“I Burst into Tears Like a Baby!”: Kitty King Leads the Way at Conclusion of Burghley Dressage

Kitty King clocks her score – her best-ever at an international – and lets the waterworks commence. Photo by Libby Law.

Yesterday, after Sarah Bullimore and Corouet produced that eye-wateringly good 22.5 to take the lead, those of us holed up in the media mixed zone wondered if we might get anything to write about today.

“Surely no one’s beating that,” we said, before considering a moment and adding, “okay, well, maybe Tim and Vitali can do it, but it won’t be by much.”

And then, of course, the day started with Tim Price and Vitali doing just that, and this time, we really thought we were done and dusted with the day’s headlines — surely, after all, there was no way that a 21.3 could be bested. There were a few that would come close, sure, and we knew we’d see some more entrants into the top ten. But a new leader? No way.

We didn’t reckon for the ferocity of Kitty King‘s point-proving mission, though.

“My aim, to put it bluntly, was to put two fingers up at the selectors and say, ‘you should have taken me!’,” she laughs, moments after producing the best international test of her career to capture the first-phase lead on a 21.2 with Vendredi Biats.

And who can blame her? There are always surprises when team selections are announced ahead of championships, but the absence of Kitty and her now exceptionally consistent gelding from the British World Championships line-up was arguably the most startling omission. To win Burghley, though, would be some consolation prize — and the magnitude of her proximity to that hit Kitty full force as she finished her test and glanced up at the scoreboard, just in time to see ground jury president Andrew Bennie award her a collective mark of 10.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to do it — I’m not going to cry today!’ — but then I saw his last collectives and saw we’d gone into the lead, I burst into tears like a baby,” she laughs. “That’s standard for me — I never cry when I’ve done badly, it’s always when I do well, which is really embarrassing!”

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats. Photo by Libby Law.

‘Froggy’, as he’s known at home, is perhaps the consummate stamp of a Selle Français — not just for his flash and athleticism, but for his quirky, occasionally mercurial nature, which has made him equally exciting and frustrating throughout the formative years of his career. Now, as a thirteen-year-old, he’s been delivering time and time again — but for just a fraction of a second, Kitty wondered if she might be about to experience something of a throwback moment.

“He was really with me all through the test, and he felt really soft and rideable,” she says. “But then he did get a bit behind my leg in the last change, and then he did his little tail slap that he used to do as a young horse before he’d buck, so I was like, ‘don’t buck!’ He likes to slap himself up the bum with his tail and then go, ‘oh! Who the hell hit me!’ and then be naughty. So I’m relieved that he kept control!”

Froggy’s warm-up, too, didn’t necessarily fill Kitty with confidence, particularly as Burghley, unlike Badminton in the spring, has a much more end-of-school feeling of jolly, good-natured chaos to it.

“The atmosphere has got quite intense, and when you’re warming up here, it’s a lot noisier than at Badminton,” says Kitty. “It’s not only the clapping from the main arena — you’ve got vehicles going back and forth, too. He spent the entire time in the warm-up basically tripping over, and every time he tripped over, he’d leap in the air all upset with himself. I was like, ‘just pick up your feet! That’s your job — you’re not a puppet on strings, and I can’t pick each one up for you, so just do your job!’ But he did in the arena, and that’s all you can ask — he was brilliant.”

Kitty King brings flash and function to her test with Vendredi Biats. Photo by Libby Law.

All’s well that ends well, and their test certainly ended well with that perfect ten on the board. From the outset, it’s a classic case of the right place and the right time, but for Kitty, it’s the product of a long journey, a lot of work, and no shortage of faith in a very, very good horse.

“He’s a fantastic horse, and I know he’s capable of that sort of test, but we haven’t always been able to produce it on a big occasion. We had a good test at Badminton, but there were a few mistakes here and there — so for him to come out today and produce what he can do at home was fantastic. I felt like I had lots of time between every movement to set everything up. We’re here to prove a point and he really let me do that today. It’s been a long road and long process, and we’ve been working towards this for a very long time with him. He’s always been capable, but it’s been about getting him focused. It’s just a progression, but he’s really coming into his own now.”

President of the ground jury, Andrew Bennie, roundly praised competitors across the board for raising the standard of eventing dressage over the last number of years: “We’ve seen some lovely tests. Kitty’s test was very harmonious — it was super, and I couldn’t give her anything other than a ten for her harmony,” he says. “We’ve got those two marks – why not use them! The standard overall has got better and better and better. We haven’t had a Burghley for three years, and it’s just so interesting to see the horses. They all looked fit and raring to go, and while there’s obviously some favourites, the top horses looked super well-trained. The standard generally has improved out of sight, and it’s great to see.”

Each of the three members of the ground jury has different priorities and particular interests when they’re judging, but for him, horsemanship reigns supreme: “As a panel, after the guinea pig test we don’t really have to agree as such, because we all have our personal likes,” he says. “I like to see the horses and riders looking harmonious, and riders riding with empathy – they’re not trying to make their horses do anything; it should look easy and they should be supple.”

Oliver Townend moves into the top five with Swallow Springs. Photo by Libby Law.

Tim Price, who took the lead this morning as the first rider in the ring with Vitali, sits second by just a tenth of a penalty going into tomorrow’s cross-country, while day one leaders Sarah Bullimore and Corouet will leave the start box in provisional third place, themselves just 1.2 penalties — or three seconds — behind Tim. A tenth of a penalty behind them are the 2019 Badminton champions Piggy March and Vanir Kamira in overnight fourth, while Oliver Townend feels confident about his chances in fifth place with Swallow Springs, with whom he finished third at Badminton this spring. Their test this afternoon very nearly scuppered Kitty’s lead but for two mistakes in the flying changes — but even with those errors, they were still able to earn a very competitive 23.6, which sees them just 2.4 penalties, or six seconds, off the top spot, and in the possession of a five-star personal best for the gelding, too.

“There’s still more to come, I think, but we’re getting better every international run we’ve done, and hopefully there’s still more progression,” says Oliver, who previously earned the horse a PB at Badminton, where they posted a 25.7. Previously, the fourteen-year-old son of Chillout was piloted by Andrew Nicholson, from whom Oliver has inherited a number of horses and, like new stablemate Ballaghmor Class, has never finished outside of the top five at this level. His two runs at five-star with Andrew aboard saw him finish third here on his debut in 2018 and fifth the following spring at Badminton.

“I’ve ridden a lot of horses after Andrew. Riders always stamp their horses, and it always beautiful to follow him — and this time, he’s given me a good one,” says Oliver with a smile.

Though the loss of the lead after his issues in the changes is undoubtedly frustrating, Oliver is pragmatic about what his position today might mean for the weekend to come.

“It’s Burghley, and normally the winner comes from sixth or seventh,” says Oliver, who also sits ninth going into cross-country with this morning’s ride, Tregilder. “Ballaghmor Class was sixth the last time I won here, so we’re close enough. He’s a very good horse, and he gets the trip. He’s been here before, and tomorrow should be his strength, so fingers crossed.”

Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel impress yet again. Photo by Libby Law.

Reigning World Champion Ros Canter holds sixth place overnight with the on-form British-bred mare Pencos Crown Jewel, who comes forward for her sophomore appearance at this level after taking fourth in Bicton’s Burghley replacement last year. For ‘Jasmine’, Burghley’s tight, close crowds and loud arena wouldn’t be an ideal stage, but the mare has made enormous strides in her strength and confidence over the last year, which allowed her to produce a professional test for a 24.2.

“She’s such a little trier, is Jasmine. She’s not got the biggest step, and she’s a bit croup-high, so bodily she finds it quite difficult, but she just nails it every time in terms of effort. If there was a gold star for effort, she’d win it every time,” says Ros.

The mare’s very good run over Bicton’s achingly tough hills, and her decisive second-place finish at Bramham CCI4*-L this summer, prove that she’s got the chops to tackle Burghley’s stamina questions — and her excellent performances over much more technical short-format tracks at Chatsworth and Hartpury should stand her in good stead to deal with the early part of tomorrow’s track, which has a much more intense and quick-fire feel to it than in previous years. But Ros’s aim for the day isn’t necessarily to fight for a climb into the top spot — it’s to continue producing a tough, gutsy horse who loves what she does.

“I just want her to enjoy it,” says Ros of the mare, who’s a maternal half-sister to Ros’s Badminton runner-up and World Championships mount Lordships Graffalo. “I’m quite protective of little Jasmine. She’s not very big, and she’s taken a bit longer than some to come up through the levels, but she just has a heart of gold. She couldn’t try harder, and sometimes that’s her downfall, so if she comes out of this happy and having had a good experience then that’ll do for me.”

“So far, she’s kind of done any course. She’s certainly got a huge amount of gallop in her — she’s quite Thoroughbred, even if she doesn’t really look it, so I hope she’ll go the distance. It’s just whether I can keep her confident and enjoying it. I think my biggest worry is the crowds, for her. She dislikes people quite a lot; she’s her own woman, and she likes to be left alone in her stable, so just coming up here today was quite nerve-wracking for us. So I just hope she enjoys it — that’s the biggest thing.”

Spicy CHF Cooliser comes into her own with Tom McEwen. Photo by Libby Law.

Tom McEwen may well have the best event horse in the world in his stable in Olympic gold and silver medallist Toledo de Kerser, but the rest of his string isn’t looking too shabby either — particularly the compact sports car of a mare, CHF Cooliser, who makes her third trip out of a five-star startbox tomorrow in overnight in seventh place. She sparkled in the ring this afternoon, earning herself a tidy international personal best of 25.6 for her efforts.

“It was a huge improvement from Badminton,” says Tom, who scored a 34.4 there with the mare this spring after delivering a 29.6 in her debut at Pau last autumn. “I would say [this test] was more Pau-esque, but with a lot more punch and a lot more flow, and a lot better of an outline, and actually, just another year’s maturity.”

CHF Cooliser, who’s often referred to as ‘Queen Elizabeth’ at home for her rather royal demands, is beginning to look like something of an heir apparent to Toledo’s throne — particularly as each top-level outing acts as a fact-finding mission, helping Tom to identify the circumstances she needs to perform at her very best.

“She’s always been much better in the second half of the season, but it’s a shame that it wasn’t hotter today — she loves a bit of sun on her back, and then she’s even better again. But it’s a personal best for her by a long way, so that’s as much as we can ask for.”

An intensive training spree with secret weapon Ian Woodhead has certainly made a major difference to the tough little mare’s performances, too.

“Ian has given me a whole heap of help,” says Tom. “We did team training a few weeks ago and I was like, ‘right, we need to sort this out a little bit!’ She was all over the place and still spooking at absolutely everything, but he really helped us to get her going forward again. She was fantastic today, and she really loved it — she looked like a more seasoned horse, whereas at Badminton, I’d say she was a bit unripened. She was still interested in everything else, but was focused on what she’s meant to be doing.”

Pippa Funnell finishes the first phase with two in the top ten, including tenth-placed Majas Hope. Photo by Libby Law.

Reigning Burghley champion Pippa Funnell, who won here in 2019, goes into cross-country in the enviable position of having two in the top ten: her first ride and Thursday morning leader, Billy Walk On, holds eighth place on 26.2, while stalwart partner Majas Hope holds tenth after delivering one of his best-ever tests to score 28.2.

“He nailed it,” says Pippa, who acted as pathfinder with the fifteen-year-old gelding at the 2019 European Championships. “He got three-and-a-half changes — I don’t think the last one was late, but I know it was a bit unorthodox and a bit of a hop, skip, and a jump. It did come clean, though, and it’s sort of a record for him to do four clean changes! He isn’t easy — he goes in there and he’s shy, so he doesn’t like to show off, but he is learning to show off.”

Although Majas Hope has always been a real cross-country banker of a horse, the first phase hasn’t come particularly naturally to him, and Pippa has fluctuated between trying snaffles and double bridles along the route to the sub-30 scores. Some things, though, will always be a bit trickier than others: “The walk is always difficult, right from when you lead him out of the stable, so I do struggle with that and it is expensive,” she admits.

Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope. Photo by Libby Law.

Now, it’s time for all the riders to focus fully on tomorrow’s cross-country challenge — and for Pippa, who’s always been candid about her battles with her nerves, that can be a particularly fraught prospect. Fortunately for her, she’s installed an enviable support system that’ll help to carry her through.

“I’ve got to get my head arounds things, mentally,” she says. “Tonight’s going to be a difficult night for me, but the nice thing is that both horses are in a competitive enough position. I’ve got the husband coming up, so he can be a shoulder to cry on. I’m a great one for that — in my work with the Wesko young riders, I give them a lot of advice and a shoulder to lean on, but it’s more difficult when you’re trying to talk to yourself!”

Tomorrow takes us into one of the exciting days of the year: cross-country day at Burghley returns, and with it comes a new-look, tough track designed, for the first time, by Derek di Grazia. It’s going to be a day of moving and shaking, with a scant 20 penalties separating the top 50 competitors, and we’ll be back shortly with a closer look at what’s to come, plus riders’ reactions and ride times — but for now, it’s time to raise a glass to the leaders of the day. Go Eventing!

The top ten going into tomorrow’s cross-country test.

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