There isn’t much to see as far as dry eyes are concerned on this very British morning as we watched a small but mighty field of 18 come forward to contest the final phase of the “pop-up” Chedington Bicton Park CCI5* in Devon. The storylines from any event are also rich, and this weekend is no different as Gemma Tattersall will collect her very first five-star win on a horse with famous lineage that she bred and has produced herself in the 11-year-old Chilli Knight (Chilli Morning – Kings Gem).
11 weeks was the timeline for pulling off this enormous feat, which was brought about after the iconic Badminton and Burghley CCI5* events — such fixtures on the global and British eventing calendars — were canceled for the second consecutive year. In the end, a field of 34 would travel to the southwestern part of the country to take on an event virtually unknown in its tests, save for a CCI4*-L that some of these riders came to earlier this spring.
And test it certainly did, with a smart track built by Captain Mark Phillips yesterday and a dizzying, rolling show jumping track designed by Paul Connor this morning. The terrain here has been all anyone could talk about for the week, what with its mountainous hills and long pulls, and yesterday certainly turned out to be a proper endurance test with an 11 minute, 16 second optimum time. With a 61% completion rating, the field was thinned down to 19 and would lose one more starter this morning after Michael Owen withdrew Bradeley Law overnight.
A small field it may have been, but a weak one it was anything but — and the show jumping proved influential once more as just five riders managed to produce double clear efforts. In the end, it truly came down to the finish with not one pole separating the top three. And after overnight leaders and 2019 Badminton winners Piggy French and Vanir Kamira rattled and lowered two rails, it would be Gemma Tattersall who would finally, on her 24th attempt, snatch that much-coveted five-star win.
It was a special match that brought Chilli Knight — or “Alfie”, as he’s known at home — to Gemma. She competed his mother, King’s Gem through the now-five-star level (King’s Gem was also campaigned as a young horse by Mary King). Gemma also competed Alfie’s full sister, Chilli’s Gem, until 2019. In his own right, Chilli Knight has always been what Gemma classifies as a “yes man”, his up-for-anything attitude apparent from the very get-go. It’s made him quite a joy to produce then, and isn’t it always the most rewarding to see the hard work you have put in yourself come to fruition in such a way? Breeding — even with such a star-studded match such as this one, as we all know the CV of 2015 Badminton winner Chilli Morning — is always a calculated risk, and not every match made in heaven produces a winner. But this one certainly did.
It’s been Gemma who’s seen Alfie grow into his own. He’s come up the ranks consistently, incurring just one penalty on cross country in 29 FEI competitions and collecting top-10 placings in seven-, eight- and nine-year-old young horse championships. He’s also well-practiced in the show jumping ring, having done a good bit during the light competition year in 2020. And that practice certainly paid off today, though he kept us all on our toes as he slunk over each fence with cat-like efficiency. He would go on to leave them all up and would subsequently be the sole horse in the field to finish on his dressage mark, ending the weekend on a 27.9. This was just Alfie’s first CCI5* completion and his second attempt — he was withdrawn from the second horse inspection at Pau in his debut in 2019. He was bred and is owned by Chris Stone, whose Tattleton Stud has been Gemma’s home base for over a decade, making this an extra-special result for all involved.
“I felt the pressure anyway, obviously,” Gemma said in the final press conference. “And, you know, all I thought of was ‘I’m at Hickstead’, which is one of my favorite places to go and ride and jump. And I’m so used to jumping in those grass arenas in the main ring and ring to, and I literally just pretended, shut my eyes and I thought ‘No, I’m just I’m just going to go in and do what I do day in day out on so many different horses and go and jump play around’. That’s what I did.”
The process of producing any event horse, but especially one who is to be successful at the top levels, is one we all know requires an entire host of people — and Gemma is quick to thank her team for the efforts in sticking by her and believing in the program. “My family [has been a support system] from when I was a tiny girl all the way through,” she said. “And my team at home work endlessly hard. My absolute nutter boyfriend, Gary [who ended the press conference with a proposal, to boot!]. And just everyone, everyone. It’s just such a team thing. You know, it’s not just me and Alfie. It’s everyone behind the scenes that makes it happen. And Charlotte, my head girl has just done the most incredible job looking after Alfie this week. We all know what it takes to get a horse to five-star. It’s, you know, it’s quite a headache! Just thank you to my team. And finally, I’ve managed to get us the five-star win!”
Rails fell all throughout the morning after the first to see, Angus Smales and ESI Pheonix lulled us into a false sense of security with a seemingly easy double clear round. It would take quite a few horses a bit of braille to get through the track, but entering in third place it would be Pippa Funnell and the 12-year-old Anglo-European gelding Billy Walk On (Billy Mexico – Shannon Line, by Golden Bash) — who delivered an absolute class round yesterday with just a smidge of time that Pippa said she couldn’t care less about on account of the ride he gave her — to lay down a faultless effort to turn up the pressure. She would eventually finish second, once again a horse that has been partnered with his rider since day one (Billy Walk On is a product of the very successful Billy Stud breeding program that Pippa is involved in along with her husband, William and Donal Barnewell) on a score of 28.7. Billy Walk On is owned by Barbara and Nicholas Walkinshaw.
Pippa used to ride Billy Walk On’s full sister, Billy Shannon, who was on the list for the London Olympics in 2012 but was sadly lost to leukemia in 2013. “This was the brother, so it’s very special having [him]…I’ve had him right from the word ‘go’, and as Gemma says it takes many years, a lot of emotions, a lot of love building up that partnership. I have a small team at home, and they’ve done an exceptional job. Emily (Gibson) here has really done the horses justice and and I’m incredibly grateful to my backup team and very, very elated with the way the horses have gone.”
Piggy March, who said afterward that while she knew her competitive side would go in and give it her all, she oddly felt no pressure as the overnight leader with Trevor Dickens’ Vanir Kamira (Camiro de Haar Z x Fair Caledonian, by Dixi). “Tillybean” wouldn’t necessarily be the world’s greatest show jumper, but she can typically be counted on to leave the majority of the rails up. She couldn’t afford to have one down today, and she needed two to get around to wind up in third on a three-day score of 33.9 — but Piggy, always pragmatic, went straight to congratulate her friend on her first win after her round and says she’s just as thrilled to watch Gemma have her day.
“She’s 16 and she owes me, Trevor Dickens, our whole team — she owes us nothing,” Piggy said of Vanir Kamira. “She’s a horse of all heart. She gave me her whole heart, guts, mind, everything to give me a Badminton win, which is probably the best day ever of my life. And I’m just trying to enjoy a wonderful little horse and all the good things about her and help her as much as I can.”
“I’m really proud and I know how Gemma feels,” Piggy continued. “We all work so unbelievably hard. And they are just the days that someone looks down and says, ‘You know what, today is your day’. And do you know what? It’s totally 100 percent meant to be Gemma’s day and she totally deserves it.”
This would be the very first all-female CCI5* podium in Great Britain in 18 years — thanks to Nicole Brown of EquiRatings and this weekend’s H&C+/Elite Eventing broadcast for that fun fact! — and indeed it’s a female-driven top five as both Ros Canter with Pencos Crown Jewel (42.7) as well as Pippa Funnell with Majas Hope (46.6) would also finish top-class weekends.
And let’s talk a bit more about the incredible depth Great Britain continues to flex on the global eventing community. The British have now won each five-star held in 2021. While, yes, we’re missing a good handful of British five-stars due to cancelations over the last two seasons, if you flip back through the results dating back to 2017 it’s quite mind-boggling to see the sheer British domination. Take a look at the list of five-stars British riders have won in that period:
2017 Burghley – Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class
2018 Kentucky – Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class
2019 Kentucky – Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class
2019 Badminton – Piggy French and Vanir Kamira
2019 Burghley – Pippa Funnell and MGH Grafton Street
2019 Pau – Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser
2020 Pau – Laura Collett and London 52
2021 Kentucky – Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class
2021 Luhmuhlen – Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden
2021 Chedington Bicton – Gemma Tattersall and Chilli Knight
Oh, and in between, the Brits also won their first Olympic eventing gold medal since 1972 in Tokyo earlier this summer.
Suffice it to say, as we look ahead to the FEI Eventing European Championships in Switzerland in just under three weeks’ time, the world power of eventing is decidedly British.
I will close this report out with a few words about the team at Bicton, which as I mentioned early and as Tilly has talked in more detail about this week had just 11 weeks to pull this first-ever one-off (maybe?) five-star event. The team at Bicton is led by Helen West, who has also just taken the reins as CEO of British Eventing, and Event Director Andrew Fell, who already were up to the sizable task of pulling off a CCI4*-L to replace the abandoned Bramham International earlier this year. Once that event was done and dusted and the opportunity to swoop in to save the British Eventing season again presented itself, Helen found herself thinking, ‘why not?’.
“At the point somebody mentioned it to me, I think it was just the night before we were about to run the four-star,” Helen said ruefully. “By which point my nerves were literally shot. And the thought of running a five-star — I would have run to the hills. So at that exact second I thought, ‘let’s just wait to see how we get through the rest of this week’. And then following the success of that, I thought, ‘actually, you know what, we have such an amazing team here. We could do it.’ And the rest is history.”
It was a massive effort pulled off by all involved — “I think there’s so much the team,” Helen added. “Everyone just really stepped up and it made such a difference.” — and the riders were all highly complimentary of the event throughout the weekend. While we sorely hope that the legendary British fixtures Badminton and Burghley will return again next year, we wouldn’t be upset to see Bicton return to a permanent state on the calendar. Will it? Only time will tell, but in the meantime it’s been great fun following a British five-star, and as we kick off for an incredible full slate of eventing to finish out 2021, we tip our caps to all who made this weekend possible.
If you want to catch up on all of the Bicton action, your pay-per-view pass from H&C+ and Elite Eventing will give you access to the full event replay for 90 days and trust me, it’s well worth the purchase (proceeds from which went to supplement the prize fund and further develop the sport). You can grab a pass to watch here.
Until next time! Go Eventing.