Remember the buzz in the air back in March, when we careened towards Belton (may it rest in peace) and the first UK four-star of the season? As it is every year, its entry list was so full of five-star names that you almost daren’t step away from the arena for a moment – amidst the previous season’s plethora of champions, could we find the next Badminton winner? With the 2019 season a barely-birthed thing, it was a week in which everything was still a possibility. Now, as we head into the final months of the season, it sort of feels like we’ve found that sweet spot again at Hartpury. The entry list is a thing of beauty: there were more five-star winners and gold medallists passing in front of my camera lens than I could count, a bevy of five-star and championship-bound combinations on display, and a harsh March wind, which was, you know, atmospheric.
On Thursday we reported a Pippa Funnell-led leaderboard and now, as we head into the jumping phases, not a lot has changed – except this time, her leading ride isn’t MGH Grafton Street (relegated to 5th on his score of 24.8), but rather the great grey Billy The Biz, who delivered a 23.3 to help re-establish his rider’s dominance.
In second place, we enjoyed the inarguable treat of seeing Tryon team members Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser in their first international run since Badminton. And what a return to the spotlight it was: they posted a 23.6, marking one of Tom’s career-best results in this phase. One of the things that makes Toledo such a special and exciting horse is the fact that it’s always felt as though there’s much, much more to come – and today, with his more open frame and stride pattern, we got a tantalising glimpse of what could be next if Tom’s willing to take a few risks.
For now, though, with the European Championships on the horizon, it’s all about keeping the gelding healthy, happy, and confident enough to produce the goods in Luhmühlen later this month.
“We had a couple of early mistakes but really, I’m super happy with him,” says Tom, who has quietly notched up some national-level placings with Toledo over the summer. “It’s all just been about keeping him ticking along – if he hadn’t had the Europeans on the cards, he’d have been heading to Burghley.”
Despite finding himself facing off against some of the sport’s top horses, Sarah Bullimore’s Corouet rose to the challenge and posted an international personal best of 23.6 in his four-star debut. This is enough to see him hold third place as we head into showjumping, and while Sarah has enjoyed three sub-30 tests with over the course of the day, this one is particularly special.
That’s because eight-year-old Corouet is the first foal from her former five-star mare Lilly Corinne, who retired in 2018 after a career-ending injury. Though she already has six babies on the ground from embryo transfers, she’ll now adopt a more traditional broodmare role – and while she’s busy cooking up the next generation of top competitors, she’s lapping up the affections of fellow five-star stalwart Valentino, who also retired last season.
“It was a big year of changes – to retire both Lilly Corinne and my lovely old boy Valentino was a massive blow,” says Sarah. “It was always on the horizon with him, although that doesn’t make it any easier emotionally, but with her, it was a total shock. But now, even though it’s been really sad, she has another job – and she’s enjoying her love nest! They’re so sweet together – she’s very much her own person, and wouldn’t usually like other horses, but she’s always liked him. He’s a real ladies’ man, and he’s always looked out for her – when they were in next-door fields, they’d graze near each other. So it’s lovely to see them enjoy life together.”
Nicer still is the chance to continue the mare’s legacy. In 2017, Corouet and Lilly Corinne put on a remarkable double feature – the former contested the six-year-old World Championships at Le Lion d’Angers, finishing sixth, while the latter finished 13th the following week at the CCI5*-L at Pau. Though tricky, the chestnut mare has been a pivotal part of Sarah’s career, and the promising journey her son is on has given the enormously talented and consistent rider an impressive second string, following in the footsteps of top horses Reve du Rouet and Conpierre.
“He’s a freak of nature, really,” she says of the diminutive gelding. “It’s not perfect yet, certainly, and there’s still lots to come, but he always says, ‘okay, yep, what’s next?’ And he’s so class that even if he has little mistakes, he still scores well. He’s small, but he’s clever and he’s feisty like his mother – but in a slightly different way.”
Sarah’s fledgling breeding programme has already proven to be a case in point for the power of dam lines, with Lilly Corinne’s offspring adopting her looks, her temperament – and her talent.
“There was never really a grand plan, but I thought, if you have a mare this good, you ought to breed from her,” says Sarah. “I kept hearing people talk about certain stallions and I just thought, well, this is what seems to be passed along.”
Though the rest of his weekend will be an educational one, Corouet is certainly one to watch for the future. All being well, he’ll head to Blenheim for the eight-and-nine year old CCI4*-S – “and I haven’t ruled out a trip to Boekelo, either,” says Sarah with a smile.
In fourth place, European squad members Tina Cook and Billy the Red produced one of their best tests, scoring a 23.7 and showing no hint of the occasionally reactive behaviour that’s dogged them in the past. They sit fourth overnight. Meanwhile, Badminton winner Vanir Kamira was another top horse to reappear on the main stage today, and her score of 25.8 has her in ninth place – a worthy leader of Piggy’s four four-star entries, all of whom delivered sub-30 scores.
“I’m delighted with Tilly – she was so chilled, and came out and did a really sweet test,” says Piggy, who heads to Badminton with the mare next month. “There weren’t any moments I was complaining to myself about. She’s hard to keep straight, and I know that, but she’s so sensitive and delicate that I don’t want to overdo the straightening and upset her. It’s a fine balance.”
So, too, is the balance between using a short-format international test as a springboard to bigger things, while still applying enough pressure that she can accurately gauge her horses’ capabilities.
“You definitely still want to get the best test you can out of them, but I don’t try to chase marks – if they make a mistake, I’ll try not to freeze, but rather to use it as a training exercise. And actually, a lot of it is about figuring out how to get the warm-up right so they can perform at their best.”
Scoring 26.6 for 11th place was Europeans-bound Quarrycrest Echo, who once again showed his remarkable consistency in this phase after a slightly longer-than-normal warm-up.
“He was a bit concerned about the flower pots, because it’s so windy,” says Piggy with a laugh. “But other than being very attentive of some of them, he felt so good and did some great work.”
Quarrycrest Echo’s owner Jayne McGivern had plenty of reason to celebrate – her four-star debutante Calling Card also delivered an exceptional performance, scoring 28.6 for 20th place. Like Corouet, he’s young, inexperienced, but absolutely bursting with try – it’ll be exciting to see what he does next this weekend, and further down the line in his fledgling career.
You know you’re looking at a strong field when a sub-30 score can only guarantee you a top-30 provisional placing, but despite the fact that he sits in 13th overnight, it would be a shame not to mention the efforts of 2018 Burghley winners Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy. They sit in 13th place overnight on a score of 26.8, proving that they’re back at their best just a handful of weeks before they prepare to defend their title. Objectively? A 26.8 is always a great test. Subjectively? This was some of the most pleasant, active, and uphill work we’ve seen from the gelding, who consistently delivers good performances between the boards. If Burghley comes down to a Piggy and Tim match-race, it certainly won’t be short of close-fought excitement.
Two US representatives made their way down the centreline in the CCI4*-S today: Katherine Coleman and Monte Classico overcame some early sharpness to score 30.3 for overnight 29th, while Lexi Scovil and Chico’s Man VDF Z settled for a 37.9 and 83rd after some unexpected sparkle.
Hartpury marks a return to international competition for Lexi and her nine-year-old gelding, who enjoyed a top-twenty finish in the CCI4*-S at Bramham earlier this summer.
“It was way more than I ever expected,” says Lexi, who is based at William Fox-Pitt’s Dorset yard. “I feel like he’s come back so well – he went to an OI and was phenomenal, except some idiot jumped the wrong fence! But while that was unfortunate, he really did feel the best he ever has. Last week I had a dressage lesson with Tracey Robinson and we absolutely got the most quality work out of him, so I definitely think we’re on the right track.”
That right track will lead them to Blenheim, where their original plan to contest the CCI4*-S has now morphed into a CCI4*-L goal. After that, Lexi hopes to extend her visa for another year.
“It’s all been way better than I expected it to be – I keep waiting for something to go wrong,” she laughs. “But it just seems like the programme is so good – it’s that good that it actually continues to work. It’s all really exciting – but it also feels like we’ll get to our goals, even if they’re bigger goals than I’d planned for. We feel so ready.”
With high winds forecast for tomorrow, showjumping has been moved into the college’s spacious indoor arena, with cross-country beginning at 11.20a.m. BST. We’ll be bringing you a closer look at Eric Winter’s course, and of course all the coverage from the day’s action – stay tuned!