It’s not a wholly enviable job to design an upper-level cross-country course in the most normal of times: as a designer, you have an incredible number of variables to consider when creating a track that does the job of meeting a multitude of demands. Will it challenge the upper echelon of competitors sufficiently to ensure this pivotal phase is the most influential? Will it nurture and educate those who are there to learn or produce, minimising risk for those who falter along the way? Does it take into account its placement in the season and the place it’s likely to occupy in competitors’ various grand plans? Will it make best use of the ground, the undulations, and whatever weather might be thrown its way? And, because spectator interest is crucial, will it entertain?
Taking these considerations into account and factoring in a fractured season and a reallocation of venue is an eye-wateringly mammoth task, but that’s exactly what the Musketeer Events team signed up for when they offered up Burnham Market — which ordinarily runs national-level classes and internationals up to CCI4*-S — as the Blenheim Palace replacement this year. In doing so, they granted the UK its only CCI4*-L of 2020, while giving the prestigious eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S a platform to run. But to say that there was no scepticism among the assembled competitors would be almost a discredit to organiser and course designer Alec Lochore and his team.
To understand the tonal shift at the event, it’s important to understand the event itself. Unlike Blenheim Palace, which is nestled in Oxfordshire countryside on very different ground, and which is only used for its showpiece event each year, Burnham Market is set in north Norfolk. Here, preparation is a different beast altogether: the facility has no access to a water source for round-the-clock saturation of the ground, and strong coastal winds ensure that any rainfall is dried up before it has a chance to penetrate. The ground, in its natural state, is very firm, the flat Norfolk countryside doesn’t offer up much in the way of useful undulations, and logistically, the event team didn’t have the long-term infrastructure of a constantly-developing long-format cross-country course to refine and fiddle with.
On walking the course yesterday, the general conversation among competitors wasn’t entirely inspiring. The ground jarred underfoot, much of the course was deemed too small to be impactful, while some of the combinations were thought to be trappy rather than encouraging and challenging in a positive way. But overnight, Alec’s team got to work with their stable of machinery — which must be used as close to running time as possible for maximum effect — and today’s competition dawned with an entirely different mood. Where parts of the track had felt unforgivingly firm the day prior, today they had more give — and all that would remain to be seen was how the course itself would ride.
In life and in eventing, things are not always as they seem. As the first few competitors on course sailed through the finish flags with easy, flowing clear rounds under their belt, it became evident that the course, upon walking, was one of those things. Those combinations that had walked as being trappy proved to largely come up in a fair and natural rhythm, and while the argument can still stand that many of the dimensions were on the small side and the time was altogether too easy to get, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind: this isn’t Blenheim. It can’t be Blenheim. 2020 has stripped horses and riders of runs, and a CCI4*-L course that would ordinarily suit the needs of late-season competitors would have verged on causing unnecessary risk in a year like this. If Burnham Market was a soft CCI4*-L today, it’s because its purpose wasn’t to showcase the sport at its most challenging and exciting: it was to give combinations the chance to run over 10 minutes, which provides an educational opportunity and a chance to build long-lasting stamina in a way that no amount of trips to the gallops possibly could.
80 combinations came forward to tackle this phase today after a small handful of overnight withdrawals. 75% — or 60 — of them would go clear without adding jumping penalties; 5%, or 4 combinations, would complete with jumping penalties, and 20%, or 16, would not complete the course. 37 of those who completed, or 46% of starters, would come home clear inside the time, indicating a course that perhaps wasn’t enormously influential — but the reactions of riders after completing, as opposed to many of the reactions after walking yesterday, was markedly more positive.
“[The organisers] said at the beginning of the week that they’d get it right by cross-country day, and I really do think they did,” says Nicola Wilson. ” It rode really well for both my horses, and it felt exactly the same — so credit where credit is due; they absolutely got it right.”
Despite a slightly rocky four-star record, which has seen the horse make green mistakes on several occasions, Izzy Taylor‘s former Six-Year-Old World Champion Monkeying Around jumped a more mature clear round inside the time to stay in the top spot as we head into tomorrow’s final horse inspection and showjumping — though Izzy’s own cross-country prowess certainly played a huge advantage when they pair had a slightly sticky ride through the final water combination.
“He didn’t really feel like he’d read it coming in, so we added to be safe – but he was very good, and very confident, with his ears pricked. He enjoyed the job,” says Izzy, who praised the efforts made to the ground. For her, this run represents something of a turning point in the gelding’s education.
“I’m very pleased with how he coped with today – we didn’t have the smoothest run with him last year, but he’s only nine and it’s easy to forget that when you’ve had them from the word go and they’re successful [early on]. He managed to adjust himself when needed today and didn’t get worried about anything.”
Nicola Wilson holds onto two spots in the top ten, sitting second with JL Dublin and fifth with the more experienced Bulana after producing clear rounds inside the ten-minute optimum time with both.
“I’ve enjoyed the last few days enormously,” she says with a smile. Both horses also ran in the CCI4*-S at Burgham, which was Nicola’s first competition back at the level since a mid-summer injury last year put her out of action for the latter half of the season.
“Bulana’s experienced at this level, but with her not having done very much [over the last year] it was fantastic to come to a long-format and just have a lovely run round a course like this,” she says. “She gave me a lovely feel from start to finish. It was a quick round, and for the first couple of minutes I was thinking, ‘steady!’ but she gave me a great ride.”
The less-experienced JL Dublin, who finished fourth in the CCI4*-S at Bramham last year, set himself up well for a potential career-best result when he made easy work of his CCI4*-L debut — despite some confusion about the relative length of the course.
“We turned to come to the final water and he started trotting — I think he thought he’d finished,” laughs Nicola. “It took me by surprise a little bit, but he has so much power that we popped through it. He’s quite a dude and we think a great deal of him — he’s learning the job, but he has so much power and is a lovely horse to ride in all three phases.”
Italy’s Vittoria Panizzon sits third with Chequers Play The Game — and although the highly experienced pair’s clear inside the time might have seemed like something of a given, it was a particularly happy round for Vittoria: not only is she bringing the 17-year-old gelding back after two years off, she’s also learning to deal with riding competitively despite a recent diagnosis of an autoimmune disease that causes sporadic stiffness and pain in her legs.
“It explains why I totally seized up over lockdown,” says Vittoria, who discovered the issue after a persistent sacroiliac issue ballooned into periodic debilitation. Though she’s learning she can manage the issue with a combination of regular exercise and physiotherapy, the slower pace of lockdown brought out the worst of the condition, and so today was something of a fact-finding mission to see how much she can manage.
Vittoria had also made the decision to send ‘Elvis’ away to another rider to be legged back up, and only reintroduced serious schoolwork this week.
“It was very intentional; he came back to me three weeks ago and he’s the only horse I’d trust to do [a test with after that],” says Vittoria. “He’s probably my favourite horse to ride cross-country, too; he’s so easy, and I can do almost everything with my voice.”
Sarah Bullimore‘s 15.2hh homebred Corouet sailed around the course with typical grit and gumption to sit fourth overnight in his second CCI4*-L — though Sarah, laughing, suspects the course might not have been enough for the opinionated gelding.
“He came through the finish thinking he’d just been warming up — he was prancing and posing like, ‘when do we actually start?!'” she says. “Then he dragged my groom up to the stables and he was kicking the door looking up to the start — he’s very pleased with himself!”
Oliver Townend delivered the save of the day just before the halfway point on course with Tregilder when the horse twisted over fence 10, an open corner after the quarry complex at 9AB, going on to romp home clear and — again — inside the time for sixth overnight, while Tom Jackson and Billy Cuckoo hold onto seventh.
A watch malfunction aboard first ride Rehy DJ saw Yasmin Ingham sail home 30 seconds inside the time — the fastest round of the day. While he sits 11th going into the final phase, second ride Sandman 7 slots into the top ten in eighth place.
“He thrives off happiness and confidence, so as long as he’s got that, it’ll go well,” explains Yasmin, who has run the former Pippa Funnell ride around some intermediates, and then the CCI4*-S at Burgham, to solidify their partnership across the country after a blip at Boekelo last year.
“I’d had an awful fall at Aston in July and went to Boekelo really underprepared — in hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone, but we wanted to go and were committed,” she explains. “We had a bit of a hiccup, but we’ve learned from it, and we spent a lot of time really making him confident again.”
It’s not often that you deliver a clear inside the time around your first CCI4*-L, but Bubby Upton did it twice today, leaving her in ninth place with her self-produced Young Rider medalist Cola III and 30th with Cannavaro.
“[Cola] was incredible — it was his first four long and mine, too, and while I know it wasn’t a particularly strong four long, he made it feel like a walk in the park,” says Bubby. “He’s pure class — it felt like a pre-Novice.”
With just one phase standing between Bubby and two qualifying results, she’s looking ahead to a five-star debut in 2020 — an exciting next step for the rider who’s been such a pivotal part of the British junior and young rider teams.
“I had so many golden aims for this year, and it’s not been ideal for any of us — so this week has been about ticking some boxes and thinking ahead,” she explains.
Ros Canter rounds out the top ten with Pencos Crown Jewel after adding nothing to their dressage score of 29, a welcome redemption after the pair took an unlucky tumble in the CCI4*-S at Burgham.
This morning also saw the second half of the CCI4*-S class, which incorporates the eight- and nine-year-old class, contest the showjumping phase in the main arena. The big, challenging track gave us a 50% clear rate, with Izzy Taylor and the eight-year-old CCI4*-S debutante Hartacker jumping an effortless clear to retain their lead going into tomorrow’s cross-country.
“I thought it was a tough track, particularly for eight-year-olds,” says Izzy of the young horse, who only began eventing at the beginning of 2019. “But he’s got a beautiful brain and desperately wants to do everything; this can have a slightly negative effect because he sometimes tries too hard, although he’s wonderful to work with.”
Though the horse has only done one Advanced, Izzy is confident that this trait will help him along tomorrow’s cross-country course: “He wants to do it right, so as long as I’m putting him in the right place at the right time, he’ll try his best to do it.”
Yasmin Ingham remains in second place with Banzai du Loir, who was impressive in the CCI4*-S at Burgham last month. For Yasmin, he’s a horse with potential for the 2024 Paris Olympics — a lofty dream that looks to be backed up by his impressive performances thus far. Yesterday, his 22.3 dressage earned him a career personal best, and gave Yasmin her best-ever dressage score, too.
“He gives me goosebumps — he’s so lovely,” says Yasmin of the nine-year-old Selle Français, who was produced to CCI3*-S by Axel Coutte in France and bought for Yasmin by Janette Chinn and Sue Davies last year. “I feel so lucky to have him. He was on his way up the levels, and so when I got him we could crack on and go — but frustratingly, I only got two runs in on him last year before I had my fall from Sandman and had six weeks out. This year, I wanted to come out and try to salvage this season — and he’s won two Intermediates and finished top ten at Burgham CCI4*-S. He’s got it in every phase; he’s super talented and so sassy. I think it’s so rare to find ones that are so good in every phase.”
The top ten remains largely unchanged, though slightly reordered from yesterday afternoon’s halfway point: Therese Viklund, previously in third place with Diabolique, jumped clear but saw her dressage score adjusted from 22.3 to 29.8, pushing her down to provisional 19th despite her clear round, while Tom McEwen jumped clear with 8th-placed Toledo de Kerser but opted to withdraw the Pau-bound horse afterwards. These omissions allowed Oliver Townend and Cillnabradden Evo to move up a spot from 4th to 3rd with much of the rest of the previous top ten shifting a spot up the leaderboard with him.
Sarah Bullimore and Reve du Rouet, fourth-placed after dressage, had slipped out of the top ten yesterday after an unfortunate pole at the first fence, but now move back up to 10th, while Kitty King and Vendredi Biats step up into the top ten in 9th.
Tomorrow morning sees the final horse inspection kick off at 8.30 a.m. local time, followed by CCI4*-S cross-country at 9.30 a.m. The CCI4*-L showjumping will begin at 13.30 p.m., and just as today, you can watch both sections live on Horse&CountryTV.
We’ll be back with the final report from a busy Burnham tomorrow. Until then: Go Eventing!