When we started today’s showjumping finale at Badminton, it all seemed rather cut and, well, maybe not quite dry: wire-to-wire leaders Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo, assuming no absolute disasters befell them in the ring, were almost certain to win — the only question was how many of the originally two, and ultimately four, fences in hand she’d need to use to get there. Michele Saul’s eleven-year-old British-bred gelding (Grafenstolz x Cornish Queen, by Rock King) had had just one previous career rail in a long-format international, and that had been in his seven-year-old season, but after the taxing test of yesterday’s competition, and with the pressure of being in pole position looming overhead, would we see a dramatic change in form on this final day?
As it turned out, no: Ros and ‘Walter’ executed a truly classy clear round to secure the diminutive former World Champion her first ever five-star victory.
And taking the Badminton title feel?
“Quite cold, actually,” quips Ros, sheltering from the sudden downpour that had kicked into gear just as the prize giving got underway. “It’s a long, long journey to get here, and to get to a result like this, and it’s great.”
That journey began at the very start of ‘Walter’s’ career: Ros debuted him in his first British Eventing competitions in 2017, his five-year-old year, and has largely retained the ride throughout — though he did spend a season under Tom McEwen in 2019, culminating in a top ten finish in the Seven-Year-Old World Championships, while Ros was on maternity leave with daughter Ziggy. Throughout, she’s rated him as a real star, whether taking him around his CCI4*-S debut — at Burnham Market’s Blenheim eight- and nine-year-olds replacement in 2020, where he was second — or his CCI5* debut, here last year, where he was also second, or his British team debut, at the World Championships last year, where he was fourth.
“He’s an amazing horse, and he wouldn’t be very good at sitting home doing nothing, so Badminton, I think, is his highlight of the year,” she says. “He’s amazing, isn’t he? He really is. He hasn’t got a classic technique; he jumps a bit with his head in the air, but by God, does he want to clear those fences when he gets in there. I just think he’s the out and out event horse. He loves every phase, and he loves himself, which is great, and he loves the attention from everybody else. This day couldn’t have gone any better for him, I don’t think.”
Though Ros had an extraordinary 16.6 penalties in hand — that’s four rails and a time penalty that she could have happily used — she kept her characteristic level head and used up just 1.6 of them, crossing the finish line with one of the scant four clears today and four seconds’ worth of time penalties. It’s seldom we see such a big margin coming into the final phase of an event — the last time was Burghley in 2016, when Australia’s Chris Burton and Nobilis 18 entered the ring in the lead with 20 penalties in hand, and ended up using 16 of them.
“I think we’ve got the mud to thank for that,” laughs Ros. “But he didn’t care, did he? He didn’t notice the mud; it wasn’t about that for him this week.”
Getting to a five-star at all is hardly a solitary feat — and winning one takes the combined efforts of a huge number of people, including, in this case, grooms Sarah Charnley and Travis Lee, and Ros’s family, including Ziggy, who’s been able to be a part of the whole week of competition thanks to help from Ros’s mother and husband Chris.
“The biggest thing since becoming a mother is the team I’ve got around me; I just couldn’t do without them,” says Ros, who was particularly pleased to have her mother along for the ride. “She doesn’t really like coming if she doesn’t have a big job to do and we had two grooms here this week, so it was touch and go whether she’d come and watch — so I’m delighted she’s here, because she’s the main person that keeps the wheels running.”
And, of course, you can’t get to the top without a great horse — and Ros truly knows one of those when she sees one. She’s had the pleasure of partnering the late, great Allstar B, with who she became World Champion in 2018; she piloted her other ride here, Pencos Crown Jewel — a maternal half-sibling to Lordships Graffalo, and both a product of Pennie Wallace’s breeding programme — to ninth place, and she’s got something truly exceptional in this eleven-year-old superstar, who’s now become a Badminton champion at just the start of his top-level career.
“It’s an absolute privilege, to be quite honest,” she says. “It’s a privilege to ride Walter and to have him in our life, because not only is he a great horse to ride, he is the most wonderful character. He’s got character in absolute abundance. He makes us laugh every day. He’s quite untrainable on the floor, but he’s just a brilliant person to have around. I truly feel privileged. When Allstar B started to become successful, I felt quite a lot of pressure riding him, and so I’ve been determined to enjoy Walter — but it’s easy to enjoy him because he just gives his all, all the time, and I just think he really enjoys doing the job he does.”
Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class take second place in the sixteen-year-old gelding’s eighth five-star start — and eighth five-star top ten. Though they tipped a rail at fence three, they held the rest of the round together and crossed the finish line just one second over the optimum time to climb ahead of overnight runners up Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue.
“I was happy with third, and to finish second is as good,” he says. “I think for any of the horses who’ve finished the competition, they’re all absolute winners, because it was not an easy week at all, in any way, shape, or form. Any horse that has finished here is pretty special.”
Though just one of Oliver’s two starters finished the week here — the 15-year-old Swallow Springs was pulled up by stewards on course — the rider credits his runner-up as being one of the best horses he’s ever had.
“He’s unreal, isn’t he? I don’t know how many Badmintons and Burghleys and Kentuckys he’s done, but he’s still not out of the top five,” he says. “I’ve had too many 2nds with him, bless him, and that’s probably down to the jockey, but I can’t tell you how proud I am of him and the team behind him who know him so well — he literally is part of the family. It’s just a huge relief for me that I haven’t mucked it up too much and that he’s had another amazing run here.”
While the two-time five-star winner is nearing his twilight years, Oliver is still looking to the future with the game, gutsy Courage II son.
“I don’t want to keep him going too long, but every year, he’s still improving,” he says. “He’ll tell me when he’s had enough. I get on him for the first time on the 2nd of January every year and we look at each other and go, ‘do you want to go again?’ So far, it’s been a yes.”
Yesterday’s heroes of the day were Ireland’s Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue, who skipped around the tough track and difficult conditions to post the fastest round of the day and climb from 34th to second — and although their two rails and 1.2 time penalties dropped them a placing to third today, they’ve been no less lauded for their contribution to Irish eventing. Their finish here makes Austin the first Irish competitor to make the podium at Badminton in forty years — the last to do so was the now racehorse trainer Jessica Harrington in 1983.
“Hopefully it’s a bit of a lift for eventing at home, and following somebody like Jessica Harrington into that position is pretty amazing,” says Austin. “I’m naturally disappointed; I don’t think he jumped as well on this ground as he normally jumps, and it caught up with us. But hey ho — we’re third at Badminton, on the podium with two heroes, two of the best riders in the world, beside me, so I couldn’t be happier.”
One of the horses with the best chance of a clear round today was the hugely consistent Toledo de Kerser, and he and Tom McEwen duly delivered the goods. Their clear round inside the time allowed was one of just two in today’s competition, and it allowed them to climb one spot from the fifth place they’d held onto after each of the first two phases.
Although they’re arguably one of the most formidably competitive pairs on the circuit, having won a swathe of medals — including team gold and individual silver at the Tokyo Olympics — and a five-star, at Pau in 2019, Badminton has never really been the happiest of hunting grounds for them, nor for Tom generally.
“It’s the only one I’ve ever done any good at,” he laughs. “Finally! Badminton hasn’t really been my place — it might be my most local place, but I just do stupid things all the time. To come out and have a nice fun weekend with my best buddy, it’s quite nice really.”
Tom and Toledo had come into last year’s competition as the firm favourites, though their week ended early when they took a hugely uncharacteristic tumble late in the course. This year, he was still considered among the favourites to win, but his own attitude had shifted — instead of fighting for the top spot, he would just enjoy each phase with the enormously experienced sixteen-year-old. And so, though his time penalties yesterday might have stood in his way, he has no regrets about the way his week has played out — and nor should he.
“Cross country was so easy [for him], just a little bit slow,” he says. “But when they get a bit older, you have to look after them. There’ll be another day — maybe a Burghley in a dry season will be perfect for him. It’s so lovely that he’s had a great time; he was phenomenal all week and he’s come out really well.”
Though the pair have jumped countless excellent clear showjumping rounds together, this one stood out to Tom as a particular highlight.
“It’s probably the best round he’s jumped since Burghley when he came fourth about a billion years ago. I think it was the most connected round; there’s been the odd bit maybe, [where it’s] just not[[quite] as good. For me, there wasn’t one thing that I would change on the whole round. He was unreal, and he was absolutely loving it. If there was a second lap maybe we might have caught back up a little bit more — though maybe not with Ros!”
Fighting off the onset of jetlag after a quick dash back from Kentucky on Sunday night might not be every rider’s idea of a dream lead-up to an event, but Tom credits the great performance of his ride there, runner up JL Dublin, with helping to set him up for success here.
“I think, probably, having an amazing run with Dubs last week has really helped,” he says. “He was phenomenal last weekend, so then to come out and do roughly the same again this week has been fantastic. Obviously this has been different, with proper testing conditions. It’s been testing for all — I think you’ve definitely seen some amazing riders and some amazing brains; people actually making decisions, and different decisions on course. It’s been very interesting to watch who did what, and when, around the course. And today, you can see how well they’ve all come out.”
Tom Jackson rounds out the top five, having completed Badminton with the twelve-year-old Capels Hollow Drift in similar circumstances to last year’s Burghley, where the pair were runners up: they began the week outside the top ten — fourteenth, in this case, on a 28 — and then delivered a swift clear across the country to move themselves towards the business end of the leaderboard. Then, on the final day, they once again delivered an elusive double clear round and got to watch themselves climb, climb, and climb some more. This time, it was from tenth to fifth place, a result that must surely put them well on the British selectors’ radar ahead of this summer’s European Championships at Haras du Pin.
“It makes him even more impressive, doesn’t it,” marvels Tom upon being told he’d delivered the first clear of the afternoon session. “What a horse he is. To give as much as he did yesterday and then come out today and give even more — he just goes above and beyond and it’s just a privilege to ride him. What a horse. I can’t stop saying it. He just gives you everything all the time, and what more can you ask for? I’m just so happy with him.”
One trip to France could well be in the bag for the pair now — but could another, next year, possibly be on the horizon? 30-year-old Tom’s hopeful but determinedly pragmatic about the prospect: “I’d like to, but I’m not sure we’re quite there yet. But we’re we’re getting there, hopefully we can keep edging closer.”
He’s followed in the top ten by an exultant Gemma Stevens in sixth place aboard Jalapeno, with whom she had a solitary rail to hold her post-cross-country spot on the leaderboard, Tim Price and Vitali, who dropped from fourth to seventh after tipping three rails — “the same as at Burghley, but a better three than at Burghley,” he says — Bubby Upton and Cola, who had two rails but nevertheless maintained their spot in the order and completed a climb from first-phase 31st place to eventual eighth, and Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope, who also had two rails and dropped down one place to tenth, 29 places up from their first-phase result.
That’s a lot of significant climbs to celebrate over the weekend, but none beat out France’s Luc Chateau, who won the Glentrool Trophy — awarded to the rider who executes the largest first-to-final-phase climb over the week — after rocketing up from 56th place after dressage to eventual 11th with Viens du Mont.
“My horse was tired after yesterday, but he has a huge, huge heart,” he says with a broad smile. This is just the horse’s second five-star: the pair finished ninth at Pau last year on his debut. He’s been an out-and-out cross-country machine throughout his career, and this is his 19th FEI run — and his nineteenth clean cross-country round in an international — and though he added 21.6 time penalties yesterday, which was considerably quicker than the average, he’s now added time in that phase in just five of those nineteen runs. His two rails today shouldn’t rule him out as a horse to keep an eye on with the European Championships around the corner.
Lillian Heard Wood put a cap on a great week with the seventeen-year-old veteran campaigner LCC Barnaby, tipping a solitary rail but crossing the line inside the time allowed to finish 20th — an impressive forty-place climb from the first phase.
“I’m thrilled,” she says. “I just had the one down at the plank — I’ve had a plank down early before so I had a feeling I might have it down, and then I think I overcorrected. But honestly, I’m so happy. Normally if I have a rail, I’m a nightmare — I hate having rails. But it was muddy in there; he was exhausted yesterday; I was thinking the course was tough. I thought, ‘keep your wits about you, Lillian’, and it rode really smooth. I’m so happy to have done it.”
This is Barnaby’s thirteenth five-star, and so inevitably, Lillian has begun to think about what the finale of his prolific career might look like.
“Well, he’s really sound and he has been for a long time,” she says. “In the last year, and continuing on, each time I do [an event], it’s up to him — I’m not going to push him. The minute he feels like he’s less than he was, then I’m done. I’ve competed another five-star horse up to this age, and at the last one I did with him, he felt less than the horse he was before, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. [Barnaby] didn’t feel that way this time, so we’ll see, but it’s totally up to him. He’s given me everything I need. If he wants to keep doing it, he can.”
His retirement, when it comes, will be an active one: “He doesn’t want to be done, so I’ll probably have to let some kid ride him!”
In any case, whether we get to enjoy watching him around another five-star or if Badminton does turn out to be his last hurrah, he’s been a huge part of Lillian’s life and a fundamental catalyst for so much of her learned experience — even if, or perhaps because, he’s always been a bit of a quirky soul.
“He’s actually been kind of a nightmare his whole life,” she laughs. “Now he’s wonderful! It actually makes you think about where they need to start in order to be a horse that can do this — it’s not necessarily an easy, simple, quiet horse. I’m thinking about the other horses in my barn and I’m like, ‘OK, this one’s a little bit wild — that’s probably a good sign!’ But it’s pretty cool because when you’re at an event like this, where it’s very difficult conditions, and I’m inexperienced at this event and I want to freak out, I just keep saying, ‘most experienced horse, most experienced horse, you’re gonna be OK, he’s the most experienced horse’. Even if you don’t know, he knows it’s OK. I probably won’t ever have this feeling again in my entire career, so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Just one rider in this morning’s ten-strong jumping session managed to pin down a double clear round, and that was US competitor Katherine Coleman, who closed the book on Monbeg Senna‘s first five-star in fine style. The 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse maintained his high-flying jumping style, well demonstrated throughout yesterday’s cross-country, to make the influential course look very nearly easy.
“He was super,” enthuses Katherine. “I knew he had it in him — he’s such a super jumper. I just didn’t want to let him down out there, and he jumped brilliantly. What a horse!”
Though she made light work of the track, she explained that the challenge set by Kelvin Bywater was not at all insignificant: It’s really big — the depth of the water trays, that combination — I think it’s a proper Badminton show jumping track,” she says.
For Katherine, this week has been a particularly special one: it has marked her long-awaited return to five-star, a level at which she last competed back in 2017, when she contested both Badminton and Luhmühlen with Longwood. Now, after putting in the miles and the hard graft with the excellent Monbeg Senna, who she bought from Ireland’s Aoife Clark as a newly-minted Novice horse in 2016, she’s back — and not only has she nailed the long-awaited completion, she’s done so sans jumping penalties to take home a very respectable 23rd place.
“What a mental week,” she laughs. “This is his first five star and with the lack of preparations, when we set out yesterday I just wanted to complete, so we were a bit slow — but I still had a lot of horse left in the end, which is wonderful to know. I’m like, ‘ooh, I could have gone a little bit faster’, but I’d rather finish feeling that way than the other.”
As she told us yesterday, it truly does take a village to get to this point — and she’s had an enviable support team, from groom Hannah Quick to a full line-up of friends helming her on-site fan club.
‘It’s a huge team behind every horse that’s here,” she says. “Our groom probably got five hours of sleep in total this week. It’s a real testament to all the team at Badminton.”
And with that, we come to the end of another Badminton: it’s been a rather wet and wild one, but a competition to remember, certainly. Keep your eyes peeled in the coming days for some bonus content from the last couple of weeks of five-star action, but for now: Go Eventing.
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