Thursday Morning at Burghley: Reigning Champion Heads up Global Top Five

2019 champion Pippa Funnell takes an early lead with the first of her two rides, Billy Walk On. Photo by Libby Law.

Oh, what a beautiful morning; oh, what a beautiful day – and is there anywhere in the world we’d rather be right now than ringside at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials? We think not, particularly after an exciting morning of dressage action.

Reigning champion Pippa Funnell, who won here in 2019 aboard MGH Grafton Street, sits atop the leaderboard at this early juncture after a smart test aboard Billy Walk On. The lanky thirteen-year-old gelding, who led the first phase at last year’s Bicton ‘pop-up’ CCI5*, didn’t quite catch that week’s exceptional 23.9, but his 26.2 today does better this spring’s Badminton mark of 28.5. But for Pippa, the final score wasn’t reflective of the quality of his work in the ring.

“I was delighted with him, but if I’m honest, I’m gutted by one of the judge’s marks being five or six percent out from the other two,” she says, referring to Judy Hancock at E, who awarded her with 70.56%, in contrast to Andrew Bennie’s 76.48% at C and Katrin Eichinger-Kniely’s 74.44% at M. “That, to me, was very disappointing, because I’ve done a lot of tests over the years and I thought it was as nice a test as he’s done at this level. I think I nailed the clear round and yes, he might not be the most elegant of movers, but I absolutely felt he deserved the marks the other judges gave him.”

Coming back to Burghley to defend a title could be something of a stressful situation for a less experienced competitor, but Pippa — who became the first-ever winner of the Rolex Grand Slam when she took the final leg here in 2003 aboard Primmore’s Pride – is wholly pragmatic about the prospect.

“I don’t really feel the pressure, because it’s still got to be jumped,” she says sagely. “I’ve been in the position of going back to Badminton after winning, and when you’ve been in the game as long as I have, you realise that yes, while both horses are scopey and have plenty of ability, it’s also not been the easiest of summers. The ground’s been hard, and it’s been about trying to keep them fresh coming into here while minimising their runs. It’s a balancing act to try to get here in the best shape possible, with the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed.”

Pippa is taking on double duty this week, not just as a two-horse competitor in her own right, but as a coach and mentor: two of the riders who are currently part of the Wesko Equestrian Foundation programme that she leads are tackling their first Burghley this week and one of them, Harry Mutch, also finds himself in the top five at the halfway point of day one. That division of interests, too, is a balancing act.

“I’ve got three riders who I help here, but really, it’s not that tough, because I’ve told them all that actually, this week has to be about me, with having two horses. I’ve got to concentrate on that,” she says.

Tim Price and the experienced Bango sit equal second at the halfway point of day one. Photo by Libby Law.

First in the ring today was New Zealand’s Tim Price, who is the busiest rider of the week with three horses in this year’s field. He set an excellent standard from the get-go, though, putting a 29.8 on the board with the experienced sixteen-year-old Bango, which sees the pair sit equal second at the lunch break. Bango, who has previously finished fifth here in 2019 and tenth in 2018, is perhaps Tim’s most under-the-radar upper-level horse – but he represents part of a strong three-way bid for another crack at the Burghley title, which Tim won in 2018 with the great Ringwood Sky Boy.

Woods Baughman and C’est La Vie 135 overcome a tough journey to England to take an early second place on the leaderboard. Photo by Libby Law.

To call Woods Baughman‘s journey from the USA stressful might be the understatement of the century – “[C’est La Vie 135‘s] flight was cancelled five times, and mine was cancelled twice,” he says with a faintly traumatised laugh – but there’s no doubt that the high he’s riding right now will be working wonders to ease his pain. He sits in equal second with Tim and Bango on a 29.8 after delivering a sparkling, expressive test with his fourteen-year-old Contendro I son in their second CCI5* — and already, they’re blowing their Kentucky debut this spring out of the water.

“We did our first five-star this spring, and he got very wound up with all the atmosphere,” says Woods, who scored a 39.5 that day. “So I was a little worried about today, and it’s probably lucky that I had a morning draw for him [when it’s quieter]. He’s such a fantastic horse in the first phase that it’s a shame when he does get worked up, because he can pull in really high marks — but when he’s gone tight, he’s lucky to stay in the ring.”

Unlike Kentucky and even Badminton, where the dressage arena can feel like an oasis in an amphitheatre, Burghley’s arena is situated much closer to the grandstand, giving a fishbowl effect that can cow even the boldest of horses. But although a touch of flamboyance crept in and nearly led to a mistake, Woods was able to nurture the horse to a clear round performance.

“He was very, very good the whole way around, but I got a little excited — I started the strike off for the extended trot, and it was really good, so I asked for a bit more and he took one little step and almost broke to canter before I thought, ‘whoops, too much!’ and reined it back in,” explains the Virginia-based rider, who trains with Sharon White. “The rest was clean and good, and definitely much better than our last five-star test.”

Any moments of additional sparkle, though, were welcomed by Woods, who had to carefully manage ‘Contendro’s’ energy levels after his gruelling journey.

“He got here four days later than he was supposed to, because our flights are a little messed up right now. He’s on good form now, but it was a little bit iffy, because he was so flat — he’d travelled for three days, and I felt really bad for him. I couldn’t do much with him at all and it was like, ‘well, great — he’s not working and he’s got to compete next week!’ So I just hacked him twice a day and stretched him out and made sure he felt good while I waited for the energy to come back. And then on Sunday afternoon I let him have a little jump and he bolted with me! After that, he didn’t want to hack anymore.”

France’s Rodolphe Scherer strides into the top five with Song du Magay. Photo by Libby Law.

France’s Rodolphe Scherer got off to an exciting start in his first CCI5* since 2016, when he finished sixteenth here with former championship mount Makara de Montiege. This time around, his ride is the oversized Song du Magay, who competed up to five-star with Rodolphe’s student, South African Olympian Victoria Scott-Legendre, before Rodolphe took the reins in late 2020.

Their 30.4, which puts them in provisional fourth, doesn’t come as a huge surprise after the gelding posted a sub-30 score in his final prep run, but what was particularly interesting was his warm-up: rather than schooling any of the movements in the test or riding in a competition outline, Rodolphe instead trotted the gelding around the outside of the warm-up arena with one hand on the buckle of the reins, letting him stretch his nose down to the ground and stretch over his back. That focus on relaxation was evident as the pair entered the competition arena.

“He’s a good horse with a nice head — he’s very relaxed,” says Rodolphe, who was recently appointed as cross-country trainer for the German team. “It was a little bit of a disappointing intro, though, because I think in the second 10m circle he just touched himself for a moment, and then he had one or two irregular strides, so I lost some points there — but then he did very, very well in the canter.”

A 30.4 puts him in an excellent position to plan for a climb on Saturday, though, and Rodolphe thinks Derek di Grazia’s new look Burghley track will play to his horse’s strengths.

“He’s a cross-country machine,” he says, “and this is a tough course. The beginning is twisty, with many combinations. It’s very tough; the rest of the course is tough, too, but in the beginning, there are so many combinations manifesting so closely that it’s almost like a short-format in its intensity. After that, if you don’t lose too much energy there, you can go into sixth gear.”

Harry Mutch and HD Bronze deliver the personal best in the ring at Burghley. Photo by Libby Law.

25-year-old Harry Mutch rounds out the top five at the lunch break after delivering one of his best-ever tests — and his five-star personal best — with stalwart partner HD Bronze, earning a 30.8. Their recent ascent into the business end of the leaderboard in this phase comes as the result of months spent training with Pippa Funnell as part of the Wesko Equestrian Foundation — a mentorship that’s gone so well that Harry has temporarily relocated from Newcastle to the Funnells’ Surrey base.

“The canter work is probably the best he’s ever given me,” says Harry, who used to lose marks in his canter centrelines when the previously weak, lanky gelding would throw in lead changes — an issue that’s been well and truly nixed after rebuilding the foundations with Pippa. “The trot work got a little bit stuck, so I was a bit like, ‘come on, please pick up again!’, but he just kept it together and was fantastic. I’m thrilled with him.”

Though two pandemic seasons were hardly ideal for horses at this level, Harry, who only began riding at the age of thirteen and made it to Badminton at 21, used the situation to his advantage.

“That sort of put us on hold for two years, but he’s actually matured so much in that time,” he says. “So for me, it wasn’t all that bad! He’s come out of it a much better horse.”

Cornelia Dorr delivers a masterclass in tactful riding with Daytona Beach 8. Photo by Libby Law.

Our second US competitor of the morning, Cornelia Dorr, knew she’d have a job on her hands in this phase: her expressive mare Daytona Beach 8, who, like her rider, makes her five-star debut this week, is notoriously hot and tricky between the boards, despite her abundance of talent. But although their final score of 39 keeps them out of the hunt for now, the work that the former Sandra Auffarth mount delivered in the ring was actually peppered with some of her nicest moments so far this season.

“I’m really happy with her — she tried really hard to stay with me and listen to me,” says Cornelia, who temporarily relocated to England in January to base with Australia’s Kevin and Emma McNab. “Kevin’s helped me get her so much better in the contact, and I can actually put my leg on and ride her now, and she finds comfort in it. That’s been a really big step. It’s pretty ballsy, but I actually just get on her like, ten minutes before my tests and saunter in, because we’ve learned that she has a time limit — after that, she’s like a cat on hot bricks! But today, she kept a lid on it until the crowd clapped at the end, so I couldn’t really ask much more from her. She runs on adrenaline, but she did a really good job.”

For Cornelia, even just riding into the main arena here is a huge milestone. “It’s pretty surreal, and I think I got a little emotional for a second when they rang the bell,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘wow, this is pretty cool!’ I’m just so happy to be here — and with this horse, what makes her difficult in the dressage ring is what makes her amazing out on cross-country.”

We’ll be back this afternoon with a full report from the second session of dressage. Until then: Go Eventing!

The top five at the Thursday lunch break at Burghley.

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