As it turns out, you can put a price on success. Or two of them, actually, as long as those prices are actually Prices and those successes are actually the tangible culmination of a lifetime of intensely hard work, ineffable dreams, and a partnership deeply rooted in mutual ambitions, respect, and most of all, love: love for the sport, with all its inevitable ups and downs, love for the horses around whom everything orbits, and love, at the end of the day, for one another.
Does it seem a bit emotional and frivolous to talk about something as unknowable as love when we’re looking at something as grounded in cold, hard facts as eventing? Maybe. But at the end of the day, it’s the time spent on the immeasurables — the marginal gains in training that no one ever sees, the raw will to win that pushes horses and riders through seemingly career-ending injuries, the unquenchable passion that carves a path through the worst of times — that has the most effect on the measurables. Without love, and all its many shapes and forms, you don’t have numbers. You don’t have stats. You don’t have wins.
When Tim Price and Jonelle Richards, as she was known then, relocated to the UK from New Zealand in 2005, it was entirely on the strength of those immeasurables that they did so. Could they have, even then, anticipated that some thirteen years down the line, every sacrifice they had made would come good? Perhaps not — but then, perhaps sometimes you keep that flame of self-belief quietly flickering away, season after season.
So much has already been said about Jonelle Price’s incredible 2018 season: a first-ever — and long overdue — four-star victory at Badminton, swiftly followed up by another at Luhmühlen. But Tim has been quietly racking up some very good results indeed through the year, with a win in Blair Castle’s CCI3*, a second-place finish in Jardy’s ERM leg, and, of course, his nomination to the New Zealand World Equestrian Games team alongside Jonelle. But a major result? Well, that had narrowly eluded him.
When we talk about horses who are household names — in eventing families, at least — we’re often talking about four-star winners and Olympic medallists. But sometimes — as in the case of Classic Moet prior to Jonelle’s Badminton victory — we’re speaking of those perpetually consistent top-level horses, the triers, the ones who dig deep time, and time, and time again, with all the guts but just falling short of the glory. Some horses just deserve a four-star win. Ringwood Sky Boy is one of them.
Thirty-nine horses went forward to today’s showjumping test, but only eight of those produced clear rounds. Of those eight, only three were clear with no time penalties. In the morning’s session, not a single combination produced a clear round. Tim and Oz, as he’s known at home, had led after cross country, moving up from second after the dressage after coming home just a second over the optimum time on yesterday’s cross country course. He came into today’s showjumping test with a lead of just over half a penalty point, giving him no margin for error at all — but Ringwood Sky Boy, like Classic Moet before him, isn’t known for his showjumping prowess. In fact, he’d only ever jumped one clear showjumping round in a four-star, out of nine completions. Statistically, it wasn’t a matter of if they’d pull a fence — it was a matter of how many they’d send to the floor.
The answer? None, nada, rien, nichego, niente. At the moment when it mattered most, they stayed fluid and communicative over a course that confounded much more reliable showjumpers, and they made it happen. Just as Jonelle and Classic Moet produced their first clear showjumping round in an international in four years to win Badminton, Tim and Oz defied every crunched number, produced the goods, and became the 2018 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials champions.
“He’s the sort of horse who deserves a big day, but he’s one of those who’s usually sort of in the mix somewhere in the class with a couple of good peaks during his competition,” said Tim, the easy grin he’s known for writ large on his face. “But to pull it all together in one week has been exceptional, and I couldn’t be more proud of him. Varenna Allen, his owner, makes a big effort to be everywhere with him, and it’s just a massive team effort. It wouldn’t be the same without the people in the sport and the team — I look for somebody to have a joke with on the way into the arena, because we’re all friends here.”
For Tim, who also finished in tenth place aboard Bango, Burghley has long been the domain of the legends of the sport — legends who, whether he’s realised it or not, he’s carved a place for himself alongside.
“It’s always been a dream to do Burghley, ever since watching Andrew, Toddy, Blyth and those guys. We got inspired as youngsters, watching it on the television. To be doing it is unbelievable — beyond my wildest dreams,” he said. “It’s everything, isn’t it — it’s Burghley! I like to think of myself as a very natural rider; a horseman who’s just going through the motions of the competition. That’s my background — I work with young horses from the bottom on up, and I just look at Burghley as a place that exemplifies all of that. So to come here and to win it is pretty cool. It’s going to take a while to sink in. It’s amazing — amazing.”
It’s easy to forget the incredible work ethic that Tim, Jonelle, and their backstage team — ably helmed by head girl Lucy Miles — possess, particularly when their ceaseless positivity and good humour make it all look, frankly, rather relaxed, but it’s hard work that’s gotten the team here, and it’s hard work that engineered today’s clear round, too. From the winters spent showjumping on Spain’s Sunshine Tour to the expertly-managed fitness regimes that allow their horses to recover so well from efforts like yesterday’s, nothing is left to chance.
“I’m super proud of my horse for jumping a clear round; he had a couple of taps, but I’m happy with those sort of taps because they weren’t big, klutzy moments – they were just him trying hard,” said Tim about his horse’s performance. “It’s tough to crack the showjumping on that particular horse — he throws his heart over first, and sometimes his head gets left behind. It’s a challenging course, and Oz had given his all the day before and we really needed to work for that. I changed how I was going to ride the middle line after my round on Bango. But they’re different horses — you’ve just got to take your experience and ride them accordingly.”
Oz, who came to Tim as an ‘unruly’ six-year-old with a penchant for rearing and bolting, was never intended to stay at Mere Farm — in fact, he spent four years trying to sell him on and recoup the £3,000 he’d paid for him. But now? He wouldn’t be without him.
“He’s a character around the yard, and he’s the first horse I go and say hello to every morning. He’s got his special scratches, where he does this giraffe thing with his neck. He’s just been here so long, and he’s so happy, but that’s not necessarily the sort of horse that goes and wins these things.”
Just one second over the optimum time on yesterday’s course precluded Tim and Oz from delivering the second FOD of the competition.
“That’s a disappointment, isn’t it?” he joked. “I’ll have to go home and work on it. I’m sure we’ll talk about it in the car on the way back!”
Last year’s winners Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class might have pulled a rail, but it didn’t drop them a single placing — in fact, it only served to give Tim the slimmest of margins to have his own rail, if needed. The eleven-year-old gelding, who has now been 1st, 2nd, and 5th in his three starts at the level, produced one of the two fastest rounds of the day yesterday, coming in eight seconds within the optimum time of 11:11.
“It’s very special to have him here again,” said a delighted Oliver. “I’ve had him since the word go, and he’s been tricky — I still gave to be careful with him when he’s fresh! — but with extreme talent come the quirks. Last year he came here and won it out of pure naivety — this time, he came and felt like he knew the job. He became a professional this year. There’s always something you can improve on, but I’m so happy — he couldn’t have given any more. To be consistent and to give better and better performances — that’s really special.”
Oliver, who admits that he’s often guilty of “keeping my head down and staying quiet”, has a special place in his heart for the tricky but talented son of Courage II. (Incidentally, this makes Ballaghmor Class a half-brother to winner Ringwood Sky Boy — they share the same sire.)
“He has the main box in the yard,” smiled Oliver. “It doesn’t matter which window I’m looking out of; I can always see Thomas, even from the bathroom! He’s the first horse I look at in the morning and the last horse I see at night. He’s as special a horse as I’ve ever ridden.”
Oliver, who came to the competition with three rides, finished it with just two after withdrawing MHS King Joules before this morning’s final horse inspection. Cooley SRS finished 12th, adding a pole in the final phase but climbing a placing from his cross-country result. For the incomparably hard-working rider, piloting multiple horses is old hat — but it still has its effect on him.
“Honestly, at this stage, it’s a big relief — I’m quite glad it’s over!” he said. “I couldn’t be happier with my horses; they’ve been unbelievable all week and their form through the year is just unbelievable. And that doesn’t just happen overnight. Full credit to their owners — it takes time to get to this point and I just kept on saying, ‘wait, just wait, we’ll get there.’ It’s very special, and I’m very proud to be on them.”
Second place to a Price is not a new experience for Oliver, who lost out on the final leg of the Rolex Grand Slam to Jonelle at Badminton, but the pragmatic Yorkshireman, for all his blunt exterior, is quick to celebrate his fellow competitors’ successes.
“I’ve got to congratulate Tim — that family has been in my backside all year!” he laughed.
One of the most impressive performances across the week’s competition came from third-placed Swallow Springs, ridden by five-time Burghley winner Andrew Nicholson. The four-star debutante began his week in 16th place, after a test that Andrew felt was harshly marked by the ground jury, but an exceptional clear round inside the time across the country catapulted the pair into fifth place. Today, another double-clear shot them to third — and made them the only pair in the competition to finish on their dressage score.
“I’m very pleased with him; he couldn’t have done any better, and I don’t think I could have done any better,” said Nicholson of the eleven-year-old, known at home as ‘Chill’. “I’m lucky to have some very supportive owners; after my injury [in 2015] they were happy for me to downsize my string a bit and send some of the horses to Oliver. The ones that are left are the ones I think are really special.”
Chill, who finished a very impressive second in Bramham’s CCI3* in June, has always shown four-star potential to the vastly experienced Kiwi stalwart.
“I left home thinking that if he could go the way he can, and if I did my job, we were in with a pretty good chance of winning the thing,” he said. “All credit to him — he let me ride him, and he let me tell him what to do. It was a bit rough and ragged at times, but it happened.”
Andrew originally got the ride on Chill because he bucked badly, but now, he says, the horse is a ‘pussycat’ at home. When the youngster arrived on his Wiltshire yard, however, he didn’t have a name — and so Andrew chose Swallow Springs, a nod to Swallowhead springs in nearby Avebury. All starting to sound rather wonderfully sentimental? As it turns out, Chill isn’t the only pussycat in Wiltshire. But could this talented grey in fact be the next Avebury?
“Well, sure — he’s the right colour!” laughed Andrew.
Sarah Bullimore‘s Reve du Rouet is one of the most topsy-turvy, back-and-forth, Jekyll and Hyde horses in upper-level eventing — but for all that, he’s phenomenally talented and, as he proved this week, when he comes good, he comes very good indeed. They managed one of the very few clear showjumping rounds inside the time today to finish fourth.
“He’s been amazing — he’s a phenomenal jumper, but sometimes things do get the better of him at an event,” said Sarah. “He’s so talented, but he often has one or two things right and the rest goes out the window.”
Last year’s runners-up Piggy French and Vanir Kamira were one of the primary contenders for the Burghley title, sitting in third place going into today’s final phase, but it wasn’t to be, and a heartbreaking rail shunted them down the order to finish fifth.
“To be honest, I think I was quite lucky to just have one — there were a few rubs out there, so I’ll take that,” said Piggy. “Of course we’re disappointed, but it was nice to know that we can both do it and take confidence in each other again.”
Vanir Kamira once again won the prize for the best-placed mare, which gives Piggy the opportunity to take embryo transfers from her talented partner. Le Lions of the future: watch out.
Buck Davidson finished the best of the Americans, pulling two rails with Park Trader to finish seventeenth in the horse’s first Burghley.
“He was a little bit fractious as I went in there, so I didn’t really get his focus back for the third fence,” explained Buck. “I had hoped to do something a bit different at the triple bar to the treble combination — everyone else had the back rail down in the middle, and I had the front, so I managed to do exactly that!”
Buck took over coaching duties for fellow American Lillian Heard this week, after her own trainer Boyd Martin withdrew and couldn’t make the journey over. She finished 37th with LCC Barnaby, adding her first Burghley completion to her resume and finishing with two rails.
“Lillian’s a super girl and she rides great, especially since her horse isn’t the easiest,” said Buck. “I don’t know that I did very much but it was great having her on the team this week.”
Lillian, for her part, was delighted to tick the Burghley box and took plenty away from her experience.
“You’ve got to keep your cool in there — confidence is a huge part of that. I was in a position where I didn’t have much to lose, so I could go in there and practice — and that’s exactly what I did. It’s been a funny week — I was disappointed with our dressage, really disappointed with that 20, but the happiest that I had a sound horse this morning, and thrilled with how he came out and show jumped, so you have to be happy with that! We’ll aim for Kentucky in the spring — although I’d love to do Badminton if we could get a grant.”
Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 also added two rails to finish 36th: “She was actually jumping great, like she had springs in her feet, but she got a bit strong to the treble and the third element came down. I probably moved up a bit more than I should have. She just feels a bit proud of herself now — she likes having people in the crowd; it doesn’t worry her at all. Now we’re going to aim for Badminton — if we can afford it!”
So that brings us to the conclusion of our Burghley coverage — it’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but we couldn’t be more delighted with the end result for the Price clan, and for all those hard-working horses, riders, grooms, and connections who came together to make their dreams happen this week. We’ll be bringing you a reporter’s notebook in the next few days with all the bits and pieces that didn’t make the report — we’ll look forward to reliving Burghley in all its glory with you then.
Until then, raise a glass to House Price, rulers of the realm — and, as always, GO EVENTING!