After the relatively straightforward CCI4*-L cross-country session, which was plenty influential but largely uneventful, the afternoon at Blair proved to be anything but. The CCI4*-S cross-country finale was always going to be a reasonably late feature on the schedule even if it had started at its intended time of 4:50 p.m. — but a spate of issues in the CCI3*-L class that preceded it steadily pushed the start time back by a full hour. By the time the assembled ground crew could even think about setting the flags for the final class of the day, the afternoon’s extraordinary sunshine had slid languorously down the sky, creating high-contrast light and dark areas on the course and forcing competitors at several points to ride directly towards it, creating some risk of visibility issues. Beyond that, many riders weren’t quite sure how to prepare their horses; there were suggestions prior to the start of the class that the cross-country phase might be split over that evening and the following morning, and after competitors were told there was an hour’s delay to the proceedings, a sudden announcement that the setback would be ten minutes shorter meant that several had to scramble to get on board and down to the warm-up arena, where they then discovered that they’d be able to put their numbers down on arrival and run out of order — a method ordinarily only used in national level classes.
Nevertheless, the class continued on, though not without some excitement of its own. Just shy of 75% of the 40 starters came home without jumping penalties, but there were three eliminations and four retirements on course, with six of those seven noncompletions incurred across fences 14AB — an innocuous water combination with a conservative drop in and a wishing well fence on dry land — and 15ABC, a combination featuring a chunky log parallel to two open corners, which could be ridden on six and four strides or five and three.
Ultimately, the win would go to Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo, who had lead from the front after producing an impressive 25.2 test on Thursday evening. They then jumped a clear round over yesterday morning’s showjumping track, which produced a clear rate across the class of less than 50%, though they added 0.4 time penalties. When they headed out of the startbox as one of the first pairs to tackle Alec Lochore’s 6:45 track, it was with 2.4 time penalties in hand ahead of then-second placed Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir.
They wouldn’t need it. Ros and the deceptively tall British-bred gelding (Grafenstolz x Cornish Queen, by Rock King), who she rides for owner Michele Saul, produced the second fastest round of the day, adding 0.8 time penalties and making the influential track look like a glorified schooling exercise, even with the added challenge of the low, bright sun.
“He’s an amazing horse — he’s just fun, and he has the ability to gallop really fast, balance very quickly, and gallop downhill like he’s on flat ground. And he’s careful,” says Ros.
She roundly praised the course, which offered a fair challenge for the level and tested horses’ stamina in a productive, developmental way, requiring them to moderate their balance and power.
“They certainly seemed to cause some problems, but I thought they were clever,” she says. “They just required some thought, really; every question was very fair, but you had to consider the terrain and the effect of the terrain ongoing around the course. You had to think about how it affected their balance towards the end, where you needed to spend time and where you didn’t need to spend time. [You’d have a] fence that maybe would be innocuous on the flat, but when you’re up there and it’s on a bit of a camber coming downhill and you’ve just run fast uphill for two minutes, you’d actually get a new feeling. So I think it was just a case of being kind of ahead of the game on what you think they might feel like.”
The talented nine-year-old won the inaugural (though admittedly much flatter) Aston-le-Walls CCI4*-S and finished second in Bicton’s enormously tough CCI4*-L earlier this summer. This is just his eleventh FEI event; so far, he’s never finished lower than eleventh place in any of them.
“It appears, at the moment, that he can do any sort of track, which is exciting,” says Ros. This makes him the obvious frontrunner among her string for her Paris 2024 campaign, and he’s already making considerable headway: ‘Walter’ was named on Friday as a direct reserve for Ros for the British team at the European Eventing Championships next month.
“[World Champion Allstar B] is my number one choice, but it’s nice to have a back-up that seems quite steady,” she says.
The last time Blair ran, back in 2019, Astier Nicolas‘s Babylon de Gamma was just an eight-year-old making his CCI4*-S debut — and the fact that he won it was just delicious confirmation of the Frenchman’s suspicions that the horse might be his next superstar. Now, two years along, he didn’t quite manage to defend his title, but as he reflects on the last few days and the second place finish he climbed his way towards, he’s more convinced than ever that the Selle Français gelding has the ‘it’ factor.
“I’m quite in admiration of him — he’s quite a lion,” he says. “He’s a good horse, and now he’s even more so, because now I think he can do dressage — before, I always thought he was a good jumper, but the dressage was not so easy for me. But he’s improved a lot.”
The dressage was something of a point of contention for Astier, who is one of the first European-based riders to tackle the logistically taxing journey to the UK this season. He brought three horses along for the ride: alongside Babylon de Gamma, he ran his 2017 Seven-Year-Old World Champion Alertam’alibor in this class and the inexperienced Diese Cot Chat in the CCI3*-L. But with each of the three horses, he felt he’d been pointedly undermarked, prompting him to seek out the organising team for a chat.
All’s well that end’s well, though, if you can go fast at Blair — and Astier certainly did with Babylon, after taking a tumble from first ride Alertam’alibor at the open corner at 15C. The gelding, who was making his CCI4*-S debut after two seasons off with tendon injuries, was placed higher than his more experienced stablemate in sixth after showjumping, but his elimination allowed the striking grey to step up into that placing provisionally. They would deliver the only clear round inside the time of the day, making them the only combination to finish on their dressage score. They went on to finish in second place, a healthy 4.5 penalties behind the winners.
“When I [won here in 2019], I picked up time faults; I wasn’t aiming for the win,” says Astier, reflecting on his horse’s development over the past two years. “He won naturally, because the field was a bit lighter and I went steady-ish. He’s got plenty in the tank.”
Now, Astier will aim for Babylon de Gamma’s CCI5* debut at either Maryland or Pau. In either case, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to expect that the gelding could go some way towards replicating the naive but exciting victory he collected in his first CCI4*-S two years ago.
Emily King also made great headway on a promising horse, climbing from sixth on 29 after dressage to fourth after a showjumping round that she describes as the best of Valmy Biats‘s life. That’s no small praise, considering the inexperienced twelve-year-old’s career success in this phase: he’s only pulled two rails across his twelve career runs. The withdrawal of third-placed Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around, who will head to next month’s European Championships, slotted them into third — and despite picking up 7.6 time penalties, they stayed there to round out the podium.
“If someone like Oliver [Townend] had been on him, they’d probably have been able to go fast — but I saw how low the light was and thought, ‘I don’t want to hurt him!'” says Emily with a laugh. Instead, she opted to give the gelding, who is owned with the micro-share Event Horse Owners’ Syndicate, a steadier and more educational run to help prepare him for Blenheim’s CCI4*-L next month, which will be his second run at the level after a debut at Bicton.
There was further good reason not to run for the time — Emily was riding Valmy in a new bit for the first time in a quest to find the perfect balance for the sensitive French-bred horse.
“I changed him to a bigger Swales pelham, and it was really good, because he’s strong but if you go a bit too sharp with things, it doesn’t work,” she says. “But this was perfect. I actually didn’t expect it to be quite so perfect, and so in hindsight, I probably could have gone quicker in places, which is exciting for his future.”
That future looks bright indeed: after Blenheim CCI4*-L, Emily hopes to plan for a five-star debut in 2022 and, if all goes well, she’ll aim him for team pathways. It’s an exciting position to see the 25-year-old rider in: after an enormously exciting start to her senior career, which included a fourth-place finish in her debut CCI5* at the age of nineteen and a win in Bramham’s CCI4*-L for under-25s in 2018, she found herself almost back to square one after her primary owner decided it was time to sell up and get out of the sport. Valmy Biats, who was previously piloted by France’s Mathieu Lemoine and Victor Levecque, was offered to her by breeder Philippe Brivois, who retains ownership, back in 2020 — but although she loved the horse from the moment she sat on him, she knew that Philippe’s terms, which required her to cover all running costs, would be untenable for her in the long-term without help. Now, she’s partnered with EHOS to offer experience-based microsyndicate shares, which allow supporters to ‘buy in’ with a nominal annual fee of less than £100. In return, they get the chance to join her at events for course walks, post-ride debriefs, and a behind-the-scenes taste of ownership, while she gets the security she’s so desperately craved since losing her previous string of top horses.
So far, the talented gelding has offered his group of ‘owners’ plenty of fun — and Emily’s thoroughly enjoying the process of producing him, too.
“He’s really, really nice. He’s quite a hot horse on the flat, and he took ages getting his changes; he’s quite a worrier, so it’s been about getting him to show himself off in a relaxed way,” she explains. “He’d easily just go up and down on the spot snorting, so it’s getting him moving and grooving. When he came to me, he wasn’t really doing his changes at all, and that’s been a real work in progress; now he’s nearly got them, and the rest of his work is really good. In showjumping he’s amazing, and in cross-country, he’s a very good mix of bold and careful. He looks after himself, but he’d never back off.”
24-year-old Yasmin Ingham added yet another impressive result to ten-year-old Banzai du Loir‘s record, finishing fourth after adding 0.4 time in the showjumping and 8.8 across the country to their first-phase score of 27.6. This gives the striking gelding — yes, another Selle Français — his fifth CCI4* top ten from seven runs at the level, and like Valmy Biats before him, he’ll next head to Blenheim to tackle the CCI4*-L after winning its eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S, which was temporarily relocated to Burnham Market in 2020.
Fittingly, a Perthshire-based rider — in fact, Perthshire’s only professional eventer — rounded out the top five of this hot CCI4*-S class. Wills Oakden has been quietly making an impression with his string of horses at the upper end of top-level leaderboards around the country, but it’s with the nine-year-old MacGregor’s Cooley that he looks set to do something very big, very soon. They climbed from 23rd after dressage on their score of 33.3 to eventual fifth after a sparkling clear round over the poles and just 6.4 time penalties across the country, making theirs the third-fastest round of the day. This is just the second CCI4*-S and eighth FEI competition for the gelding: he finished second at Barbury last month on his debut, making him one of Britain’s most exciting young Advanced horses.