“I’ve been in this position once before, nine years ago,” remembers Dorset-based Rosie Fry, who stepped into the top spot over today’s cross-country challenge with the inexperienced True Blue Too II, moving up from ninth place after adding just 2.8 time penalties. But she’s hoping this week doesn’t end in quite the same way: “it all fell apart in the showjumping,” she says with a rueful laugh, “so I don’t really like to be in this position!”
Still, she can’t help but delight in the performance of the ten-year-old, who was bred by her aunt, Di White-Hamilton, and who made his CCI4*-L debut at Bicton in June. That ended up being an educational run, rather than a competitive one, but it’s served him well in the set-up for this weekend.
“He had a twenty there, but it was early on and he just got better and better,” she says. “He’s actually an amazing cross-country horse — all I have to do is sit and steer. But I wasn’t expecting to be in the lead!”
Rosie has produced the gelding from a four-year-old, and knew that the taxing hills of Scotland would suit his rangy, open stride well.
“He’s a proper athlete, and we knew this course would suit him, because he’s a galloper, and he’s so straight and honest. That Bicton course was where he became a man, and now he’s gone up another gear.”
Rosie opted to take the direct routes throughout the course, which helped her keep as close to the clock as she could.
“He had a few time faults, but coming here, I don’t think a few time faults are too bad. Because he’s a good galloper, I just went with him, and he came home full of running. He took a stride out to the corners — I was going on six and four, and he went on five and three, but I didn’t interfere; I just went with him because I know he’s so scopey, and he likes to do things his way.”
There was just one minor hairy moment on course for the pair, which proved a great test of how far the horse has come: “At the skinnies at the top of the hill, I didn’t get a great shot into the first one and he was very genuine to just keep straight and keep on going,” she says. “And then in the water he was really good, because these horses haven’t seen crowds for two years and it’s amazing the difference. He came into the first water and was like, ‘wow, there’s so many people around!’ I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference, but it was a full atmosphere here.”
Now, Rosie’s looking ahead to tomorrow’s showjumping with some trepidation after her experience here nearly a decade ago — but she’s keeping it all in perspective, too, after the tragic lorry accident that claimed the lives of four horses en route to the event earlier this week.
“Whatever happens tomorrow, I’m lucky to be here — we’re so lucky to have horses here, and healthy horses. So we’ll take whatever happens tomorrow and hope that we can have a good result, but [if not], there’s worse things. As long as we go home with healthy horses, [that’s the main thing.] We’ll take this tonight and be proud — I don’t think I was nine years ago, because I thought it was easy, but it’s taken me this long to get back! So we’re very, very proud.”
The time proved to be the most influential factor of the day, and just one combination managed to catch the optimum time of 10:01. That was newly-minted Olympic gold and silver medallist Tom McEwen, who made a spectacular leap up the leaderboard with Magdalena Gut’s Dream Big, finishing three seconds under the time to move from 14th into second place.
“She was amazing. It was a really tough track, and there was a lot of people out on track which is one thing she hasn’t really seen, but she was phenomenal,” says Tom, who took the ride on the ten-year-old Thoroughbred mare in 2017 after she’d completed her first season of national-level eventing with New Zealand’s Lizzie Brown. That had come after a failed career as a racehorse: owner Magdalena was responsible for backing the impressive mare while working for trainer Sheikh Fahed, and she went on to run six times under rules — five on the flat, and once over hurdles — winning a rather uninspiring £385 throughout her short-lived first job. Now, though, she’s obviously found her calling, and Tom was impressed by her boldness out on course.
“We bounced over the coffin at the water,” he says. “She’s inexperienced at this level but she’s been amazing. Being an ex-racehorse and coming up through the grades with her has been amazing, and with her, the time was really easy. She kept ticking over at the same speed going up the hill as she was coming down the hill — I had a lovely time. I was just working out the minute markers so I wasn’t going over the top. Of course they get a bit tired with the hills, but she was travelling so easy on the time so it wasn’t an issue, which was lovely to have.”
Blair’s serious hills always make it an old-fashioned test of stamina and fitness, and several of the horses we saw excel on course today had been so well-prepared that they continued to bubble over with energy and exuberance long after they’d crossed the finish line — and Alice Casburn‘s Topspin II was no exception.
“I came to the last and he was still pulling — I was like, ‘you’re supposed to be tired now!’ He did cart me all the way back to the lorry park after his ten-minute round – as soon as he sees people, he lights up. I’m hoping that’s what will happen tomorrow, but whatever happens, I’m nineteen and made him myself, so I’m chuffed to be here, to be honest,” says Alice. Though neither horse nor rider are particularly experienced at this level — nineteen-year-old Alice contested her first BE90 in 2016, while Topspin began his eventing career just three years ago — they share a uniquely generational partnership that’s no doubt helped them make their first forays into the upper levels such a roaring success.
“My mum took his grandmother Advanced, and then bred from that, and then eventually [competed] his mother. Then she started eventing him, and I had a horse at the time that wasn’t going to plan. Everyone was like, ‘she won’t be okay!’,” Alice laughs. “And I wasn’t okay for the first year – but then we just sort of clicked after that first year. I feel really, really privileged to be able to ride a horse like him; it’s not every day they come along that you can jump a track like that and they’ll be like, ‘okay, long one here, short one here, mum!’”
That level of intrinsic communication paid dividends around today’s tough track, which they completed with six time penalties to move from eleventh into third.
“He’s quite insecure, but it comes across as naughtiness. In the dressage arena he’ll decide he really hates a corner, and every instinct says ‘give him a kick to get in the corner’. But actually, I’ve just got to give him a pat. He’s really insecure and I’m quite vocal on the cross-country – it’s quite embarrassing, but he actually listens to my voice more than anything. He didn’t really enjoy eventing the first year, but this year, it’s all sort of just clicked with him – he’s started coming out of the start box like, ‘where is it?!’ Today I went in the start box and I didn’t have a choice if I was going – he saw the first fence and said, ‘there it is, mum!’ It’s a really nice feeling.”
“Because he’s quite a big horse and I’m not very big, I knew that by the time we got to the fifth minute, I was going to have to spend a little bit longer everywhere. I got him a little bit deep coming into the oxer before the water, which was quite a big fence, but he was really, really good. By the time you came around to the corners at the top, you really felt them blowing, but luckily he’s nearly full Thoroughbred, so he was still like, ‘where’s the next one, where’s the next one?’ while I’m up there thinking ‘woah, woah, woah!’ I had my minute markers all set up, but then I was walking around in the warm-up and [the tannoy] was like, ‘retired, eliminated, retired, eliminated’, and I’m really here for a qualification. He’s one of those that’s got to be inspired a little bit, so I’m always going a gear quicker than I’d really like to. I got to the seventh minute and was like, ‘hang on, I’m nearly on my time’. They’re big jumps, so you can’t really hang about; you’ve got to attack them like you want it. I’m quite lucky that he sees a hill, you put him in autopilot, and he takes you up it. So I was conscious of the time, but really, I just wanted to give him a nice round.”
Together, Alice and Topspin contested the 2019 Junior European Championships, finishing in the top twenty — and that experience gave them some exposure to the kind of close crowds they had to face today.
“I saw the crowds [at Juniors], but considering the only four-stars I’ve done have been under COVID rules, coming around to the first water I was like, ‘woah!’ But he was like, ‘wow, I love this!’,” she says. “He’s pretty mega; it’s nice to look round and feel like you’re on the best one – that’s a nice feeling. I know he’s not done as much as half the others, but I know it’s all there.”
There’s still one more tough phase to come — but Alice, who’s jumped 1.40 classes and even tackled a Puissance with the 13-year-old gelding, is feeling pragmatic about the pressure of finding herself in podium position in her second-ever CCI4*-L.
“It’s like anything – it could all go wrong tomorrow, but touch wood, I’m on a good jumping horse and at the end of the day, he’s the one that’s got me here from my first two-stars, so he doesn’t owe me anything.”
Full-time chartered accountant Lauren Innes impressed with the spicy Global Fision M to sit second after dressage, and after adding 10.4 time penalties, they remain well in the hunt in fourth.
“I’m just so lucky to have him; he’s the most incredible cross-country horse,” says Lauren. “He is fearless, and he doesn’t care about crowds — I thought I’d have to ride strongly at the first water with all the crowds, but he was just like, ‘yeah, a jump!’ I didn’t know how he’d cope [with the hills], but he was just amazing.”
Despite the eleven-year-old’s relative inexperience, Lauren was able to make some bold decisions across Alec Lochore’s beefy track.
“I walked the course with my cross-country trainer, Mark Corbett, and between the two skinny brushes at the far end, I was like, ‘do you think I’ll get three strides?’ He said, ‘no way, no matter how many times I walk this on the straight line, you’ll never get there on three’,” she says. But: “We got there on three! He was just flying. Then, at the corner combination, I’d walked the outside line on six, and then straight on the four to the two corners. But I should have just gone for three there, as well, because I was holding for four and it was really short.”
Lauren is effusive in her praise of her horse, who she describes as her ‘horse of a lifetime’, and attributes her time penalties to a more steady approach through the tough middle section of the course.
“I just took my foot off the gas a little bit at the end, because I was up on all my minute markers until the complex section, and I just thought, ‘I need to be careful, because I don’t have that much experience.’ I didn’t want to plop off or something! Then I realised I’d lost quite a lot of time coming down the steep section into the last field, but I don’t care — he’s just amazing.”
Like Alice Casburn’s Topspin, Global Fision M finished the course full of energy — a testament to the balancing act that allows Lauren to get him fit and ready for events, despite not having any help on the yard.
“[Working from home during] COVID has certainly helped, because I can get off him at like, one minute to nine and be at my desk by nine,” she laughs. “I go to Oakingham Stud to use their hill gallops to get him fit for the longs, and that’s about fifty minutes from home, so I’ll get up at quarter past five and leave home just before six. Then after the drive, I’ll be on him just before seven, gallop him, wash him down, and be back by nine. Then he goes out in the field, and I work all day.”
Lauren has just two sponsors at the moment, but one of them — Rachel Corry at the Equine Rebalance Therapy Centre at Hampshire’s Wellington Riding — has proved essential to the process.
“I’ve known Rachel for a long time,” she says. “I go once a week at 7 a.m. before they even open, so he can use the treadmill without using up any slots, and I can get back to work. Everything is just about getting up early and doing it in the morning, because then I know he’s done and I don’t have to worry. It’s not in the back of my mind when I’m working that I need to do something with him. It’s all just done and dusted — [and that helps because] work goes in cycles. Sometimes I’m done at five; sometimes I’m working until eleven p.m.”
The hard work has obviously paid off, and Lauren has big plans in mind — though every step of the way, she’s committed to working methodically in a way that suits her horse.
“I can’t chase the clock with him every time, because it would blow his brains, but when I need to, he gallops and gallops and never gets tired. If I had ridden around ten or fifteen four-stars, I’d be able to get the time on him easily, but because I got my top 25% finish at Bicton, I just needed to get round here, because then I can aim him for Badminton,” she says. And when she gets there? It’ll be off the back of her own momentum — and the support of her family, who help make her unique circumstances work for her.
“I would love to ride all the time, but then, I’d only like to ride horses like him, and when you ride full-time you have to ride some less nice horses,” she laughs. “At least now I can choose to ride him and my other ones, and I love doing it, and it’s always fun. I have supportive trainers, and my mum is like my PA. If you want to do these things, you can find a way to make it happen.”
Izzy Taylor rounds out the top five after an impressive round aboard Ringwood Madras, who stepped up from overnight sixth after cruising home with 12 time penalties. The ten-year-old mare, who’s owned by Sarah van Vegchel, is an exciting CCI4*-L debutant for Izzy, who took the reins from Ben Way at the beginning of the year and has done just one other international with her. That was the inaugural CCI4*-S at Aston-le-Walls, where they finished seventeenth in a very hot field.
Dressage leaders Nicola Wilson and Erano M were relegated to sixth place after adding a steady 14.4 time penalties — roughly the same as he picked up in his CCI4*-L debut at Bicton earlier this summer.
“He struggled with the hills, which I suspected he might,” says Nicola. “But it’ll have done him enormous good for the future. He’s such an athletic little horse, and he’s so fun to ride — he loved it all the way to the end; he had his ears pricked and was looking for his fences, and I was thrilled to bits with him.”
At around 40% blood, his two runs over significant terrain will have served to develop his innate stamina for long-format runs to come, but with tomorrow’s jumping finale yet to come, he can’t be counted out for a top placing just yet: he’s one of the most consistent showjumpers in the field, with just one rail knocked in his four four-stars thus far.
The course’s influence was pretty well scattered, with no one fence negatively impacting more than two competitors. Three competitors were eliminated on course and a further three opted to retire, which meant that 15 of the 21 starters completed the course — and just one of the fifteen still in the hunt picked up jumping penalties on course. Instead, it was largely a test of fitness, and the next indicator of that test will come tomorrow morning, as the field heads into the final horse inspection at 8.00 a.m., followed by the showjumping finale at 4.40 p.m. Once again, there’s sadly no live-stream this year — but we’ll bring you all the news you need to know throughout the day.
Until then: Go Eventing!