“The Most In-Sync We’ve Ever Been”: Emily King Becomes First Back-to-Back Grantham Cup Winner

Buckle up! Emily King and Valmy Biats take the scenic route over the bank complex at 11ABC en route to a second consecutive Grantham Cup win. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

After a long, reasonably challenging day of cross-country (that’s 31 clears from 40 starters, if specificity is your bag) at Thoresby’s Spring Carnival of Eventing, we crowned a new winner of the prestigious Grantham Cup CCI4*-S – or, rather, an old winner, all over again. 2023 champions Emily King and 15-year-old Selle Français Valmy Biats retained their title after tying for first place in dressage on a score of 23.2 – the gelding’s best-ever FEI dressage score – and then adding just 6.4 time penalties across the country today, following a clear showjumping round this morning.

For Emily, who’s now the first-ever rider to win the Grantham Cup twice in succession, and who once again won the Polly Phillips Memorial Trophy for the highest-placed British rider not to have competed on a Senior team, it wasn’t just a great honour to retain the throne – it was also a heartening preparation for her forthcoming bid at Badminton.

“He was unreal – it was the smoothest, easiest, most in-sync round I think I’ve ever had with him,” she says. “Normally he’s quite lairy and really brave and strong, and you have to really set up for everything. I have to really plan stuff and think about the balance. I had it all planned to do everywhere today, but I actually didn’t have to, because he was doing it on his own. I was like, ‘god, this is nice!’ I didn’t press him, I just let him gallop.”

Emily King and Valmy Biats. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Although Valmy was at his most rideable on course – a course, it’s worth noting, that was widely regarded as Thoresby’s toughest effort yet – Emily didn’t have that feeling from the first moment she got on. Instead, she had to use her warm-up wisely to get him well on side.

“It’s funny, because in the warm-up he felt pretty difficult,” she laughs. “He didn’t feel particularly different to normal. He’s so brave and sometimes you just have to gallop to something and really think for him. But when I went out of the start box, I could move him up and he was looking at the fence, not through it, and actually weighing it up — I could set it up rather than just gallop.”

Emily used his malleability as an educational tool around the course: “I thought, as I had just done the first combination, I’d let him be a little. He was a little bit close to the brush but I thought, rather than helping him, I’d leave him alone so he had to work a touch harder. Then he really was thinking for himself. That [approach] doesn’t always go to plan, but it worked quite nicely for everything else.”

Emily and Valmy negotiate the bounce bank at 11ABC. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Valmy’s one moment of crowd-pleasing excitement on course came at the new Irish bank complex at 11ABC, where he took an enormous leap off the brush drop B element.

“He was a good boy at the step, because I wanted to jump a bit on the outside line so I had fresher ground,” Emily explains. “I thought then, jumping the step we wouldn’t land in so much of a hole – but then, actually, it was quite a moving four strides to the bank. I should probably have actually waited for a fifth stride and kept further out, but then I don’t know what he did, but he certainly did it! He sort of skipped over the top and then cat leapt off, and I was like, ‘please land!’ and then he did. He was just awesome everywhere; he felt really on it and cool and calm, not too nervy and lairy, and he just felt like he’s getting relaxed with going at that speed, which is good.”

Emily King (and entourage!) accept the Polly Phillips Memorial Trophy from Vere Phillips.

Emily and Valmy are the only combination ever to win the Grantham Cup twice in a row – and Emily attributes part of the gelding’s affinity for the venue with his comfort in dealing with tricky spring going.

“He really doesn’t mind the mud at all — he lives out in the field basically the whole time, and even when it’s really wet, really rainy, really muddy, he just has extra rugs on and he lives out,” she explains. “So he’s used to that, and then we also gallop on the grass even when it’s deeper, we just go a bit slower. I wonder whether that’s just a thing at this time of year – it’s always gonna be wet here, and everyone else has to be a touch more cautious because their horses’ legs aren’t acclimatised yet to the going. But he is because that’s where he works the most, in that going, so I wonder if it’s just that I feel it’s less daunting to run on a bit deeper going with him.”

Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ireland’s Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue surprised absolutely nobody by delivering the fastest round of the day – a scant 15 seconds, or 6 time penalties over the optimum time, which boosted them up to second place from thirteenth on their first-phase score of 30.4.

“He’s not put a foot wrong, really – he was good in the dressage, with one or two little improvements to be made, but not far off,” says Austin. But cross-country, as always, was where ‘Salty’ truly shone.

“He jumped well today, and was quick, but he’s a quick horse. I can’t ride him slow, and if it was perfect conditions he’d gallop around inside the time all day long. He’s just so nifty, but I wanted to look after him towards the end when [the ground] got a bit deep. It’s just great to carry on the feeling from last year – we know he’s on good form, and he’s loving it.”

Salty’s season opener comes off the back of a win in the CCI5* at Maryland, where Austin became the first Irish five-star winner in 58 years – and his exceptional horse proved exactly the kind of classic stayer he is.

“He came out of Maryland so well, he could nearly have gone to Pau the next week,” he laughs. “And now he’s come out of the winter better again.”

Making history for Ireland, too, is no small confidence booster for Austin and his compatriots in this crucial year.

“You’d like to think success breeds success. It gives you know when it gives myself the belief, but it also gives everybody else thereabouts the belief that we can really go and do it,” he says. “Sure, you need a bit of luck and things have got to go right, but I think we’ve got a good squad of riders, and we’ve got a good team around us now. I think it’s all working.”

With Paris firmly at the top of his priority list, Austin’s opting out of a spring long-format run, and instead maintaining Salty’s fitness and training using short-format runs: “probably, thinking out loud here, he’ll run the short at Bramham [in June],” he says. And, he says, he plans to fit in some dressage shows throughout the spring, too, in a bid to make those marginal gains in the first phase.

“You’ve got to improve everything all the time; we’re certainly not resting on our laurels,” he says. “If he goes to Paris, he’s got to be fit, and he’s got to be well, and so we’ll certainly have a programme, it just won’t be quite as intense as it could be.”

Beginning his season proper on a beefed up Thoresby track has been an ideal box-ticker, explains Austin.

“It was a true four-star, and I’m sure the results from the results page will tell that story. And rightly so — so hats off to Thoresby. They’ve put on some show considering what they’ve been up against. But they put their neck on the line and I think they got the results they deserved — and this is what eventing is all about. I think we’ve got to be careful not to forget that.”

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

Though reigning World Champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir began the day tied for the lead, they ultimately settled for third place when opting for a slightly steadier preparation run, with 13.2 time penalties, ahead of their bid at Kentucky supremacy in a few weeks.

“He did a lovely test yesterday and then jumped a great, quick clear round today,” says Yas. “He was trying really hard for me. With him, there’s a bigger picture this year, and it’s always building up to that point. It’s all about progression, and about building the confidence together. It’s early doors, but I’m delighted — it’s been a really good weekend.”

Like many riders in the UK, getting the season well and truly underway hasn’t been totally straightforward for Yas, with prolific cancellations and abandonments across the calendar in the first month of the season.

“It’s nice to get the run under their belts,” she says. “We’ve all been itching, really, for runs, and the weather has just not been helpful. But the sun’s finally come out today, and the ground was mostly good, with just a couple of soft patches where I looked after them. But all the jumping was brilliant; it was a very testing track, with lots of interesting questions, and lots of new questions that we haven’t seen before.”

Like Austin, Yas praised the Thoresby team for delivering a serious rust-knocker of a course.

“It was actually nice to have a bit of a mix-up and a bit of a head scratcher. There were lots of options everywhere, so you could do whatever suited your horse and really ride what’s underneath you.”

Tim Price and Vitali through the influential corner complex, moments after being held just before it. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tim Price took fourth place with Badminton-bound Vitali, who added 9.6 time penalties to his first-phase score of 27.2, and ninth place with his 2022 Boekelo champion Happy Boy, who added a rail and 12 time penalties to his 27.8 – but in the secondary CCI4*-S section, for lesser-pointed horses, he was victorious, piloting the ten-year-old Jarillo, who now sits comfortably on four top-ten four-star results in a row out of five starts at the level.

But, says Tim, winning with him today on 19.2 time penalties “was a bit strange, because I just wanted to give him an educational round, and with the other two, I was really trying! I wanted Happy Boy to go fast for a fitness run, and with Vitali, I really thought he could have gone a bit quicker, but I got held, which disrupted the rhythm a bit.”

Tim’s hold came just one fence before the influential treble of corners at 9ABC, and was due to a surprise fall for Pippa Funnell, who tumbled from Billy Walk On at the complex just moments before, but who we’re pleased to report was back on her feet after a check-over by medics at the fence.

“It wasn’t an ideal place to be held, but really, we’re just pleased Pippa’s alright,” says Tim. Despite the hold, though, his primary objective – giving Vitali a proper pipe-opening run ahead of Badminton – was well accomplished.

“I pushed him on and galloped him through deep ground and did all the things that make him puff – it was a really good run for that,” he says. “And the hold was early enough — what wouldn’t have been ideal would have been a hold halfway round with enough time to fully recover.”

Tim Price and Happy Boy. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Perhaps most excitingly was Vitali’s clear showjumping round – the phase that has been his ongoing bogey with three rails down at each of his five-star starts, but which didn’t put a dampener on his performance this week despite the relocation of the jumping to a new, smaller, and more undulating patch of ground that Ros Canter described as ‘like cross-country over showjumps’.

“I hope I’m not using up all my clear rounds before they really matter,” he laughs. “He’s trying, he’s just a strange little horse with a whole lot of talent and abilities. I’m trying, with the showjumping, to attack it and be bit more positive, not all defensive. When you’re on a really good jumper, you sit there and think rhythm, and smoothness, and all those things. With him, I think I need to be a bit more disruptive and take it on a bit — that’s my plan, anyway!”

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura Collett and London 52 took fifth place, adding 14.4 time penalties across the country and nothing in the showjumping to a first-phase score of 23.9 – and while that first phase wasn’t quite up to Laura’s own high standards, the feeling she got on today’s course far overrode any disappointment she may have had when leaving the ring yesterday.

“He was lovely, and very up for it,” says Laura, who also finished seventh on Hester. “It’s just so nice getting on one you know that well. It was almost like [London 52] had walked the course, it was that smooth. He’s finally grown up from fighting and thinking he knows best, and now he’s like, ‘you tell me where to go, and I’ll go,’ which is so nice. He feels amazing, and he’s been squealing all weekend, but it was probably one of the nicest easiest rides I’ve ever had on him, because he just literally just felt like he was on railway tracks.”

As one of the last riders in the Grantham Cup, Laura had to contend with well-travelled ground – but ‘Dan’s’ rideability meant that she could choose the lines that best avoided the overworked areas.

“I went on some rogue parts of the course to find the best ground – I went very wide,” she laughs. “But actually, it rode fine; the last bit was a bit deep, but it was nice to get them out. It’s been so long!”

Above all, Laura was delighted to get the chance to tackle a sufficiently challenging early-season four-star track.

“I thought it was a great course, and I was actually praying that the ground would be alright [so I’d get to ride it], because we actually had to ride – not just go through the motions, but actually ride the lines and the horses had to be focused.”

It is, by Laura’s reckoning, “by far” the toughest Thoresby course that’s been presented – something that she, and her fellow competitors, view as an overwhelming positive.

“I think it’s great. For a couple of years we’ve missed a proper Badminton prep; Belton always used to be so good for that. Here, there’s nothing big, but we all know our horses are scopey, so it’s about having proper questions that make us ride. What’s so good is that we were all scratching our heads over several places on the course, but everything worked; all the different options worked, so you just had to make a decision.”

Those influential corners were the frontrunner among those headscratchers, closely followed by the new bank complex at 11ABC.

“We were all going to go on four strides, and then we watched a few and said, ‘okay, it can be four or five’,” she says. “You could make the decision as you landed, but you did have to react — and that was good for me and my horses, because you can’t practice those reactions in training.”

Ros Canter and Izilot DHI pop down the new bank complex at 11ABC. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

All three of Ros Canter‘s rides in this class enjoyed a sterling day in the office, and chief among them was last year’s Blenheim CCI4*-L and Pau CCI5* winner, and day one dressage leader, Izilot DHI, who took sixth place after adding 14 time penalties to his first-phase score of 25.6.

“Izilot was a superstar; he’s come out so level-headed this year,” says Ros, who explains that she’s spent the off-season dialling back the Pau winner’s schooling in a bit to ‘break the habit’ of his characteristic spookiness. “He feels like a different horse. We’ve been training, but only away from home, and spend a lot more time hacking, because he’s a lovely hack. I don’t mind him being spooky, but when he’s sharp with his spook, it makes it very difficult. So I’ve been very mellow with it; if he spooks out hacking I just drop the reins, because I’m not schooling, and so it doesn’t matter. That’s just made him lose the habit of needing to fly.”

Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ros also finished twelfth with her Badminton champion and European Champion Lordships Graffalo, who had an uncharacteristic rail in the relocated showjumping – “it was rider error, and it’s nice to be able to say that, rather than it being a horse mistake” – and thirteenth with the inexperienced MHS Seventeen.

“We had to get stuck in – I think we’re all a bit out of the habit,” says Ros. “My horses felt great, but the rider was a bit rusty! But it was great to have a spin on the big boys.”

Alice Casburn and Topspin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Eighth place went to Alice Casburn, who had one of the fastest rounds of the day, adding just 7.6 time penalties with her homebred five-star partner, Topspin, while the top ten was ably rounded out by Tom Rowland in his second season with the former Oliver Townend mount Dreamliner, with whom he added 11.2 time penalties to a 32.7 first-phase score.

For those horses who’d already picked up their CCI4*-S and CCI4*-L or CCI5* Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MERs) last season, and who managed a CCI4*-S MER today, that’s a major box ticked en route to the Olympics – because they’ll now be totally qualified. As MERs simply involve scoring 45 or below in dressage, 30 or fewer time penalties at this level across the country (clear or with a single 11 penalty addition for a frangible activation), and 16 or fewer jumping penalties in showjumping, that sees quite a lot of newly-minted totally-qualified horses on the pathway to Paris, including nine-tenths of our top ten – Tim Price’s Happy Boy still needs a long-format qualifying result.

But, of course, there’s still an awful lot of time, and events, yet to go before we reach team selection time – including the CCI4*-S at Burnham Market and Kentucky’s CCI5* and CCI4*-S just next month, and, of course, Badminton approaching swiftly thereafter. And so, until the next one: Go Eventing.

The top ten at the culmination of the 2024 Grantham Cup.

The Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby: Website | Live Scores | Live Stream | EN’s Coverage

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