Piggy French sewed up yet another international victory – her twelfth of 2019 – in taking the SsangYong Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials with the ten-year-old Brookfield Inocent. But despite her enormously successful season, which now sees her close to rivalling Michael Jung for the most international victories in a single season, she didn’t go into the showjumping finale brimming with confidence – particularly as designer Di Boddie‘s jumping tracks are renowned for their tough turns, tight times, and need for precision. With Kazuma Tomoto and Brookpark Vikenti just two-tenths of a penalty behind her, she couldn’t afford so much as a time penalty.
“I was stewing a bit last night because I was like, ‘I can’t jump a clear round when it matters!’,” Piggy explains. “Everyone keeps on saying, ‘oh, but you’re having a great time’ – yes, but I keep trying to jump a clear round at the minute and it’s not happening. So you do start thinking, ‘I need to do something different,’ or ‘what’s going wrong’, but I just tried to stick to the system. If I got nervous I just tried to take a deep breath and remind myself that just to do it as quick as possible and stay in my bubble, rather than thinking about having to clear every fence by doing something differently. To be fair to them, they were both in amazing form today, and the time’s so tight, so you’ve got no time to think about softening the canter or getting things nice. You just have to ride pretty much as fast as you can go, and do turn-backs without killing the canter or doing something stupid.”
The ten-year-old gelding, who Piggy took over in the middle of last season, is known for being spooky and distractable – but Piggy, who had only competed in short-format competitions with the gelding, discovered the enormous benefit of showjumping him on the final day in what has been their first long-format together.
“He was totally on it – better, if I’m honest, than he’s probably ever been,” she says. “Maybe that’s going after cross-country; if you watched him closely yesterday he was darting across the track in quite a lot of places, at flags, and people, and dogs, and maybe having the edge off him focused him more today. That was the best he’s ever felt in the ring – and I don’t want to do it again! Usually when I finish a round on him I think, ‘I wish I could go straight back in and do it so much better.'”
Just as special as taking the win was producing a top result on third-placed Castledown Clover. The fourteen-year-old gelding, who was originally bought for his owner, Susannah Paybody, to enjoy at the lower levels, and who began to compete with Piggy after Susannah won a lesson with her in a magazine competition, also finished on his dressage score.
“They were both so amazing; they’re such lovely horses,” she says. “The little old boy jumped his heart out in there today – it’s a fairytale finish for him. He felt unbelievable in there today and jumped a round as good as any horse that I’ve got can jump on the last day. I think we’ve got years left of enjoying him, and he’s an unbelievable jumper. I’m out of control coming into the combination, and not many horses would actually clear all three parts – I turned around thinking, ‘how on earth are they all still up?!'”
But despite his great result and obvious talent, he’s not a horse that Piggy will push for five-star.
“We want to enjoy him; he’s way exceeded our expectations,” she explains. “If he was a few years younger and he’d done the sport earlier I’d have loved to have done a five-star on him, because he reminds me very much of my little dun cob [Done to Order] that I had when I was starting – super technique, and he just loves it. But I think physically that’s the wrong thing for him to do. I think we can enjoy quite a lot more years with him without unnecessarily putting more wear and tear on him.”
As the Year of the Pig continues to gain momentum, Piggy acknowledges the potent power of confidence – but she’s been careful to keep her feet firmly on the ground with it, too.
“I think it probably does help [to have such a good year], although I don’t really think about it – today we’ll enjoy it, especially with the owners, but tomorrow’s a very different day,” she says. “Tomorrow there’ll be fifteen very fresh horses looking at me, ten fresh owners who haven’t seen me for a few weeks, and they all want the fun next weekend, so you get back on the hamster wheel and you go again. You’re only as good as the horses you’re sat on and the support of the people you’ve got around you, so I know I’m very lucky in that way at the minute and it’s all happening – but you know with horses that tomorrow, or next weekend, the wave can break at any time. You start having jumps down, you fall off at fence two, a horse goes lame – things go wrong, and I’ve been on the crest of a wave for a while, so I’ve got to enjoy it.”
She also hasn’t forgotten the crashing blows of 2012, when the carefully honed structure of her yard and competitive plans began to fall to pieces around her.
“I just hope it’s not a bad omen, because I had the best year of my life in 2011, and everything went so well – and then in the Olympic year it all went Pete Tong. So I’m hoping it’s not a similar pattern,” she says. But it’s easy to see the effect of all the positivity of 2019 on her mindset. “But you know what? What will be will be, and it’s just as special, if not more special, to have a fabulous result for new owners who have never had this sort of result. You can never take them for granted. I won in 2011 here, and I don’t think I’ve won that many four-stars. It’s a great event to win at, and I think they get more special the older you get – and I’m starting to get old!”
Kazuma Tomoto completed his goal of qualifying his fourth and final horse for Tokyo, and he did so in spectacular style, delivering one of the three FOD finishes of the competition to place second with Brookpark Vikenti. But the result is slightly bittersweet: in 2017, he and ‘Vince’ missed out on the win in the eight- and nine-year-old class by a tenth of a penalty, while this year – many miles more confident and established – there’s a margin of just two agonising tenths.
The former showjumper gave his horse a stylish and nuanced ride in the arena, judging his distances with almost mechanical precision so that when the gelding skimmed low over the fences, the rail taps could be just that.
“He was giving a good feeling in the warm-up arena, so I was expecting a clear round today. We touched and knocked, it was a bit dodgy, but he was great,” says Kazu with a laugh, scooping Piggy up in a hug.
With gold medals on his mind, Kazu won’t be feeling the sting of such a near-win for too long – now, with four fit, talented, and healthy horses ready to target Tokyo, he’s got some serious decision-making to get down to.
“That’s the main thing to me, so I’m very happy,” he says of the final qualification. “I have four horses, and all of them are good quality horses, so I can’t decide it!”
Tact has been the watchword this week for Australia’s Sammi Birch, who finished fourth with the former Izzy Taylor mount Direct Tullyoran Cruise.
“She’s a funny little mare, and I only took the ride on her six months ago,” says Sammi. “And actually, she’s been quite difficult this week, out of the competition. She had a little bit of a moment outside the dressage arena in the collecting ring, and she cleared it – she’s quite feisty and tricky, which is one of the reasons I have the ride on her. But she’s a proper competition mare and loves the job, but I think just finds it all a bit much sometimes. But funnily enough, as soon as she got in the competition arena she’s been incredible. She hasn’t put a foot wrong and she’s given me absolutely everything. I’m thrilled with her – I was thinking that if everything went right, we could be in the top ten in such a class field, so to be top four is pretty fantastic.”
Completing her first long-format with the mare has given Sammi some insight into how she has to manage that feistiness.
“Her weakness is probably a little bit her brain; she finds it all a little bit exciting,” she explains. “In the warm-up today I couldn’t turn left at all or she’d stand up, so I had to jump everything off the right rein. You just hope that when you get in there you can turn left! As long as you don’t let that get to you too much, it’s okay. This is our first long together, and I’ve learned a lot about her – I was hoping that if I made friends with her out in the collecting ring I’d be able to turn left in there, and next time, I’ll happily know that she’s going to behave herself [in the ring].”
Sammi, too, has Tokyo in the back of her mind – and now, with next year’s crucial format change, it means that the mare’s next season remains a big question mark for now.
“The biggest thing today is that she’s now qualified for Tokyo. After yesterday, I think I’d like to take her to Badminton, but it sort of depends on what the Aussies are thinking – it’s difficult now because there’ll only be three on the team, so we’ll decide over the winter. I definitely think five-star is on the cards.”
Poignantly, Sammi’s result comes exactly a year after she underwent a major invasive surgery to remove cancerous cells from her breast.
“It’s been twelve months today since my breast cancer operation – it was the 22nd of September, so we had a shitty finish to last year,” she says. “First, it was breast cancer, and then I was ready to go to WEG on my good horse, who broke, and then we came here and another one hurt itself, so we had a shocking year. So actually, to be standing here, fourth at Blenheim on another horse twelve months later, is pretty exciting.”
Her recovery has been a long and tough one, though it’s impossible to tell when watching her gutsy, strong riding in the ring or across the country.
“It was horrible – I got home from hospital and I couldn’t stand up, basically, for weeks. But I started riding again at six weeks, even though they didn’t want me to. It’s taken a long time for my core to get strong again, because they do a tummy tuck, basically, and take from there. I still feel like my body isn’t quite back to what it was, but it’s a work in progress.” Plus, she acknowledges, “having horses like these makes it worth it.”
Andrew Nicholson piloted As Is, owned by long-time patron Libby Sellar, to fifth place, notching up another impressive four-star completing for the young talent, who has evidently got the raw materials for the job despite some latent physical immaturity. After delivering a double-clear on Saturday’s cross-country course and adding just 0.8 time penalties in the showjumping finale, the pair were able to climb from 33rd after dressage.
“He’s only eight, and there are five-star horses against him in this class,” Andrew points out. “I would think that next year, he’ll fill into his frame and look quite different. To ride, he’s very adjustable with his stride, and very agile, and very cool in his head.”
After a successful season with the young horse, the writing is on the wall for Andrew where the gelding’s future is concerned.
“He’s done Bramham clear inside the time and clear showjumping, and that’s bigger than here – so he’s done the two biggest four-stars double-clear. For me, if they can jump four-star courses, they jump five-star courses – the jumps are no bigger,” he says, but: “He’ll probably do another four-star [next year], but probably rather than going off to Luhmühlen or something it’ll be better to go back to Bramham and then maybe think of Burghley or Pau after that.”
Andrew, who had roundly praised David Evans‘ braver course design decisions after Saturday’s competition, was equally full of praise for the dynamic Di Boddy, who delivered another typically tricky showjumping track.
“I thought the course was very difficult to ride; Di is the master of making the turn-backs for us eventers difficult,” says Andrew. “There’s a couple of fences where you wouldn’t sight them until late, so you needed to be able to ride the correct stride patterns and have rideable horses. It makes the competition exciting, doesn’t it?”
It certainly did. Just eight combinations of the 57 finished without adding penalties – time or jumping – in this phase. Katherine Coleman and Monte Classico, sixth after cross-country, dropped to 17th after pulling two rails and adding three seconds to the clock, while Buck Davidson and Carlevo climbed to 27th after tipping one and adding two. Cornelia Dorr and Sir Patico MH also climbed, finishing in 42nd place with 10 penalties in this phase, and Lexi Scovil and Chico’s Man VDF Z were 55th after adding 19.6 penalties in the horse’s first CCI4*-L.
We’ll be back soon with all the news from the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S – until then, go Piggy, and Go Eventing!