Throughout the weekend here at the Barefoot Retreats Burnham Market International Horse Trials, we’ve seen the power balance shift in droves from one rider to another, again and again: from Piggy March on Friday, when she held first, second, third, fifth, and sixth over the two CCI4*-S sections after the first half of dressage, to Laura Collett, who sat first, first again, and second at the culmination of the phase. Today’s showjumping, and the tumultuous cross-country finale, would see this pattern of movement – and multi-horsed leaderboard dominance by a small handful of riders – continue.
The withdrawal of Laura Collett‘s horses after showjumping owing to the firm ground cleared the way for another sea change. Kitty King‘s 2018 Six-Year-Old World Champion made his CCI4*-S debut here last September, finishing third in the CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds, ordinarily held at Blenheim – and the now nine-year-old Selle Français has emerged this season looking even more established, strong, and balanced than he did in his previous impressive efforts.
This week, he sat ninth in section B after dressage on a score of 28.1 – just slightly marred by an unplanned halt in one of the walk pirouettes – before showjumping clear and producing a clear cross-country round three seconds inside the optimum time of 6:21 to take victory in just his second attempt at the level.
“He jumped a beautiful round in the showjumping and made it feel very easy. It’s easy to ride good rounds when you’re sitting on nice jumpers like that – you start to think ‘actually, I might be quite good!'” Kitty laughs. Having debuted the horse at the level over September’s more straightforward track, today’s run was both a test and a solidification of his experience at the level.
“On cross-country he was a wee bit green in a couple of places but really genuine; as long as I told him where he was going, he went,” she says. “We weren’t always the prettiest but he got the job done, and I was really proud of how he kept answering the questions even when he wasn’t sure what he was meant to be doing. I think he’ll have grown up a lot from the track – it’s given him a lot of experience.”
Kitty cites the Fairfax Sun Dials at 8AB – a table and a skinny element, situated on opposite ends of a quarry – as one of the tricky questions where the young horse could have faulted and instead made a greater effort to find his way through the flags.
“Because he’s a careful jumper, he was like, ‘ooh, there’s a drop down there’ – so then we ended up adding [a stride] going up to the sun dial, which made it a big effort jumping up the hill. It would have been easier for him, probably, to run out rather than to put in that big effort, so I was really pleased with how generous he was there. By the time he got to the corners [near the end of the course] he was flying; he had really grown in confidence [around the course] and understood what he was doing, basically.”
Second place went to Piggy March and Vanir Kamira, who climbed from 10th place after dressage after finishing on their first-phase score of 28.7. Though the pair, who won Badminton in 2019, are fiercely competitive at the five-star level, we’ve become used to seeing the experienced mare run intentionally conservatively at these short-format internationals.
“This isn’t really what we do with her, fly around one-days – but right now, we’re not sure what else is happening, and so if she’s competitive, now we do run her,” says Piggy. “Because what are we waiting for? What are we saving her for? I won’t run her much in the summer on the hard ground, so after this I’ll probably ease off her – then, hopefully Burghley will happen, and so we’ll work back from then [to make a season plan].”
The now sixteen-year-old mare looked fresh and keen on course, clocking up the fastest round of the day as she crossed the finish line ten seconds under the optimum time.
“She’s fast, and she doesn’t waste any time at her fences – she’s low and quick,” says Piggy. “She’s a really hot mare and gets herself quite worked up, so it’s usually all about [saving the fast runs for] Badminton and Burghley with her. But what do you do? Do you put them out in the field, do you just hacking and schooling every day? They’ve got to have an aim and stay in work so they don’t feel that they’ve retired. It’s frustrating, but it’s just where the sport is at for the moment – we just have to keep our fingers crossed for the back end of the year.”
Gemma Tattersall was one of the first riders of the day to take to the course, and she was the first to make the time, romping home one second inside it with Chris and Lisa Stone’s eleven-year-old Chilli Knight, who was third in Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S in 2019 and made his CCI5* debut at Pau last year. They climbed up to third place as a result, followed by a two-handed effort from Tom Jackson, who enjoyed a very good day in the office indeed when finishing on his dressage scores with Capel Hollows Drifts – fourth on 31.3 – and Billy Cuckoo – fifth on 32. This, plus a sixth place finish in section C with Fire Fly, who added just 1.2 time penalties to finish on a score of 36.4, should ensure a very jolly lorry ride home indeed.
The baton was passed between Burnham’s leading ladies in CCI4*-S section C, which was scooped by Piggy March with the former Emily King ride Dargun. They added nothing to their 26.9 dressage to step up from fourth place overnight.
“He was really cute – in all three phases I thought he was really cool,” says Piggy, who describes her dressage test on him on Friday as her ‘clear round’ of that day.
The win marks just their fourth FEI event together and follows a second place in the CCI4*-S at Little Downham in October – but today felt like the first time that they’d set out with the intention of being competitive, Piggy says.
“It’s fun for him – I haven’t really been that competitive with him. Last year was a building year for us as a partnership, and I felt this year that this is it. He’s come on so much.”
Part of building that partnership came down to managing a few health issues: the horse has historically been prone to tying up, which has taken time to accommodate.
“He’s very simple [to manage] in many ways, but inwardly we’d think, ‘is he still up for this?'” she explains. “But he felt great – he was really cute and very genuine, and he did the tricky fences really well.”
Piggy also nabbed fifth place in this section with Fonbherna Lancer, another relatively new ride and one previously piloted by Izzy Taylor. They lowered a pole and added a time fault in showjumping and coasted home with two time penalties across the country, pulling them up from just outside the top ten after dressage.
“He was wobbly at the harder ones, but he was genuine and went,” says Piggy, who confesses with a laugh that she ‘did a big miss’ in the showjumping on the horse.
“He was jumping so well, and I keep having a jump down on him – which I shouldn’t because he’s a great jumper. He jumped one, two, and three, and he was a foot over them, so I thought ‘shit, he’s on great form, this feels amazing!’ I didn’t even have to do anything – I just pointed him at the fence and he was being brilliant. So I was floating along thinking ‘don’t get a time fault!’ and so I floated to a floaty distance and kicked the rails all the way out…what a knob I felt like!”
If it all sounds like the cross-country was rather too easy today, rest assured: today’s track, designed by Alec Lochore, boasted a nearly 75% clear round rate but caused plenty of high-profile problems. The most influential fence? The first water jump, which featured a robust house as the A element, a collapsible upright in the water as the B element, and then an achingly tricky left-handed turn to a brush corner, the line to which was made more difficult by the placement of decorative barrels on the approach. Experienced and inexperienced horses alike found themselves pushed off their intended line by the barrels, and run-outs to the right-hand side were seen in abundance, prompting more and more riders to opt for the long route, which could be tackled by swinging outside the barrels and jumping back over the other corner of the brush, or by hairpin turning right and then left to meet the ‘direct’ side of the obstacle. One of the most high-profile faulters here was Piggy’s Brookfield Inocent, winner of the Blenheim CCI4*-L in 2019 and second at Pau last year, who spooked at the barrels and wasn’t able to find his line again as a result.
“He’s probably one of the best cross-country horses I’ve ever had, and sometimes I feel like I sit there like I’m on rails,” she says. “But he’s also a spooky, hardy little sod at times, and I think he just made the first two jumps through the water really easily, and made the turn nicely, and just sat there really quietly – and then he took a spook at the barrels. It was bugger-all to do with the fence – the moment you jink at that particular jump, and you’re a meter away on the inside line, the fence is near-on impossible to jump. You can’t even see it as a fence, because you’re too much on the wall of it.”
But, says Piggy, “I half smiled at it, because I think you can put them on pedestals, but they’re not machines – and it’s probably the best kick up my ass I could have. You think, ‘oh my god, that just happened on that horse’ – but then I thought, ‘well, I was cantering around like I was on rails, thinking, do I run, do I not; we’ve had a rail, we’re not competitive…’, and so I wasn’t quite in the zone. So it was rider error, to be honest, but it was that kick up the ass that I needed. And then I got on [Fonbherna Lancer], and he’s greener, and I thought, don’t just think it’s all just going to happen – make it happen.”
Kitty King followed up her win in section B with a second place finish in this section, this time riding her more experienced partner Vendredi Biats. The 2019 Bramham CCI4*-L winner has taken some time to master this phase, and it hasn’t been for lack of talent: instead, it’s been a product of his natural ebullience and cheeky nature, which has caused some focus issues in the past.
“I was really chuffed with him,” says Kitty, who expressed some disappointment in her first-phase mark of 27.5 but added nothing to it in the jumping phases.
“He consistently pulls out clear rounds [in the showjumping], so you go into the ring thinking ‘well, unless I miss, he should go clear'”, she says. That clear round was then followed by an enthusiastic penalty-free sprint across the country.
“He was very keen on cross-country, and a bit stronger than he usually would be, but I was really pleased with him because when he’s fresh, like he was today, he can be a bit on the cheeky side. I thought there were plenty of places on the course that if he was feeling that bit cheeky, he could have been a monkey. He gave me a really good ride and felt really good through all the tricky combinations – and he finished really fresh, too. When I was pulling up he spooked [going past] fence two and I nearly fell off. That’s just his character – whereas [Cristal Fontaine] pulled up like ‘oh my god, what just happened?’, this one was pricking around and spooking about. At least he waited until he’d finished!”
Kitty’s two excellent results are particularly welcome after a tumultuous end to her 2020 season, which saw her tumble from Vendredi Biats in her final prep run before Pau, from which she ultimately withdrew.
“I felt we needed to come out and prove that that was just a blip – all of last season, as short as it was, I hadn’t had a cross-country fault, and I felt like I was riding really well for a change, because I’m always really critical of how much I take a check here and there. So then I went to Little Downham and had a disaster, and I went to Thoresby and had 20 penalties on a really nice six-year-old, and a 20 in the six-year-olds at Le Lion – and I just thought, ‘I wish I’d quit [while I was ahead]’,” she says. “It all just fell apart for whatever reason, and it makes you doubt yourself – so it’s nice to come out and say it was just a blip and it was just a bad day.”
Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around won here in September in the Blenheim replacement’s CCI4*-L feature class, and like Vendredi Biats, the result had come after some wobbles on the road to the top. But as Izzy lamented to EN yesterday, wobbles are part of the process – it’s just that most young horses get to make their educational mistakes well out of the spotlight. A third place finish here today – which they claimed after adding a solitary pole to their 25.9 dressage – proves that last year’s return to form wasn’t a fluke.
Oliver Townend follows his partner Izzy on the leaderboard, landing fifth place with the experienced MHS King Joules, who returns this season after taking sixth at Pau last year. It’s rather an unfamiliar position for Oliver at this event – he tends to use Burnham Market’s spring fixture as a prep run for his top horses’ early-season long-format efforts, but with both Cooley Master Class and Ballaghmor Class already in Kentucky, it was a weekend for his second string to take precedence. And so his usually unassailable grip on the Burnham Market crown was loosened – and a surprise fall from withdrawn Kentucky entry Tregilder early on in the course saw it slacken further. Nevertheless, he still took a victory elsewhere: he won the CCI3*-S aboard his 2020 Le Lion d’Anger ride Cooley Rosalent, who looks set for an extraordinary upper-level career.
That’s all from us from a jam-packed three days at Burnham Market – and now, it’s full steam ahead to Kentucky. We’ll see you in the Bluegrass state.