Thursday at Burghley: A Bad Boy Comes Good, Townend Maintains Lead

Sarah Bullimore and Reve du Rouet live up to their potential, narrowly missing out on the lead. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Missed the morning report? You can find it here! As the first day of dressage recommenced after the lunch break, it was set to be an afternoon chock-full of change at the top — but for all that, nobody could catch this morning’s leaders, Oliver Townend and MHS King Joules. It’s a pretty exceptional result when the first rider in the ring manages to set such an impressive precedent — what should make his fellow competitors quake in their boots is the fact that his two best horses are yet to come.

One combination did come achingly close — fellow British rider Sarah Bullimore delivered a stunning 27.3 test with the Jekyll and Hyde Reve du Rouet, besting their personal best of 28.5, posted at Pau last year, where they finished second. Reve du Rouet has been an emotional rollercoaster personified, flitting wildly between offering Sarah the chance at top-flight results and practically removing her, at force, from the arena.

“It’s a genuine fear of the crowds and it all does get a bit too much for him, and then every little noise or movement becomes an excuse to react,” she explained, reflecting on the horse’s unfortunate tendency to bolt in the dressage ring. “He can bolt, or he can drop you, and then you ask him to go and there’s nothing there – he holds his breath, and it’s like kicking a balloon. But it’s been a while since we had a bolting incident, and I hope we’re past that now.”

Sarah Bullimore and the “unbelievably talented” Reve du Rouet. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Today’s supple, fluid-looking test didn’t come by chance — instead, it was the result of many years spent playing the long game and tailoring the horse’s training to work with his tempestuous temperament.

“He’s incredibly difficult to train. The more you ask him not to do something, the more likely he is to do it, and so we’ve had to be very sneaky about it, and make it so that he doesn’t realise he’s being trained.”

For Sarah, this includes plenty of creative hacking — she half-passes across bridleways, practices her flying changes while cantering across fields, and melds fitness with finesse.

“I needed him to believe he was still in a field when we went into the arena today,” she joked. It obviously worked: the Reve du Rouet we saw today looked a different horse from the one we’ve seen in years past, and if Pau is any indicator, this could be the start of a very exciting week for the Bullimore Eventing team.

“I’m over the moon with him. He was on side and he delivered, even when the crowd clapped at the end. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to relax on him, because he can change in a second, but he’s unbelievably talented. It’s great to be in this position — you can look at it as added pressure, but I think you can go off the boil if you’re not in contention.”

Harry Meade and Away Cruising use their dance moves for good, finishing the first day of competition in third place. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

After Away Cruising‘s antics in the first horse inspection, the assembled crowd watched with bated breath to see if he’d be able to keep a lid on his excitement in his test. He did, and in fine style — he and rider Harry Meade produced a personal best of 29.5 to move into third position overnight.

“I was delighted with him — I’ve felt all season that he’s been on the path to a really good test,” said Harry. “My focus with all of my horses is to produce them through their careers with the big four-stars in mind, and I’ve had this one since he was a four-year-old, so he really demonstrates that progression. He’s changed a lot in the past few years — he’s gone from a flat, long mover to being much rounder. We had to spend a lot of time analysing his biomechanics and figuring out how to train him. He’s got a slightly weak, diesel engine, and so I’ve had to make him into a snappy pony type, within the limits of his conformation.”

Harry was a vocal fan of last year’s course design, but even though we’re seeing an almost entirely new-look course this year, he’s looking forward to tackling it on Saturday.

“I’m amazed at how different it is from last year, which was brilliant. Usually when they create a brilliant course, they’ll stick with it for a few years, but this year, Captain Mark Phillips has built a whole new brilliant course. One of the wonderful things about eventing is that you’re not really competing against one another — you’re all cumulatively competing against the course and the conditions.”

He paused, then flashed an enormous grin: “The hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I drive through the gates. I love this place.”

Piggy French and Vanir Kamira: last year’s bridesmaids, looking to become this year’s brides. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

One of the hot favourites to post a competitive test were last year’s runners-up Piggy French and Vanir Kamira, and they did exactly that, delivering a 29.9. While not their best result at this level, it was enough to put them into fourth place overnight.

“It was okay, and I’m pretty pleased with it on the whole,” said Piggy of her test. “It definitely wasn’t a personal best, but I haven’t felt as though I’ve really had her all week. She’s a very sensitive, blood mare, and she wouldn’t be a natural in this phase — there’s a fine line to tread with her; she can be hot and bubbly. But it’s not a dressage competition, and to be competitive and in the twenties is enough.”

Piggy’s outlook is always to keep moving forward, and despite feeling as though they could have earned more today, she’s doing just that.

“Now, we forget about the dressage and move onto thinking about the cross country. The course is exactly what you expect from Burghley — the time will be hard, so we just have to try to stay between the flags and keep kicking on.”

Georgie Spence and Wii Limbo. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Georgie Spence and Wii Limbo rounded out the British top five on 30.4, but were another of the combinations to fall victim to an error of course. Frustratingly, they would have been third without the mistake, which saw them bypass the much-maligned stretchy canter circle. Without this error, they would also have beaten their personal best — a 28.9, posted at Badminton earlier this year.

“He was awesome; I just forgot the bloody circle,” laughed an exasperated Georgie. “The stupid thing is we’ve practiced that movement so much, because he’s a horse who doesn’t really like to stretch.”

Despite this, Georgie was thrilled with her long-time partner’s performance between the boards.

“He’s a super special horse, and it’s taken me twelve years to learn to ride him. On cross country he’s a complete machine, and the only person who can let the side down is me. Hopefully we’ll stay in the top ten or fifteen after the dressage — although we all know the marks tend to be better on Friday afternoon, so I’ll have to hope the judges stick to their guns.”

Polly Stockton and Mister Maccondy. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Polly Stockton made a positive impression in her first Burghley in six years, cruising to a 31.9 and seventh place with the former Ruth Edge ride Mister Maccondy. Polly, who finished second here to Oliver Townend in 2009, was thrilled to return to her happy hunting ground of old.

“I’m chuffed to bits. He can blow up easily, and all those flying changes can really muddle him up. We didn’t quite get the last two, but we survived!”

Mister Maccondy hasn’t been aimed at a CCI since Ballindenisk last spring, but Polly has been using the time to solidify his performance around CIC tracks.

“We’ve tried not to overrun him this year in the lead-up to Burghley. We won’t know if he’s a four-star horse until Saturday — he’s a bold horse, but he can be a bit greedy with his distances. I must say, I’m pleasantly surprised by seeing the course in person. I watched the video preview and scared myself stupid!”

Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 fly the stars and stripes for 25th place. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 were the first of our three North American combinations to take to the dressage arena, scoring 36.6 to sit in 25th overnight. This is a four-star personal best for the pair, who scored 37.9 here last year.

“That was pretty good; I’m happy with it, although the test wasn’t as good as the warm-up or the work we’ve done in lessons,” said Andrea. “But I’ve been able to produce a lot of what we’ve been working on. She’s a funny Thoroughbred — she’s almost too relaxed now that she’s older. It’s like she saves her energy for later on.”

Andrea and Indy 500’s Burghley debut ended early last year, when they took a tumble at an innocuous fence early on in the course.

“I think I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing — we’d done Kentucky, but if that’s a four-star, then Burghley is a six-star! It’s just so much bigger. She was amazing last year, and then we fell over this stupid, small log in the corner — so this year, I’m here to finish what I started.”

The new-look course appeals to Andrea: “my horse’s weakness is right corners, and there were about seven of them last year, so I wasn’t impressed! This year looks much better. It’ll definitely be a fitness challenge — she comes from California, so we don’t have many hills, but we’re building on a good Thoroughbred base.”

Andrea and Indy 500 have been partnered with Oliver Townend and his reigning champion Ballaghmor Class in the Peden Bloodstock pairs challenge, which teams up the top fifteen British riders with the top fifteen ‘rest of the world’ riders, offering an additional cash prize depending on their combined results. Not a bad partner to have, all things considered.

President of the Ground Jury Angela Tucker. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The evening’s press conference featured guest appearances by president of the ground jury Angela Tucker, as well as Team GB performance manager Dickie Waygood, who appeared on behalf of Oliver Townend, busy doing arena familiarisation with his two rides yet to come.

Of the overall standard of dressage, Angela had plenty of positive observations.

“They were mostly really good; there are always some first-timers, or horses who find that phase more difficult, but on the whole, you see riders working very hard to get it right. Harry [Meade]’s horse is a perfect example of that. Some of the riders don’t like the stretching circle in the new test, but I like it — it’s what you would do in training.”

When queried about the plethora of navigational errors in tests across the board today, Angela admitted that she nearly made an error of her own early in the day: “I was so busy judging Mark Todd’s changes that it took me a while to realise he’d missed the circle, so I rang the bell rather late. Then, as he was heading up the final centreline, I was so busy thinking about how I’d apologise for ringing the bell late, that I was late to spot that he’d halted in the wrong place!”

Dickie Waygood praised the quality of today’s judging, pointing out that, perusing the scores, you could see synchronicity and unity across the board, with very few of the wide discrepancies we’ve seen elsewhere.

“The ground jury have a massive task, and they put their heads on the chopping block for criticism,” he said. “But today the judging has been fantastic. The scores are very, very close.”

Inevitably, with a chef d’equipe on the panel for questioning, someone was going to ask about Oliver Townend’s exclusion from the WEG team. But Dickie remained tight-lipped, instead praising the rider’s performance that morning.

“He did an amazing job — he’s so cool and professional under pressure. It looked so much more elastic than it has done, and Oliver was over the moon — you could tell he wanted to give the horse a hug as he finished the test,” he said. “I’m not a selector, and the selection process is confidential, but I know that Oliver is very disappointed but will be supporting the team.”

The second day of dressage begins tomorrow at 9.30am BST/4.30am EST, and you can follow along with all the action on Burghley’s livestream, which can be accessed through the event’s website or Facebook page. Sneaking in a viewing session at work? Here are the tests you won’t want to miss:

  • 9.54am BST/4.54am EST: Oliver Townend and Cooley SRS
  • 10.02am BST/5.02am EST: Tina Cook and Star Witness
  • 11.02am BST/6.02am EST: Alex Bragg and Zagreb
  • 11.34am BST/6.34am EST: Andreas Dibowski and FRH Butts Avedon
  • 3.04pm BST/10.04am EST: Mark Todd and Kiltubrid Rhapsody
  • 3.59pm BST/10.59am EST: Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy
  • 4.15pm BST/11.15am EST: Andrew Nicholson and Swallow Springs
  • 4.31pm BST/11.31am EST: Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class

The top ten after day one of dressage at Burghley. Those stars denote errors of course – and believe us when we say there were more than just those in the top ten!

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