Nicola Wilson Stakes Her Claim on Squad Selection at Hartpury

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Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin regain lost ground to take the win in the NAF Five Star Hartpury International CCI4*-S. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pick at random from the horses and riders in the final top ten of the CCI4*-S field at the NAF Five Star Hartpury International Horse Trials, and no matter which names you drew, you could be quite confident that your selections would form a formidable team for next month’s European Championships at Avenches, Switzerland. None of us envied the British selectors ahead of Tokyo, and even with those three extraordinary riders and horses scratched off the long-list of 30, picking the final six that’ll get the call-up looks no easier — such is the British squad’s unprecedented strength in depth. Hartpury, which returned to the calendar this week for the first time since 2019, is so often simply a useful feeder event for the major autumn three-days, but this year, the feature four-star class has had an even more important role to play in providing a battleground for the next batch of gold medal-seekers.

Designed by Eric Winter, who’s best known for his work on the Badminton course and for tough, technical tracks that require adaptability and quick thinking, Hartpury’s course is a short four-star that could, perhaps, be better described as a ‘four-star medium’. At 3990 meters, and with its seven minute optimum time, it’s only a matter of a couple of hundred meters longer than most other courses at this level or, for comparison’s sake, 430m shorter than Tokyo’s CCI4*-L track. But here, we see terrain used to test stamina in a way that’s quite unique for a short-format course: the Hartpury hills are well utilised not just to create tricky cambered approaches to questions, but to present horses with a long uphill trajectory that calls for the clever moderation of energy. As a result, it tends to show any cracks in the foundations at this latter stage of the season — and in an eighteen months of eventing most notable for its shortage of serious tracks, the welcome return of Hartpury offered up the perfect stage for this crucial selection process.

First-phase leaders Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin have already made a strong bid for Europeans selection this year: they won the inaugural CCI4*-L at Bicton in June and were even subsequently moved onto the shortlist for Olympic selection. But although their 23.9 dressage score here represented an international personal best for the ten-year-old Holsteiner, they didn’t take a straightforward wire-to-wire win in this class. After rolling a pole in this morning’s showjumping, they came forward for the cross-country finale in fourth place — and as one of the last riders to leave the start box in this class, Nicola was all too aware that coming close to the seven minute optimum time would be both essential and very difficult.

But JL Dublin — or ‘Dubs’, as he’s known at home — is nothing if not a trier, and Nicola has been thrilled by his progression from his early and admittedly slightly unruly years.

“As a young horse, he showed a lot of quality and ability, but he was a bit like a bull in a china shop,” laughs Nicola, who found him as a four-year-old at the Holsteiner sales. “He was very excited and keen to do everything. But each level he’s done, he’s just got better and better, and he’s such a lovely horse to work with — he really concentrates and tries so hard.”

Even so, Dubs’s joie de vivre has never wavered: “He has this sort of squeal under his breath of excitement that just makes you smile,” says Nicola fondly. “He loves jumping, in particular, and he loves being out; he always thinks everyone’s there to see him, and I have to remind him that they’re not!”

Whatever ‘it’ is, it’s clear that the son of Diorado has it: despite being quite a continental type of horse with less than 50% Thoroughbred blood, he’s proving to be a specialist over tough, hilly courses. While he didn’t quite make the time, he soared home just three seconds over the optimum time to add 1.2 time penalties and deliver one of just two sub-30 finishing scores of the week.

“He gave me a super ride around what I thought was a difficult course,” says Nicola. “I thought there was a lot to jump. But then he did at Bicton, too, which was such a challenging event in itself. I had a plan [here] from the first walk, and I was very fortunate that it rode very much like that; he came out of the start box very rideable and focused, and he came home the same.”

Nicola cited the corner combination at 22AB, which was situated in a wooded area, as a particular test on the course, and one where an inexperienced or less genuine horse might have had a blip.

“The corner was hidden under the trees and I thought it was quite a sneaky little question, but he picked it up really well and I thought he felt super,” she says. “I think that’s a sign that he’s getting older and a little bit more mature that he’s now looking for his fences, which is lovely for the jockey.”

Now, the waiting game looms as the Europeans inch ever closer — but perennially positive Nicola won’t let looking to the future stop her and her team from celebrating the present.

“We’re all so excited by him, and you have to enjoy these moments,” she says. “Bicton and Hartpury have been fantastic, but it’s a real team effort: there’s [head girl] Ruth Asquith and the girls on the yard, and his owners Jamie and Jo Lambert and Deirdre Johnston, and the list goes on of all the people who are involved in a result like this.”

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats take a close second place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

If it’s hard to imagine a Europeans squad without Nicola and Dubs, it’s perhaps even more fiendishly impossible to imagine one without Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, who were non-travelling reserves for the Olympics, best of the Brits when competing as individuals at the 2019 Europeans, and whose form has continued to dazzle from event to event. Though they weren’t able to add another win in this class to their record — they took top honours in 2017 — the dynamic duo finished in second place after delivering a foot-perfect clear over the poles and adding just 4.4 time penalties across the country. ‘Froggy’s’ professional, classy performance comes after a somewhat unconventional prep run: as Kitty told EN yesterday, she gave him a ten day break to wind back his fitness after the departure of the Tokyo squad, and has only had him back in work for just over a week.

“He’s had kind of a busy, funny spring, preparing for Badminton, then Luhmühlen, then Bicton, and then having to prepare for Tokyo,” explains Kitty, who was first non-travelling reserve for the Olympics with the gelding and had to undergo pre-export quarantine. “Even though chances were we weren’t going to go, we were high up the reserve list so had to prepare as though we were going. Then he went out to Liege [Airport] to make sure nothing fell off the ramp, and then he came home. So he’s been gearing up for a big three-day and he’s like, ‘am I going?!’ And I’m like, ‘nope, not today!'”

The time off evidently hasn’t done him any harm, and Kitty’s commitment to the squad can only stand her in good stead as the autumn season unfolds — and the Europeans, she asserts, are chief among her goals for this year.

Gemma Tattersall and Chilli Knight record the only clear inside the time to step up to third. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Gemma Tattersall and Chilli Knight are proving time and time again that they’re among the fastest pairs on the British scene — and today, they were the only pair to make the seven minute optimum time in the CCI4*-S, propelling them to eventual third. They were able to gain further ground on the leaderboard, despite a rolled pole in the showjumping, after the tactical withdrawal of Sarah Bullimore and Corouet, who recently ran in Burgham’s CCI4*-S and were thus exempted from today’s jumping phases by the powers-that-be of the British squad. This — plus a frangible activation by Oliver Townend and Davinci III, who he’s riding for Sam Ecroyd this season — helped to clear the path ahead, but it was ultimately the strength of the Chilli Morning son’s final phase performance that clinched a podium finish for the pair.

Not that they had much catching up to do, mind you. Their first-phase mark of 27.2 put them in tenth place at the end of the day yesterday, and Gemma was ebullient in her praise of the horse’s progress.

“I don’t think he could have done anymore — he’s not a flashy mover, but he tries so hard, and he’s so obedient that I can ride every single moment of every movement,” she says. “He’s got no extended trot, but he never stops trying.”

That game willingness is evident across the country as well — but although their performance today will certainly not have escaped the notice of the selectors, Gemma’s got her eye on another plan for the gelding.

“If all goes to complete plan, the plan is Bicton CCI5*,” she says. “He’s absolutely, one hundred million percent ready, and he actually jumped around Pau two years ago as a nine-year-old — and he’s done three four-star longs and never been out of the top seven.”

Alex Bragg and King of the Mill make easy work of the track for fourth place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

With Tokyo in the rearview mirror and this autumn’s championship presenting the perfect opportunity to produce up-and-coming horses for next year’s World Championships and Paris 2024, all eyes are on the next generation of rides for some of our top British talent — and Alex Bragg‘s fourth-placed King of the Mill certainly fits that bill. The lanky, attractive gelding made his CCI5* debut at Pau last season but lacks in the top-level experience of stablemate Zagreb, who was withdrawn before today’s final phase. His romp around the cross-country course, though, looked like the work of a well-seasoned campaigner, and his 1.2 time penalties put him equal with JL Dublin as the second-fastest round of the day. That — plus a classy clear showjumping round — allowed him to make an impressive climb from outside the top twenty into eventual fourth on a finishing score of 32. Behold: the new era of Bragg talent.

Pippa Funnell’s Burghley winner MGH Grafton Street heads up a trio of top-ten finishes for the rider. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pippa Funnell‘s excellent weekend continued with all three of her CCI4*-S rides maintaining positions in the top ten, from which they’ve never dropped in any phase — though they’ve certainly done some shuffling around. 2019 Burghley winner MGH Grafton Street topped the trio in fifth place, adding a rail and 3.6 cross-country time penalties to finish one place lower than his dressage position, which saw him fourth on the board and second of Pippa’s rides on his 24.8.

Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope take sixth. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Meanwhile, the stolid fourteen-year-old Majas Hope stepped up from initial eighth to final sixth after jumping an excellent showjumping clear and adding six time penalties across the country — though for this reliable jumping horse, the highlight has certainly been swapping his usual mid-30s marks for a 27 after some help from the maestro, Carl Hester.

A rail and 5.2 time penalties saw Billy Walk On drop from initial second place down to seventh, though he looked every inch as impressive as his stablemates — and while Pippa, like many of her compatriots, admits that a trip to Avenches is at the top of her list of autumn goals, this exciting trio of horses looks set to offer her a vibrant latter half of the season no matter which way the selection process goes.

Pippa Funnell’s Billy Walk On slots into seventh place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Today’s competition has offered wall-to-wall excitement, with just under half the class adding faults in this morning’s showjumping and time penalties proving influential through the final phase. Interestingly, though, the four-star cross-country has caused the least problems of today’s three international tracks: its nearly 70% clear rate far eclipses the CCI2*-L’s 60% and CCI3*-L’s 52% clear rates. Most influential on the four-star course was 8AB, a hanging log on the lip of a hill followed by a downhill approach to a timber arrowhead. Eight combinations faulted here, with one electing to end their day early — but though it cause a couple of glance-offs, its influence was almost entirely down to the activation of a safety device. In total, six lots of eleven penalties were awarded at this fence through the day, and only one further device on course was activated through the 79-strong class. Next most influential — but leading the way for 20s — was fence 6, the first water on course. Seven combinations faulted at this three-part question, which featured a wide-faced rolltop in the lake followed by two skinny elements, which were spooky and early enough to invite run-outs from unfocused horses.

Now, as we head out of this crucial selection event, it’s full steam ahead on the five-week fast track to Avenches — the final squad of six (that’s four on the team, plus two individuals) will be announced by August 20th. Want to refresh your memory of that whopping 30-strong longlist? Click here to give it a browse — and until next time, Go Eventing!

The final top ten in Hartpury’s hotly contested CCI4*-S.

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