“I literally didn’t sleep last night because I thought I’d wake up and it would all have been a dream — and now I don’t want to sleep for a week,” laughs a breathless Laura Collett, just moments after cantering out of the arena on the wave of tumultuous cheers that followed her foot-perfect clear round with London 52. Though the rider had entered the arena with a healthy buffer of five penalties in hand over her closest competitor, she never looked close to needing them, and the pair ultimately added just 0.4 time to finish on 21.4 — the lowest-ever finishing score at Badminton.
But although their round looked wholly polished and — dare we say it? — easy to the outside eye, Laura was quick to give all the credit to the thirteen-year-old Holsteiner (Landos x Quinar Z), who easily hunted through the distances when Laura couldn’t spot them.
“I could not see anything and he just went higher and higher and higher,” she says. “Piggy said to me earlier in the stables, ‘look, you wouldn’t swap your horse for any other horse in the field, would you?’ and I said ‘no, but I’d swap the rider!'”
Course designer Kelvin Bywater had built a course for today’s finale that many riders dubbed the toughest they’d seen at this event: though it didn’t have a treble combination, it did feature a back-to-back double of doubles at 6AB and 7AB, and a number of very big, very square oxers that felt much closer to the maximum dimensions than previous fences on Badminton’s final day ever have. It certainly caused its fair share of issues, too: just six riders delivered clears in this morning’s session, which was made up of the 36 competitors outside of the top twenty, and just one — Felicity Collins with RSH Contend OR — did so without adding time penalties. Even more nerve-wrackingly, many recorded faults at the first fence, which came up fast out of the corner and didn’t inspire many particularly elegant efforts. By the time we’d reached the thick of the top twenty, wherein just seven pairs jumped clear, Laura was rather hoping for a bit more than a five-penalty buffer.
“I was thinking I would actually rather Ros had a fence down so I’d have two fences in hand, but that’s just greedy,” she laughs. “It’s not often you get to go into the lead at Badminton with a fence in hand, and at the end of the day, the horse is phenomenal. He just jumped better and better and better, and so I remember that I was sat on an unbelievable jumper. He showed that today.”
Laura and Dan, who led this week from start to finish, have felt almost unconquerable over the last couple of years: they won Boekelo in 2019, followed it up with a first five-star victory at Pau in 2020, and then helped the British team to gold at Tokyo last year, to say nothing of the four-star shorts they’ve left quaking in their dust along the way. But it wasn’t all that long ago at all that London 52 had no shortage of detractors, who felt that after green wobbles at Bramham, followed by a run-out while leading at Aachen and a fall in the final water at the European Champs, all in 2019, the horse may not truly be up to the job after all. For Laura, it was an uphill battle to combat the extraordinary pressure of expectation — expectation that she’d get him to come right, but also plenty of expectation that it might never happen at all — but she never lost her faith in the gelding, who had only begun his eventing career just a couple of years prior.
The turning point came, quite pertinently, at Boekelo in 2019, where the pair won the CCIO4*-L in front of one of eventing’s most notoriously boisterous crowds. Laura knew she needed to find a way to end the gelding’s tricky season on a confidence-boosting high, and remembered how much he’d enjoyed his experience there the year prior, when he finished second on his CCI4*-L debut. Returning to the loud, crowded, and jolly venue he’d felt so comfortable at, and a course he knew he could eat up, felt like the magic button — and it was. After his win there, he returned to England a changed man, arriving for his 2020 season with a healthy dose of arrogance that allowed him the self-belief to begin fighting for the tough stuff. Since then, it’s been up, up, and up some more — and this week’s sell-out crowds helped to set the perfect stage to pick him up and let him believe he’s the very best horse in the world. For Laura, that’s always been a given.
“He is just exceptional, and he’s truly shown the world everything that I’ve always believed of him. It’s a long distant memory, all those ups and downs in 2019, but it’s all been worth it,” she says. “I’ve had a whirlwind eighteen months, from him winning my first five-star in 2020 to him going to Tokyo and winning an Olympic gold medal to coming here and winning my first Badminton. There are no words; he’s the horse of a lifetime.”
There’s no doubt at all that tough, gutsy Laura, with her ineffable dedication to her horse and her triumphs against adversity, is the pony novel hero a million young riders have been dreaming of — and she knows all too well how looking up to those icons of the sport can fuel the adventure of a lifetime.
“It’s 100% a childhood dream — I remember coming here on my auntie’s shoulders to watch cross-country,” she says. “I remember dreaming of being Pippa Funnell winning at Badminton — and I can’t believe I’m now me winning at Badminton.”
Though her first jumping round of the afternoon with her World Champion Allstar B didn’t go quite to plan, Ros Canter put her three rails behind her to return to the ring fresh and focused with the rising ten-year-old Lordships Graffalo, who was jumping for a chance at a podium placing after Oliver Townend knocked a rail while jumping out of order with Ballaghmor Class. And in today’s challenge, he did what he’s done throughout his five-star debut this week: he looked around, sized up the occasion, and rose to it. His clear round ensured the pair would finish on their dressage score of 26, earning them second place and confirming the young horse’s position as one of Great Britain’s most exciting Paris prospects.
“He’s an amazing horse, and I’ve always thought that of him, but at the start of the week I wondered if it was the right decision to even bring him here,” says Ros, who moved the gelding up to four-star at the tail end of 2020 and recorded wins in CCI4*-S classes at Aston-le-Walls and Blair Castle, plus second place finishes in CCI4*-L classes at Bicton and Blenheim within the last year. Still, the rider initially felt that this enormous step up — and ‘Walter’s’ first introduction to significant crowds — might all overface him.
“On Tuesday I went for a hack and his eyes were everywhere; he’d never seen anything like this before, but he settled into it and I really think he’s had a wonderful week. He’s very laid-back and he’s enjoyed every part of it, including the prizegiving. I think he’s really rather pleased with himself!”
“I keep knocking at the door — this is the third time at Badminton on the bounce that we’ve had two in the top six,” says Oliver Townend, who finished third with Swallow Springs and fifth with Kentucky and Burghley winner Ballaghmor Class after taking a rail with each. “The consistency is there, so I’ll just keep turning up and hopefully I’ll get a turn again soon. The horses are very professional, special horses.”
This makes a seventh five-star run for Ballaghmor Class, who has never finished below fifth place at the level and very nearly won in 2019, ultimately losing by one time penalty in the final phase that year — but it was the turn of his new stablemate, the former Andrew Nicholson ride Swallow Springs, to take the spotlight out of Oliver’s line-up. Their podium placing came after a tricky cross-country round yesterday, in which they very nearly fell at the C element of the Quarry early on course, were held for half an hour, and then completed inside the time before being retroactively eliminated for the near-miss. An appeal saw the decision quickly reversed and their placing reinstated, and the gelding looked no worse for wear in today’s horse inspection or final phase.
“Andrew’s obviously done a great job producing the horse,” says Oliver, “but when you ride Andrew Nicolson’s horses, sometimes they make you look like Andrew Nicholson! Especially after coming out of the Quarry — I’m now the new Mr Stickability! But he’s a good horse and a professional, and I’ve been riding on and off for Andrew for twenty years now — I used to ride Mr Smiffy at home. We’ve known each other a long time, and he’s done an amazing job producing this horse.”
Though one rail fell in her round, you might have thought Piggy March had won Badminton for the second time in a row with 2019 champion Vanir Kamira, purely based on the buoyant joy that radiated off her as she crossed the finish.
“It’s probably the best she’s ever jumped, even though there was a pole,” she says. “I’m just over the moon; I felt like I left quite a lot out there yesterday. I was down on the clock for three minutes and I felt like I rode very hard for the majority of the course, and she left her heart out there — she gave everything. So I was just a little bit worried today, and I don’t want to expect things of her, because of what she’s done for me and her age.”
Though many riders might have been disheartened by feeling their horse flop over a small warm-up fence, which Vanir Kamira did while preparing for today’s round, the stumbling effort actually proved a great sharpener ahead of their performance in the ring.
“It was the best thing that she did,” says Piggy, “but then she went in there and [jumped like that]. That’s sort of been her character — just when you think there’s absolutely no way, she just has something in her that tells me to do one straightaway, and says ‘I’m here, mum, I’m here with you.’ It’s just brilliant, and it’s just so nice to come away from the week with such a special buzz.”
The pair finished fourth, adding their rail today and just 0.4 time yesterday to their first-phase score of 25.7 to finish a steady climb that saw them move up a spot with each phase. Even with the finale of a five-star to contend with, Piggy’s thoughts were never far from her great friend Nicola Wilson, who is reportedly in stable condition and conscious after a crashing fall on yesterday’s course: “She’s a great girl, a great competitor, a great friend, and we just want her back as soon as possible. Our thoughts are with her.”
When we walked the Badminton course a number of weeks ago with designer Eric Winter, he told EN that his aim had been to build a track that would make it worthwhile to tack up for cross-country even if you were still, say, way down the leaderboard in 60th position after dressage. It certainly seems that showjumping designer Kelvin Bywater was reading from the same hymnbook, because the influence of today’s track allowed three riders who were well down in the mid- to bottom-half of the pack after dressage to continue their climb into the top ten by the end of the week.
Topmost of those was Great Britain’s David Doel, a rider who has often flown under the radar despite an impressive track record of positive production at the top level over the last couple of years. In 2021, he campaigned a quite extraordinary five horses at the level: three went to Luhmühlen, where he was an excellent pathfinder, and then brought forward two different ones at Bicton’s pop-up CCI5*, before finishing the year with two horses at CCI5*. We’re a bit spoiled in this country with our glut of high-profile riders with expansive strings, but for an up-and-coming rider to build a line-up of that sort of depth truly is a feat of some magnitude.
One of those 2021 five-star runners is the eleven-year-old Galileo Nieuwmoed, who debuted at Bicton but rerouted to Pau after an unlucky stumble in the water there. At Pau, they fared considerably better, finishing fifteenth after a sparkling clear round inside the time, but missing their chance at a top-ten finish after toppling two rails on the final day. Here, though, they finally settled the score for the better, and their clear round today — plus just 1.2 time penalties yesterday — allowed them to climb from 32nd after dressage to a final sixth place. That this was his first-ever Badminton makes the moment that much the sweeter.
“He’s been fantastic, and the help and support we’ve had all week has been unreal,” says David, who also won the Laurence Rook Trophy for being the best British first-timer. “It’s a hell of a buzz — we made a couple of mistakes at Pau last year, but we came out here and rectified it in the showjumping this week, so it’s an absolute proper buzz.”
Kitty King matched her best-ever Badminton result — a seventh place finish here in 2005 with Five Boys — after jumping clear with 1.2 time penalties aboard Vendredi Biats, who looks much matured since his prior run here in 2019. That year, he failed to complete after depositing his rider at the bottom of the Normandy Bank; this year, he’s so wholly committed to seeking out fences that he nearly locked onto the ropes in addition to the actual jumps on course.
Today, he didn’t look much less fresh than he had yesterday, but his scope and power ensured the big, square fences remained firmly in their cups.
“He jumped really well, but he was a little bit spooky on some of the landings — he kept hearing the cameras and kind of jinked away from me a few times,” says Kitty. “I probably didn’t give him the easiest ride around; I got a little bit add-y, but he didn’t give me the easiest ride yesterday, so I’d say we’re even!”
The 80 seconds of allowed time proved tight throughout the day, with five riders in the top ten alone picking up time penalties, but although Kitty’s 1.2 time penalties didn’t lose her any ground on the leaderboard, she was frustrated to have had them at all: “I’m just a bit annoyed with myself, because I rode a little bit backward down some of the lines and that’s where I got time faults from, which is annoying because he didn’t deserve them.”
Austin O’Connor proved he’s sitting on a real hot commodity for the Irish squad, finishing eighth with the Jaguar Mail gelding Colorado Blue after adding just 0.4 time penalties today to their first-phase score of 36.3. Their two fast, confident, and tidy jumping phases allowed them to make an extraordinary climb from 58th through the weekend. Their performances served as confirmation that their Tokyo result, where they finished 13th and best of the Irish after getting a last-minute call-up from the reserve position.
“I think I thought I was coming down to the Vicarage Vee at fence four but other than that, I think it was pretty good,” he says with a laugh. “He’s a jumper, and he’s improving, and as we saw yesterday, all the good horses get their jockeys out of trouble now and then, and we owe them a lot.”
Best of the exciting US front was Tamie Smith, who delivered the goods across the phases with Mai Baum: they sat in fifth place after dressage on their 25.3, then dipped down to fifteenth yesterday after an exceptionally stylish round nevertheless saw them add 11.2 time penalties. Her proclivity for preserving her horse over the tough track, where she opted to stick to her planned stride patterns so as not to overdraw from her horse’s energy and effort banks, paid dividends today, though — the sixteen-year-old gelding looked as though he’d come out fresh at a jumper show, and gave onlookers perhaps their only stress-free viewing experience of the day with his perfect, easy form. That was enough to put the pressure on all those who followed, and as round after round racked up faults, Tamie steadily made her way back into the top ten to ultimately take ninth place.
“He’s always on springs, and while you never know what they’re going to do after a big track like yesterday’s, he definitely was today,” she says. “The crowd just lifted him and boinged him up over those jumps.”
The result wasn’t just further evidence that the pair are leading the charge in the US’s global offence — it was also a much-needed triumph over the dark cloud that had dogged her since last week’s five-star fixture, where her ride, Fleeceworks Royal, pulled up on course with a significant injury.
“I came from a Kentucky that was quite emotional — having Fleeceworks Royal start out having an unbelievable round and then just feeling her not right and pulling up,” she says. “I’ve had her since she was three and have produced her myself, and as everyone in this sport knows, it takes a lifetime to get them there. And so I was feeling very deflated and I just felt so bad for her owner, her breeders, and all the people around her — and then you’ve just got to put that all behind you to come here, not knowing what to expect but knowing he’s capable of performing unbelievably.”
Have the pair booked their ticket to Pratoni? Only time will tell, but it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly be overlooked at this stage. For now, though, Tamie’s living in the moment — and it’s one she’s dreamed of for a very long time.
“It was just more magical than I can explain,” she says. “My best friend texted me before the dressage and I was quite emotional, because we grew up watching VHS tapes of Badminton, so to finally get here and have that kind of performance is a dream come true.”
Richard Jones rounded out the top ten after a tidy clear with his stalwart Alfies Clover, who has been a seriously useful partner for him over the years: they’ve previously finished seventh at both Bramham and Burghley, and their 2.8 time penalties yesterday and 0.8 today allowed them a weekend climb from 58th to tenth place.
“He jumped fantastic — we haven’t done a lot of shows in the spring, so I think a big occasion like that, suddenly he was jumping out of his skin,” he says.
Here’s a closer look at those climbs and score breakdowns in our final leaderboard, and you can check out the results in full here. Until next time: Go Eventing.