Allow us, if you will, to set the scene: you’re at Houghton International Horse Trials, sprawled in the sun-soaked grass amid a crowd of merry picnickers. In your hand, there’s an ice cream; in the other, your phone sits limp and lifeless, unable to pick out even an iota of signal as you halfheartedly attempt to upload a shot of the water jump to your Instagram story. Vaguely, languidly, you contemplate picking your way through the sea of bare, winter-whitened legs to the nearest gin bar, but then your attention is diverted by a welcome announcement: William Fox-Pitt has just taken the Houghton CCIO4*-S title. Life feels blissfully, gloriously like it’s 2013 again.
You don’t actually have to dig that far back into the Before Times to find William’s last four-star victory, though it’s been a not inconsiderable stretch: we watched him romp his way to Barbury victory back in 2017 aboard the former Jock Paget ride Clifton Signature, and before that, he took the top spot in Hartpury’s CCI4*-S with Bay My Hero. He’s also hardly been on poor form over the last few seasons, with placings at the likes of Blenheim, Blair, Le Lion d’Angers and, of course, at Badminton, where Jennifer Dowling’s Little Fire finished ninth on his debut in 2019. And so while taking a mid-season CCI4*-S victory aboard the twelve-year-old Hanoverian might not be the be-all and end-all for horse and rider’s 2021 season, it’s still, as William tells us, really rather nice to be back on top.
“It was a nice surprise,” he says. “I was coming here because it had rained and the ground was good, and we don’t know where else we’ll get to run them — so we thought, let’s make the most of it and get him here. Of course I’d hoped to do well, and he’s a good horse, so I don’t really feel he needs to win to prove himself – but sometimes it’s nice to win!”
Though seeing William – a rider with fourteen five-star victories to his name – atop the winner’s podium is hardly a rarity, these short-format wins tend to rely on quick, pedal-to-the-metal runs, and William has always tended towards using them as educational rounds to springboard his horses to long-format competitions, where he can then run to beat the clock and preserve their legs in the process. His run today was one of just twelve inside the time in a field of eighty-nine starters, but it wasn’t because he’d changed his tactics; instead, he says, it was a bonus that came as a result of the horse’s experience.
“He’s very easy and a very straightforward horse [to ride across the country]; he doesn’t pull, so he doesn’t waste any time,” he explains. “He was quite surprised that today I was saying ‘get on with it’ – he was thinking ‘really? Surely this is plenty fast enough!’ I haven’t really ridden him fast since he did Badminton in 2019, so today was quite a surprise. I thought I would get some time faults, so I was quite relaxed around the course and taking my time, but he was still inside the time. I haven’t been inside the time in a CCI4*-S in about ten years! It’s never one of my goals.”
Just five starters failed to complete today’s cross-country test, and Alec Lochore’s course boasted an 83% clear rate – but throughout the day it still proved highly influential, with experienced horses such as Oliver Townend’s Tregilder and Sarah Bullimore’s Conpierre, lying third at the start of the day, picking up surprise penalties through the day. Ultimately, time would prove to be the most significant factor, allowing for major leaderboard gains and losses and, as such, a final top ten that looked very different than its starting point. But, says William, it was a challenge that Little Fire – the top horse in his string — found well within his comfort zone. That capability was bolstered by William’s position at the tail end of the running order, which meant that he was able to leave the start box in the leading spot and well aware of the eleven seconds he had in hand to stay there.
“I thought I would use up all of them,” he admits. “But he’s a quick horse, it was a nice course, and there was lovely ground – so we just rather enjoyed ourselves, which is nice. But you shouldn’t say that, should you? Normally, with winning, enjoyment doesn’t really come into that!”
Second place went to Selina Milnes and Iron IV, whose long-awaited five-star debut has been thwarted several seasons in a row by an unfortunate combination of rider injury and a global pandemic. But today’s run proved that the pair haven’t been waiting in the wings for nothing, as the bold, big-striding gelding soared around the course to ultimately finish on their dressage score of 30 and nab their best-ever placing at this level.
“Everything’s gone to plan, really,” she says of her week with the 12-year-old Belgian-bred gelding. “He jumped super [in the showjumping] and while his dressage still could be better, and he’s capable of so much more, it all went as planned. He has such a massive stride that I used to think I was going faster than I was, and I’d protect him a bit in that I wouldn’t take him fast anywhere – but now, you can really go.”
Now it’s time for another reroute for the horse, who had been one of over forty British entries in next month’s Luhmühlen CCI5*, which has seen a major reduction in the running order after Germany closed its borders to travellers from the UK in response to a surge in COVID cases.
“His five-star campaign keeps getting pushed back; he was entered at Burghley and then I broke my leg, and then he was entered for Badminton,” she says. “He’s entered for Bicton but he needs to go to a five-star, to be honest.”
Considering the scarcity of runs available over the last year or so, and the fact that Iron IV didn’t begin eventing until his six-year-old year, his trajectory up the levels has been an impressive one, and one that’s helped by his bold, forward-thinking, attacking cross-country style. But that presence and ferocity is saved for when he’s out on course: on the ground, he’s a rather more timid character.
“He’s quite quiet and likes his own space; he doesn’t like to be fussed and doesn’t want to be cuddled,” she says. “But then you get somewhere like this and he’s towing you around – until he sees a tractor or something like that, which he hates!”
Bubby Upton is one of Britain’s finest young talents, and she once again demonstrated her strength as a cross-country rider while piloting eleven-year-old Magic Roundabout to a faultless round and third place in his CCI4*-S debut. Originally produced by Laurence Hunt and then campaigned to CCI3*-S by Kiwi rider Hannah Norvill, Magic Roundabout joined Bubby’s enviable string in 2020 and has enjoyed four top-twenty finishes at three-star since. His most recent run in the CCI3*-S at Kelsall Hill showed a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come from this horse, with a fifth place finish rewarding a sub-30 dressage and two quick, clear rounds, but this week’s effort – which saw him finish easily and confidently on his dressage score of 30.7 – will certainly cement him as one to watch as the season unfolds in earnest.
China’s Alex Hua Tian was understandably rueful after picking up six time penalties across the country with Jilsonne van Bareelhof, an expensive addition that cost him the win. But regardless of whether he’d walked away with a placing or the win, more notable and impressive is the gelding’s unusual career trajectory. Originally produced to Novice level by Kevin McNab, he’s spent the last few year’s in Alex’s programme allowing his undeniable all-round abilities to be nurtured while ensuring his management needs are catered for – all of which means that he’s only run internationally a handful of times. That this, his fifth international completion, was so nearly a major victory is a testament to Alex’s astuteness in making the decision to produce the horse as a CCI4*-S specialist, where his talents can so evidently shine.
“Other than my grumpiness, I’m delighted with the horse,” says Alex, who led after the first day of dressage and became the de facto leader once again after the showjumping phase following the withdrawal of Kitty King and Vendredi Biats. “He jumped everything that was in front of him and it’s the first time I’ve really asked him to go fast, ever. I’ve always gone around with the handbrake on a bit.”
Riding with a more determined eye on the time allowed Alex the valuable opportunity to test his horse’s reaction time and rideability at speed – a useful fact-finding mission and teachable moment after an unfortunate 20 at Burnham Market, when ‘Chocs’ settled into his natural, open-strided rhythm and failed to see a skinny C element. Today, Alex worked to create lines that offered each question as evidently as possible. This gave Chocs every chance to prove his genuine, game nature, but also meant that he had to work harder to establish a competitive galloping rhythm between fences.
“After his little duck-out at Burnham Market, I did just have it in the back of my head that I wanted to present everything to him really fairly and obviously, and he jumped everything really well,” explains Alex. “It’s just the first time that he’s gone that quickly, and the first time he’s ended up galloping a bit out of his comfort zone, which gave him a bit of a shock. It surprised me, too, because I just sort of assumed that he had endless gallop in him – but I think he’ll have learned a lot from the experience.”
Those lessons learned now will likely pay dividends down the line, when big-money opportunities such as the Event Rider Masters classes return – but for now, Chocs is learning the art of balancing speed, enthusiasm, and accuracy with the help of runs like today’s.
There were quite a few combinations that expected you to run down to them and take a bit of a risk,” Alex says, citing the table to two corners at 7 and 8AB that offered the option of a bold, attacking four and four strides, but could be ridden as a much more conservative five and five. “The four down to the triple brush was pretty demanding, and some of those lines will really suit him in the future because he covers the ground so easily – but you also worry that he could just flash right past it.”
Oliver Townend was kept busy with several rides through the day in each international class, but his best placing in the CCIO4*-S came with a horse that isn’t actually part of his string. The thirteen-year-old KWPN Davinci III is actually the top horse of Sam Ecroyd, who has temporarily handed the reins to Oliver as he recovers from a nasty fall sustained a few weeks ago. Oliver, who’s no stranger to picking up new rides and getting the job done, has also recently deputised for Sam’s girlfriend, Emily King, who broke her hand just before Sam’s fall, leaving the couple with a surplus of horses needing outings and a too scant few functional bodies around to compete them. Oliver, who competed the horse briefly in 2017, was likely rather pleased to get the chance to try him out again at a higher level — and that enthusiasm was rewarded with a fifth place finish after adding just 0.4 time penalties to their first-phase score of 30.7.
Integrated into the class was the first leg of the 2021 FEI Nations Cup series, which Great Britain duly won on an aggregate score of 98.5. Such was the strength of the home side’s efforts that two team members – Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden and Tom McEwen and Zara Tindall’s Class Affair – were able to make giant leaps up the leaderboard to finish in eighth and ninth place, respectively. Though Nations Cup glory will hardly be the Brits’ first priority in a year that features both an Olympics and a European Championships, the series is still a highly prestigious one and a great chance for Britain to exercise its considerable strength in depth ahead of the championships to come. The takeaway? Perhaps more so than in any prior seasons, all other nations have plenty to fear from the British invasion.
And with that, we’ll let the sun set on a spectacular week at the Saracen Horse Feeds Houghton International Horse Trials. Until next time, Go Eventing!