“He Has Such Belief in Himself:” Sarah Bullimore Takes Day One Lead at Burghley

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Sarah Bullimore’s 15.2hh homebred Corouet swaps cockiness for responsibility in a stellar test. Photo by Libby Law.

This morning’s first session of dressage brought us plenty to get excited about, with three tests sneaking below the 30 barrier and a barrage of talent to come — but it’s been the afternoon session that’s really kicked Burghley up a notch. Most thrillingly of all, we were treated to two tests that made it into the top five all-time best Burghley tests — and though they initially tied for top spot, a slight revision in the scores pushed Sarah Bullimore and her diminutive homebred Corouet into the top spot on a 22.5, just a tenth of a penalty ahead of Piggy March and her 2019 Badminton champion Vanir Kamira.

“He was amazing — he actually really listened to me and was on side,” says Sarah, who is battling through a period of unsoundness herself after a fall at Wellington Horse Trials earlier in the week saw her take a stud to the knee. “He actually looked after me. I’ve not come here in the best state to perform, but he was great in there — that’s probably the best test we’ve performed all year. Last year our confidence was on a high and he was pulling it out of the bag, but this year, he came out very cocky and arrogant, and he’s just felt like he thought I was a hindrance to him. And perhaps I was enough of a hindrance to him that he felt he ought to carry me today because I was injured — I don’t know.”

Sarah Bullimore and Corouet. Photo by Libby Law.

Last year’s season of highs saw Corouet, who Sarah bred from her 2015 European Championships ride Lilly Corinne, go sub-20 in a CCI4*-S at Burgham and, most notably, take individual bronze at the Europeans, but this year, he’s had rather more of an educational season. That was compounded in his five-star debut at Kentucky earlier this year, where he sat second going into cross-country but began to go into orbit over the solid fences, eventually picking up a 20 after running out of room in a combination. The precocious gelding has no shortage of talent, though, and it’s not hard to imagine that the experience may have helped to temper and shape his unique case of Small Man Syndrome. For Sarah, who has a wealth of mileage at this level, most prolifically accrued with Reve du Rouet — who shares a sire with Corouet — it’s particularly special to have her homebred at an event like this, particularly because he is so different to his half-brother.

“He knows he’s special, and he just goes in there and says, ‘watch me, everybody!’ He loves the crowd, and he doesn’t actually want to come back out of the main arena — he’s so laid back in there, which is very different from his big brother, who does his test and can’t wait to get out! Corouet has such belief in himself, but he’s always right,” she says. “It’s amazing — I’ve known him since he was born, and that makes it so special. He’s such a huge, massive character, and he doesn’t realise he’s quite small, so he doesn’t feel small when you ride him. He has a huge stride, and so you forget [he’s small] until you leap off and hit the ground sooner than you expect to!”

Now, Sarah is planning to spend her Friday nursing her injured knee, which is getting incrementally better by the hour despite being packed full of iodine-soaked dressing to mitigate any risk of infection.

“Yesterday I couldn’t walk up and down stairs or do rising trot — but fortunately, you don’t have to do that in this test,” she laughs. “It wasn’t the best preparation, but to be fair, I’ve been quite lucky as to where it is — I could easily have fractured something, but there’s luck and then there’s luck, isn’t there? It’s quite stiff and sore at the moment, and very bruised; it looks quite a pretty picture, but it is getting better daily, and we’re just going to keep on icing it and seeing the physio.”

Piggy March and Vanir Kamira hit the first of their goals for the week with a five-star personal best. Photo by Libby Law.

Piggy March came to Burghley with every intention of delivering a big test with her Badminton winner, seventeen-year-old Vanir Kamira, but a five-star personal best of 22.6 was probably beyond the realm of even her own imagination.

“As we came out of the arena I gave her a big hug and a kiss — I just couldn’t really believe it, bless her little heart,” says Piggy. “There’s plenty of pressure that I put on myself for this week, and I was hoping and praying that she’d get a PB because she’s felt great this year. Badminton was one of our best tests and she’s just felt good; she looks amazing, she’s strong, and she’s been working so well that I thought she really deserved it.”

Although ‘Tillybean’ is looking at her very best this season, much rides on the strength of the warm-up — and her preparation for her test today didn’t fill Piggy with confidence.

“Just before I went in, I felt that I hadn’t got her totally where I wanted to,” she says. “She felt quite hot, and she was sneezing quite a lot. She suddenly gets in quite a sweat, even though everyone from the outside would think she looked very calm and nice. But she’s been in these main arenas now a few times for laps of on our and things like that, and it doesn’t take much for them to know it’s an occasion.”

Piggy March and Vanir Kamira. Photo by Libby Law.

After the first movement in the test, though, Piggy and Tillybean rallied — though Piggy confesses that producing the goods today took some seriously hard graft.

“I didn’t love my first centreline; it was straight, but she just went to pull herself up and halt early. That’s something I’ve struggled with all her life, because she’s a mare that half-halts herself and goes a bit swishy and croup-high in every transition, and it takes a lot of attention to detail to stop her doing it. So I thought, ‘oh, balls, I’ve not got her on the button today.’ There’s always such a fine line with her, and I thought I was on the wrong side of that. But then I just thought, ‘get on with it and believe — ears up, sit down, hands together, breathe, ride it, just go through it.’ And she kept on the right side of the line — but for me, personally, it felt like the hardest test I’ve ever ridden on her, because it felt like I was on the edge. Whether that was just a mental thing, because I was so desperate for it to go as well as it can today… I’m not one that normally minds pressure, but she’s getting to the end of her days, so I really was desperate for it to be good.”

Piggy often fondly describes the mare as ‘a pain in the ass 362 days of the year’ or ‘a scopeless yak’, variously, but the gutsy mare is a classic long-format horse: when it really counts, she’s able to overcome her physical hindrances and get the job done, with a little help from her friend.

“She’s got a neck and a backside on her, and as a six-year-old, she couldn’t go on the bit for more than two minutes because of how she’s built. So trying to get her to lift her ears and come up in front, well, you can only manufacture that for so long. It’s just taken that much time and consistent training, but it’s bloody hard. They start to go on their head, and then you start to hold them, and then they’re like, ‘hold me more!’ and then you hold more — my brain’s going overtime the whole time; I felt like I was about to explode, and then I was like, ‘thank fuck that’s over!’ She felt hot enough, but that probably made the changes a bit more expressive, and she kept her rhythm in the medium trots, and it was just good. For Tillybean, a 22 at this level! That could easily be even better, but I don’t care — I’m just so proud.”

Zara Tindall’s Class Affair becomes a man in Burghley’s main arena. Photo by Libby Law.

Zara Tindall‘s sometimes tempestuous Class Affair stepped up to the plate in a major way today, delivering a five-star personal best of 28.4 to take overnight fourth, 2.2 penalties behind third-placed Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On.

“He’s always had the potential, but sometimes his brain takes over a bit — and it did, a little bit, in a couple of the movements [today], but he came back and was much calmer than he’s ever been in there,” she says. “I’m just delighted to be under 30!”

Class Affair comes forward for his third crack at five-star this week after debuting here in 2019 — but ending his day at the Leaf Pit — and then travelling to Maryland last year, where he completed with 20 penalties. There have been hints throughout his career that a very good test might be simmering away under the surface, and it’s now, as a thirteen-year-old, that he seems to be coming into his zenith.

“The last time I came here he was a ten-year-old, so he was very green. We’ve spent a long time with him — he’s pretty crazy in the brain, so he’s quite tricky. He can be really towing you and then just suddenly drop behind your leg, so that’s quite difficult, but he’s been going really well. We’ve just been truing to keep him comfortable, because he gets quite tense, and trying to be consistent with him.”

Zara credits dressage riders Carl Hester and Amy Woodhead with helping her to get the best out of the gelding: “I actually send my horses to Amy in the winter like, ‘please can you get them on the bit?!’,” she laughs. “Amy’s been based with Carl, so she trains how he would, and she’s brilliant. Both of them just make it fun, so it’s not like, ‘oh god, I’ve got to go for dressage lessons.’ They also understand the difference between their horses and event horses — they know that our horses might not be quite as capable, but actually, they can do what they want us to do.”

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent fly the flag for ex-racehorses with a sparkling personal best. Photo by Libby Law.

There are few horses who so wholly represent the classic American Thoroughbred as well as gutsy, tenacious Palm Crescent, who raced on the flat more than 20 times before starting his second career with the USA’s Meghan O’Donoghue – but his undeniable reliability across the country hasn’t always been matched by a natural inclination to perform on the flat. That all changed today, though, when the pair slipped sub-30 for the first time at this level, producing a sweet, smart test that earned them a 29.6 and put them into fifth place overnight.

“I’m ecstatic with him,” says Meghan. “He was absolutely phenomenal. He’s a performer, so he knows when we’re at a big competition, and we’ve been ticking away at this phase because this would be the hardest bit for him.”

Like many Thoroughbreds, with their busy, clever brains and endless well of effort to give, Palmer is at his best when he’s able to set up shop at a competition for the week, rather than chasing the quick thrills of a short-format: “I think that he’s at a point in his career where he really thrives from the set-up of a big three-day — he comes here, he has his groom, he’s all she thinks about, and he gets all of his things and rises to the occasion.”

Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent. Photo by Libby Law.

Meghan, who made her team debut — and enjoyed her first experience of eventing abroad since her travels with old friend Pirate back in 2013 and 2014 — at CHIO Aachen in July, has stayed put in the UK since in order to prepare for her second crack at Burghley (she started the event in 2014 with Pirate but ended her weekend early on cross country).

“We’ve had an amazing support crew over here; after Aachen, I was able to stay over here at Rebecca Howard’s place near Marlborough [Wiltshire],” she says. While she’s been there, she’s focused on the marginal gains that would steer her sixteen-year-old partner to his best-ever performance on the flat.

“It’s mostly been about the suppleness and where he is in his head, and that would kind of be the case for Thoroughbred horses that have had a relentless beginning. You can’t really blame him for it, because he’s not really built to do it, either,” she explains. Now, with an excellent starting score on the board, she can focus completely on Saturday’s tough cross-country course, on which she hopes to replicate the speedy clears they’ve delivered in all three of their previous five-star runs. This time, she’ll have the added challenge of Burghley’s unique, relentless terrain — but there’s nothing she’d rather be sitting on than a Thoroughbred full of gumption.

“I got to have a run at Hartpury in the four short as his last prep for this, and so I’ve had a little taste of the terrain over here,” she says. “He went super well there, and I have no reason to doubt him — he’s showed up for me every day that I’ve asked him to, so I’ll just do the best piloting job that I can and look after him.”

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Tom Rowland’s ‘cobby’ Possible Mission delivers his best to sit in the top ten. Photo by Libby Law.

Tests from this morning’s competitors make up much of the lower half of the top ten: pathfinders Tim Price and Bango and the USA’s Woods Baughman and C’est la Vie 135 sit in equal sixth on 29.8, while France’s Rodolphe Scherer and Song du Magay hold eighth on 30.4. 25-year-old Harry Mutch and HD Bronze are ninth overnight on 30.8, while Great Britain’s Tom Rowland rounds out the top ten after delivering a five-star personal best of 31.2 with his longtime partner Possible Mission, who’s the sort of horse who wouldn’t look out of place in the hunting field — but nevertheless has jumped clear around both Badminton and Burghley previously. His experience, and his workmanlike nature, meant that he was able to make the best of Burghley’s curious, close atmosphere today.

“He’s fifteen now, and he’s a bit stuck in his ways, but I think we might have got a few more of the flying changes this time than we normally do,” laughs Tom. “But he’s nice to ride in there, because you sort of forget how it goes from being really loud to suddenly really, really quiet. You think, ‘oh, god!’ but actually, he rises to that occasion.”

There’s an old saying in the theatre world that a bad dress rehearsal ensures a good opening night, and that adage certainly proved true for Tom, who took Possible Mission out for a final test earlier in the week that didn’t go wholly to plan.

“I took him to Wellington on Monday to do the Advanced and he did the most horrendous dressage test. He’s a bit of a head shaker, and the arena is down by the trees there,” he explains. “He wasn’t even on the bit — he just threw his head around everywhere, but I thought, ‘no, this is a good thing. He’s got it out of the way.’ And actually, he’s felt really good this week, so I haven’t given him very much work.”

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Emily Hamel and Corvett survive some exuberant moments in their test. Photo by Libby Law.

“I wish he’d have been a little more submissive in the ring, but at least we had pretty good trot work,” laughs US representative Emily Hamel, whose test aboard Corvett upped the comedy ante when the expressive gelding turned one of the flying changes into a colossal series of bucks. They’ll head into Saturday’s cross-country on a score of 37.3, which puts them in 21st overnight. “I always want a little bit better, but overall, I’m really happy with him. He’s going to eat up the course here — I just have to make sure I keep myself in the tack!”

Emily has been busy training with Angela Tucker for this phase — “I’m kind of sad I couldn’t show off our dressage a bit more,” she says — and New Zealand’s Grant Wilson in the showjumping, and comes to Burghley feeling on top form after tackling Badminton this spring just weeks after a serious knee injury.

“I feel more prepared than I did for Badminton, so hopefully that’ll show,” she says. “It’s been a busy summer, and I’ve had a good time, just seeing different events and taking lessons. It’s a cool atmosphere over here.”

To check out the full scores, and times for tomorrow’s test, click here — or, if you want to try to catch the highlights of the day tomorrow, here are some of the biggest tests yet to come:

  • Tim Price and Vitali — 10.00 a.m. BST/5.00 a.m. EST
  • Susie Berry and Ringwood LB – 10.40 a.m. BST/5.40 a.m. EST
  • William Fox-Pitt and Oratorio – 11.31 a.m. BST/6.31 a.m. EST
  • Bubby Upton and Cola III – 11.39 a.m. BST/6.39 a.m. EST
  • Kitty King and Vendredi Biats – 14.25 p.m. BST/9.25 a.m. EST
  • Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel – 15.05 p.m. BST/10.05 a.m. EST
  • Tom McEwen and CHF Cooliser – 15.29 p.m. BST/10.29 a.m. EST
  • Tim Price and Polystar I – 15.37 p.m. BST/10.37 a.m. EST
  • Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs – 15.45 p.m. BST/10.45 a.m. EST

The top ten at the end of day one of dressage.

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