…since we last had an international in the UK.
Okay, okay, so maybe it hasn’t been that long — but it has been a solid ten months, and reader, we have all felt every single one of them deep in our sad, shrivelled souls. But finally, miraculously, the exile from all things fun and exciting has come to a much-anticipated end, as everyone in the UK (and then some) has descended upon Burgham International Horse Trials for one of the biggest — and best — CCI4*-S entries we’ve ever seen.
So robust was the entry list — which nearly tickled the 200 mark — that the class was split into two sections to give a few more people the chance to win a frilly and some spending money. Both Section M and Section L — sponsored by A.W. Jenkinson Forest Products — commenced full (really, seriously full) days of dressage today, and chaps, if you were expecting a sedate return to the top of the sport here in the mecca of global eventing, you were, well, wrong.
Even after the withdrawal of Team Price and Tom McEwen, who had five five-star winners entered between them, the Burgham entry list reads like the guide card in a really, really good box of assorted chocolates. You know, one of the ones that doesn’t even have a dodgy chocolate liqueur hiding amongst the pralines and the caramels. It features the best of the best and then the best of the rest, too; treats among its ranks include Burghley winners Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class, dogged world-changer Alex Hua Tian and a string of entries led by Rio partner Don Geniro, World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B, comeback king Mr Bass with Laura Collett, Bramham winners Kitty King and Vendredi Biats… the list really does go on, and on, and then on a little bit more.
Even splitting those entries in half simply to look at today’s results yields up an embarrassment of riches where big names are concerned. Prior to arriving, I had wondered idly to myself where some prolific upper-level combinations might find themselves on the other side of a long lockdown — would they have used the time to level up their training and come out marks ahead of where they’d been averaging prior to the pause? Or would ordinarily reliable first-phase performers drop away from the top spots due to ring rustiness? Would we see refreshed, exuberant pairs, or combinations who had soured themselves with interminable months of circles? Would my ability to scour an entry list and pick out my likeliest victims for the day be turned totally and utterly on its head?
Not really, as it turns out — because although everyone I chatted to today had approached the break in slightly different ways, every single one of these riders knows their own horses as well as they know themselves.
“[The lockdown training routine has] been a bit of mix-and-match,” says Oliver Townend, who leads section L with the exceptional Ballaghmor Class on a typical low score of 21.4. “It’s been a bit low-maintenance, and we’ve been on tick-over more than training – I think everyone’s gone a bit training mad!”
Low-maintenance though his system may have been, Oliver’s string produced a bevy of excellent results today, with 2018 Blair Castle CCI4*-S winner Tregilder sitting second in Section M on a score of 22.9 and the former Jonty Evans ride Dreamliner holding provisional sixth in Section L on 27.9 But though their work was inarguably impressive to the observer, Oliver doesn’t see these performances as an end goal.
“[The horses] aren’t finely tuned by any stretch of the imagination; we’re just quietly getting them back into it and preparing them for whatever may be of the end of the season. We’re letting the older ones know they’re not retired and producing the young ones a little bit for more experience.”
Sitting in second place in Section L on a score of 23.1 is the Queen of 2019 Piggy March and Brookfield Quality in the eleven-year-old’s first four-star. Produced through the 2018 season by Australia’s Kevin and Emma McNab, Brookfield Quality moved to Piggy’s formidable string at the beginning of last season — and in four international starts together, they notched up four wins. Today, they very nearly set a new personal best for the horse at any level, though they didn’t quite manage it – that honour still goes to Emma McNab, who produced a 22.4 with the gelding in a CCI3*-S at Camphire in 2017. Still, their 23.1 here represents a significant outlier to his mid-to-high-20s average, marking him out as yet another of the pigpen (yeah, we’re going with that) to keep a close eye on.
Sarah Bullimore‘s stalwart five-star campaigner Reve du Rouet may be sixteen this year, but he’s certainly not planning to slow down anytime soon — and in fact, Sarah is quietly hoping that this might be the year that the quirky Oldenburg gelding finally grows up a little bit and embraces the first phase. An extraordinary performer on his day, the gelding — who came achingly close to a win at Pau in 2017 — suffers a genuine fear of crowds, which can push his easy 20s marks into the 30s without much provocation. But a slightly sparse Burgham, which isn’t allowing spectators this year, provided the perfect dance-floor for the exuberant Blou — who Sarah has described as almost autistic in way he interprets and reacts to the world — to stretch his legs post-lockdown, and the pair duly scored a 23.3 for overnight third.
Provisional fourth went to World Champion Ros Canter in her first appearance back aboard Pencos Crown Jewel, who had been piloted during her maternity leave by fellow competitor Tom Jackson. They posted a 26.4, several marks below the British-bred mare’s spate of low-30s last season, while fifth-place Caroline Powell and Up Up and Away left their usual low-to-mid-30s marks behind to score 27.8. If you’re sensing a theme here, then you might be onto something.
Truly, though, the story of the day was that of Izzy Taylor and her 2017 Six-Year-Old World Champion Monkeying Around, who put a dizzying 21.2 on the board and set a new CCI4*-S dressage record at Burgham in the process.
This honour had previously been held by Gemma Tattersall and Chico Bella P, who scored a 22.4 here in 2015 — and the eagle-eyed among you may notice that Oliver Townend’s score with Ballaghmor Class also betters this former record. There would be no chance to bask in the glory, though — Ballaghmor Class’s test came later in the day, so he never held the record, even temporarily.
For those long-time fans of Izzy’s flashy young Hanoverian, it’ll come as little surprise to see him top the leaderboard in such fine form today. While 21.2 is a significant personal best at any international level, he’s consistently delivered the goods in this phase, scoring in the 20s on almost every appearance. This is helped along by his dressage-orientated breeding — he’s a grandson of the legendary Donnerhall and by Bertoli W, although his correct and patient training is entirely a credit to Izzy herself, who’s produced the horse all the way through. Now, though, the question mark looms large over the rest of his week here — with several wobbles on his record across the country in 2019, and a proclivity to knock rails, too, he’d certainly be a surprise winner if he were to stay on top throughout. But don’t rule him out just yet — in fact, his only clear international cross-country run last season was here, where he finished in sixth place. This year, too, Izzy considers him wiser as well as older.
“He’s a year older and a lot stronger, so he’s getting more rideable and I can be a bit braver on him,” she says. “There’s still loads more to come, but I’m very, very happy with him today.”
Careful training through lockdown has almost certainly contributed to his growth, but Izzy has been prudent about tempering the amount she asks of her horses — and she’s remained pragmatic, too, even without the benchmarks of competitive outings.
“Like anything, you can be the best at home in front of your mirrors, but when you have to come and do it here, it’s a different story. It’s been nice to be at home and train, but equally, that’s what we do from January to March — so having two [of those home-based periods] can be a bit tiring. It’s very important, for me, for the horses to be happy. If you drill them and drill them, they’re not going to want to do a test for you, or do anything for you. So it was a very thought-about balance between training and not letting them get bored. They’re competition horses, so they’re the same as us; I don’t want to be an at-home trainer, and they don’t want to be at-home horses. Every horse was different, so it was just about managing them how they needed to be.”
It’s great to see Tom Jackson back in the international ring in his first appearance since a crushing fall and subsequent broken leg at Hartpury this time last year. Though he could certainly be forgiven a little bit of ring-rustiness, he certainly didn’t appear to be in possession of any, posting a 25.2 with Bahira M and setting a personal best for the former Chris Burton ride across all levels.
Wiltshire-based Kiwi Jesse Campbell holds onto provisional fourth place overnight with Diachello, scoring a 27.5 — and inexplicably sporting two rather dodgy-looking black eyes. The 10-year-old gelding has always been capable of good marks, though they’ve tended in the past to fluctuate between the high-20s and middling-30s — but some time at home gave Jesse the chance to install a few more buttons on the Holsteiner, who finished 27th here last year.
“During lockdown we sort of went back to the drawing board a bit; he’s a lovely horse, but we wanted to find a few more avenues to get better marks out of him.” he explains. “We wanted to find ways to get more activity from his hind end — you’ve got to be so good to beat the Germans now!” Though a couple of missed runs prior to Burgham put the pair on the back foot, Jesse looks at today’s test as a step in the right direction.
“His general work was great — there were little mistakes, but we’ll get there,” he says. If there’s a magic button that he’s found and installed, Jesse’s certainly not about to tell me what it is, in a manoeuvre reminiscent of another high-powered Antipodean — “I watched a Chris Burton interview all the way through, hoping to find out some of his secrets – and nothing! He just kept saying how lucky he was!” he laughs. We feel you there, buddy.
Ireland’s Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue round out the top five in Section M on a score of 28 — yet another impressive leap for a horse who tends to be a reliable mid-30s scorer. Meanwhile, the only marginal gains I made over lockdown were to my waistline. Great.