Though another day of sunshine and gentle breeze certainly helped the ground at Chatsworth, the second CCI4*-S section of the weekend exerted no less influence on its field of competitors, which were split from the ‘primary’ CCIO4*-S by their horses’ lower FEI points. 48 competitors started the competition, and just 18 would finish it: 14 opted to withdraw after dressage, while four were eliminated in showjumping — again, we saw the new FEI rule, which states that any competitor earning more than 20 jumping penalties in this phase cannot continue on to cross country play a major part — and a further five opted to withdraw before cross-country, taking our starters for the final phase down to 25. Just two horses and riders would pick up the Big E out on course: Daisy Berkeley and Diese du Figuier, and Katie Bleloch and Rossmount Blue News, who gave the crowds on course quite a show when the horse twisted over the third fence, an angled brush, sending Katie forward out of the saddle and leaving her holding on with arms and legs wrapped around his neck as she hung off the side. Though Rossmount Blue News initially picked up speed and looked intent on jumping the huge table at four, he eventually pulled himself up just before careening downhill, and Katie was able to gracefully disentangle herself and dismount onto her feet, to enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. She returned shortly after to finish her two other rides, Goldlook and Quimera CP 43 08, in the top ten.
After a hard-fought competition, it would be 25-year-old Lizzie Baugh who would top the leaderboard, taking the biggest win of her career so far with her own thirteen-year-old B Exclusive, a homebred out of her mother’s former Novice partner Bright Spark. They put up a 27.1 in the first phase, which saw them sit second ahead of the jumping phases on the gelding’s best-ever international dressage score. This, Lizzie reckons, comes down to a shift in focus this spring: Lizzie has given him several outings in which he hasn’t run cross-country, a tactic that she suspects has helped him to focus on the task at hand and work through his tendency to tension. And one of those practice outings? Just a little trip to Badminton, where the pair got to deliver the guinea pig test to start the week’s competition off.
“We had our practice at Badminton, and then he came here and did his personal best dressage test,” says Lizzie. “Getting his warm-up and preparation right has been so important. We’ve been working with Tracy Woodhead, who’s worked wonders with us, and I think it has helped, as well, that he loves his jumping so much. I took him to Cirencester and did the first two phases, but didn’t run him cross-country, and he went to Badminton to do the guinea pig test and obviously didn’t get to run cross-country there, and then he got to do all the phases here. I’m just so pleased that after getting a personal best dressage, he’s been able to capitalise on it.”
The tough, holding ground wouldn’t be the gelding’s ideal conditions, but nevertheless, he dug deep to topple just one rail in the showjumping and then add 11.2 time penalties across the country — the fastest round of the day, and the exact same number logged by Saturday’s winners, Stephane Landois and Chaman Dumontceau.
“He’s brilliant. He’s not actually a horse that enjoys the mud — but he’s done so well, and we were much faster than I meant to be! I came here as prep for Bramham, but he just tried so hard for me,” says Lizzie. “I didn’t really set out to try to be the fastest of the day, but I thought as he hadn’t run since Thoresby I had to set out and be positive. He picked up all the questions, he picked up all the lines, and actually, he seemed to gallop over the mud well — and on the higher parts of the course, the ground really wasn’t too bad.”
For Lizzie, who won a two-star here as a Young Rider and so considers Chatsworth a happy hunting ground, B Exclusive is well and truly defying expectations — especially as he was nearly sold on as a young horse.
“He was never meant to be this big — as a young horse, he just kept growing, and we thought, ‘god, he’s going to be far too big for anything we’re ever going to want!’ So we did have a go at selling him as a three-year-old, but when we didn’t manage to sell him, we ended up keeping him,” she explains. Now, she says, he’s reaching his peak, and will be the horse with whom Lizzie aims for her first five-star. “He always jumped well, and he’s always been there or thereabouts [in international placings], but interestingly, before this win, the only other win he’s had in his career is in a Novice class at Catton Park. He’s always been top five, top ten consistently, but his dressage has always been a bit tense and has let him down. It feels like we’re getting that cracked now, though.”
Second place went the way of Chinese Olympian Alex Hua Tian, who made his UK FEI debut aboard 13-year-old Chicko, with whom he’s nurturing a new partnership after taking the reins from British stalwart Polly Stockton. With Polly, the gelding stepped up to four-star in 2021, jumping clear around Barbury on his short-format debut, though he’d not made it around his CCI4*-L debut, at Blenheim that autumn, nor had he had success at his subsequent short format runs at Bramham and Blair. His form this year, though, has been compelling — and his performance this weekend, which saw him start on a 30.4, post one of just three faultless showjumping rounds in this class, and jump a cross-country clear with 19.6 time penalties solidifies him as an exciting prospect in the experienced rider’s line-up.
“He’s new to the team this year, but he’s quite established, and a beautiful horse to ride, as you’d expect for one produced by Polly,” says Alex, who inherited the ride when Stockton decided to step back from the upper levels at the tail end of the 2022 season. “Once she’d made the decision at the end of last year, she and Kate [Willis], who owns Chicko, asked if I’d ride him.”
The partnership began in earnest in February, when the pair went to Montelibretti in Italy to contest first the CCI3*-S, where they finished tenth, and then the CCIO4*-S the following week, where they finished in the top twenty.
“He was really good down there,” says Alex, who wanted to tackle Chatsworth, with its much tougher track, as a way to figure the gelding out in stiffer circumstances. “I just really like him — he’s maybe not the flashiest horse in the world, but he comes to a jump and he just locks onto it.”
Though Alex, in hindsight, thinks the horse’s fitness levels precluded a win in this class — “I could have had him fitter, I think,” he concedes – it’s been a great preparation en route to next month’s Millstreet International CCI3*-L in Ireland, which will also serve as a qualifier for China for next year’s Olympics. Then, as the partnership develops, Alex will be developing the horse with an eye to the bigger things later this year — and, now that the great Don Geniro has retired from eventing, perhaps even a crack at next year’s main event.
“I’ve got a few lovely horses at the moment, and Jilsonne van Bareelhof would probably be my top one — we squeaked him around a four-long in Italy, so he probably won’t run cross-country before the Asian Games later this year,” says Alex. “He’s not a horse to pin your hopes on [due to previous hoof issues], but it would be amazing to have him in contention – but I have some exciting horses now at the upper levels.”
Dressage leaders Caroline Harris and D. Day, who had posted a 26 on the flat, slid down the order on the leaderboard after tipping three rails in the second phase, which proved nearly as influential on the second day of CCI4*-S competition as it had on the first – despite a savvy relocation of all the fences onto fresh ground. But once the seriously tough cross-country got underway, they were able to regain some serious lost ground, ultimately finishing third after adding 14.4 time penalties — the third fastest round of the class.
“I knew he wouldn’t like the ground in the showjumping, because he’s quite small and very careful,” says Caroline. “But actually, I thought he jumped a great round; he came out with three rails, which was disappointing, but he’s only nine, and this is only his third four-star.”
The two previous runs — his debut at Burgham last July, and the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S at Blenheim in September — saw the gelding by Billy Mexico log swift clears across the country and one-rail showjumping rounds, and now, Caroline is looking ahead to his first CCI4*-L at Millstreet in Ireland.
“This would be far tougher than anything he’s ever done, and he tried so hard — he felt fantastic. He made all the straight lines feel so easy on cross country,” says Caroline, who praises the horse’s brain as being his biggest asset. “He’s not a big, flashy horse, but he’s so lovely to train. This week, he got all his changes amazingly well, and there’s actually a lot more to come from him. You’d never look at him and think, ‘wow, he’s incredible’, but he just does everything you want him to do. He’s got the best brain. I would never have thought he’d jump these big jumps, ever, but he digs so deep that it all feels really easy.”
Caroline’s partnership with the gelding started as something of a happy accident in slightly less jolly circumstances: “He was bred by his owner, Fiona Olivier, just to be a nice all-rounder for her son’s girlfriend at the time,” she says. “Then he and the girlfriend split up, so when the horse was four, she was looking for somewhere for him to go, and he came to me. I thought he was a very cute horse but small, so maybe he’d be a nice Novice or Intermediate horse, but he’s got a heart of gold, and he just goes on and on. He just keeps giving me more. He’s amazing.”
Emma Thomas and her ten-year-old reformed bad boy Icarus X took fourth place, adding a very swift 12 time penalties across the country, plus a showjumping rail and 0.8 time penalties, to their first-phase score of 35.8 — “although I didn’t actually mean to go that fast,” laughs Emma. “That was his decision — but he’s a really good jumper, and I really trust him to get his legs out of the way.”
Their week started well in the first phase: even if the score wasn’t quite enough to put them on the business end of the leaderboard in the early stages, it represented a significant reformation for the gelding, who has previously been particularly tricky to ride on the flat.
“He did his personal best dressage, which is brilliant — he’s really hot on the flat and he finds it very stressful, but he was really good, and actually, he jumped really well [in the tough showjumping], too. I think, really, these are going to be his days — when it’s really tough out there and he’s still happy to gallop and jump fast and climb.”
Icarus’s key change on the flat has come in part because of Emma’s participation in the Wesko Equestrian Foundation programme, which helps to fund essential educational opportunities for up-and-coming riders, and which has helped her to spend the last year training intensively with Pippa Funnell. Together, they’ve devised a way to siphon the stress out of flatwork, helping Icarus to enjoy it as much as he enjoys the jumping phases.
“It’s been amazing,” says Emma. “The first time I took him to her, she actually sat on him because he was so difficult. The thing is, he really wants to do it. But the minute you add pressure into the equation, he just internalises all of his tension. But she’s really helped me just change my entire philosophy towards flat work, and just really feel and understand the horse and what might be going through his head, which has been amazing.”
Now, she has a tailor-made approach to warming up that’s helped her find a sense of stasis with the young talent: “I do about 15 minutes in walk on a long rein, and then I do all of the lateral movements, and I do lots of serpentines. When I feel he might have settled, then we come up into trot and do the same. And then we do it in canter, and we do our changes, but all of it is no pressure and on a slightly longer, lower frame, just playing around. I just keep him like that, and then we go around the arena and I then I bring him up to where he needs to be for the test.”
That hasn’t only helped them on the flat, it’s also helped them to find the optimal focus zone for jumping, too — something that will help them immensely with their major spring aim, the under-25 CCI4*-L at Bramham next month.
“There were a lot of years where he’d run past things just because he wasn’t listening. And now he lets me have a little bit more of a say, and I just trust him completely,” says Emma.
Experienced five-star campaigners Nicky Hill and diminutive MGH Bingo Boy round out the top five on their long awaited return to international competition – the gelding has been off games since Badminton last spring, where he picked up a niggling injury that Nicky and her family opted to put plenty of time into strengthening. Still, though, Nicky was full of trepidation before tackling the course with her 15-year-old best friend: “I walked the course yesterday and I was so stressed about the ground — I was like, ‘oh god, what am I doing?!’ I just wanted to get him round,” she says.
She needn’t have worried: despite his experience and age, MGH Bingo Boy was so delighted to be at his first international back that he spent the morning being “incredibly naughty” while hand-grazing, and after zooming around the course with just 17.2 time penalties, he jogged sideways all the way back to the lorry, giving the Hill clan the figurative thumbs-up that he’s feeling as good as he ever has.
“He absolutely loves it here,” says Nicky. “He’s got really good stamina and he just keeps going. This is just. hissecond run this year, so I didn’t know how much he was going to end with, but he had so much left in the tank. I never pushed him, but just let him go at his pace, and he could have done another couple of minutes easily.”
Now, having safely made it back to the lorry park with her squealing, prancing horse — “honestly, he’s such a joker; he thinks he’s won every event he finishes, and he’s pretty sure everyone’s here to see him!” — Nicky is looking ahead to a big goal for the year: “I’d love to get to Burghley with him, and we’re really happy with how he’s come back at this stage, so we’ll see!”
That’s a wrap from, perhaps, the toughest Chatsworth we’ve ever seen — and this is never, ever a walk in the park. Next up, the UK-based arm of EN heads back up north to Bramham for the CCI4*-L, under-25 CCI4*-L and CCI4*-S, taking place from June 6-11. Until then: Go Eventing!