Yesterday, we enjoyed a bit of spectacle as the Burgham dressage record was dismantled in an excellent showing by Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around, leading most of us to believe that no matter how good the performances were today, we wouldn’t see much of a change at the top of the leaderboards in today’s competition.
How wrong we were. Today’s competitors saw yesterday’s smashed records and laughed in the face of logic, reason, and statistics, putting up marks that truly border on cruel and unusual punishment to the rest of the field. Even better? The best of the best marks ended up pitted against one another, giving us a full sea-change to admire, slack-jawed and slightly stunned, from alongside the windswept arena.
Okay, here’s the thing: you’re not meant to talk about the weather. If you do so, apparently, you’re a Very Bad Journalist™, or so say the powers that be, anyway. But when it comes to this – a very, very outdoor sort of sport – it’s kind of impossible not to take note of some of the extremes that get served up on any given day in any given field. And today certainly was a day of extremes. In comparison with yesterday’s mild, sunny, occasionally breezy conditions, today was rather like being trapped in a car wash, buffeted hither and thither by unrelenting, brutal gusts and occasionally pummelled into submission by seriously heavy rainfall. In short, it was the sort of day that doesn’t really lend itself to dressage, let alone dressage on a bunch of four-star fit event horses who haven’t encountered an atmosphere of any sort in the better part of a year.
But if there’s one thing these top-level riders have been doing while the rest of us have been completing Netflix, it’s grafting. They’ve upped their flatwork game, hit the home gym, and honed their mental fortitude, and throughout the day, we watched rider after rider smile and embrace the little bit of extra joie de vivre, channeling it into incredibly watchable extravagance without sacrificing a bit of correctness. So while I wouldn’t have put a bet on records being broken again today, in hindsight, I’m actually not that surprised. If the world is easing back into competition, no one’s told these guys.
We’ve only had one chance to see World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B in action in an international since they took their title at Tryon back in 2018. That chance came at Ballindenisk last September, where they romped around the CCI4*-L for the win just after Ros had given birth to her first child, daughter Ziggy. With a long-format run in the books, Allstar B — or Alby, as he’s known at home — was let down for the winter, ready to pick back up and tackle the 2020 season. But, of course, this being the Season That Wasn’t, we’ve ended up with what feels almost like a two-year hiatus from the reigning leaders of our sport. We’ll forgive this, though, because of what the pair delivered today: an almost perfect test that danced its way to a new Burgham record score of 19.7, the very best international score of Ros’s career, and the lead in CCI4*-S section M.
“We haven’t done a lot since WEG, so it’s quite a long time now,” says Ros, her arms full of a very smiley Ziggy, suited up against the stormy weather. “I was probably more nervous than him – I feel the pressure on Alby, but he was really good.”
Though an extension to her time off in 2019 wasn’t part of Ros’s plan, she’s managed to find the positives in the pandemic, rejigging her schedule to make the best of her lockdown.
“We’ve kept going, and had the horses on a day-on, day-off schedule, so we split them and had a more relaxing time,” she explains. “I’ve had more time to spend with my little girl, so it’s been good. We’ve kept training hard; I’ve felt it’s given me a bit more time to catch up on where I was before having a baby.”
There’s another two phases to tackle first, but longer term, Ros is thinking ahead to Pau — the last five-star standing on the 2020 calendar, and a target for many of the riders here this week.
“We have to play it a little bit by ear but I think it would be on the cards for me if it goes ahead. I’d like to be back at that level. I feel a bit lacking in match practice, so the more long-formats at a high level I can get to, the better, really.”
Before Ros could dismantle yesterday’s broken record, another rider headed into the ring in Section M and did just the same. Laura Collett and London 52 have always been exceptional in this phase, though the high-achieving eleven-year-old, who only started eventing four years ago, is finally beginning to reach his peak — as evidenced by his score of 20.3 today. In earning the score, he very nearly gave Laura her career personal best — but that honour remains the domain, for now anyway, of Rayef, who posted a 20.1 at Aachen in 2012. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that even better is yet to come — particularly as Laura has now fine-tuned a system that works for him as he’s grown into himself.
“He was borderline on edge of being a bit fresh [today], but he sort of needs to be like that,” she explains. “Last year, a few times it felt like I overdid it a bit outside and then he’d just slightly drop me in there, so we’ve tried something a little bit different. I worked him yesterday morning, and he felt really good in his brain so I just took him hacking in the afternoon, and then I hacked him this morning again. Then I kept the warm-up to a minimum so I could try to keep him feeling fresh. That’s when he does his best work — when he’s a little bit on edge, but good in his brain.”
Part of the process has been working with London 52’s brain to allow him the breathing room to grow — something that saw him enjoy six weeks of holiday time during the height of lockdown.
“He was up and fit [when it started], and he can be a bit of a funny horse if he doesn’t have enough to do,” explains Laura. On coming back into work, though, he had a newfound sense of self-assuredness: “he’s always been a bit of a worrier, but he actually feels confident now.”
Yesterday’s leaders Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around remain well in the hunt in overnight third place, while 2019 Blenheim CCI4*-L winners Piggy March and Brookfield Inocent — a horse once described to EN by Piggy’s husband Tom as “the 2020 Burghley winner” — posted a 21.8 to take overnight fourth position and earn the horse his career personal best mark.
Fifth place is the overnight domain of Section L leader Oliver Townend, who produced a very good test aboard his 2018 Blair Castle CCI4*-S winner Tregilder yesterday to earn a 22.9, while William Fox-Pitt and Little Fire slip into sixth place on 23.4.
Chinese Olympians Alex Hua Tian and Don Geniro packaged up a bit of the quirky chestnut’s unique brand of spice to produce one of the most watchable tests of the afternoon. Don Geniro — or ‘the Don’ — is one of those horses you can’t help but tune into. Enormously charismatic and talented, he’s also quirky and occasionally unpredictable, and so his tests always come with the added excitement — rare, frankly, in dressage — of not quite knowing which way the wind will blow for him on any given day. But Alex, with whom he’s been partnered for so long and with such success, knows the horse and his (admittedly numerous) whims intrinsically, and watching him artfully turn fizziness into fluency, without a hint of kick-and-pull, is a masterclass for even the casual viewer.
Today, it all paid off in the ring, with Don Geniro visibly gaining in confidence throughout the course of his test and skipping his way through what felt like the full spectrum of seasons in the course of five minutes. Their efforts would earn them a 24.4, enough for seventh place heading into tomorrow’s jumping phases — though, Alex admits, the mark could have been even better, but for a tiny mishap at the beginning of the test.
“I’m very happy with him, but I’m a bit annoyed, actually,” he says with a laugh, explaining, “I fumbled my right rein at the start and he cantered out of the halt. But I was really happy, because Don’s not good in bad conditions, he’s not good with flowers, he’s not good with atmosphere, and he hasn’t been out for ages — but it felt like he went in there and really tried. That’s all you can ask for, really.”
2020 should have been an enormously significant year for Alex, whose efforts — both in competition and in encouraging the growth of the sport in China — have been essential in qualifying a Chinese team for the Olympics for the first time. But although the postponement of the Games could have put a dampener on the spirits of the team, the extra time has allowed the adrenaline and momentum of qualifying on a deadline to be transformed into something solid — something with roots that can be used to grow into the cohesive and long-lasting national effort that Alex has been working towards throughout his career.
“I think it’s been a good thing for the riders who’ve stayed in Europe,” he says, reflecting on the past months. “Some of the riders have had to go back to China because of their provincial team responsibilities, which is a shame because they’ll have missed out on the opportunity to get to know their horses better.But the feeling is quite positive, and for the team management and the federation, it’s definitely a positive. Qualifying last year and then [the Olympics] happening this year, they were a bit like, ‘…shit!’ From the management side, our federation has had teams at Asian Games before, but it’s quite different at this level and at the Olympics. The stakes are higher and the organisation of it all is more difficult. I think, if anything, they needed an extra year to get everything organised — and having almost had sort of a dry run, they’ll be that much more prepared.”
Oliver Townend remains the man to beat in CCI4*-S section L, where he sits atop the leaderboard on a score of 21.4 with Ballaghmor Class. There’ll be little point in any of his competitors quietly hoping he might have accrued some rust over the past months, either — he made light work of the CCI3*-S sections today, duly winning both. He’s got plenty of previous good form here, and should be considered — as usual, really — a real threat.
The first change on the section L leaderboard came in the form of 2019 winners Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, who gave an important lesson in composure and riding away from your mistakes when an early break in the trotwork looked to put paid to any ideas of a low-scoring test. But Kitty rebalanced the historically cheeky ‘Froggy’, sallied forth, and rode the rest of the test as though the issue had never happened. It was worth the effort, too — her accurate, committed craftsmanship in the ring would be rewarded with a 25.8 and overnight fourth place, followed by Ros Canter and Rehy Royal Diamond in fifth place on 25.3.
After this much time away, it’s hard not to find yourself delighting in just about every horse in the ring, and I certainly found myself turning to whoever was willing to listen to me throughout the day to expound on how excited I was to see various combinations again. But a few of those combinations really were a treat to watch — like Laura Collett and Mr Bass, the FOD-machine making his first appearance since Badminton last year, where he picked up an injury.
Though he’s not a dressage machine in the way that stablemate London 52 is, Mr Bass has proven himself a reliable partner in this phase, typically scoring in the high-20s and then, as his party piece, finishing on that score with a remarkable consistency. Today, though, he squeaked in below his expected score, putting a 25.8 on the board for sixth place overnight.
“He doesn’t find dressage easy, but he tried really hard — he was really on side,” says Laura, who has worked on the flat extensively with the horse after his rehabilitation, to great effect. “He’s definitely physically stronger, and having done dressage for a year he’s slightly accepting it a bit more. Half his problem before was that he’d try to guess what I wanted, rather than waiting to be told what to do, whereas in there it felt like he waited to be told what would come next — that was the biggest change in him.”
The extra time spent working on the flat acted rather like an extensive psychoanalysis for ‘Chuck’, who Laura describes as “a bit of a try-hard, and cocky, too.”
“It was all about figuring him out a bit more,” she says. “He’s a bit of a character and we had to work to figure out what to do with him, but I think we understand him a bit more now. I worked with Ian Woodhead and have been to Pippa Funnell for a few lessons with him, and they both just got into his head a bit more. He was never naughty; his whole thing in life is just that he thinks he knows best and doesn’t need to be told what to do, so any mistakes he’s ever made are because he’s trying too hard. Now he’s accepting that in dressage, he does sort of need to be told what to do!”
Almost more exciting for Laura than the score, though, is simply the feeling of being back behind those familiar ears at an international.
“It’s almost impossible to put into words — he means the world to me, and just to have him back here is really special,” she says.
Tomorrow sees both jumping phases run almost concurrently throughout the day, with showjumping set to start at 8.00 a.m. and cross-country to commence at 9.30 a.m. You’ll be able to watch the entirety of the cross-country action via the live-stream, and in the meantime, you can take a look at the course courtesy of the CrossCountryApp and press officer Catherine Austen.
But what do the riders themselves think of the challenge that’s been set?
“I think it’s big enough!” says Alex Hua Tian. “I think it’s a really difficult balance for the course designer, though it looks like they’ve hit the nail on the head — there’s definitely enough to jump, but it’s all quite attractive and out there in front of you to be jumped; there’s nothing trappy. But there are two or three combinations out there that will definitely cause issues for a few of the greener horses — the shoulder brush combination at 6ABC is one I’ll be riding pretty carefully at and just making sure the horses see it. Because it’s quite early on, you could see a few of the fresh ones taking a look — but other than that, you’d be cross with an experienced one for making a mistake later on.”
Ros Canter agrees: “I think it’s a great course. They always build big and bold here, so I look forward to giving it a go!”
We’ll be back tomorrow with a bumper report and gallery full of all the day’s action.