Thursday Afternoon at Badminton: Tom’s Untouchable But Kitty King’s Closing In

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats offer up this afternoon’s closest challenge for the lead, ultimately finishing up in second at the end of the first day. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

It doesn’t often happen that Badminton’s Thursday morning leader remains in the top spot through the rest of the day, but that’s exactly what happened in today’s competition: coming forward as just the fourth competitor of the day, Olympic medallists Tom McEwen and his eminently reliable Toledo de Kerser delivered a career-best five-star score of 23.4 that proved unsurpassable as the day wore on. There were plenty of admirable challengers for the throne, though, and as the day drew to a close, two of them had come very close indeed.

“He’s getting more and more reliable — he used to be a little bit more tricky, but he’s getting more and more on side as he’s getting older and he’s getting the strength there,” says Kitty King, who posted a 24.8 with Vendredi Biats (Winningmood x Liane Normande, by Camelia de Ruelles). While it’s hardly the Selle Français gelding’s first sub-25 – he’s managed the feat four times at four-star – it easily eclipsed his previous five-star score of 27.2, earned here in 2019. Like many French horses, we’ve seen him hit a peak, both in strength and in hard-earned maturity, as he’s entered his teens and today, his professionalism won out – despite some tricky schooling sessions in the previous days.

“He was quite tricky yesterday, and kept breaking in all his medium trots,” explains Kitty. “I was getting a bit stressed about it all, but he was much more with me when I rode him this morning. I got on him probably a bit too early up here and so, because he felt really focused and with me, I just ended up doing a lot of walk and practicing his halts [in the warm-up].”

That clearly paid off – the pair earned a 10 from judge Christian Landolt at C for their second halt, while the judges at H and B awarded them 9s for the same movement. But the audible reaction from today’s high-octane audience nearly cost them thereafter: “I’d done my halt and reinback and then went into canter, and I heard a gasp as I went into medium canter [when the halt score was revealed] – I thought, ‘am I not meant to be doing medium canter?! Where am I meant to be going?’ So then I didn’t ride my medium very well, because I thought ‘oh shit, I’ve gone wrong’ because of the gasp. I’m not used to getting 10s!”

Kitty and ‘Froggy’s’ trip to last year’s European Championships in Avenches proved an asset in their corner as they came face to face with packed grandstands in this afternoon’s session.

“It wasn’t like here, obviously, but there were some quite enthusiastic crowds [at Avenches], so it was good he got to see them,” she says. Her ride time, though, was directly after that of third-placed Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden, who had delivered an excellent test to a tumult of applause. “I waited for Mollie’s second clap and then went in thinking they’d be finished, and then they clapped as I went in. I thought ‘oh God!’, because that’s when he can go a bit short and have his eyes popping out of his head, but I gave him a little flexion left and right and did a little leg-yield, and he came straight back to me and really settled.”

From then on out, Kitty found she was able to be bold throughout her ride, giving the ground jury every excuse to reward her crisp transitions between and within the gaits.

“He just felt superb today when I was doing the test. It was the first time where it actually felt like I had so much time between each movement to prepare for the next, whereas normally we don’t have that kind of balance and that time. It all flowed nicely, and I could really ride him for every mark that he could give me at this point. I couldn’t be more thrilled with him.”

Mollie Summerland makes her Badminton debut an impressive one, delivering her best-ever five-star score with her Luhmühlen-winning partner, Charly van ter Heiden. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

While Kitty might have felt a touch of trepidation at vocal enthusiasm following Mollie Summerland‘s test with Charly van ter Heiden, Mollie herself felt an enormous wave of relief as she completed her test with the 13-year-old Hanoverian.

“I’ve found it quite tough since Luhmühlen,” she admits, referring to her fairytale win with the gelding in the German five-star last summer, where she led from pillar to post. “I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure, probably from myself, and a lot of expectation, and I’ve found it hard this year to get the balance right and enjoy the sport. I actually spoke to my sports psychologist this morning, because yesterday I was a very different person – I was probably a little bit introverted and quite emotional and worried. But today, my trainer Olivia Oakley has been here with me, holding my hand every step of the way.”

The 24-year-old’s Badminton debut is a very different kettle of fish to that Luhmühlen trip, which came during the height of continental travel restrictions and meant that she competed without Great Britain’s extensive team of support staff to hand, and none of her trainers or home team with her. This time, she has access to all of the above – but also carries the weight of knowing that this time around, the world knows her name.

That pressure reached its zenith ahead of her test, largely because of her notable prowess in this phase. Mollie also trains extensively with British dressage superstar Carl Hester, and freely admits that the first phase is her favourite – but meeting her own high standards can be a lofty challenge. Today, she rose to it, earning herself a 24.9 – her best-ever score at five-star, and good enough for third place at the end of the first day of competition here.

“I feel a bit shell-shocked – I really didn’t expect that, and I’ve never ridden in front of crowds like that,” she says, beaming through tears. “I’m just so proud of [Charly] — that horse deserves that score, and I’m just glad I didn’t let him down. I just couldn’t believe it; when I came out I kept asking my trainer if she was sure I hadn’t missed a change, because we actually couldn’t do any [in the warm-up], and he was excited in the atmosphere.”

Mollie’s excellent test today wasn’t just a triumph over the pressure she’s felt – it was also a welcome return to the top for Charly, who sat out the rest of 2021 after post-event scans revealed he’d picked up a soft tissue injury at Luhmühlen.

“To have him back — that horse means the world to me; I’ve had him since he was a five-year-old,” she says. “I feel quite emotional about it! He’s my best friend, and so to ride in that arena together was a privilege.”

World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B bring a new outlook to their return to five-star. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Tamie Smith and Mai Baum hold fourth place overnight, and best of today’s strong line-up of North American riders, with the very good 25.3 they earned in this morning’s session, while fellow pre-lunch competitors Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs and reigning champions Piggy March and Vanir Kamira sit in equal fifth on 25.7. New Zealand’s Amanda Pottinger and her ex-racehorse Just Kidding finish the day in seventh place on 25.9. (Missed it? You can catch up on the details of their rides in the lunch break report.)

That sizzling morning session does feel rather a long way away now, but let’s take a quick whiz back in time to revisit the superb efforts that filled much of the rest of the top ten in today’s competition.

Eighth overnight are our reigning World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B, who delivered a clear round between the boards to post a 26.4. They return to competition for 2022 — and for their first test at this level since the World Equestrian Games in 2018 — with a reinvigorated approach after a tricky 2021 season.

“I’ve done things a bit differently with him this year, and have been schooling and practicing the dressage a lot less than I’ve done before,” she explains. “I was a little bit nervous this morning that I hadn’t practiced my tests enough, but as soon as you get in there he’s like, head down, ‘off we go, Ros!’, so he’s great.”

‘Alby’s’ 2021 season saw the pair head to Tokyo as travelling reserves for the British team, which required Ros to carefully build the seventeen-year-old gelding to peak fitness. When they weren’t subsequently required to run at the Olympics, she briefly let him back down, before building him up again in preparation for September’s European Championships in Avenches. But that long build-up led to a hugely uncharacteristic couple of run-outs – a frustrating turn of events that was ultimately a strange sort of blessing in disguise for the pair.

“As we do over the winter, I thought a lot about him, and about our relationship together,” she explains. “I think it goes back further than the Olympic year with us: I missed a year due to being pregnant, and then Covid hit and the ‘Big Bs’, which he adores and lives for, and that build-up to two big events a year, all disappeared. Suddenly, we had to build up every month for a short-format, and I think as a result of the pressure of having had a year off, I probably over-trained in that period — so I very much wanted to get back to him loving the job again. He’s older and wiser and more laid-back at home, and so we’ve gone hacking [instead of schooling]. I’ve learned so much about him out hacking, about his balance, about bringing him off his forehand on the flat. He doesn’t forget how to do a flying change or a half-pass, and so I’m fairly confident that what I’ve done this year has been the right thing for the horse.”

“It was terrible at the time that I had the run-outs and I lost an individual medal [at the Europeans], but thankfully we still won the team medal and in hindsight, if I’d won an individual gold medal I wouldn’t have changed my system, and I’d have had a different horse coming into Badminton. We’re always learning as riders, and I definitely learned a lot from last year’s experience.”

European Champions Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin take an early spot in the top ten. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

The rider who did go on to win the individual gold in that European Championships was Nicola Wilson and her now eleven-year-old Holsteiner JL Dublin, who began his five-star debut just a tenth of a penalty behind Ros and Alby on 26.5. That’s enough to see him finish the first day in ninth place.

“It’s his first time at this level, and he coped really well with the atmosphere in the main arena — and I was thrilled with his test,” says Nicola. “He had a little wobble in the second shoulder-in, which was costly, but on the whole I was delighted with his rideability, how he went, and how he expressed himself.”

That the ‘little wobble’ in their shoulder-in only saw their marks drop down to a 6.5 at the lowest is a testament to how consistent this horse has been: he won Bicton’s CCI4*-L and Hartpury’s CCI4*-S last season before heading to Avenches, where he put an exceptional 20.9 on the board and subsequently finished on it.

This is the first of Nicola’s two debutant horses this week, and also the first time we’ve seen Badminton use the draw to decide the order of multiple-horse riders: previously, those with two entered could choose the order in which they went, but this year, it’s assigned at random. (The exception to the rule, of course, is those riders who enter more than two horses with the intention of withdrawing all but two, who are then given multiple spots at the start and finish of the list and can tactically withdraw in order to get the intended runners in their preferred order.) In Nicola’s case, given the choice, she’d have preferred to bring JL Dublin out for Friday’s session: “I probably would have ridden him second, but it really doesn’t matter — if you do a good test you’ll be marked well, hopefully!”

Pippa Funnell’s impressive Billy Walk On jointly rounds out the top ten. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Two further Brits round out the top ten in equal tenth place on 28.5, and between them, they represent a formidable cross-section of the country’s elite competitors: Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On line up for the living legends and experienced five-star horses of the sport, while Emily King and Valmy Biats represent the young guns and debutant horses.

It’s been a busy enough week for Pippa by anyone’s standards — after riding two horses to very good results at Kentucky, she hopped on the packed Sunday evening flight from Lexington back to England, where she dived headlong into the final preparations for Badminton with another two entrants. That meant fine-tuning the flatwork with her horses, who had been schooled in her absence by her stable staff.

“[Billy Walk On] is a very big horse, and I have a fantastic team at home of very little people — they’re all five foot, or five foot one maximum,” says Pippa. “Lily Wilson’s done the most incredible job with them, keeping them ticking over and hacking, but he’s big and gets quite strung out and that’s meant I’ve had to work quite hard in closing him up again, so I don’t think that being away necessarily helped in the preparation. But that’s more to do with the FEI and trying to persuade them to change calendars so we can have a week between the five-stars!”

Though we’ve seen Billy Walk On deliver low 20s scores at this level, his test today looked plenty polished in the circumstances, with just one frustrating moment in the second change when he dropped behind the leg and spooked through the movement, earning costly 4s and a 3.

Emily King and Valmy Biats join Pippa and Billy Walk On in equal tenth place after day one of dressage. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Emily King, too, had a wobble in the second flying change, which earned her two 5s and a 4 with Valmy Biats, and was the only real fault in an otherwise mature test for the first-time five-star horse.

“He’s come on so much in the dressage over the last couple of years,” says Emily, who campaigns the horse with the support of the Event Horse Owners Syndicate, a racing-inspired micro syndicate service that allows fans of the sport increased access to the sport via ‘their’ horse and rider. “I’ve only had him for two years, and when he came to me he couldn’t physically do flying changes, and now he’s coming in and doing all of them. Give him another year and I think he’ll be mega, so for where he’s at, I was seriously pleased.”

This was Valmy’s first time in a real pressure cooker of an atmosphere but this, too, posed little issue for the French gelding: “He coped very well — he’s quite a hot, tense sort of horse with a lot of power that quite easily goes straight out the front door, so it’s just about containing it in a relaxed way. I thought he went in there and felt like he did in the warm-up, which was lovely because I didn’t have to adapt too much.”

The second half of the field comes forward tomorrow to attempt to smash the incredibly high standard we’ve seen throughout today’s competition – and there’s plenty of heavy hitters in the line-up, including Olympic medallists Laura Collett and London 52Bubby Upton and ColaTim Price and Ringwood Sky BoyOliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class, and plenty more besides. We’ll also see another, smaller batch of our North American (and US-based) contingent, the first group of whom we caught up with earlier today. To check out the times in full, click here.

We’ll be back with plenty more from Badminton — until then, Go Eventing!

The top ten at the end of Thursday’s dressage at Badminton.

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