When the entry list for Badminton came out so many moons ago, there was a surprise on it: Oliver Townend had put forward four of his horses, and one of them was the rogue contender Cillnabradden Evo. Gary, as he’s known at home, is a horse whose career peaks and troughs, if diagrammed, would probably closely resemble his rider’s heart rate when he runs him across the country. On his day, Sally-Anne Egginton’s thirteen-year-old gelding (S. Creevagh Ferro x Willow Garden) is just about unbeatable. He’s earned himself a remarkable record in CCI4*-S (formerly CIC3*) competitions, partly because he’s so capable of delivering an eye-wateringly good dressage test. Then, he can back it up – usually – across the country, and he’s an out-and-out showjumper at short format. But in long format competitions, or at the five-star level? He’s a bit of an unknown quantity. His first long-format competition since 2016 came last season, when he made his five-star debut at Pau – after taking an easy lead in the first phase, he stormed around three quarters of the course before leaving a leg and, ultimately, leaving Oliver on the ground.
So was it a surprise that Oliver brought him here? Sure – no one, after all, would have questioned Oliver’s judgment if he’d decided to keep the horse as a CCI4*-S specialist. But just as Cillnabradden Evo is an all-or-nothing horse, Oliver Townend is an all-or-nothing rider. He doesn’t come to play – he comes to win. This week, he’s willing to take his chances and rely on both his undeniable experience and the valuable information he picked up at Pau to make it happen.
What happens next is much less of a surprise. In this sport, we often talk about Thursday morning as being a bit of a tough slot – yes, it’s a bit quieter in the ring, which can be a bonus for an inexperienced or tense horse, but many consider the scoring in the first session to be a bit stuffier and a bit less generous than in the prime-time Friday afternoon slot. To lead here, you have to fire on all cylinders. And that’s just what Oliver Townend and Cillnabradden Evo did.
Their score of 19.7 isn’t just a five-star personal best for the horse. It isn’t just a five-star personal best for the rider. It is, in fact, the best dressage score ever recorded at Badminton, nearly a full mark ahead of the 20.5 delivered by Andrew Hoy and Darien Powers in 2000.
“We’ve had him a while, and so I know him inside-out,” said a typically stoic Oliver after the remarkable test. “Everyone has a lot to say about him, but so far, so good! I went to bed thinking 19 last night; it’s a lot of shit and hard work to get there, but now we just hope that he stays on his feet in the next bit.”
Despite having been out of the country for a week to win a certain competition in Kentucky, Oliver has quiet confidence in the way the horse has been managed and prepared for the biggest competition of his life. Ironically, he tells us with a laugh, “there’s been no prep at all – we’ve just been to the gallops a few times. He does it all himself.”
Time and time again, we’ve seen Oliver display his knack for creating champions out of the most unlikely of horses – in Gary he has, perhaps, the most stark duality between freakish ability and sporadic heartbreak. But if Badminton comes down to trying to win each moment, then he’s off to a flying start.
No one quite entered the same stratosphere as Oliver this morning, but we saw some very good performances across the leaderboard. Sitting in second place currently is Australia’s Chris Burton, who put a 27.7 on the board with his first ride Graf Liberty. This horse, too, has made waves in previous years at this event – he posted a 21.9 here in 2017, which was the best score we’d seen in a decade and a half. A slightly muddled flying change pushed their score down slightly today.
“It wasn’t quite the fireworks of two years ago, but I wasn’t disappointed with him,” said Chris. “I thought I was punching for between 25 and 30, but to be honest, he never finds the flying changes easy, and the only time I ever sit on his back is when we’re in the ring. I’m in a light seat all the time otherwise.”
Graf Liberty joins Cillnabradden Evo in being a less-than-straightforward sort: “he’s a nightmare, he makes my life hell!” Chris laughed. “The only time he seems to behave is in the ring – but he’s a character, and we love him.”
William Fox-Pitt currently sits in third place with the ten-year-old Little Fire who, like Cillnabradden Evo, made a late mistake in an otherwise impressive five-star debut at Pau last season. Today, he bettered the 30.5 he scored there by serving up a pleasant test with some green wobbles for 29.2, setting a high bar for stablemate Oratorio II.
“I was actually very pleased with him; he’s a smart horse and can do a much better mark,” said William, who is the last British rider to win here. “He coped really well with the atmosphere. I think the course is fair for him, and he’s ready for it. Because it’s the whole Badminton deal, isn’t it – yes, it’s a big course, but there’s also the crowds; there’s all the razzmatazz.”
It was a vintage morning for eventing fans, who started their day with the special treat of watching our first-ever Grand Slam winner take to the centreline. Pippa Funnell is a formidable first-phase competitor in her own right, but her trailblazer horse, Majas Hope, historically finds dressage tricky. Today, however, he performed under pressure, earning a 31 – and an emotional Pippa was quick to praise his efforts.
“I said to the owner that this is the first time we can guarantee the horse goes into the lead,” she laughed. “Of course I’m emotional – it’s only once you’re out that you realise how much it means. It’s not only about winning; I get just as much of a buzz from producing them. You put years into them. Dressage, to him, is like academics was to me at school – he doesn’t like it, but he’s had to learn to tolerate it.”
In equal fourth with Pippa is fellow Brit Izzy Taylor, who brought forward Call Me Maggie May. The twelve-year-old mare made her five-star debut at Pau last year, where she finished eleventh, but today’s score shaved over six marks off her Pau score and showed another level of consistency and maturity.
“It was a very good test for Maggie and where she is – it’s probably the best she could be, and that’s all you can hope for,” said Izzy.
Emily King and Dargun posted a 31.6 to hold sixth provisionally in Emily’s second appearance at the venue. Behind them is Sweden’s Louise Romeike, a Badminton debutante and the daughter-in-law of German gold medallist Heinrich Romeike. She and Wieloch’s Utah Sun put a 32.1 on the board for seventh. An emotional Simon Grieve overcame Drumbilla Metro‘s difficulties in this phase for a 34 and eighth: “everyone goes on about doing a clear round in the dressage, and I did, I think – or he did!”
Ninth place is held by Tom Crisp and the first of his two rides this week, the seventeen-year-old Coolys Luxury, with whom he won the Laurence Rook trophy last year. Despite his experience, Cooly was one of several horses to tighten slightly in response to the incredible atmosphere in the arena, though he still produced an accurate, pleasant test for 34.2.
“They really do go in there and seem to tighten up, but I did my best to manage it positively,” said Tom. “I wasn’t able to really push for the big marks, and I do think that sometimes, when they’ve been here before, they know what it’s all about. Enthusiasm takes over and they seem to say, ‘okay, just leave me to it!'”
Tenth place is currently held by Nicola Wilson‘s Bulana, who scored a 34.3 after two expensive breaks in the canter work.
“She’s normally very feisty, so I’ve been working her hard this week to keep her quiet in her brain – but she ended up being quite hard work the other way in there!” laughed Nicola. “All week we’ve been struggling with the canter to trot transitions, so I’ve been practicing them a lot, and we ended up with a few too many in there. But there were some quality bits.”
He may not feature in the top ten, but Ben Hobday was one of the crowd favourites this morning, drawing in a throng of supporters along the fence line of the mixed zone. He returns this year not on his ‘V8 Super Cob’ Mulrys Error, but on a horse cut from similar cloth – his ride, Harelaw Wizard, is also part Clydesdale.
“People think I’m sponsored by Budweiser, riding all these Clydesdales,” he joked – and that was the last we saw of him as he was pulled into the throng. If anyone’s in there with him, do let us know if he needs us to send help.
We’ll be back this afternoon with a full report of the second session of dressage – in the meantime, Go Eventing!
The 2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials is brought to you in partnership with the team at Voltaire Design United Kingdom. Going to Badminton? Head to Voltaire Design on Stand 253 on Somerset Way and meet the team of Sports Saddle Specialists, arrange a free, totally no-obligation fitting for you and your horse, or indulge in the Deal of the Day. Put a deposit on a new saddle during the event, and you’ll receive a matching girth, stirrup leathers, and saddlepad – free! Looking for a bargain? Head to Voltaire Design’s sister stand, EquiTack, to check out their premium pre-loved saddles at rock-bottom prices.