It’s been a seriously excellent week for reigning World Champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir, who returned to Blenheim to work on regaining their 2021 title and led from the offset, delivering the rider’s best-ever international score of 20.5 in the first phase, and adding nothing to it across the country, putting a couple of frustrating run-outs this season well behind them. They looked well on track to seal the deal today, jumping an almost balletic, effortless showjumping round — until the final fence rolled out of its cups.
“He’s very agile, and he’s super careful — and I’ll probably be analysing that video all winter, wondering what the hell went wrong,” says Yas with a laugh. “But that’s just horses, isn’t it? Some days you come out on top, and some days you don’t. But I’m very pleased; we’ve achieved everything we wanted to achieve, and now he can go in the field and have a nice holiday and we can get ready for next year.”
That rail pushed her down into a final second place, and allowed overnight runners-up Ros Canter and the ten-year-old Izilot DHI, who had jumped clear, to win, having added just 0.4 time penalties yesterday to their first-phase score of 21.6.
“I’m delighted, and not just with the result — I’m just so proud of him, how he’s dealt with the whole week, and how he jumped today, particularly with how sprightly he felt,” says the newly-minted World Number One, who stepped up into that top spot in the FEI rankings after winning the European Championships last month with Lordships Graffalo.
Her star mount this week is no less talented than Lordships Graffalo, but has been rather more mercurial throughout his career: in his eighteen FEI starts, he’s finished in the top ten eleven times, and won seven times, including in CCI4*-S classes at Blair last month and Burgham and Bramham last year — but he’s also had some high profile whoopsies, most notably at Bramham CCI4*-L this summer, when he had an early, spooky run-out on cross-country while leading the dressage.
But that, Ros explains, is just ‘Isaac’ — he’s a tricky, odd, exceptionally talented, weird horse who, she says, has taught her more than any other horse she’s ever ridden, and continues to do so every time she sits on him.
This week, though, he’s been at his very best, and proving that time, patience, and tact are so often the fundamental keys to a horse like this — even when they keep surprising you, as Isaac did for Ros today.
“He was quite picky and spooky today, which is his personality, but the last couple of times he’s done a three-day, he’s been a bit flatter for the showjumping,” she says. “Today, he felt strong and well, and so that was really exciting — that he’s getting stronger in his body, because he’s still a weak horse with lots more developing to come.”
That sprightliness didn’t come as a spanner thrown for Ros, who explains that “that’s generally how he is at a one-day — so I’m quite used to that feeling! I was able to give him a bit of work, and they had the zebra wings out in the warm-up, so we cantered a few circles around them — he still spooked at them when we got in the ring, though! But we were really able to stick to the plan, but it was lovely because I had a fresh horse under me.”
“I think it’s experience and strength and time. He’s ten, but when we bought him, he was running a year behind, really — I think he was picked out of the field as a three-year-old, but he was running with the two-year-olds, because he was a real runt.”
Bolstered by the proof in the pudding that her approach is working for the gelding, Ros is looking ahead to continued education, continued strengthening — but probably, she admits, no cessation of those funny little Isaac moments.
“I think those moments will still come!” she says. “This time of year is much easier for me, once he’s run a bit, the sun’s been on his back, and he’s been out in the field all the time — things like that. I think the spring will be difficult again next year, when he could easily go out to his first Open Intermediate and run out of something because there’s a wooden duck or something in the wrong place. That’s Isaac for you, and I’m not sure that’s going to change anytime soon. But I’m starting to get the hang of how to build him up for a big one where I really need his brain in the right place. I don’t think that’s something that I can have every week of his life.”
The key to moderating that mental pressure is something she’s still working out, but at the forefront of Ros’s mind all the time is adaptability.
“It’s certainly not about drilling him with hours and hours of work,” she says. “It’s just gradually getting him in the right place. Some days I just get off him and he goes back in the field, and when he comes back in we do another 15 minutes. He came in on Tuesday, and the weather was bad and it was much colder, and his eye was much sharper. When we were tacking up, he was on edge. When I rode him, he was on edge. And so I decided I’d come here on Wednesday via cross-country schooling, because out in a field, he tends to be more settled and I can just give him a pop and play with him. You maybe wouldn’t do that with most horses on the day the competition starts, but it wasn’t a cross-country school to train him, it was a cross-country school just to let him relax, to jump, to settle his mind so he stops spooking at silly things. So it’s just all about understanding him, and everybody on the floor, as well, has quite a job to do with him. If he’s in a bit of a sharp, feral mood, there’s no point getting frustrated. You’ve just got to give him all the time in the world. And if it takes two hours, it takes two hours. It can’t be, ‘we’ve only got 20 minutes, so that’s all we’ve got’ with him.”
The mark of a good long-format event is positive movement on the leaderboard — and sixteenth to third place is a pretty good run, all things considered. That leap was achieved by Harry Meade and the eleven-year-old Annaghmore Valoner, with whom he’s sharing his second season.
“She’s been brilliant — she’s got so much talent,” says Harry fondly of the mare, who finished on her dressage score of 30.6. “She’s a little bit of a hothead; she holds her breath, but she’s got all three phases, which very few horses do. She’s a beautiful mover, she’s got loads of blood and gallop, and she just oozes class. It’s really about just trying to get her to breathe, relax, and settle her, particularly on cross country, and just letting her sort of breathe and relax in the atmosphere for the showjumping.”
That relaxation has been centre stage of the Irish-bred mare’s performances all week, helping her to her best-ever FEI finish.
“She’s been really happy and very settled all week; she went beautifully in her test and was really, really easy cross-country,” he says. His major goal on course, he explains, wa simply to “set out on the cross country just in a relaxed gallop, so she could just go at speed but in an efficient, lobbing way as if we were going 20 miles, rather than four miles, just to almost switch her off. She was super.”
The format of this afternoon’s showjumping, which left a generous amount of space between each competitor, rather than sending riders into the ring as the prior round finished, was another great boon.
“It was nice having a little bit of time in there,” says Harry. “They weren’t rushing the competitors through, so you could do a half a lap of the arena. So she was really good — she’s in a very happy place. She’s got the talent. And if the mindset’s right, the training’s there, the talent is there, and they’re feeling confident and happy, then hopefully it all comes together.”
Next year, he explains, will be a chance to consolidate all that the mare has learned at four-star this season, without any rush to move up to five-star — Bramham, instead, looks the likeliest goal on the agenda.
“This is her first four-star long, so I’d look to consolidate. Bramham would be very much the aim; I always like to go to the tougher ones, and I think if you’ve got one that you think is a proper one, Bramham’s a really important stepping stone to prepare for the five-stars.”
That slow-and-steady approach to big things is a Harry trademark — and it’s paid dividends so far as he’s worked to get to know the mare after her production to CCI4*-S by Australia’s Sam Griffiths.
“Sam’s a great friend of mine, and we talked a lot about her — she definitely comes with her challenges,” laughs Harry. “Sam was really open about what he had felt, and I very deliberately took a season together last year to establish a partnership with her. We did lots and lots of events without any pressure at Intermediate, and a few Advanceds, but really, it was a whole season of Intermediate to just try and consolidate and establish a partnership. She’s come out this season and been amazing, so I’m hoping that that sort of foundation will really help her to crack on and do some great things — and she’s already started to.”
Tom McEwen and Brookfield Quality are only at the start of their partnership — this is their second FEI start together after he took over the ride from Piggy March — but already, it’s an incredibly exciting one. They’ve delivered in every phase; as the very last pair to perform their dressage test this week, they put a 26.6 on the board for fifth place; yesterday, they added 5.6 time penalties when Tom opted to give the horse an easy run in the back end of the course, dropping them to seventh; and today, they jumped a classy clear to move up again to fourth.
“What a lovely horse to have on the last day for showjumping,” says Tom. “He was acres clear and made it feel very easy, to be honest. He’s as straight as a die, he helps me out, and you can see how well he jumps — even if he sometimes does so uniquely! Norris is pretty cool on the last day.”
This is Norris’s first long-format since Blenheim in 2021, when he finished fifth with Piggy aboard.
“He’s come back out with only a handful of runs, and he’s been fantastic,” says Tom. “Bar me being a bit careful out the back [on cross-country] yesterday, he’d have quite comfortably finished on his dressage score. I’m delighted with him.”
Tom Rowland has been quietly racking up top-level mileage over the last few years, but since pairing up with the Chamberlayne family’s exceptional Dreamliner this year, it’s clear he’s finally found the horse that’ll help him prove to the world who he truly is. Dreamliner, who was bred by the Chamberlaynes, probably wouldn’t be every rider’s match — he has a tendency to be strong, for example, which means that he gels best with a rider who can view that as a net positive and work with, rather than against it — but with Tom aboard, he’s been thriving this season. They began their week in 29th place on a 32.1, climbed to sixth yesterday when adding nothing to that score, and then moved up another place to final fifth today when crossing the finish just one second over the time allowed, which marginally precluded a fourth-place finish.
“I’m really pleased,” says Tom, who inherited the ride from Oliver Townend over the winter, and was tackling his first long-format with the thirteen-year-old this week. “It’s frustrating to have a time-fault, and that’s something I’ve been working on with all my horses, so it’s a shame to drop a place, but if someone said at the beginning of the week that I would be double clear and fifth… I came here hoping to be top ten, but you never know what’s going to happen, do you? I’m so pleased with the result, and also that he seems to have come out really, really well — full of energy, and hopefully ready to go for next year and for us to get to know each other even more.”
Their result today means that they’ve netted themselves a qualification for five-star — and Tom hopes that Badminton might be an achievable goal for next spring’s season.
“I feel like that’s a realistic target,” he says, before acknowledging the significance of this week’s performance. “I’ve been top ten before at Boekelo, but I think this is my best four-long result, so I’m really pleased. I’m really trying to not just be an also-ran and up my results and be up with these people, so this gives me confidence.”
Piggy March was disappointed to tip a rail with last year’s eight- and nine-year-old class winner, the ten-year-old stallion Halo, which saw them relinquish their overnight third, which they’d risen to from ninth by adding just 0.8 time penalties yesterday to their first-phase 28.7, in exchange for a final sixth place.
“He jumped really well — he was very cute,” she concedes. “I always have time faults on him, because I can’t go too fast; he just gets a bit over his front, so it was always my plan to turn inside to number six. He jumped that really well, and it did bring him back to his hocks, but then it ended up being a quiet six, and it walks as five strides. It still felt like it wasn’t too bad, or unjumpable, or a big fat miss, but it did make it a tighter distance, and so we had it down.”
“It just feels like it might have been the day when I’d have been alright going on the outside line and moving him and keeping him freer,” she laments. “But he’s been amazing; the dressage was below his standards, because he made a couple of expensive mistakes, which he hasn’t done before — and today was my error, which irritates me, because I don’t mind if you do everything right and the horse has a mistake; it is what it is, but if you cock up yourself, it doesn’t sit so well with me.”
And what’s next to come for the talented, compact little Holsteiner by Humphrey? That, Piggy explains, is still up in the air.
“He was primarily bought to do a bit and then breed, and he hasn’t bred yet, so it’ll be a question of whether that affects him,” she says. “The discussions will be had, but I think he’ll either do one thing or the other; he’ll either not breed at all and carry on competing, or he’ll breed and probably be used for that a fair bit next year, and then I’ll try again with sport to see if his temperament is the same or if that’s changed it. He might be able to do both, but he didn’t start out doing both, so it could affect him very differently to others.”
25-year-old Felicity Collins and her five-star partner RSH Contend OR were fourth in this class a year ago, when they rerouted from Burghley, and though they might have been expected to have appeared on that Big B’s entry list this autumn, a return to Blenheim was, she explains, always part of her 2023 plan.
“We made the decision a long time ago to come here rather than Burghley,” says Felicity. “I’ve had quite a tough year with my mum [former five-star eventer Vicky Collins] being poorly; she’s been in hospital since just after Badminton, but we’d already decided before we went to Badminton that we wouldn’t do Burghley, because I knew she’d be in hospital.”
Managing the yard she ordinarily runs alongside her mother has been a huge focus for Felicity this season, but that enormous external stressor wasn’t the only uphill battle she faced this week.
“On Tuesday before we left, Frankie, my head girl, texted me saying ‘I’ve just come down really, really ill — I can’t come to Blenheim’,” she says. “My other half, Johnny, was like, ‘don’t worry! I’ll learn to muck out! It’s fine!’ — but then I started feeling really poorly on Tuesday evening, to the point that when Wednesday morning came, I could barely crawl out of bed. So Johnny drove us here and has been mucking him out, grooming him, feeding him, taking him for a graze — it was a bit touch and go, and I came out of my dressage test panting. Today’s the first day I’ve felt a little bit better.”
Though a torrent of rainfall fell before Felicity’s showjumping round, which made her worry whether Mickey might slip in the ring as we’d seen some of the CCI4*-S competitors do on the dewy grass early yesterday morning, he was foot-perfect and confident in his trajectories, delivering his nineteenth four-star double-clear, which allowed the pair to move up from overnight tenth (that, itself, a climb from first-phase 31st) to seventh.
“He was just, as usual, amazing,” she says. “He’s just unreal — it’s just such a privilege to ride a horse like him. The aim is for myself and Avrina Milton, who co-owns him, to just enjoy him and make the most of having a horse like him, because I probably won’t ever get another one like this.”
British-based Australian Sammi Birch coaxed a career-best result out of the mercurial but talented thirteen-year-old Finduss PFB, beginning the week well down in 48th place on a 34.4 and then climbing up, up, and away to a final eighth by finishing on that score.
“I’m delighted with his performance,” says Sammi, who last competed ‘Loopy Louis’ at Burghley last year before handing the reins over to New Zealand’s James Avery for the bulk of this season. “I’ve not long ago had a baby, so I’ve only had him back about four weeks, and I love him to pieces; he really deserves it. He’s really delivered this week — the jumping phases are normally his thing, but he really tried in the dressage and I just felt like I was putting on a pair of old slippers. I’m so happy. Normally I’m quietly confident in the jumping, but today I was actually quite nervous, just because I haven’t had him back long. But he got better and better as he went round, and there was a lot going on for him, but he seemed to cope with the atmosphere.”
China’s Alex Hua Tian has been forming an undeniably special partnership with the Polly Stockton-produced Chicko, which has seen the thirteen-year-old gelding take a runner-up spot in a hugely tough CCI4*-S at Chatsworth this spring and also help China to an Olympic berth at Millstreet’s qualifying event back in June. They began their week just a whisper outside the top ten in eleventh place, and climbed to fourth yesterday when adding just 0.4 time penalties across the country. Today, they hoped to elevate that standing again to a podium, but a frustrating pole in the final part of the combination meant they settled for a very respectable ninth instead.
“I’m a bit annoyed to have one down,” admits Alex, who rates the gelding as a really exciting prospect for the future — and understandably so. “He’s jumped so well all year, and he jumped so well in there, but every horse can have a fence somewhere if that’s the way the dice roll for you on the day. I felt he deserved to jump a double clear this week — he’s been tremendous. He’s very workmanlike, but he just puts his heart and soul into it.”
The top ten was rounded out by Italy’s Giovanni Ugolotti and his exciting new ride, Jo Preston-Hunt and Philip Hunt’s Florencina R, who climbed from first-phase 18th on a score of 30.8 to their exceptional finishing place on the strength of their classy clear yesterday, which saw them add just 4 time penalties, and a faultless showjumping round today. It’s an exciting first step onto the main stage for a horse who could have been awarded a special ‘who dat?’ prize for being an almost totally unknown entity to the wider eventing audience.
“She’s been off for quite a while, because no one could really figure out what was wrong,” he says. “She was here as a nine-year-old with Dan Jocelyn, but then she had a wind operation, and since then, she’s been off until the end of last season. My wife [Canadian eventer Kathryn Robinson] took her around a Novice, and then I took over the ride, because Kathryn is stepping down.”
Since then, the pair have won two of their three — now four — FEI runs, taking the CCI3*-S at Millstreet in June on their debut together and then winning the CCI4*-S at Mallow later that month.
“Then she came here and was just brilliant all weekend — I can’t fault her,” he says. Though the mare is now thirteen, she’s extraordinarily low-mileage; this is her first CCI4*-L, and, Giovanni says, “she’s still a little bit green at the level, but yesterday, she didn’t show any greenness. She’s ready to step up and be properly competitive at this level. I came here not really knowing what she was going to be like, but she was absolutely brilliant.”
Just one rail down saw US-based Kiwi Joe Meyer and Harbin climb to a final 21st place, up from first-phase 73rd, while two rails for Cali-based Australian Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II put them in a final 58th, up from first-phase 79th.
Stay tuned for plenty more news from Blenheim — and until then, Go Eventing!
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