Seriously Soggy Thoresby CCI4*-S Rides Wave of Uncertainty on Dressage Day One (and a Half)

Tim Price (tenth overnight in section O) embodies how we all feel in his test with Maryland winner Coup de Coeur Dudevin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The British eventing season: Will it? Won’t it? And is even the first international of the season, the Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby Park, doomed to succumb to the weather? Certainly, it’s doing its best not to — but as the forecast continues to grumble on in really quite crap style, actually, I’m not sure any of us are equipped with much of a sense of optimism anymore.

That feeling has been compounded by scenes in the CCI2*-S today, which ran both jumping sections and offered a first glimpse at what measures may yet need to be put into place to ensure safe runs for those who want to continue on over the weekend. The showjumping in the main arena was the weather’s greatest victim: unlike the dressage, which had a slightly more desirable deep warm-up/functional competition arena ratio, the showjumping warm-up was comparatively comfortable to ride in — which took horses by surprise even more when they entered the competition arena and its deep, tricky tracks of churned up ground. Despite the organising team’s best efforts, which included moving fences onto fresh ground, we still saw nearly a quarter of the class fail to complete this phase, retiring or facing elimination in their rounds. A huge number also opted to withdraw, which meant that the 93 starters in the class became just 27 for cross-country, though all bar one of those went on to complete.

In an effort to save the ground, organisers BEDE Events announced the cancellation of further national classes this morning, leaving the two Open Intermediate sections still standing — and those sections, plus the CCI3*-S, are due to embark on their jumping phases tomorrow, with the Advanced and CCI4*-S to follow on Sunday, if the event can continue to forge on.

But feelings are mixed on the ground, and decidedly complex. No one can fault BEDE and its crack team for the efforts they’re making to ensure that those horses heading to the two swiftly approaching five-stars get runs, which is why they’ve prioritised the ‘pathway’ classes — the four-star and those OI sections — while selectively axing what they can. For many of those horses, this has ended up being their first chance at a run, because so many events this month have been forced to cancel either due to the heavy rainfall or, earlier in the month, snow. Looking ahead, we’re already seeing next weekend’s events start to drop, too, with South of England Horse Trials making the call this morning due to standing water on the course. Kentucky fast approaches, and beyond it Badminton, and Stuart Buntine’s team is desperate to provide that much-needed chance to get a run into these horses. Many riders and owners, though, are beginning to wonder if the risk is worth the reward, and many of those riders who are lucky enough not to need the run quite so urgently are making the call to withdraw. In some camps, even those who do desperately need the run are doing the same, while everyone else waits in the wings, obsessively checks the forecast, and wonders what Mother Nature will throw at us next. We’re not sure yet what’s to come, but in any case, our 148-strong field in the four-star will no doubt be significantly smaller come Sunday, and with murmurs of withdrawals from some of those at the top end of the leaderboard, our final top ten could look very different to today’s results list, too.

And so let’s shelve Sunday for now, at least until the end of this piece, mostly because after nearly twelve hours on site, I’m as bored of speculating about it as you will be reading about it. If all we get is dressage, let’s review that, hopefully someplace warm and dry.

One of the big, and very welcomed, decisions BEDE made in the run-up to Thoresby was to do away with waitlists in this class, instead opting to accept every entry so that those horses can all get runs in. That’s how we ended up with two CCI4*-S sections, rather than just one: the O section, which is the traditional Grantham Cup section and arguably the feature class here, and the P section for horses with fewer points.

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though even the fleetest of foot couldn’t give 100% of their flashiest movement in the tricky conditions, we still saw the usual suspects rise to the top – and no one who’s paid attention to any eventing at all in the last few years will be surprised to see reigning Badminton champions Laura Collett and London 52 at the helm at this halfway point of the first phase in the Grantham Cup. Though they didn’t rival their usual circa-20 scores at this level, they delivered a polished test for a 24.3 that reflected the slightly conservative ride necessitated by boggy corners in the ring.

“He’s come out and just knuckled down and got on with the job, which is really nice — finally, at the age of 14,” laughs Laura, who also sits fifth with her other Badminton-bound ride, Dacapo, who posted a 27.2 after a professional trip around the arena. “Obviously the conditions aren’t there for superstar marks, but I’m really pleased with him — he’s in a really good place for the long run, and I was delighted with Dacapo, too. They both just came out and were so professional, and even though it’s really hard work for them in there, they both dug deep and got on with it.”

Laura Collett and Dacapo. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura will be sleeping well tonight in the lorry park: her week at Thoresby began with some unwanted drama when her head groom, Tilly Hughes, was kicked and broke her arm — but we’re happy to report that after a successful bit of metalwork installation this morning, she’s out of hospital and on the mend with Badminton in sight. And in the meantime? Laura’s been getting stuck in and mucking out her own stables, too, though you’d never guess the increase in her workload from the broad smile on her face today.

“I’m bloody exhausted,” she laughs. “I thought I was in for four days, nice and easy, just four horses to ride — so it’s been a shock to the system relearning how to plait and do quarter markers, but I think all the tack’s in the right place, and I’ve not been eliminated yet!”

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

Reigning World Champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir were among the only pairs not to get sucked down into the depths of the swamp of sadness — sorry, I mean the warm-up ring — thanks in large part to how deft the French gelding’s footwork is, even in truly rubbish conditions. They sit second on a 25.4 in what is their first outing of the season.

“He’s such an athletic, elegant type, so he’s very lucky that he doesn’t struggle with conditions like this,” says Yas. “Although we’d like it to dry off a bit! We’ve had two of our pre-season runs cancelled, at Oasby and Cirencester, so hopefully we can get a run, but of course it’s just such bad luck for the organisers [to get hit by weather like this]. It’s not ideal, but hopefully the weekend can be salvaged.”

With Kentucky so close on the radar, Yas was pleased to see that Thoresby had responded to rider comments last year and duly beefed up the course to make it a suitable prep run this year.

“I think it’ll be good preparation; you need to have a good round of cross-country before you go to Kentucky, and it’s definitely pretty large out there,” she says.

Though many British eventing fans were disappointed not to see the World Champs on the Badminton line-up, for Yas, the decision to return to Kentucky — where the pair finished second last year — was a simple one.

“As much as I would have absolutely loved to have gone to Badminton this year, our goals for the next two years are a little bit different than the Badminton/Burghley path,” she says. “We’re sort of focusing on the championships for the next two years, and we just thought that Kentucky set him up so well for Pratoni last year that it would kind of be silly not to try and replicate what we did last year to try and get that kind of result again. That’s the reasoning behind that, and then I’d like to think that past next year, we’ll be able to look at Badminton — but he’s still only young, and he’s still got plenty of years left in him, so for me it’s just a case of trying to preserve him as much as possible and look after him; I know how special he is, so I want to make sure he lasts a long time and enjoys it, too.”

Returning to Kentucky as the new World Champion adds a different kind of pressure into the mix for perennially positive Yas, who remains wholly pragmatic about the challenge to come: “It’s funny, because obviously there’s a lot of pressure and expectations and things like that, but obviously, we absolutely want to go out and try and do our best this year and continue to form. And you’ve got to do that; you can’t just expect things to happen. You’ve got to really make sure you’re on form.”

Tom McEwen and JL Dublin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The winter is a time for growth, for learning, and — for those riders who picked up new additions to their string mid-season — a chance to really get to know one another. That’s exactly what Tom McEwen has been focusing on with the excellent JL Dublin, who became the European Champion in 2021 with Nicola Wilson aboard. After Nicola’s accident last spring, Tom took the reins for owners Deirdre Johnston and James and Jo Lambert, debuted the horse at Little Downham CCI4*-S in October, which he ran as a combined test, and then ran the CCI4*-L at Boekelo, finishing in second place on the same score as the winners. They looked a picture together then — an accolade that Tom has firmly accredited to Nicola’s impeccable and sympathetic production — and months later, there’s a real sense that they’re taking the next step as a team.

“He was absolutely unbelievable at Boekelo, and the jumping is phenomenal, so for us, it’s just been about catching up on the flatwork and getting him back to where he was when Nic had him,” says Tom, who posted a 25.7 with the gelding to sit third overnight. “He’s phenomenal on the flat, but it’s all about making sure I know him — I’ve had years with my other ones; both Toledo and Eliza I’ve had since they were very young, so their problems are my problems. With this one, I’m just learning — like, not to over adjust, because he’s so correct in what he’s doing that you don’t want to do too much.”

It’s all looking very positive for the pair, who have put in an entry for next month’s Land Rover Kentucky CCI5* — an event that, if he makes good on his entry, will be a first-time visit for Tom.

“It’s massively exciting, but I’ve never been — I’ve just been watching videos,” he laughs.

Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Emilie Chandler made a sparkling impression in the short day one session yesterday, posting a very competitive 27 with longtime partner Gortfadda Diamond to take provisional fourth, while just two-tenths of a penalty behind Laura and Dacapo in fifth are 2021 Luhmühlen champions Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden, who danced their way to a 27.4. The question, of course, is how many of those will still remain in situ when the sun rises tomorrow, and how many of them will have had their lorries towed out of the bottomless mud in the lorry park and scurried home for a well-earned duvet day.

The top ten after the first full day of dressage in section O.

Piggy March and Brookfield Cavalier Cruise head section P after the first full day of dressage. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Section P took up the mantle through the afternoon, featuring those horses with fewer points to their name. Piggy March holds the overnight lead in this class on new-ish ride Brookfield Cavalier Cruise, with whom she’s making a four-star debut this week — though he has previously competed at the level once with Tom McEwen in the irons, finishing in the top ten at Little Downham last season. But although Piggy has never yet contested an international with the horse, who has also been campaigned by Harry Meade, she did briefly ride him in 2020, taking an Intermediate win as a souvenir. Now, she’s happy to welcome him back to her string as part of her ongoing collaboration with Brookfield Sport Horses, for whom she rides alongside Tom.

“He’s a beautiful horse, and the judges really like him,” says Piggy, who deftly piloted him to a significant lead on a score of 25.4. “The thing is, there’s still loads more to come as well, which is exciting.”

Their smart test and competitive result came despite a mistake in the second change that she happily claims as rider error — and, of course, the tricky going underfoot. But Piggy was delighted with how her inexperienced new partner coped with the challenge.

“He coped really, really well, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more from him, so I’m really pleased.  You’ve got to just get going [in conditions like this, because] it’s not always perfect — and it’s quite hard sometimes, mentally, to just keep going through those horrid patches when we’ve been training all winter on a nice surface, and try to get things going as well as you can do. But we’re all in the same boat here, so we’ve just got to get on with it!”

Edie Campbell and Fireball F. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Flora Harris sits second overnight on a 29.7 with Monbeg Alcatraz, while eventing supermodel Edie Campbell rounds out the podium on a 30.2 with stalwart partner Fireball F.

The top ten in section P.

Tomorrow takes us into another packed day of dressage, with both sections on the go throughout the day. Keep it locked onto EN for all the updates to come — and send some dry thoughts our way, if you can spare a few. Then, maybe, we might Go Eventing. Perhaps.

The Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby Park: [Website] [Times] [Live Scoring] [Live Stream] [EN’s Coverage]

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