Piggy French Tops the Bill in Blenheim Cross-Country

Piggy French and Brookfield Inocent. Photo by William Carey.

David Evans performed a cross-country coup today, upping the ante of his CCI4*-L course without sacrificing any of his trademarks: bold, forgiving fences, open and positive distances, and universally fair questions. We saw 64 completions from 82 starters, and nine double-clears throughout the day, while 51 came home without jumping penalties. But dispersed throughout the success stories were plenty of problems on course, which struck indiscriminately – and after two green errors in the thick of it, dressage leaders Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around elected to retire. This opened the door for second-placed Piggy French and Brookfield Inocent to move into the top spot – and they duly did, with a double-clear round that belied the gelding’s inexperience.

“He’s such a good galloper – he’s really fast and he’s quick at his jumps, so I don’t really have many excuses unless we get it wrong,” says Piggy, who produced one of the earliest double-clears of the day to storm home nine seconds inside the time. But the ten-year-old, who started – though didn’t complete – his debut CCI4*-L at Tattersalls last season with former rider Kevin McNab, doesn’t necessarily make it easy to be economical.

“I was trying to ride tight lines at the string, and he was always shooting off away from things – from kids, from dogs,” laughs Piggy, who has spent her fifteen months with the gelding working to put his spooky nature to good use. Though he’s evidently stepped up to the plate now, she confesses that she wasn’t always sure it would be a surpassable hurdle. Now, in her first long-format competition with the Irish Sport Horse, she’s found plenty to be excited about.

“He’s a class act. [John and Chloe Perry] are new owners to me, and it’s always a bit of a gamble, but we’re just having so much fun,” she beams. “He still had a good little dance at the end of the course – that’s the quality and the sharpness of him. So he’ll still have lots of energy for tomorrow, hopefully – god help me!”

But, she acknowledges, it’s still a fact-finding mission with the horse, who she’s never jumped on the final day before.

“They’ve run their hearts out today,” she says, pointing out the work balance differentiation between a one-day event and a three-day. “Tomorrow is a different ball game.”

Piggy French and Castletown Clover. Photo by William Carey.

Piggy’s excellent day didn’t end there. As one of the last riders out of the start box, she recorded her second double-clear of the class with Castletown Clover, the fourteen-year-old CCI4*-L debutante who she describes as “our pet, really – you just want to smile every time you ride him.” Yesterday, he broke the 30 barrier for the first time at the Advanced level, putting a score of 28.6 on the board, and his fast round today allowed him to climb from 19th place to 5th overnight.

“He’s just such fun – I’ve always said it all along, but today especially,” says Piggy. “He was so chilled in the warm-up, and he usually has a wee – a bit of a nervous thing, I think – before he goes. But I think he just thought that today was all about him, which is just too cute, and happy days if that’s what he’s thinking!”

Fourteen might seem rather old for a debutante, but Castletown Clover was never intended to be a top event horse – instead, he was bought to event at the lower levels and hunt with owner Susannah Paybody. When she realised he might have what it takes to reach the top, she enlisted the help of Badminton winner Piggy to help him achieve his quick climb up the levels without sacrificing sympathetic production. This means that for both the Paybody family and Piggy, every step along the way is something to be celebrated – but it also means that the rider needs to pay close attention to the conditions she runs the gelding in.

“I would have liked more rain for him – he’s an old boy, he started this level late, and he doesn’t love the hard ground,” she says. “I was slightly concerned he wouldn’t travel as well around here as he can do, and start over-jumping or something, but he pricked his ears and cantered around like everyone was having a day out just to come and see him. So I just sat there, really, thinking ‘this is all jolly nice!’ But I had to remind myself to keep checking on the time, because you can quite easily float along. I keep having to tell myself to take it seriously and don’t do anything stupid, because you smile on your way around – he’s such a dear little chap. But bloody good, too – he’s a super jumper and he’s easy. It makes such a difference when you can set them up and you don’t spend too long fighting to get the balance.”

Kazuma Tomoto and Brookpark Vikenti. Photo by William Carey.

Japan’s Kazuma Tomoto made great strides on his mission to qualify his fourth and final horse for next year’s Olympics, and after missing out on a win in 2017’s CCI4*-S here by a tenth of a penalty with Brookpark Vikenti, he wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. Instead, he made the gelding’s strength across the country work for, rather than against, him to blitz home ten seconds inside the time and move into second place overnight – just two tenths of a penalty behind the leaders.

“It wasn’t an easy course, and it’s obviously one of the biggest events in the world – there are lots of skinnies, very tricky distances. But he stayed concentrated and on his lines,” says the former showjumper with a smile. “He was strong today, but William [Fox-Pitt] told me – that’s what we expect from him. I feel very positive for tomorrow.”

Kevin McNab and Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend. Photo by William Carey.

Australia’s Kevin McNab crossed the finish line four seconds over the 10:20 optimum time with Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend, but this didn’t stop them from climbing two places to sit third after cross-country.

“I wasn’t disappointed at all – [the horse] is still fairly new to me, so it’s a developing partnership,” says Kevin of the nine-year-old Oldenburg, who is owned by top-end sneaker company Scuderia 1918 and was formerly piloted by Germany’s Jörg Kurbel. “I can live with the five seconds – I’ve got a real one here. He’s a good horse and I think he dealt with most of the fences well, especially when we weren’t quite where we wanted to be. When the going gets tough, he keeps going – I think he should have a fairly exciting future.”

Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On. Photo by William Carey.

The fastest round of the day went to Burghley winner Pippa Funnell and the rerouted Billy Walk On, whose owners opted to send him to Blenheim instead after completing the first phase at the Lincolnshire fixture. They crossed the line a remarkable 21 seconds under the optimum time after the rangy gelding easily made up the open distances in the course’s myriad combinations, despite a hold, and sit fourth overnight.

“It was a really thrilling round,” says a delighted Pippa, who had scrawled a tiny ‘+1’ onto her number – 76 – for extra luck. “He was absolutely class. I got a little bit flustered when I got held – not because I was held at the big ditch, but because I knew that Burghley came down to one second, and because I wasn’t at a stopping point, I didn’t know exactly when to re-start my watch. So I went the rest of the way without my watch. I normally wouldn’t have judged it that far inside the time, but because I didn’t have a clock, I just had to keep him running in the rhythm.”

Because Billy Walk On had followed the same fitness regime as Majas Hope, who helped Team GBR to a silver medal at last month’s European Championships and Burghley-winning stablemate MGH Grafton Street, Pippa knew the length and intensity of the track wouldn’t faze him – a great help as she tried to maintain a competitive pace without the benefit of the minute markers. But despite the afterglow of delivering one of the best rounds of the day, Pippa still has half a mind on what could have been.

“The way he went round there, I still would have loved to have seen how he’d gone at Burghley,” she confesses. “But it’s never the wrong decision not to run a horse – it’s the wrong decision to go and lose their confidence. You’re better off erring on the side of caution. What was so thrilling was how he went today; now I can go into next season really excited. He’s grown up a lot – this is the best he’s been with the crowds, and that’s been one of his main issues. He can just get that little bit distracted and not look at what he’s meant to jump until it’s too late, but today I felt that he was really on it.”

With a championship and a five-star victory in the bag over the last month, plus two exciting clear rounds today, it’s fair to say that Pippa Funnell has built up an impressive string of top-level rides. But the key to this, she says, has actually been in downsizing.

“It’s always a little bit difficult making the decision, but I knew I had to cut back on the numbers,” she says. “If I’m honest, a lot of us probably make the mistake in the sport of having too large a team horses, and then you can’t really concentrate on the ones that are really talented. The lovely thing is that yes, I’ve got less, but the ones I’ve got I really love riding every day. They fill me with confidence – people say I’m riding well, and I probably am riding better, because they’re giving me the confidence.”

Very Marie Kondo of you, Pip.

Katherine Coleman and Monte Classico. Photo by William Carey.

Katherine Coleman brought Monte Classico to Blenheim with one goal in mind – test out the full range of gears she’s installed on the talented ten-year-old, who she ran conservatively in the CCI4*-S last year to help him gain experience. It paid off: he set out from the start box on a mission, and came home just a second over the optimum time to move up from 23rd place to sixth overnight. But for Katherine, crossing the finish line with that goal accomplished wasn’t just special because of her love for the horse – it was also a poignant farewell to her great friend Keith Flint, who tragically died earlier this year.

“This time last year I was here with a very dear friend of mine, who then committed suicide in March, so it’s been a really tough spring,” says an emotional Katherine. “So to come out and have that is awesome.”

Riding with head, heart, and an indomitable joie de vivre in the way that Katherine did is certainly a fitting tribute to Keith – and in doing so the rider, who splits her time between the UK and the US, further confirmed her belief that the gelding is a true star for the future.

“I’m absolutely delighted, and I know exactly where I lost the time – coming out of the arena I held and slightly missed, so we lost a bit of time coming around the turn after that,” she explains. “That might have rattled me a little bit, so I waited again to the oxer at 10, and he jumped quite high – but then I gave myself a kick up the butt, and on we went. I think so much of this horse – if he was with someone seasoned like Tim or Pippa, he’d be winning everything. Today, I really wanted to challenge him and attack it, and say ‘hey, you’re ten, it’s time to grow up’ – and he really rose to the occasion. He’s really special.”

Daisy Berkeley and Ballinteskin Cooper S. Photo by William Carey.

It’s been thirteen years since British team veteran Daisy Berkeley last won here – and, she admits, a long time since she’s had a truly quality horse. But Ballinteskin Cooper S has earned himself that descriptor after climbing eight places to sit seventh overnight, adding just 2.4 time penalties to his dressage score of 30.2.

“I’m lucky to have a horse like him – I’ve had him since he was a five-year-old, and he’s done nothing but please me,” says Daisy of the ten-year-old Irish Sport Horse. “It’s nice to have a good one – it’s been a bloody long time!”

Alex Bragg and King of the Mill. Photo by William Carey.

“If I’d been on Zagreb, I think I’d have a glass of wine in my hand already,” laughs a breathless Alex Bragg, just moments after the double-clear cross-country round that rocketed him and King of the Mill from 27th to 8th place. “But I’m going to need ten minutes of recovery time – my heart rate is through the roof!”

The nine-year-old gelding might look remarkably similar to his experienced stablemate – like Zagreb, he’s tall, bay, and, well, rather hunky – but as a CCI4*-L debutante, he offers a much different experience out on course.

“It took true cross-country riding – I had lots of plans, but I had to ride what I felt, and in the beginning, I had to ride for my life,” laughs Alex. “He’s quite a sharp horse, and he’s always darting and spooking, but he’s so quick, so you have to be quicker.”

But the gelding, who has recorded top-ten finishes in CCI4*-S classes at Barbury and Hartpury, grew in confidence and professionalism as the course went on, establishing himself as something rather more than a second string.

“He’s only going to learn by doing it,” says Alex. “We’ll be working hard now to make sure he recovers well and performs tomorrow, but today we’ll be celebrating.”

Sammi Birch and Direct Tullyoran Cruise. Photo by William Carey.

Australia’s Sammi Birch and Direct Tullyoran Cruise, formerly ridden by Izzy Taylor, added 2.8 time penalties to move up to ninth overnight. We’re used to seeing William Fox-Pitt in his domain at the upper end of the leaderboard, but Atlantic Vital Spark? You’d be excused for not having heard of him. This is the nine-year-old Irish Sport Horse’s first CCI4*-L – and just his second four-star start – and for William, he represents a new venture. 

William Fox-Pitt and Atlantic Vital Spark. Photo by William Carey.

“I bought him as a sales horse, but people aren’t used to me selling horses – they assume if I am, it’s because there’s something wrong with them,” says William ruefully. The gelding was bought as a seven-year-old from young rider Harris Ritchie, who produced ‘Ted’ – her only international ride – to CC2*-L. But university beckoned, and the Scottish rider put the horse on the market, where he was promptly snapped up by the eagle-eyed Olympian. 

Though he’s been a mid-to-high 30s horse throughout his international career, with the exception of a 28.1 in Rockingham’s CCI3*-S earlier this season, he shone in the atmosphere of Blenheim’s main arena to deliver a personal best of 28 yesterday – and today, he added just 2.8 time penalties to round out the top ten. 

“It’s his first long four, so it’s a big day for him – but he made it feel rather nice,” says William. “It’s quite a consistent course, so he got it – he jumped fence five and said, ‘okay!’, which bodes well. I walked the course for a green horse, and thought, ‘well, I must add strides to give him time’ – but once I got out there, he was really going – he did all the A-level strides and impressed me a lot.”

With just ten internationals on his record, Ted is inexperienced by anyone’s reckoning – but William has great faith in the horse’s ability under pressure. 

“All being well, as long as jumps tomorrow he’ll be qualified for the Olympics – and that’s quite reassuring, isn’t it?” he says. His fondness for the horse is evident and, he tells us, he’d actually rather like to keep the ride for himself – provided an owner steps in to buy him, so that he can tick the ‘sales project’ box. 

Buck Davidson and Carlevo. Photo by William Carey.

It was a day of ups and downs for Buck Davidson, who pulled up the experienced Park Trader after he felt something slightly amiss in his stride. After further examination, some minor damage to his check ligament was discovered – though fortunately, nothing amiss with his tendon.

“He jumped one of the oxers beautifully, and then I landed and took a stride and thought, ‘hmm – that feels funny.’ And then another one, and that felt funny too,” he explains. “I know my horses – I’ve had them forever – and so I was like, ‘forget it.’ Luckily he didn’t hurt his tendon, so I’m thankful – I’ve done horses my whole life, so I was able to feel that. It’s so key to have the horses for a long time, and my aim is always to have them happy and sound. I have to admit I cried – and I haven’t cried in a long time. Thankfully, once we had the scan we knew he’d be fine.”

But the experience meant that Buck had to work hard to get himself back into the zone for his second ride, Carlevo.

“It was very sad – I love my horses, so I needed to take a moment to regroup, to be honest,” says Buck, who came home clear with 11.2 time penalties to sit 31st going into the final phase. “But this horse was spectacular – I should have gone faster, but what can you do? He was fantastic, though, and he did everything I asked him to do.”

To bring Carlevo home in fine style means that Buck can tick a box that went unticked last year, when the horse had to miss his journey here after a last-minute knock.

“My owners are my friends, and I feel awful when it doesn’t go right. They’re so good to me, as are all my owners,” says Buck. “I’m just mad at myself – I should have pushed the gas a bit more with Carlevo. He just got a bit tired – but never mind, it’s better to come home flying than crawling! I love him, and he’s gone well.”

Cornelia Dorr and Sir Patico MH. Photo by William Carey.

A classy round across the country was punctuated by a surprise run-out at the final element of the tricky coffin combination, but for Cornelia Dorr and Sir Patico MH, whose long partnership has seen them grow up together, it’s a chance to learn and develop further as they tackle the upper echelons of the sport. They now sit 47th, adding just 4.8 time penalties with their 20.

“I think he started out super – I set the pace and made sure we were going well, going forward and going quick, and he listened really well,” says Cornelia. “Every time I asked him to move on or slow down he was so responsive, and he was super at all the questions. At the coffin he just jumped in big and slightly to the left, and I wasn’t quick enough to catch it. I’m super pleased with him – he’s my horse to get experience on, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Lexi Scovil and Chico’s Man VDF Z. Photo by William Carey.

Lexi Scovil and Chico’s Man VDF Z, too, picked up a twenty at the final element of the coffin, and added 26 time penalties to move down to 61st place.

“Generally, it was great – I wouldn’t say it was the prettiest, but he’s an amazing horse,” says Lexi of the ten-year-old gelding, who makes his CCI4*-L debut with his rider. “I started quite quietly because he’s never seen crowds like this, and he really peeked at fence two, which is just a table – so that wasn’t a great start! But then he really clicked in and went. I made a mistake at the coffin; I thought the right run-out’s the one to watch for so I really got to the left, and he ran out left. But to be honest, he’s so green, and I’m so green, that I can’t be at all upset with him. He came home – I told everyone that my dream plan was to go double-clear here, but my base plan was just to complete. So I’m absolutely thrilled with him. He got tired at the end but he just kept giving me everything – a year ago I’d have had to fight for every fence, but now he gives me everything.”

With a plethora of new tools in their box, and a significant new understanding of how to attack top-level long format competitions, Lexi is looking ahead to a bright future with ‘Sprout’. But first? Apply for a visa for another year in the UK – and as she runs away to feed back her intel to William Fox-Pitt on the questions the course poses, it’s easy to see that she’ll be welcomed with open arms.

The top ten at the conclusion of Blenheim’s CCI4*-L cross-country.

CCI4*-S

Just sixteen of the 66 competitors in the prestigious eight- and nine-year-old class jumped clear, prompting a paradigm shift across the leaderboard. Dressage leaders Piggy French and Calling Card pulled three rails to slip down to 38th place, while second-placed Sam Griffiths and Freestyler had two and 1.6 time penalties, which sees them move into 35th overnight. When third-placed Mary King and King Robert II also had two rails, the door was opened for two riders who had previously won. William Fox-Pitt and Australia’s Chris Burton had found themselves tied for fourth after the first phase, and when both jumped foot-perfect clear rounds, they found themselves neck and neck in the top spot at the conclusion of the showjumping.

For William, the surprise lead is the culmination of a slow-burning production process, which has seen him take the eight-year-old Georgisaurous through the entirety of his short international career.

“I got him when he was four, and he started very easy at five,” says William, who has taken the Tattersalls CCI3*-L winner and four-star debutante’s career slowly to accommodate his overlarge size. “He’s quite cool, though – he’s not normal. He’s a step ahead. He got a 29 yesterday and it’s the first time he’s ever done that test, but he’s a very good dressage horse – he’ll easily get a 20 one day.”

In fact, he already has – that Tattersalls win came after he finished on his dressage score of 20.5. But four-star is a big step up from three-star, and the coveted title here is another story altogether. With that in mind, William is taking a measured approach to planning his final-phase strategy with the horse.

“We’re still finding our brakes, and I’m not sure I really want to gallop him round there,” he explains. “To me, I always think this class is a bit more for a nine-year-old, so he’s a bit off the pace. To go around his first four-star and to go flat out for the first time is probably not what we want for him – we’re thinking about the bigger picture. If he goes nicely I’ll be happy – it’s about his future and what’s right for him. If he goes off and wings round quickly, then lovely – but that isn’t my goal.”

We last saw Chris Burton take top honours here in 2017, when he won this class with Kate Walls’ Cooley Lands – but his joint-leading ride today is a horse that he’s never actually ridden in an event before. Instead, Clever Louis has been produced to CCI4*-L by Germany’s Ben Leuwer – but Burto and owners Kate and Geoffrey Guy had long admired the horse from afar.

“He was really beautifully trained by Ben under the guidance of Dirk Schrade, and he’s a horse I’ve always known about because he’s got amazing breeding. He’s a lovely horse, a lot of Thoroughbred, and I’m lucky to have the ride on him thanks to the Guys,” he says of the maternal grandson of Cor de la Bryere. “Of course we’re very excited about the horse, but I don’t know him very well – this is my first international on him, and in fact my first competition, so I’ve got a lot to learn about him tomorrow. He’s not the most fancy one out there but he’s the most lovely horse, so I think he’ll do a very good test [one day], and I’ve learned that he’s a very good jumper, too.”|

The top ten after showjumping in the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S.

Tomorrow sees us head into the final showjumping phase of the CCI4*-L, as well as the cross-country phase of the CCI4*-S – but first, we’ll be heading to the final horse inspection for the long-format class, beginning at 8.15 a.m. BST/3.15 a.m. EST. We’ll be bringing you a full report and gallery in the morning – until then, Go Eventing!

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