was certainly true for many of this field. That means that the course needs to be forgiving enough to allow for some rust being knocked off, but because of Thoresby’s proximity to Kentucky and Badminton, it also has to be serious enough to actually prepare horses for what’s to come. Last year, it was felt that the course leaned more towards the former qualities than the latter, and this year, Emily reckons they’ve found a happy middle ground.

“I think it was a really nice balance for ones like him that haven’t run yet this year — you know, not too crazy and big and technical, but also enough to get your eye in and get their eye in. There were some real accuracy questions, and then there was a very open distance in one line — so you had to actually do stuff in the combinations. There was a nice level of testing, but also confidence-boosting. For Val, he finished how I wanted him to at the end of the course; he was in a really good frame of mind, and he felt like he had a nice calculated round — for him, it’s about building his capability for listening to me and not getting too brave and too onward-bound, and I think it did that as a good stepping stone for him.”

Emily King and Valmy Biats. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One factor that may well have played a part in Val’s success in all three phases here is that he lives out in the field 24/7, come rain, shine, or snow — a choice that has helped the gelding, who’s majority-owned by Emily and breeder Philippe Brivois, alongside Jacquie and Jeremy Shere and the Event Horse Owners Syndicate, flourish.

“He’s actually the only one of mine who lives out full-time, although they all go out every day or every night,” Emily explains. “At Philippe’s stud, the horses all live out full-time, and they’re brought up like that. Val’s had a few riders, so I don’t know what they did with him, but with us, we found he can be quite a fussy eater, but when he’s living out, he just mooches around happily and eats really well. He’s so much happier — if he’s in a stable he weaves and box walks, but when he’s out, no matter the weather, and so happy. And because he’s used to that, and used to the ground changing, his legs are accustomed to it — and it helps that we gallop on grass at home, too.”

Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ros Canter also logged a showjumping clear this morning with Bramham runner-up Pencos Crown Jewel, who then cruised home with 15.6 time penalties to take the bridesmaid spot here, too.

“I was really happy that the conditions kept drying, because I love it here — it’s good for my riding, and I think it suits me,” says Ros, who also logged a sixth-place finish with Lordships Graffalo and 13th with new ride Dassett Cooley Dun.

Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalol. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“It’s really exciting [for Pencos Crown Jewel] because I’ve had her since she was three, and the owners are still supporting me, so it’s been a long old journey,” she says. “She’s such a trier, and probably the most talented horse in the world whose heart’s in exactly the right place. And for [World Championships mount] Lordships Graffalo, it was really important for him to run here today on this ground. He’s only rising eleven, and he’s gone pretty much his whole career running on good to firm ground. At Lincoln [in the mud], he stumbled a couple of times across country, and I thought it was probably because he wasn’t very educated on the ground, so I was quite keen to get around here. And he’s definitely come on from Lincoln and coped really well today. He’s just a lovely horse to ride cross country; I feel very lucky every time I point and shoot because he just does make me feel full of confidence.”

Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though reigning World Champions and two-phase leaders Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir had to sacrifice a win with their decision to run conservatively, they still finished in third place — and, as Yas explains, they achieved the only goal that truly mattered to them: logging a first and final run ahead of their trip to Kentucky in a couple of weeks.

“It was definitely not the most straightforward of weeks, just hoping to run,” she says. “Obviously the weather’s been a huge influence on a lot of people’s decisions, and it certainly made me think really hard about my decision today. But I thought the best thing was just for me to wait it out, see if it improves and how much it improves. And with the weather improving, I thought it was silly not to give it a chance — and it certainly felt really nice and soft, and they ran well on it. The plan was to come here and get our pre-Kentucky prep rolling, and I think we’ve done that nicely; to be honest, he just kind of picked his way around. Obviously, there’s parts that were a little bit deeper than others, but we just kind of stayed to the string and he jumped all the big combinations super, and was just nice and competent.”

Now, Yas is feeling good about her chances on her return to Kentucky, where she finished second in the horse’s five-star debut last spring: “I’m really excited, actually, and I do feel slightly better knowing what’s to come. Derek de Grazia is a very good course designer, so I’m going to expect a very big, bold course like last year, and he’s very clever with his questions, so I think we’ll just keep training — and now we’ve had a good run here, I think it’s silly not to be thinking positively into Kentucky.”

Kirsty Chabert took fourth place with Luhmühlen runner-up Classic VI after lodging one of the fastest rounds of the day, adding just 9.2 time penalties — though the win eluded them as the result of a rail in this morning’s showjumping. Georgia Bartlett, who will make her five-star debut at Badminton next month with Spano de Nazca, rounded out the top five with a clear showjumping round and 11.2 time penalties. The fastest round of the day in this class went the way of rising star Alice Casburn, who piloted her homebred five-star partner and Young Rider medallist Topspin to seventh with 7.6 time penalties, just a hair faster then eighth-placed Tom Crisp and his own homebred, Liberty and Glory, who will go back to Badminton brimming with confidence after finishing ninth at Burghley last year.

The top ten in the Grantham Cup feature CCI4*-S class.

Over in section P, which was reserved for lower-pointed horses, Piggy March made good on her two-phase lead to win with new-old ride Brookfield Cavalier Cruise, who added 11.2 time penalties to his first-phase score of 25.4 to seal the deal. This isn’t her first season with the gelding, though it’s her first international run with him — and only his second four-star. He took a top ten finish in his first, at Little Downham last year with Tom McEwen in the irons, but some of his earliest Intermediate runs were logged with Piggy aboard a few seasons ago.

Piggy March and Brookfield Cavalier Cruise. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“He’s basically one that a lot of people have ridden, and he’s won for every rider,” says Piggy of the ten-year-old. “He’s a lovely natured horse, and he’s a really talented horse; a straightforward character who really enjoys his job. But he’s a very big horse, and so the time it’s taken him to get to this level really wouldn’t have done him any harm. He hasn’t been hammered as a young horse at all, and so he’s very exciting — he’s been off the radar, but I think he’s one that won’t run masses, and doesn’t need to run masses, because his temperament’s so good. I think he could go to some exciting places — I’m a very lucky girl and he’s a really cool horse.”

Piggy, who won the Grantham Cup here last year with Brookfield Inocent, was another rider who was delighted to see how the course had been developed after feeling that last year’s was slightly too soft to be a true five-star prep run: “It’s definitely a step up from last year,” she says. “It was a stronger course, and I think they’ve done very good job. I think there’s a lot of potential there, and they’re going the right way of making it a good course to prepare you for Badminton. My worry when I wrote about it last year was, is there enough places in the spring to actually prepare horses, with a good bit of timber or a decent sized ditch to put you on the right track for Badminton? But it did have more of that feel today.”

Piggy March and Brookfield Cavalier Cruise. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

She was also quick to emphasise the importance of everything we’ve collectively learned about the venue — and its capacity for handling inclement weather — this week.

“It’s a new place, and it’s the unknown,” she says. “I think there’ll be a lot of people that were quick to judge, who’d have been amazed at how quickly it dries, and how we learned what different parts of the grounds are like. The organisers have done an unbelievable job to keep it going and doing all they possibly could to keep the show on, which the sport needs. I think there’s so many positives here to take away, and I know a lot of people were feeling negative because they saw the lorry park on day one and everyone was so up against it [with the weather]. There was a lot of emotions flying everywhere. But I’m personally very glad I did stay out for today. I could have easily not been here from Friday, but I’ve learned a lot from the ground — so I hope it has a very positive feel for next year.”

Much of the rest of the leaderboard might well be the greatest Harry showdown we’ve ever seen: Harry Meade took second place and fifth place with Red Kite and Cavalier Crystal, respectively, while young Wesko Foundation member Harry Mutch took third and fourth with Shanbeg Cooley and HD The One.

Harry Meade and Red Kite. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

For Harry Meade, the ground was actually a highlight of his weekend.

“Most ground that we compete on is verging on being too firm,” he explains. “It’s not the fault of the events; they work really, really hard, but it’s a summer sport, and from a horsemanship point of view, it’s so easy for us just to run week in, week out on ground that’s too firm. But when you get the spring ground, horses go in it really well, and there’s nice light soil here, so it’s not heavy and holding.”

Part of his proclivity for softer going comes from his grounding in ‘old-school’ production, which includes hunting horses that need it.

Harry Meade and Cavalier Crystal. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“Every horse has its own programme on my yard, and some spend the winter doing more showjumping and dressage, but I do have five horses who hunted through the winter — they had between four and eleven days each, depending on what they needed. And when I’ve been happy that that’s done the job it needed to, I’ve taken some of them to point-to-point courses — the day after a point-to-point, they’ve gone and run up alongside a few racehorses and they’ve done what they needed to.”

Though Red Kite didn’t hunt this season, he has done in the past — “he’s not naturally predisposed to cross-country,” explains Harry — which has been a critical turning point for him in terms of coping well with various ground conditions.

Harry Mutch and Shanbeg Cooley. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Harry Mutch is now reaping the rewards of the changes in his system and training implemented as part of his Wesko training, which saw him relocate for a period to trainer Pippa Funnell’s Surrey yard.

“We changed everything we do, and they’ve come out feeling on a whole different level,” he says. That helped him deliver the quickest four-star ride of the day: third-placed Shanbeg Cooley cruised round with just 3.6 time penalties, putting him lightyears ahead of his competitors in terms of speed — despite, or perhaps because of, a tricky lead-up to this week.

“His last big run was at Blenheim, and he fell, so I ran him really slow at Lincoln last month and he was horrible,” says Harry with a laugh. “He. just hates running slowly, so I went out today, and I was like, well, I need to wake up, first of all. It’s a good challenge for me to go really fast in order to find that comfortable rhythm that he just sits in. He just went around like an absolute speed demon, and made it really easy. Everything he came to, he was just like, ‘no problem!’ I think he actually took a stride out in one of the later combinations and everyone was like, ‘should you really have done that?’ but I just didn’t notice — it was just there to take.”

The top ten in the second CCI4*-S class.

And that, folks, is what we call an emotional rollercoaster. It’s been one heck of a week for everyone on the ground here at Thoresby (and, frankly, for the ground here at Thoresby), but I can pretty safely say that the mood shifted as dramatically as the weather today. The lorries being towed out of the event this afternoon will be full of much happier horses and riders than the ones that left previously. And now? We’re all one step closer to Badminton. Bring it on, and Go Eventing!

The Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby Park: [Website] [Times] [Live Scoring] [Live Stream] [EN’s Coverage]

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