It’s not often you set a new record dressage score at one of the world’s most prestigious competitions. It’s also not often you make history by putting up an unprecedented one-two at one of the world’s most prestigious competitions. But for Oliver Townend, who’s well-established in the business of breaking records this season, it’s just par for the course – and why shouldn’t you get it all done at once?
When Oliver delivered the lowest-ever Badminton dressage score of 19.7 yesterday, riding Cillnabradden Evo, we thought we might have seen the very best of what he could do in this phase. We were, of course, blissfully incorrect. Today, he came forward in the final session with his 2017 Burghley winner Ballaghmor Class and, in putting a 21.1 on the board, he did something that no one has ever done before: he took the top two spots going into cross-country. (We’ve seen another Badminton one-two before, albeit not a dressage one – Ian Stark finished in the top two positions in 1988, riding Glenburnie and Sir Wattie.)
But it’s not all records and glamour: “Normally I’m struggling away with a set of mirrors and the floodlights on, but that’s just what we do,” he explained. “I don’t actually have a dressage trainer, embarrassingly – I have the set of mirrors, and I have some DVDs, so you could say I’m pretty close with Carl Hester. That’s not me coming out, by the way!”
Oliver also relies on the help of his friend, manager, and business partner Karyn Schuter: “I trust her implicitly – you can see her speaking to me down a microphone, but you wouldn’t always want to hear what she’s saying! She’s my best mate and she always lets me know how the other riders are looking and whether we’re looking good.”
Although overnight leader Cillnabradden Evo is a bit of a riskier proposition across the country, Oliver is quick to acknowledge and own this fact. And, despite the horse failing to complete his debut five-star at Pau last year, Oliver considers the trip to France a positive one – it was, as he termed it, a ‘fact-finding mission’, and until the late wobble that ended their day, those discoveries certainly looked positive.
“The aim will be to get him home. I’ve been quite hungry for quite a long time to have him here, so it’d be nice if he put his best foot forward,” said Oliver. “[Ballaghmor Class] has been here, he’s been to Burghley twice, and so he’s battle-hardened, and he’s a lot stronger both physically, but especially mentally. We’d had no spring season last year [when he finished fifth], and we did a lot on the gallops at home, but nothing does it for them like a good event. This spring, he’s had a good run at Burnham Market, where he ran away with me up the hill [and won the CCI4*-S], and he’s feeling great. We’d have more hope for him this weekend.”
Those hopes have already proven to be well-rooted in realistic expectation – although Ballaghmor Class didn’t match his five-star personal best of 20.8 today, his test was arguably more refined than last year’s. Just a bobble in the final flying change dropped his mark slightly, and he was ultimately awarded a score of 21.1.
“The night before last, I said to myself ’19, 19, 19′, and I just kept going over my test and drilling it. I didn’t think about it as much last night – maybe I should have,” he laughed. “I made one cock-up, which was a bit of a situation that he threw at me coming into the flying change, but we’re always happy to dream, and so far the dream’s coming true. If I went back in now, I could knock another three marks off, and he has the ability to come back and knock five off [in the future], but it’s all about keeping him relaxed so I can do a bit more and then a bit more. The thing about Badminton is that you have to do three clear rounds in three phases, but the more you push, the bigger the risk.”
“It’s a very good start, and I’m over the moon with both the horses – I have to keep myself under wraps because I get a quite emotional, and it’s not good for my image,” quipped Oliver. “People expect so much [from Ballaghmor Class], but they forget that he won Burghley [in 2017] as a novice. He’s beautiful to ride, and his work ethic fits into our system very well. There are plenty who don’t give you what these two have. Some people think of us as an eventing factory, but we know these horses inside out, more than anyone in the world – and the horses don’t lie.”
Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser remain Oliver’s closest competitors, sitting in third place overnight on their score of 24.7. Just behind them in fourth is Piggy French, whose test with Vanir Kamira earned a 26.
Pippa Funnell made a late entry onto the leaderboard with her homebred Billy Walk On, who makes his five-star debut here. The ten-year-old son of Billy Mexico has been a consistent mid-20s performer, but has never been faced with an atmosphere like this – but today, he turned the extra energy into positive pizazz, only showing a glimpse of the fire inside once he’d finished his test.
“I’m really delighted; he’s been brilliant for me. I’ve been so amazed by him this week, but so worried about overdoing it,” said Pippa, who was ably supporting from the mixed zone by her great friend Tina Cook, whose young son Harry was nonplussed by the hubbub surrounding ‘Auntie Pipsy’.
Billy Walk On’s test followed a quick change in bitting, which saw Pippa swap from a French-link fulmer snaffle to a double-jointed loose ring.
“He was getting lighter and lighter in the warm-up, and I thought I’d lost it, but I had a quick bit change and got it into my head that I had to ride bravely and just get on with it. As soon as he was in the white boards it was like he said, ‘oh, I know where I am now.’ He’s had a lot of mileage, but it’s his first one at this level – so many people do their first ones at Pau or Luhmühlen now, and he could have gone there, but I’m not getting any younger and his owners weren’t dreaming of Germany. I’m just going to try to give him a good experience – I’m well aware that it can go wrong, and you have to give them another try. He’s a scopey horse, but it’s not just about that – it’s the technicality, combined with the scope required, and the confidence they need.”
Kitty King and Vendredi Biats will start cross-country in sixth place tomorrow, while Millie Dumas and Artistiek will be the highest-placed Badminton first-timers at this early stage in seventh. Laura Collett and Mr Bass lie eighth, followed by Chris Burton and Graf Liberty, while Andrew Nicholson and Swallow Springs round out the top ten.
Late tests from Tina Cook and Billy the Red and Chris Burton and Cooley Lands both produced scores of 28.1 for shared eleventh place.
Billy the Red, who suffered from blowups in this phase last season, looked much reformed: “You have to pick your times when you halt – he’s a sharp horse, and will be wiggly even when he’s twenty years old,” said Tina. “Last year, I had time off and he had time off, and I think we’re back on track now. I’m really pleased with him; he had a great attitude and was relaxed. I let him down in the canter, and I could have done a lot more, but I’m used to having to sit very quietly on him.”
Chris Burton’s young entry Cooley Lands went to the World Equestrian Games in Tryon last year, where he underwent a learning curve at the influential boat in the water, but this is his first five-star.
“I think he’s showing a lot of promise – he’s green enough and we don’t even know each other that well,” said Chris, who only rides the horse at competitions, while owner Kate Walls does all of the day-to-day work. “He’s a pretty cool little horse, I must say – he’s blood, and he really moves.”
Izzy Taylor‘s second ride and five-star debutante Springpower posted a 29.2 to move into equal thirteenth with William Fox-Pitt and Little Fire. Although Springpower can be naughty in the ring, he was on best behaviour for the majority of his test, showing off an incredibly impressive medium trot.
“I’m very pleased with him,” said Izzy. “He’s a very young horse, and to come here on Friday afternoon, I was a little bit nervous. It fell apart at the end, but I hope that with more time, it’ll come together. He’s got the movement, and he loves a crowd, so hopefully he’ll be a superstar.”
Germany’s Kai Rüder and Colani Sunrise sit in equal fifteenth on a score of 30.1, shared with Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy.
Our final US rider of the day knew that she wasn’t coming to win the first phase, and Woodge Fulton was all smiles after her test with Captain Jack, despite a final mark of 51.5 after some difficult moments in the ring. This will be the combination’s fourth five-star together, and they’ve proven reliable and gutsy across the country – a boon to Woodge’s fledgling career.
“Dressage definitely isn’t our strong suit, so I knew it’d be a lot of atmosphere for him, but it’s very exciting,” said Woodge, who has based herself with Dirk Schrade in Germany this spring. “I’ve been so lucky to receive [the Wilton Fair] grant from some wonderful donors, which gave us the chance to come oversea. You can’t tell today, but Dirk has been a huge help to us.”
Ex-racehorse Captain Jack was never intended to be a top level horse – in fact, he was bought to give Woodge experience up to the three-star (formerly two-star) level, but: “he just kept moving up – we did a two-star and a four-star in the same year! I’m excited that I’m riding a Thoroughbred and a true cross-country horse here – as wild as he is in dressage, I’ll be glad to put today behind us and use it tomorrow. I didn’t come in expecting to beat Oliver – I prepared for, and expected, this. We’ll put him away and give him lots of carrots now, and then it’s all eyes on tomorrow. I’m looking forward to Sunday afternoon, when I can take it all in and hopefully think about what we’ve done.”
That’s all for us from the dressage here at Badminton – tomorrow, we’ll be moving onto the biggest test, as we take to Eric Winter’s formidable course. Stay tuned for a closer look at the challenge to come.
The 2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials is brought to you in partnership with the team at Voltaire Design United Kingdom. Going to Badminton? Head to Voltaire Design on Stand 253 on Somerset Way and meet the team of Sports Saddle Specialists, arrange a free, totally no-obligation fitting for you and your horse, or indulge in the Deal of the Day. Put a deposit on a new saddle during the event, and you’ll receive a matching girth, stirrup leathers, and saddlepad – free! Looking for a bargain? Head to Voltaire Design’s sister stand, EquiTack, to check out their premium pre-loved saddles at rock-bottom prices.