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Something feels different in England in the aftermath of Tokyo, and it’s not the promise of autumn in the air, nor is it the particular afterglow of a gold medal haul for Britain’s star team. It’s that — for the first time since 2019 — we’re looking ahead to an increasingly well-populated calendar and planning for eventing outings with surety, rather than constantly scribbling them out of the diary in the wake of another cancellation announcement. There are new events on the horizon: inaugural five-stars at Bicton and Maryland, for example, and a European Championships at Avenches, but there’s also the welcome return of old favourites. Among those, and the primary site of this weekend’s exploits, is the NAF Five Star Hartpury International Horse Trials, which hosts classes from CCI2*-L to CCI4*-S (though not, notably, five-star) across the picturesque campus of Britain’s leading equine university.
Situated as it is in the late summer cusp of the calendar, Hartpury’s big, bold, and hilly CCI4*-S track typically acts as a feeder event for Burghley in normal times. This year, though none of its graduates will head to Lincolnshire, they won’t lack three-day events to target off the back of successful runs here — and after a necessary string of four-stars with a rather pared back difficulty level, it’s great to see the return of these upper-end tracks in the wake of a bold, challenging Bicton in June. That was arguably the watershed moment for the sport’s return in earnest and now, for the first time in eighteen months, it feels as though we can pick up where we left off and sink our teeth into the season.
98 horse-and-rider combinations have come forward to battle it out for top honours in the CCI4*-S feature class this weekend, and today, we got our first look at 48 of them. While the class is heaving with top-notch horsepower and major names, almost all of these horses have been put in tomorrow’s line-up, which meant that today gave spectators — and judges and journalists alike — the chance to focus on some up-and-coming equine talent. A combination of this relative inexperience across the board, a spooky and atmospheric arena, and some tough-but-fair marking mean that half the day would pass before we saw someone break into the 20s, and when that someone did, she would hold the lead until the very end.
It’s been a good day in the office all around for Caroline Harris, who leads on a 29.7 with Falko TH and sits equal fourth on 31.5 with Miss Pepperpot. Both rides are relatively inexperienced: 9-year-old Miss Pepperpot stepped up to CCI4*-S this season and has only been eventing for two years, while the 17.1hh Falko TH made his debut at the level in Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S at the end of 2019. He finished a very respectable seventh there, and then didn’t contest another FEI event until this year. Though he didn’t quite match his four-star personal best of 28.7 today, his 29.7 wasn’t far off — and it represents a significant step in the right direction for the oversized Dutch Warmblood, who tends to be a reliable low-to-mid 30s scorer.
“He’s super talented, but he’s taken a bit of time to get his whole body connected together,” says Caroline, who has produced ‘Joey’ from a four-year-old. She credits top dressage rider Dannie Morgan with helping her to unlock the gelding’s potential, which showed through in improved movements today.
“His trot work was really lovely,” she notes — and indeed, their initial entry in canter, halt and salute, and transition into collected trot earned them two 8s and a 9 — “and I was really proud of his walk pirouettes, because they’ve not been his strongest bit, but actually, he didn’t stick today and he really did try.”
Though their second flying change skewed their trending mark when they earned a 4 and two 5s, consistency was key for Caroline and allowed her to take control of day one of competition.
Caroline wrapped her day with the spicy and diminutive Miss Pepperpot, who was a shock contender near the top of the leaderboard at Bicton CCI4*-S earlier this summer, where she earned an impressive 25.7 — her first four-star sub-30. But the best mares are also often the trickiest, and the prodigious talent, who ran her first FEI event in 2019, still has plenty to learn about channeling the energy of an atmosphere.
“She’s got all the ability in the world, but she can get quite hot, like she did today,” explains Caroline, who sits in equal fourth place with the mare, tying with Zara Tindall and Class Affair.
It’s been interesting to watch horses lose focus and make mistakes through the day; competing in front of spectators is a foreign and unfamiliar thing now, and just as they did at Barbury last month, where the showjumping arena was overlooked by a looming bank packed with people, many horses reacted to Hartpury’s benched bank, which acts as a natural grandstand alongside the ring.
“There’s a lot of atmosphere because that bank feels like they’re all sat on top of you a bit, so [the horses] do get a bit lit up in there,” Caroline continues. “[Falko TH] is very laid back, so we just lead him around the arena familiasation this morning — he’s not fussed, but [Miss Pepperpot] gets a bit more anxious and hot.”
Another rider to make the best of the atmosphere with two inexperienced horses was British-based Frenchman Arthur Duffort, who sits second with Brando de Cherel on a 29.8 and eighth with Arko’s Lad on a 32. This is a four-star debut for ten-year-old Selle Français gelding Brando, who made his eventing debut as an eight-year-old — and it’s not at all hard to see why Arthur considers the horse his next superstar. Despite being arguably the least experienced horse in the field, he produced one of the few ‘clear rounds’ of the day, scoring consistently and making no major mistakes.
While eighth-placed Arko’s Lad might not be quite as straightforward, Arthur speaks with evident fondness of the British-bred Hanoverian, who contests his third four-star this week.
“He wants to do right, and he’s a nice-looking horse — but he’s both very laid back and also a worrier,” Arthur explains. “I’ve never had one like him; he’s very worried about everything but he’s not hot, he just worries and shuts off. So for him to come here and express himself, I was very pleased with him.”
Arko’s Lad’s educational turning point might just come down to a little secret weapon: “I just love him,” he grins. “I love him and give him confidence. I really do believe they need to be loved, and I think this one definitely needs to. Then he can build confidence through that at home, and then when he comes here, this helps him more than anything else.”
Alex Bragg and King of the Mill sit third on a respectable 30.8 after some expensive moments of tension in the ring proved that the relatively inexperienced gelding might look quite like stablemate Zagreb, but he’s still earning his stripes between the boards. Still, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the comparisons could continue on apace: the eleven-year-old’s scores continue to trend downwards, and with a CCI5* under his belt already, he’s no slouch even in good company.
Meanwhile, Zara Tindall and Class Affair continued the early stages of their long-awaited reunion after the rider’s most recent pregnancy, helping to round out the top five overnight by taking equal fourth on 31.5. The twelve-year-old gelding, who was piloted by Tom McEwen during Zara’s maternity leave, remains firmly in situ on the cusp of greatness: we’re still waiting to see him match, or better, that 28.9 he scored at Blenheim in 2019, and though he didn’t do that today, he bettered his last FEI score, earned on Zara’s return at Barbury last month, by just shy of four marks. Could this spell a peak to come at an autumn three-day? Watch this space.
Tomorrow’s competition throws many of the country’s best horses into contention: we’re particularly excited to see William Fox-Pitt’s Oratorio II, returning to competition after his trip to Kentucky this spring, Kitty King’s formidable Vendredi Biats, who will vie for his spot at next month’s European Championships, Nicola Wilson’s Bicton CCI4*-L victor JL Dublin, Alex Bragg’s Zagreb, aiming for a major autumn title, and Sarah Bullimore’s tiny, feisty Corouet, who delivered an exceptional 19.6 in the CCI4*-S at Burgham last month. Expect a major shake-up of the leaderboard and plenty more sub-30 scores as they aim to top Hartpury’s best-ever four-star score — a 22.3 delivered by Kitty King and Ceylor LAN in 2018. The stage is set and tomorrow, the battle to earn a spot on the second British senior team of the year commences in earnest.