We’d all suspected that the inaugural Chedington Bicton Arena CCI5* might be a bit of a tough one — after all, the CCI4*-L held here as a replacement for Bramham back in June threw even the most experienced competitors for a loop and resulted in just a 35.7% clear rate. This time, a smaller field came forward, amply prepared from prior experience and rider feedback for the relentless terrain and tricky tracks at the Devon fixture, but even with the best of preparation, a true five-star challenge unfolded through the day, resulting in a marginally higher 41.9% clear rate and a 61.3% completion rate — in short, every inch the amount of influence we’d expect from the likes of Burghley, which Bicton is deputising for in this slightly odd year.
31 combinations came forward to tackle Captain Mark Phillips‘s course, a field diminished by one after the withdrawal this morning of Padraig McCarthy‘s second ride Leonidas II, who’s been shortlisted for the Irish team at the European Championships and will be saved for a potential call-up. But if any of the assembled were hoping to glean some useful intel — or, heaven forbid, some confidence — from watching the first couple of riders out of the box, they’d be sorely disappointed. Both trailblazer David Doel and Galileo Nieuwmoed and second out, tenth-placed Oliver Townend and the experienced MHS King Joules, failed to complete after falls on course, and quite suddenly, the warm-up ring was full of rather more set jaws and game faces.
The troubles would come thick and fast throughout the course and the afternoon, and the make-up of the top ten as we head into the final day looks rather different than it did this morning: we saw several surprise early finishes for frontrunners, including fourth-placed Izzy Taylor and Fonbherna Lancer, who had a drive-by at the skinny arrowhead following the drop down into the arena at 14C and retired later on in the course, and third-placed debutants Will Rawlin and VIP Vinnie, who pulled up after the second fence because of a sudden onset lameness. We also saw a retirement on course for sixth-placed William Fox-Pitt and Oratorio II, who looked to sustain a nosebleed mid-round. In total, nineteen horses and riders would cross the finish line, with twelve making the long trek back to the stables through the gathered crowds.
Five-star cross-country is rarely straightforward, but as Captain Mark Phillips put it at the conclusion of the day, “the best made it look easy.” And that was certainly the case for our new overnight leaders, who didn’t just jump a faultless clear round — including all the direct routes, a choice seldom seen through the day — they also delivered the fastest round of the day, romping home nine seconds inside the 11:16 optimum time. That, of course, was 2019 Badminton winners Piggy March and the sixteen-year-old Vanir Kamira, who once again proved that she’s one of the greatest event horses of this generation of competitors.
For Piggy, though, the overwhelming feeling upon completion was of relief — not necessarily because she’d had reservations about the track, or because she’d wanted to find herself in a competitive position, but because after two long years, she finally had an opportunity to give her five-star specialist another goal and another chance to do what she does best.
“For these wonderful old horses, to miss two full seasons of their careers, and from being fourteen and running well at Badminton and Burghley… they’re not tennis rackets or footballs; you can’t put them in the cupboard and do nothing,” she says. “‘Tillybean’ doesn’t run very much; she doesn’t really do one-day events, so I came here just hoping her experience from previous years was going to carry us through. I knew how to get her fit, but still, in the back of your mind you think, ‘I hope she remembers!’ And, ‘I hope I remember how to ride!'”
She needn’t have worried. From the start of the course until the very end, Piggy and Tilly gave a masterclass in accuracy, confidence — and old-school event horse fitness. This has always been the mare’s best quality; she’s learned to put together a mid-20s dressage test through correct, sympathetic training, and her showjumping will always be just a tiny bit scrappy, but get her out on a mountainous eleven-minute track and she’s wholly and completely in her element.
“She was like, ‘come on, mother!’ She puts her snout on the floor and truffle snuffles the whole way around like ‘come on, let’s go!’ – we don’t give anything much height, but we’re flying along,” she says with a laugh. “She looks for the flags and the moment I try to slow her up a bit or think ‘let’s give this a bit more time’, she’s like, ‘nope, we’re going!’ But the confidence you can have in a horse like that who knows her job, and wants to do it — she’s a gritty, hardy little mare.”
These enormous feats aren’t just special for the riders and their horses, of course — it’s an important milestone for owners, too, who’ve remained loyal and faithful despite the lack of opportunities to enjoy their horses through the pandemic. For Tilly, and for owner Trevor Dickens, those moments are particularly specialised.
“I’ve joked before, saying she’s a pain in the arse 362 days a year, but those few days when you’ve got a big competition and really need something with guts and heart is when she just comes into her own. I’m so very proud of her and so very proud of Trevor Dickens, as well. He’s owned her all her career, and what a fabulous horse to have had. These are the moments: she’s been a Burghley horse, she’s been second there twice and fifth once, and it’s been so sad for her not to have had one event that was hers to have a go at [since 2019]. She’s made for hills, for terrain, for grit and heart, and she did it, exactly as she always does it, today.”
Piggy, who was also awarded 2TheBarn’s prize for the best cross-country riding of the day, named Bicton’s track as the toughest five-star terrain she’d ever tackled — a sentiment that was widely echoed across the board.
“I think it was really interesting, and it walked like that — when we walked the course, we hadn’t even got to our two-minute marker and we were like, ‘oh my word, we’ve come up three steep hills already!’ We’ve all got experience, and we’ve ridden around Burghley a few times, and you get to learn with experience how to ride the land and the layout and the terrain of it. I was really taken aback by how intense the first four minutes of this track was, and it felt more like a one-day track with the steepness of the rises and having to move up those hills to big fences and get them right back to come down the hill. There was a lot in the first few minutes, where normally at Burghley or Badminton, you’ve run a few minutes on flatter terrain that lets the horses breathe and get into a rhythm a bit easier. So it was as demanding, definitely, as I’ve ever ridden around for a horse with stamina. But it was such clever course designing, too, to let you get home, with the last two and a half minutes of nothing too big and demanding so you could get them home and happy if the petrol gauge was running low. We learned a lot about the terrain, and the horses, and everything.”
The only other clear round inside the time — and the first of the day — was delivered by Gemma Tattersall and Chilli Knight, who came into this competition as one of the fastest horses in the field and was able to climb from ninth place to second off the back of their super round. For Gemma, who’s known the son of Chilli Morning since the day he was born, the sterling finish was the culmination of an awful lot of work behind the scenes — and some considerable pressure, too.
“I can’t tell you the relief — I’ve been feeling so sick all morning,” she laughs. “I was horrifically nervous. My owners have come here and they’ve helped put this event on, and I just wanted to give them a good time, and me a good time, and the whole team a good time — the pressure has been a lot, honestly, and we’ve been working really hard.”
Owner Chris Stone is part of the small and dedicated team of stakeholders that have ensured this one-off event could take place — the latest act of philanthropy from the man who funded the Event Rider Master series and has been a stalwart supporter of Gemma over the years, too. Like Gemma, he’s always believed in ‘Alfie’s’ ability — but the catty chestnut still surprised and delighted his rider over the toughest challenge of his career.
“The horse honestly surprised me; I expected to add more strides! For example, in the arena I’d walked that five all day long, but blimmin’ heck, he actually went on four. He’s just unbelievable — he goes from a pony to a lion. He literally walked around at the start on a long rein, completely switched off, and then he’s off! He’s incredible, because he saves himself. When he’s galloping along he doesn’t take anything out of himself, so I never pushed him once, because he gets in a rhythm and his rhythm is the right pace.”
The pair had just one sticky moment on course: after jumping boldly through the NFU water complex near the end of the course, Alfie didn’t quite clock the final angled hedge on dry land, but a bit of manoeuvring from Gemma — and plenty of honesty from the gelding — saw them find their way to the other side sans penalties.
“He was on such a roll, and if that horse sees a fence, he’ll jump it. He just never realised he had to jump that until I was like, ‘JUMP IT!’ He hadn’t realised; he’d thought he was done [with that question], but he was like, ‘oh shit, sorry mum!’ He’s that honest.”
Dressage leaders Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On didn’t quite manage to stay at the top of the leaderboard, but at the tail end of a long day of competition, they gave a fantastic display of cross-country riding to sail home — accompanied by the spine-tingling roar of the assembled crowd — with 4.8 time penalties, which secured them overnight third place. More than that, though, it reignited Pippa’s fire — particularly after a tricky earlier round on Majas Hope, who remains in eighth place after adding 15.2 time penalties because he ended up on the wrong side of the rope and couldn’t find his way back over. But Pippa, who won Britain’s last five-star at Burghley in 2019, regrouped and made the best of her second ride.
“I’m absolutely delighted with him,” says Pippa of the lanky Billy Walk On. “I knew he’s not the fastest horse in the world, so I had to get into such a good rhythm and just keep plodding away. It’s such a bonus living where I do in the Surrey hills, because the horses have done so much hill work and I knew from the first ride that he was plenty fit enough. I’d done exactly the same work with Billy Walk On, and it’s so nice to know that you can just keep asking the questions. And honestly? It was the best ride I’ve ever had on him. He was just class, and he got into a rhythm — and for once, I didn’t feel like an old girl, getting all protective. I really, really enjoyed it — and if I’m honest, I thought I was going to come back [to five-star] after two years thinking I wasn’t going to enjoy it, and that actually it might be my time, if I didn’t enjoy it, to call it a day. But I had such a good time!”
Pippa credited her grounding in the old long-format sport as pivotal in helping her prepare her horses for this track: “The one advantage I have as an old girl is producing horses for three-days and steeplechase. That’s how we had to produce the horses for here — there was a lot of work that’s gone into getting them in tip-top condition. You had to put the work in, and the groundwork, and that gave me enormous confidence that he ran on so well.”
Ros Canter‘s twelve-year-old British-bred mare Pencos Crown Jewel finished the day as the highest-placed first-timer, overcoming her suspicion of the crowds — and boy, were there crowds — to sail through the finish with 7.6 time penalties and the seventh-fastest round of the day. That allowed them to climb from seventh place after dressage, where they scored an impressive 27.1, to fourth place heading into tomorrow’s showjumping.
“I’m super proud of her — I really didn’t know what to expect going into today, because she’s a first-time five-star horse and she’s a little mare and so gutsy, but a little bit of a worrier,'” says Ros. “She came out of the start box a little bit frightened of the people, and my steering wasn’t quite on point the whole way around, but she just tries and tries and tries. She’s just the most game thing I’ve ever sat on.”
Five riders activated frangible devices throughout the day today, and all of them did so at the same fence: that was the upright rail at 16A, the Ariat Challenge coffin, which featured the rail, ditch, and brush on a double bounce distance and was ultimately the most influential question of the day as a result of those pins. But such was the influence of the course that two of those riders still featured in the top ten — and the best-placed of those was Oliver Townend and his debutant Tregilder, who finished inside the time with those eleven penalties to add.
“It was a good five-star course,” says Oliver, who cited the relatively inexperienced field as a primary factor in the influence of the course. “Everyone knows it was a weak field, but you can’t dumb down the course to suit the customers — you have to keep the levels at the levels that they’re at. I thought for a first attempt at the level, the team have done an unbelievable job, and I couldn’t have more respect for the team and everyone behind the initiative.”
Tregilder hasn’t had the most straightforward lead-up to his five-star debut, with non-completions at Burnham Market and Houghton this spring, but today, the gelding came into his own on course.
“I’m incredibly happy with him. He was genuine all the way, stuck his head down and went — I actually thought I was further behind on the time than I was, but he kept making up time as he went on, dropped his head, and lengthened his stride,” he said. But for all his delight in his horse, he was critical of the reasonably recent rule change that means that pin penalties aren’t appealable, which means that even if they haven’t prevented a fall, they can affect the standings.
“It’s not the sport I fell in love with, and if it continues like this, I’ll quickly fall out of love with it because it’s not right,” he says. “We’ve trained these horses to drop their back legs on a vertical going into a coffin to jump the ditch correctly and jump out safely, and I think the FEI needs to open their eyes and realise that not a rider in the world agrees with the penalties on the pins. The pins themselves are a different thing — they’re a safety thing, and I do believe that if the ground jury believes that it’s saved you from a fall, you should be awarded the penalties. But to just be handing these eleven penalties out to horses that have done a very safe, correct job — that’s not cross-country.”
Several horses and riders were able to make major climbs up the leaderboard off the back of solid rounds today: Richard Jones and Alfies Clover, who have previously finished seventh at Burghley, stepped up into sixth place after adding 8.8 time penalties to their 33 dressage score, while Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy, who was the first rider of the day to finish aboard debutant HHS Noble Call, added 7.2 to his 34.9 and now sits seventh.
“He is outstanding,” says Padraig. “He was always going to be a bit challenging in the dressage, but he always had the stamp of a five-star horse and I’m glad he’s proved it here today.”
Another high-profile top-ten denizen to take a pin at the Ariat Challenge was New Zealand’s Tim Price and his 2018 Burghley winner Ringwood Sky Boy, who dropped from fifth after dressage to ninth after adding eleven penalties and a further 6.4 for time.
“It’s a tough jump and with the way you get punished now [with penalties for breaking a frangible], it’s tough to try to execute it — especially on a horse like him,” says Tim, who slowed down slightly on course after ‘Oz’ lost a shoe just before tackling the Ariat Challenge. “He’s been jumping things like that for so many years and he just does get a bit lower and these days you just can’t afford to do that.”
Francis Whittington rounds out the top ten with the very exciting DHI Purple Rain, who added 15.2 time penalties to his first-phase score of 34.4 to climb well up the rankings. That time was partly attributed to a sensible decision to circle after galloping down the steep bank into the main arena, where there were two corners at 9AB that came up swiftly, but were separately numbered from the cabin at the top of the slope and thus allowed some leeway for riders to turn a circle as needed if they freewheeled down the slope — as many did through the day.
Now, the nineteen remaining competitors will head into the final horse inspection at 9.00 a.m. tomorrow, followed by the showjumping finale at 1.00 p.m. local time/8.00 a.m. EST. As always, you can watch the action as it happens on Horse&CountryTV, and follow along with our reports here on EN. Until then, folks: Go Eventing!