Saturday at Blenheim: A Surprisingly Influential Day Sees One Overnight Leader Eliminated and Another Reign Supreme

It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that Blenheim Palace International’s CCI4*-L cross-country course is generally on the softer end of the level — a ‘B’ four-star, if you will, and if the FEI will ever take my suggestion about A and B four-stars into consideration for MER purposes, which I wish they would. That’s not a criticism of the event, nor of designer David Evans’s courses; they serve an essential purpose in developing less experienced horses and riders and helping to springboard them to the harder end of the level spectrum. They use terrain in a friendly way; many of Blenheim’s galloping straights are on flatter, easier sections of ground, over which horses can coast without tiring quite so much. Generally, we’d be unsurprised to see ten, even twenty pairs make it home inside the time, and a reasonably high clear rate.

Today, it wasn’t quite that sort of day. Though the course didn’t appear to be enormously different to last year’s at first glance, it pretty immediately began causing numerous issues from the word go — and not just for inexperienced horses or riders, but for those who’ve placed at five-star or been enormously consistent over tough tracks. That meant that our 93 dressage finishers became 88 cross-country starters following withdrawals — including that of US representatives Tiana Coudray and Cancaras Girl — and those 88 starters became 66 finishers, giving a 75% completion rate. Of those finishers, 50 completed without jumping penalties, yielding a 57% clear rate, and just seven were clear inside the time. While that’s not really far off the event’s previous numbers — in 2019, for example, it had a 78% completion rate and a 62% clear rate — it still felt like a pretty colossal day of cross-country due to the sheer stature of the horses and riders who slipped out of contention today.

Those  shock moments included a fall at the penultimate fence for Gemma Stevens from her Badminton mount Jalapeno, who had been third after dressage and were among the first out of the box today; a fall at fence five for overnight fourth-placed Laura Collett from Aoife Clark’s Calahari; a retirement for sixth-placed Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On; a rider fall for German National Champions Julia Krajewski and Ero de Cantraie, who had sat tenth after dressage; a heaping helping of time for seventh-placed Kirsty Chabert and Opposition Loire, who subsequently slipped to 35th; and time and a missed flag for New Zealand’s Sam Lissington and Lord Seekonig, which pushed them from eighth to 45th.

Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But nevertheless, our leaders remained unruffled. World Champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir have had a bit of a rollercoaster year, full of highs — such as becoming the first-ever British winners of CHIO Aachen over the summer, and helping the British team to gold at the Europeans — and surprising lows, too, including a shock run-out early at Kentucky and another while working towards that gold medal in Haras du Pin. But every exceptionally good — and still, really, very young — horse needs a season in which to work out how to cope with all the challenges that the sport can bring, and in every stage of the pair’s round across the country in Blenheim’s CCI4*-L today, it became clearer and clearer that they’d taken all those lessons learned and put them into coming back better than ever. They added nothing to their first-phase score of 20.5 — Yas’s career-best international dressage score at any level, no less — to retain their overnight lead and work towards regaining the Blenheim title, which they earned back in 2021, also while leading from pillar to post.

“It was really good round, and it was enjoyable — well, enjoyable to an extent!” laughs Yas. “He picked everything up super easy, and was right on his lines, and he responded when I said ‘go’ and woahed when I said ‘woah’. It was really important just to have a nice, enjoyable, positive round today, and I think he’s done that.”

That, she says, was her major goal all along in entering Blenheim, a decision that first came about because he came out of the Europeans, with its shortened track, so well — and because none of her other horses were ready to go out for their holidays in the field, so Banzai would have been flying solo in his downtime.

“I just wanted to have a nice time,” she says. “It’s so nice to come to this sort of event, and it’s just a beautiful place to be able to compete — my owners absolutely love it and my family come and watch, so it’s kind of just about having a really nice time between all of us and enjoying the horse, because he’s so special. He’s an absolute pleasure and just a joy to have so for us just to actually enjoy him and have nothing else think about is really nice.”

For Yas, logging a good round without external pressure — for example, that of a country’s expectations — was a good tonic, but it didn’t mean she went out of the startbox totally without pressure. The pressure she puts on herself, she explains, comes down to a desire to make sure everyone involved with her and her horse get rewarded for their efforts.

“I always just want to do my best and not let anybody down,” she says. “So many people put so much work into this; my team at home, and the team that come here, and everyone behind the scenes. It’s a massive group effort and when we have a good day, it’s everybody’s good day.”

Ros Canter and Izilot DHI. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ros Canter remains in second place overnight with the very exciting Izilot DHI, who came out of the box as his most committed self today to cruise around just one second over the time. That sends the pair into tomorrow’s finale just 1.5 penalties — or three seconds — behind the overnight leaders.

“He was amazing. He felt really, really grown up out there; really honest,” says Ros, who’s logged some impressive wins with the ten-year-old — including in the CCI4*-S at Blair last month — but has also dealt with some high-profile disappointments, including an early 20 in Bramham’s CCI4*-L this year while in the lead.

Today, though, is “probably the first time I’ve pushed him for the time around a long-format like this. He felt a little bit weary two thirds of the way around, so it’s the first time he’s had to dig that deep, but he was so focused with the crowds and things, all the things we previously had problems with. He was fantastic.”

Of David Evans’s surprisingly influential course, she says, “he definitely created a thinking course. I think some of the distances were a bit different to what we maybe would have picked, but I think that makes it a course where you had to really decide, make a plan for your own horse, decide what canter you wanted before a fence, and commit to that canter. Some you could choose to roll on to,  others, you had to really make a difference to the canter — and that was the challenge of it. I think it was all about walking your lines multiple times, knowing what canter you wanted to get to, and knowing what horse you were on.”

Piggy March and Halo. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Last year’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S champion Halo, ridden by Piggy March, stepped up from overnight ninth place on a 28.7 to two-phase third after adding just 0.8 time penalties for coming in two seconds over the optimum time. Their round was one of the last of the day, just before five in the afternoon, and saw them make the most of those gaps opened on the leaderboard by surprise problems.

“I’m over the moon — he was fabulous,” says Piggy, who confesses that she “hated today and being so late. I showjumped my first horse at five past eight or something this morning and then waited all day to see all sorts going on. I’ve never been so late at a three-day.”

That time, she says, wasn’t exactly put to productive use — instead, she spent most of it second-guessing her intentions in even running the inexperienced little stallion.

“I was worried about him; he’s not got much mileage, and good horses were having problems,” she says. “I think the world of him, so it was like, ‘is this right?’ I had all day to get in quite a tizz, and I thought, ‘maybe today’s not the day; maybe I’m not feeling it; maybe we don’t go’… I did about twenty wees in the last hour before I got on, thinking, ‘I’m getting too old! What am I doing?!'”

But then, she says, “I got out there and had a whale of a time! He felt fantastic. He gets a little bit on his head and a bit flat at the end, so I was just balancing to get them done, but he still finished so well. He picked up and galloped across the finish; he’s got some engine on him for a small horse, and he makes up all the distances. He eats them all up.”

Piggy was one of several riders to make mention of the distances as they were set on the course — and, specifically, that many appeared to walk on a half-stride, requiring adjustments to find a flowing rhythm though them.

“I didn’t mind it when I first walked it, but I didn’t love some of the distances,” she says. “But then I had a great ride, so it was good. It rode tough enough, and the second water was a big question — it was a big jumping effort, and you had to slightly angle it to make sure they could see the second part, so a lot of horses sort of guessed at that or held their breath a bit. Halo used to slither into water a little bit to start with which surprises me, because he’s got balls, so you’d think he’d try to be a bit more careful with those. But today, he jumped in really brave and was so balanced that he just sort of turned and then could ride to the corner. He was a little Pegasus, a little unicorn today!”

For Halo, who’s just in his ten-year-old season, his big autumn aim has thrown even more challenges at him than it reasonably should have.

“I just hope he’s okay,” says Piggy, “because when we arrived in the stables they’d put us in with mares all around us. I was just like, ‘are you kidding us?’ The first day was distracting enough, and he’s been quite chatty, but I don’t really blame him. I was disappointed with his dressage yesterday, because that’s not normally what he does, and that’s the first time he’s ever made mistakes in training or a show or anything, so I was just a bit disheartened. I was like, ‘is he on it this week?’ Because he’s stabled round so many mares, or something like that. I questioned it all — but then, he was a lion out there today.”

Alex Hua Tian and Chicko. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

China’s Alex Hua Tian stepped up from just outside the top ten to two-phase fourth with Kate Willis’s Chicko after romping home just one second over the 10:20 optimum time. It’s an exciting formative step for the new partnership, which came together at the start of this year; this is their first CCI4*-L in tandem and just thirteen-year-old Chicko’s second-ever start at the level. His first, here in 2021, was with former rider and producer Polly Stockton, but saw him eliminated in this phase after Polly took a tumble.

Since taking him over before the beginning of the season, though, Alex has been building towards an exciting sophomore attempt at the level for the game gelding.

“I was very quietly confident coming here,” he says. “I’ve had such an awesome year with him across the country, and as a partnership I just feel like we’ve clicked straight away. He wouldn’t have the range in his gallop of some horses out there, but he has a tremendous amount of heart, and I trust him so much. You can just go; he’s brilliant.”

That one little weakness — a slight lack of gallop — just means that Alex has to ride committedly and aim to maintain speed, impulsion, and energy around the course in order to economise.

“He had a little tired moment right at the top where everyone else was, too, but then he picked up coming home. It does mean I have to go out meaning business, and I have to make sure I stay tight to every line and I go forwards to everything as much I can. I took, maybe, a little pull maybe to the last, which was our one second over. But I don’t think I could have taken a pull much anywhere else.”

And as for the course, Alex, too, was critical but fair in describing it as, well, not everyone’s cup of tea.

“It suits him, but it wouldn’t suit lots of horses,” he says. “It didn’t walk big, but it was very bitty, and there were lots of decisions to make. There were no committed distances. Everything was either this or that, which is a polite way of saying ‘a little bit on the half distance!’ But it suits him, because he does give you all of those options. Some of my other ones would give you fewer options.

“From the moment I’ve had him, I’ve always really trusted him. He’s just a really cool animal. He’s maybe a bit more workmanlike as a type, but he just tries brilliant.”

Harry Meade and Annaghmore Valoner. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Harry Meade and Annaghmore Valoner move from 16th place after dressage to fifth overnight after coming in three seconds inside the time. That wasn’t Harry’s only speedy trip around the course today — he also delivered a clear inside the time with Et Hop du Matz, who sits eleventh going into the final day of competition. Et Hop Du Matz was one of the first rounds of the day, which, Harry reckons, might have played a part in his two positive rides.

“I think the course rode as it walked, and there’s an advantage, sometimes, to going early, because you don’t watch everyone,” he says. “You have a plan, although there’s an element of the unknown, because you don’t know if the plan is going to be totally suitable.”

But, he says, “I thought the course rode really well, and David Evans did a really good job. He had some good questions, and some attacking distances; the one thing I’d say is that, although my horses were good at it, the coffin was a bit long. Not so much the exit, but particularly the entrance — it was a bit long, so they’d dwell over the ditch, and that would then make the exit long. But it was a good course; it was clear to the horses, and it took some riding, but it was all of an appropriate standard.”

Annaghmore Valoner, for her part, made easy work of her first CCI4*-L, and her return to Blenheim for the first time since her top-ten finish in the CCI4*-S here back in 2021, when she was still under the saddle of Australian five-star winner Sam Griffiths. When Sam decided to take the role of New Zealand chef d’equipe, Harry was delighted to get the ride on the now-eleven-year-old, who he’s made his FEI debut with this year after she sat out 2022.

In this, her step up, he set out with a clear goal so that she could learn and improve throughout.

“She was super. She sweats up in the collecting ring, and walks at twenty miles per hour, so my main aim for her was to come out of the startbox, settle her into a gallop, and just let her breathe,” he explains. “She was up on her minute markers the whole way around and happy and confident — they both were.”

Tom Rowland and Dreamliner. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One of the most interesting — and, perhaps, under-the-radar — horse transfers of the last off-season was that of the Chamberlayne family’s Dreamliner, who had previously been piloted by Jonty Evans, Padraig McCarthy, and, latterly, Oliver Townend, who stepped him up to five-star last season, to British rider Tom Rowland. They’ve been on a getting-to-know-you mission since then that’s looked very promising indeed, with a sixth-place finish in the tough CCI4*-S at Hartpury last month, and today, they really clicked into one another’s mindset to execute a classy clear two seconds inside the time, propelling them from 29th to overnight sixth on a two-phase score of 32.1.

Before he set out on course, though, Tom admits that he, like Piggy, felt a twinge of nerves.

“I felt a bit apprehensive, because I was maybe a little bit blasé beforehand, but I thought the course was pretty similar to last year,” says Tom. “I’d had two nice rounds here last year — okay, not on him — but then it caused chaos this morning. I was like, ‘oh my god, I’ve got to take this seriously!'”

But, he continues, “I actually had one of those really rare rounds where I didn’t have a single scary moment. There were places where, because he’s got a very long stride, I added in a distance here and there, which I wouldn’t have thought I should be doing on him. But in a way it works quite well, just to get a bit of time sometimes to see and then move him. I’m learning about him all the time and learning what’s right or wrong, and today, he was actually brilliant. He galloped all the way to the end and felt like he could have gone on for another three minutes.”

Every competition the pair go to represents another huge milestone in their tandem learning process, as Tom explains.

“He’s new to me; I’ve only ridden him [at competitions] four times, and obviously, he’s a very well-known horse. But I absolutely love him, and I feel like I’ve learned a little bit from him each round. He took me by surprise a bit at Burgham, because I found him really very strong, but I also felt that that was the best balance he’d galloped in. He’s so reliable and straight, but I’ve been trying to work particularly on our steering, because he’s a big horse, and I was really pleased with how adjustable he was today,” he says. “I think it’s an Oliver thing — you land over a fence and he’s gone. He’s so fast and so scopey.”

Tom’s not afraid to admit that the new addition to his string is keeping him dreaming — and understandably so.

“I’m so grateful to the Chamberlaynes for asking me to ride him over the winter. This is only my fifth event on him, but I hope he [comes out] feeling good, because I’d love to try to take him to a five-star next year. He’s such a tryer — I’m buzzing with him.”

Tom McEwen and Brookfield Quality now sit seventh, dropping from overnight fifth after adding 5.6 time penalties, while Sarah Bullimore and her talented young horse Irish Trump stepped up from 17th to eighth after adding just 2.4 time penalties to their 30.8 first-phase mark.

Will Rawlin and Ballycoog Breaker Boy also enjoyed a step up, moving from 13th on 30.2 to ninth with 3.2 time penalties to add, while a slimmer addition of 1.2 time penalties ushered five-star partnership Felicity Collins and RSH Contend Or into the top ten from first-phase 31st place.

Joe Meyer and Harbin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Sadly, the plethora of problems caused around the course today also caught US rider Cosby Green and her Highly Suspicious and Canadian duo Hanna Bundy and Lovely Assistant in their slipstream. Both incurred eliminations on course, but eventing fans from across the pond had plenty to cheer about as Cali-based Aussie Bec Braitling piloted Caravaggio to a completion — though, frustratingly, with a 20 and 32 time penalties, which sees them sit 62nd overnight — and Ocala-based Kiwi Joe Meyer logged a quick clear with Harbin to add just 4 time penalties and climb to 27th place.

Tomorrow’s final day of competition begins with the final horse inspection at 8.00 a.m. (3.00 a.m. EST), and will be followed by showjumping, which we’re pretty sure begins at 11.00 a.m. (6.00 a.m. EST), but so many timetable adjustments have been made throughout today that we can’t tell you with full confidence whether this is accurate or not until tomorrow morning’s lists are published. We’ll be sure to update this once we receive confirmation, though.

The top ten in the CCI4*-L after cross-country.

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Before the cross-country kicked off, this morning had already seen plenty of action, thanks to an early start for several hours of showjumping in the CCI4*-S for eight- and nine-year-olds. Just 20 of the 94 starters delivered faultless rounds over a track that caused no shortage of both time and jumping issues.

The biggest, and most influential of those? The shock elimination of first-phase leaders Tom McEwen and MHS Brown Jack, who had an enormously uncharacteristic five rails down — “a beautiful round, sadly three holes lower than the course,” to quote one of our media cohorts — to incur elimination under this year’s new FEI rules.

That, plus 0.8 time penalties added to overnight-equal-second-placed, and now third-placed Piggy March and Brookfield Future News‘s tally, opened the door for a new face atop the leaderboard — that of recent Burghley winner Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent, who’s arguably the most experienced horse in this class’s line-up, with a five-star start to her name already. She added nothing to her 24.7 first-phase score, which had seen her sit in equal second overnight, and will go into tomorrow’s cross-country finale with a 0.8 penalty — or two second — margin over Piggy and ‘Matthew’, who picked up their time penalties while trying to execute conservative turns to avoid the effects of the slick dew on the grass.

Tim Price chopped and changed the order of his horses in the standings after the talented Chio 20 dropped a late rail to slip to sixth, allowing stablemate Jarillo, fifth after dressage, to climb to overnight third on the strength of his faultless round.

Similarly, Caroline Harris‘s D. Day stepped up from tenth to fourth, and Italy’s Vittoria Panizzon and DHI Jackpot moved from fourteenth to fifth.

Hallie Coon and Cute Girl pull the US into the top ten at Blenheim. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

British-based US rider Hallie Coon and Cute Girl also stepped into the top ten, to overnight ninth, with a double-clear, while Katherine Coleman and Sirius SB added a rail and 0.4 time penalties to sit 36th overnight. Tiana Coudray and d’Artagnan, too, added a rail and 1.2 time penalties, and will go into cross-country in 60th place, while 21-year-old Rowan Laird and Sceilig Concordio added nothing to their first-phase score of 41 and will sit 64th overnight.

Canadian travel grant recipients Katie Malensek and Landjaeger had an educational, rather than competitive, round, adding four rails to their first-phase score of 29.9 to move down to 82nd.

Tomorrow’s cross-country has been moved to a 10.00 a.m. start time (5.00 a.m. EST), and will be live-streamed on Horse&Country TV. We’ll be bringing you as much of a round-up of the day’s sport as we can — though unfortunately, the powers-that-be have made the decision to run both classes simultaneously and without the CCI4*-S in reverse order of merit, so you may have to bear with us as we do some interpretive event reporting. It’s all about adaptability, eh?

Until next time, folks: Go Eventing!

The top ten after this morning’s influential showjumping phase in Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S.

EN’s coverage of Blenheim is presented by Kentucky Performance Products. Click here to learn all about their full line of science-backed nutritional support products, including Neigh-Lox Advanced for digestive support.

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