Being at Burnham Market this week is a little bit like walking into a hall of mirrors — not least because it’s kind of Blenheim, but also not, and because it’s September instead of the early months of the year. Mostly, it’s because the rural Norfolk venue — close enough to feel the sea, if not quite see it — has done some hefty expansion to fit the needs of autumn’s biggest four-star fixture. The stables have upped sticks and moved over the road by 100 metres or so, which is quite enough to be wholly disorientating as you toddle up one of the show’s most frequented hills; there are cross-country fences in places so unfamiliar that you find yourself double-taking at them upon each passing; and the cavernous showjumping arena has been turned into a rather scenic and atmospheric main dressage arena, set perfectly in a natural bowl that allows for connections to bask in the fleeting sunshine and watch on, kind of like Barbury (but approximately fifteen degrees chillier).
Why mention any of this? Because this week is all about the old meeting the new, about creative unions and clever workarounds, which aren’t just allowing Blenheim’s crucial classes to run but also defining some of the premiere performances of the day.
One such performance was that of Piggy March, 2019’s winningest competitor, and new ride Dargun. This is just a second international appearance for the pair, who came together over the winter following the sale of the horse by previous owner Jane del Missier. Though the Dutch-bred gelding, who won Bramham’s CCI4*-L for under-25s in 2018 with former rider Emily King, isn’t short of accolades, he’s also been an occasionally tempestuous performer through the years. For Piggy, with whom he won a CCI3*-S at Wellington last month, the extra time afforded by 2020’s topsy-turvy calendar has been a vital ingredient in getting to know her new partner.
“He’s a lovely horse, and Emily’s done a fantastic job with him — he’s gone through the grades with her, and they’ve had a lot of fun and success,” says Piggy. “But he’s her horse, definitely, and so lockdown has really benefitted us. I wanted to make him a bit stronger; he’s been quite a tricky horse to manage, I think, over the years. He can be a little bit complicated but he’s very sweet to work with, and so that time allowed him to strengthen and for us to get to know one another.”
Piggy has run the horse at several Intermediates to allow this relationship to develop in a low-pressure scenario, which she hopes will allow the fledgling partnership to come together naturally in their first major run.
“I’m excited to see how it goes, and interested, too — it’s the same with all the horses I have here this week,” says Piggy, who also brings forward Brookfield Quality and new ride Fonbherna Lancer in this class. “They’re all new at this level, or new at this level with me, and so it’s all about finding things out here.”
That time and effort has certainly paid off, if their first-phase performance is anything to go by. The pair came forward near the end of a tough-scoring day and easily delivered a 26.2, enough to earn them the lead as we head into the second day of dressage.
Sitting in a close provisional second place on 26.9 is British-based Italian Vittoria Panizzon and Chequers Play The Game, making his first international appearance in over two years. Now 17, ‘Elvis’ is one of the most experienced horses in this field: he won at this level at Tattersalls in 2017, helped the Italian team to a bronze medal at the European Championships in the same year, and finished ninth in his debut CCI5* at Luhmühlen in 2018, before an injury and subsequent time off ruled him out of that year’s World Equestrian Games. His return is off to a good start so far — today’s score represents a personal best at the four-star level and above, just a tenth of a point above his international career PB of 26.8, earned at Aldon’s CCI3*-S.
He may have something of a Napoleon complex, but Sarah Bullimore‘s Corouet has certainly learned how to make it work for him.
“He thinks he’s 18.2hh,” laughs Sarah of the diminutive homebred who, like top horse Reve du Rouet, is by the mercurial stallion Balou du Rouet. Today, they posted a 27.2 for overnight third despite a minor disagreement in the canter half-pass.
“He’s a real dominant character — he knows it all, apparently,” says Sarah. “He was just like, ‘I’ll do it now!’ and he did. He’s awesome, though, and parts of the test were really grown-up, so now it’s just about ironing out those little bits and getting it all 100%. He’s still young and green, so there’s loads more to come.”
Nine-year-old Corouet is out of Sarah’s former five-star mount, with whom she finished sixth at Luhmühlen in 2017.
“He’s quite like her, but he wouldn’t be as hot. She could have moments where she’d get a bit quick — he’s a bit more level in the head, but much more dominant. When he has a tantrum, he’s really going to have it!”
This, though, is part of what makes him special — as he grows into himself, Sarah is able to place more and more faith in his fight for the finish out on course.
“He just loves to run and jump — so far, we haven’t found anything that hasn’t suited him. He’s just like, ‘let me at them!’,” explains Sarah. This will be the gelding’s second CCI4*-L run; his debut, at Boekelo last season, was only marred on paper by a green miscommunication.
“He thought he was the bee’s knees, and he got a little bit cocky and started to run at the fences — then, at the last second, he’d realise what I’d been asking him,” she says. But their seventh place finish at Burgham last month gave Sarah a whole new feeling: “It was the first time I felt like I could really say, ‘well, go on then — go for it!’ He felt amazing; he was so up for it.”
A tiny wobble in the walk work precluded a top spot for former European bronze medalists Nicola Wilson and Bulana, but they produced an otherwise effortless test to earn a 27.6 for overnight fourth place, while China’s Alex Hua Tian and new ride Ballbreaker SD slipped into fifth on a 28.3 — a four-star personal best for the horse in his first long format at this level.
The former Wills Oakden ride joined Alex’s string in the latter half of 2019 after making his CCI4*-S debut with Wills.
“He was ridden very successfully by Wills, and then he was bought for my teammate Ruiji Liang. But he’s a very sensitive horse, and Ruiji likes a horse who he can get into and really ride — and Sox isn’t that horse,” explains Alex. “So they offered him to me, which was lovely, but it’s taken me some time to get to know him.”
Collaborating with the horse’s previous rider proved a crucial step in the process, though Alex says with a wry laugh that tackling a long four this week feels rather like stepping into the unknown.
“I was struggling a bit with his showjumping, and Wills came up on his way home from Aston-le-Walls to give me a hand, which helped me a huge amount. He’s a jumping-bred horse, and a mega jumper, but I’ve found him quite tricky — he’s quite a complicated person, and I think you can’t underestimate just how good a jumper Wills is. You never get on a horse after Wills has jumped it and think you can do a better job. He’s quite an onward-bound horse, and I spent a lot of time over lockdown working on control — and when I got it, it shut him down a little bit. He runs a little bit off nervous energy, and what Wills has helped me a lot with is finding that balance.”
Sitting in the top ten overnight in a competitive field is always a thrill, but managing it twice is deserving of a glass or two of something bubbly — though 23-year-old Yasmin Ingham is still fresh-faced enough not to miss a step even if she does indulge in some celebrating tonight. She sits in sixth and eighth place provisionally with former Pippa Funnell ride Sandman 7 (28.5) and Rehy DJ (29.4) respectively. Both come here after good CCI4*-S runs at Burgham, with the latter finishing fourth. Rehy DJ — known as Piglet — also notched up a top-10 finish in Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old class last season.
Watching this class offers up plenty of hope for the future of the British teams, though it’s hard to feel any envy for the talented bunch who’ll have to fight for places on them. One prominent example is Bubby Upton, who’s certainly never struggled to hold her own among the upper echelons of the Senior competitors. She holds provisional seventh place on 28.8 with Cola III, who she partnered to European Championships at both the Junior and Young Rider level, winning individual silver at the latter in 2019.
This week marks a pivotal moment in Bubby’s career as she steps up to CCI4*-L for the first time. It’s hard to bet against them, despite the fact that Cola is just a ten-year-old — they come into this competition off the back of an eighth-place finish in Burgham’s CCI4*-S, and in 16 international runs, they’ve scooped up 10 top-10 results. Another one here could be well within their reach.
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New record! Burnham Market has been running since 2005 and @izzytayloreventing and Hartacker just made the event’s record books with their CCI4*-S dressage. 20.3 👌 @barefootretreats @musketeerevents @horseandcountrytv #barefootretreats #burnhammarket #barefootretreatsburnhammarketinternational #livestream #horseandcountrytv #horseandcountry #eventingmanager
Much has been written in the past about the enormous influence of the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S, and rightly so: since its inception in 2009, the class has been a scarily accurate predictor of future superstardom, with winners including Mark Todd‘s NZB Land Vision, William Fox-Pitt‘s Oslo, and Andrew Nicholson‘s Quimbo, who all went on to win five-stars within 12 months of their Blenheim victories, as well as Jonelle Price‘s 2018 Luhmühlen victor Faerie Dianimo, Chris Burton’s WEG mount Cooley Lands, and Laura Collett‘s Boekelo winner London 52. Running well here tends to foretell an illustrious career, but even more importantly, it’s an enormous educational stepping stone for horses at this pivotal age.
In order to provide crucial runs and qualifying opportunities to as many combinations as possible, Burnham Market is running this class as an ‘open’ CCI4*-S, although the two leaderboards will be considered separately. At the end of day one, however, it’s an eight-year-old who tops the entire class — breaking the venue record in the process.
Izzy Taylor‘s Hartacker may not be hugely experienced — this is just his eighth international run, and his first four-star — but his careful production through lockdown has evidently afforded him a confidence beyond his years. His score of 20.3 doesn’t just take a significant lead, it also represents a staggering personal best for the horse, whose previous best was a 28.3 in the young horse CCI2*-L at Tattersalls. Even better, it’s a best-ever international dressage score for Izzy herself. Though the next phases could go any which way — he’s only had one CCI3*-L run, at which he picked up an unlucky 20 penalties — there’s certainly plenty to be excited about in the Dutch gelding.
It’s testament to a horse’s dominance in this phase when a 23.3 and second place is almost something of a disappointment, but we’ve been so spoiled by Cillnabradden Evo‘s astonishing disregard for the record books with Oliver Townend aboard that even the notion of creeping up into the 20s feels like a bit of a surprise. But although the horse’s production has been so meticulous, and his execution of tests is always so precise that we suspect he could stop halfway through for a wee, a fag break, and a quick scroll through Instagram and still earn a sub-25, his usual excellence wasn’t rewarded with the 19s or thereabouts that we ordinarily see.
We’d hesitate to write Oliver off just yet, though: he’s the only rider to win Burnham Market’s CCI4*-S since 2014. In a few decades, the trophy might just be a bronze of his smiling face. Watch this pair closely this weekend.
“He feels so reliable,” says Sarah Bullimore of top horse Reve du Rouet, who scored a characteristic 23.7 for overnight third, despite his slightly unfair reputation as a bit of a hothead in this phase.
“In his early years he’d get very sharp,” she recalls. “But now — he doesn’t get excited about dressage, but he thinks, ‘if you kick me on, I know I have to do it, so I might as well get on with it!’ I hope he’s done frightening the dressage judges now!”
‘Blou’s’ previous issues are due to his innate fear of crowds, but over lockdown, Sarah discovered an anomaly about her quirky partner.
“For a horse who hates crowds, he really missed them! He’s a bit odd; he’s really missed going out and doing it all,” she says, laughing. “It’s like, you fickle bugger! You can’t have it both ways! He came out today saying, ‘oh, this is Burnham Market, there’s no one here,’ and I really had to kick him on a bit — and then, of course, he bounces all the way back to the stables. It’d be lovely to get that energy in the ring, but it’s all about the compromises — we have a few pacts, like that he’s allowed to do that and I’m allowed to get a test out of him.”
Alex Hua Tian followed Sarah’s lead in making appearances on both leaderboards, this time claiming overnight fourth place on a score of 23.8 with Rio partner Don Geniro.
“His walk and canter were better than Burgham [where he scored 24.4] and his trot was slightly worse, so on balance, it’s about the same,” reflects Alex pragmatically. “The problem with Don is that he does good tests so consistently that we have totally unrealistic expectations! There’s so much more in there to dig out, but he’s a funny old thing to try to get everything together at the same time.”
World Champion Ros Canter rounds out the top five — and sits second in the eight- and nine-year-old section — aboard Lordships Graffalo, with whom she scored a 24.5. Like Hartacker, Lordships Graffalo contests his first four-star after a CCI3*-L run at Le Lion last year, where he finished eighth with Tom McEwen, deputising as jockey while Ros eased back in from maternity leave.
Tomorrow sees another action-packed day of dressage kick off at 8.40 a.m. — stay tuned for the full round-up right here on EN.