It’s only fitting, really, that Will Rawlin should take top billing in our report today – after all, it was just a year ago at the SsangYong Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials that he made his first appearance on Eventing Nation. Then, his top ride VIP Vinnie showed off all the wrong sorts of dance moves, nearly mowing Will down on the trot strip and garnering us many of those sweet, sweet likes on social media.
We sheepishly promised him at the time that one of these days, we’d shout his name from the rooftops for less comical reasons – and almost exactly a year later, he’s given us all the reason we need to do just that, delivering a level personal best of 24.2 with Vinnie to sit atop the CCI4*-L leaderboard at the end of the first day of dressage.
“He’s been going really well, and I felt confident coming into this, but in the warm-up he got tense – and when he gets tense, it’s quite difficult to actually ride him forward and get him going,” says Will of the expressive eleven-year-old. “A couple of times in there I was like, ‘oh god, oh god, keep going!’ – but he kept a nice outline and a good rhythm, and he was with me most of the way. It’s more about me getting the corners and really preparing him for each movement.”
20 penalties across the country was the only black mark on their result here last year, where both made their CCI4*-L debut, but the pair have proven themselves an exciting combination to watch this season. In June, they finished third in the hotly-contested – and enormously difficult – under-25 CCI4*-L at Bramham, and they finished just shy of the top ten in a strong field at Burnham Market’s CCI4*-S at the dawn of the season. Despite a blip at Chatsworth, which was swiftly followed up by that Bramham result, Will feels ready to tackle a hot competition against a top field – and rightly so.
“Although it’s a very strong field, and full of very good riders, I did feel confident coming in in my ability and my horse’s ability,” he says. “This year we’ve had a couple of silly blips, which have been down to me not setting up right for the fence – and actually, the last time I rode him, I fell off, but it was all me! I know if I stick to my plan and ride him properly then we should be home safely. I just need to do my best on each day and then hopefully, we’ll all be smiling at the end.”
For the 25-year-old up-and-comer, a top result would be understandably special – but it would be made even more so by his long partnership with his horse.
“He’s more like a pet – he’s the first horse I bought as a four-year-old, and my mum and dad own him wholly. We’d never sell him; he’s our baby,” he says with a smile.
Piggy French holds second place overnight with Brookfield Inocent, the ten-year-old Irish Sport Horse on whom she took the ride in 2018. Though it’s the gelding’s first CCI4*-L, he demonstrated professionalism and pizazz – the right kind, fortunately – to post a 25.4.
“I’m so pleased with him, and I know I made a couple of mistakes as well,” says Piggy, who finished second with the horse at Hartpury CCI4*-S last month. “But the thing I’m so pleased with is that he’s such a spooky horse, but going in there with the atmosphere and the flower pots – believe it or not, they seem to be the most terrifying things! – he just stayed with me the whole time. This is his first three-day with me, and I’m just over the moon. It’s so exciting for the future. I messed up the first flying change – that was my fault – and I did something radical in the halt, so there’s a couple of bits I thought I could have done better, but overall, I’m delighted. I just rode him like he’s an old one that’s done it plenty of times and he hasn’t.”
For Piggy, who is building up a multilayered and formidable string, Brookfield Inocent is a welcome addition.
“You hate to put the touch of bad luck on them, but he’s such a cool horse and an amazing cross-country horse,” she says. “At the beginning I thought, would that spookiness let him down, or am I going to find it difficult to manage or find him difficult to ride? But I’m starting to figure him out, and if I do figure him out and find the key to it all then there’s no reason he can’t be as good as any of them. I think he’s definitely a five-star horse because he’s got a lot of blood and he loves to gallop, and he’s easy to ride across the country. I’ll be interested [to see how he goes] on Saturday – it’s always a different game when you get to a three-day, because you haven’t had the other two phases first, but I’m hoping he’ll be as good as I know he can be.”
Brookfield Inocent’s former rider, Australia’s Kevin McNab, sits third overnight on a score of 25.7 with Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend, also making his CCI4*-L debut after a clear round in the eight- and nine-year-old class last year, and top-ten finishes in CCI4*-S classes at Hartpury and Millstreet this year. Burghley winner Pippa Funnell holds fourth with her Rio mount Billy the Biz, with whom she posted a 26.3.
“He’s a bit lacking match practice,” says Pippa of the fourteen-year-old, who last ran a long-format in 2017, when he finished tenth at Luhmühlen’s CCI5*. “He was so fresh yesterday that I had to give him enough work, and then with the sunshine today I thought that maybe I’d just overdone it a bit. His trot was very good but I felt that he just got a bit flat in his canter. But I have to be pleased with him; he’s not been on this sort of stage for a while. No, it’s not a winning test, but I’m happy enough.”
The experienced gelding’s preparation for Blenheim has been somewhat scuppered by Pip’s recent absences, which have seen her head to Luhmühlen as part of the silver-medal winning British team at the European Championships, and then straight on to Burghley, where she took the top spot with stablemate MGH Grafton Street.
“It’s made it a little bit difficult, because then they come out and they’re so fresh, and they’re fit, but obviously they haven’t had me on the flat so I have to give them a bit more work than I’d like to here,” she explains.
It’s certainly been a special day for local rider Kylie Roddie, who took an early lead and finished the day in fifth with Carden Earl Grey after scoring a 27.4.
“He’s so naughty at one-day events,” she laughs, “but he’s amazing at three-days – it just doesn’t play in his favour if you can’t work him in and relax him. But secretly, you always know what they can do at home, and I’ve always known that in the big picture, the test is there. He’s just a bit opinionated, and can be a bit wild – but they’re all the things you expect from a true three-day horse. The proper ones event horses have got to be a bit edgy.”
For Kylie, who runs a busy livery and competition yard, that it all came together in the shadow of Blenheim Palace is poignant for a number of reasons – not least because the thirteen-year-old British-bred gelding, who was piloted by Nick Gauntlett until 2015, has been something of a labour of love.
“He’s a fragile horse to manage from a veterinary standpoint, and he’s had injuries that have stopped him from coming out,” she explains. “He’s actually been in my yard for quite a while – over three years now – but it was only last year that I started to compete him, because he was rehabbing.”
When the horse’s longtime owner Madelaine White had to sell the horse, a group of Kylie’s close friends stepped in to secure him for the hard-working rider, who hails from a totally unhorsey background.
“I’ve had to tell them that [horse ownership] isn’t always like this,” she laughs.
Carden Earl Grey’s debutante ownership group aren’t Kylie’s only supporters on the ground this week: “I’ve been teaching my Riding Club and Pony Club groups all week, because they’re coming for the arena eventing,” explains the rider, who holds a BHSI qualification. “That’s why the event is so special for us – it’s so nice for them to be able to come here, have a great ride, and hopefully enjoy seeing someone who helps them, too.”
Buck Davidson heads up the American efforts at this early stage with the first of his two rides, the experienced Park Trader. They sit tenth overnight on a score of 29.2, setting the second leg of Buck’s autumn UK tour off to a promising start.
“He’s so experienced now, and he’s been putting up some good scores,” says Buck, who competed at Burghley a fortnight ago with Jak My Style. “He’s not a big mover, and in his younger years he was fairly temperamental, but he knows his job now and we get along. I let him be him, and then he has to go in the ring and pay attention for five minutes, and then he can screw off. He’s my favourite and it’s a treat to have him.”
Park Trader’s mercurial nature means that Buck has had to refine his system to allow the gelding to perform at his peak.
“I would never ask him to be perfect two days in a row,” he explains. “I’m almost happy when he’s bad the day before – then he gets it out of his system! The day before, I just hack him and let him gallop, and buck, and play, and have a kick out at my leg – whatever he wants. Then I work him for about twenty minutes before the test and it works pretty well.”
Though Park Trader went to Burghley last year, Buck opted to aim him at Blenheim this season to allow his owners, the Segals, the experience of joining the fun.
“They weren’t able to go to Burghley this year, and they called me to tell me they couldn’t but if I’d like to take him I could go – but part of why I like doing this is doing it with them, so I said ‘no, we’ll do something else,'” he explains. “Then they said they’d never been to Blenheim – and I’d been here in 2008 and it got rained out after dressage, so we decided to come. Carlevo was supposed to come here last year but banged himself, so he came along too.”
Lexi Scovil and Chico’s Man VDF Z have spent a busy season with William Fox-Pitt with one big goal in mind: a trip to Blenheim. They begin their week in provisional equal seventeenth on a score of 31.7 after producing a confident, expressive test that just lost out on marks at the end when the gelding offered up a lead change in the counter canter. But for Lexi, who makes her debut at the level this week alongside her horse, his calm, professional attitude in the ring was the real victory.
“Normally he goes in and just holds his breath a little bit,” she explains. “He typically scores anyway, because he’s quite fancy and round and correct, but he went in and let me ride him today. That’s such an exciting feeling – at Blenheim! In my experience, the big events like this are the ones where it all falls apart, so for him to go in and have one mistake the whole test was unbelievable.”
Lexi credits her season in the UK with helping to revolutionise her mindset towards competing – and the results along the way are tangible.
“I rode a little bit of a safe test, because I didn’t want to risk it, so for him to still score 8s is amazing. I didn’t expect it at all. In the past, [the big ones] are where I fail,” she says. “We’d always do well at the lower levels, but then we’d go to an international and it would all fall apart a bit. But being over here, there’s such a relaxation in the preparation – there’s attention to detail, but it’s also just another day of riding. You just do the same thing you’re always doing, and there’s no need to get worked up about it. Because I’ve been like that earlier in the season and it’s been proven to work, I’ve realised that as a rider, self-confidence is so important for success. That’s all I can say that’s changed – I don’t know that I have more skills, but I’m in a different place mentally. Normally I’d go into a three-day thinking, ‘oh my god, I’m so scared, why am I doing this?!’ But now, I’m walking the course thinking, ‘I’m capable of this!’ There have been big questions at all our prep events, so we’ve been building to this.”
If the CCI4*-S level of competition is a college degree for up-and-coming top-level superstars, then Blenheim’s eight-and-nine-year-old iteration is the Ivy League – and its alumni line-up would make Harvard weep, frankly. So how good are we talking? Think five-star winning and flag-carrying good: William Fox-Pitt’s Pau winner Oslo, Mark Todd’s Badminton winner NZB Land Vision, Andrew Nicholson’s Kentucky-winning Quimbo, and Laura Collett’s Europeans ride London 52. And this year – Calling Card?
The Year of the Pig continues in fine style, as Piggy French holds onto the overnight lead with Calling Card. Owned by Jayne McGivern, also boasts ownership of the remarkably consistent Quarrycrest Echo, the debutante is quickly proving himself a star of the future.
“He’s a really beautiful horse – he’s stunning,” says Piggy. “Bar his changes, which he’s still a bit green at, he’s very impressive on the flat. He was beautiful to ride in there.”
But despite his promising early start, Piggy remains pragmatic and forward-thinking.
“He is green – this will be his first Advanced competition – and so I’ve come into the competition just really interested to see how he goes, and not really thinking that running flat out and getting the time will be what he’ll do this weekend,” she explains. “It’s more about the stepping stone. However, if he comes out of the start box and he feels really good, I am always quite competitive, so I’ll probably half have a go! But it’s a stepping stone rather than thinking this is his one to get. I really like the horse and I want to do what’s right for him at this stage in his career.”
Australia’s Sam Griffiths sits in second place aboard Freestyler, owned by Lady Rothermere of the Daily Mail empire.
“I’ve done about a season with him now – she bought him for herself to ride,” he explains. “She hadn’t had him that long and she asked me to do some events on him to get him some mileage, and it went from there.”
So will Sam have to relinquish the ride on the horse once the season ends?
“We’ll see how things go,” he says with a smile. “He’s a really good jumper, so he’s a really nice horse to have!”
We’ll be back tomorrow with the final wrap-up from the first phase – stay tuned, and Go Eventing!