Tight at the Top: Thoresby Reigning Titleholder and World Champion Go Head to Head

Emily King and Valmy Biats return to defend their title. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

At the close of today’s competition at Thoresby’s Eventing Spring Carnival, which is in the North of England no matter how much anyone tries to convince us otherwise, a whopping 97 CCI4*-S competitors across the two sections at this level had produced their dressage tests in the walled garden. That is, no matter how you spin it, quite a lot of dressage. And while the walled garden does provide some sound and atmosphere buffer from the rest of the capacious estate, there was no escaping the faint and familiar noises of tannoys, whistles, and studded hooves pounding across – or perhaps through, in some places – the ground outside as cross-country unfurled through some of the other classes on the stacked roster of offerings here.

That meant, ultimately, that the first phase of the enormously star-studded Grantham Cup CCI4*-S – a class that’s effectively a feeder for Badminton, Kentucky, and, a bit further on, the Olympics – mostly came down to who could behave themselves the longest.

And so, as we head into tomorrow’s jumping and cross-country phases, we do so with a dynamic two-way tie for the top spot. Reigning World Champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir surprised absolutely nobody when they came into the arena this morning and delivered a 23.2, taking the lead away from overnight frontrunners Ros Canter and Izilot DHI – but as we inched closer to the end of the day, it all got rather tight at the top. Last year’s Grantham Cup winners, Emily King and Valmy Biats, made a compelling start to their bid to retain their title, equalling Yas’s 23.2 in what is the 15-year-old Selle Français’s best-ever international dressage score

“He was awesome – he was a really, really good boy and so calm,” says Emily, who betters her score from last year by over 3.5 marks – even with one tiny mistake. “He had a little jig-jog in his walk, but apart from that, he was a really good boy, so I’m dead pleased with him.”

One of Valmy’s great assets, which served him so well in last year’s tough conditions, is that he’s kept out at Emily’s Cheshire yard, which she shares with partner Sam Ecroyd. That gives him a not insignificant amount of innate ability to cope with variable footing – and while we’ve had a bit more sun over the last 24 hours than we saw last year, the weeks of bucketing rain in the lead-up have meant that once again, everyone’s had to work just a touch harder than they would have otherwise.

“He’s a really sensitive horse, and he really loves being out in the field. Even if it’s snowing or it’s sideways rain, if he has loads of rugs on, no matter what, he’s always happier being out,” laughs Emily. “I don’t take too many pictures of him out in the field, because you wouldn’t believe he enjoys it so much – it’s pretty rural! But if he comes in he weaves around. I do think there’s a benefit as well in that he gets used to the going. We gallop on grass at home, and even when it’s a bit deeper, he’ll still gallop on it, just a bit slower. So he’s accustomed and acclimatised to deeper going, which hopefully puts him in a bit of better stead when he has to perform in it at a show.”

Today, with last year in mind, Emily planned a conservative preparation for her test in order to allow Valmy to grow in confidence in the ring.

“I tried not to do too much in the warm-up as it’s quite deep but actually, in the arena the going is beautiful, so I didn’t want to put him off trusting me to move him forward. I’m glad I did that, because then I went in and I was able to really go for it and he was trusting. Last year it was a fine line between going for it and them losing their balance, because it was that much deeper.”

Emily King and Valmy Biats. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Now, she’s looking forward to another crack at Stuart Buntine’s tough course, which features several exciting new complexes, including two banks that haven’t previously featured.

“It looks really good out there,” says Emily. “It’s a similar sort of path, but with a few quite different questions [to last year]. There’s a few combinations that are similar to last year, and then a few that are quite different – there’s a new bank complex that’s pretty interesting! We’ve got a good few places to really open them up and test their fitness, because this is a prep run, in the grand scheme of things, for Badminton. He’s a strong horse, so I like practising galloping on and then settling him back, and we’ve got a few good places to do that here, as well as the more intense sections. I’m going to try to be competitive, but also use it as a great schooling run for Badminton.”

For Emily and Valmy, all eyes are on the UK’s spring five-star – but for Yas and Banzai, this is a stepping stone en route to a third visit to next month’s Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event.

“He was very good today – obedient, calm, attentive, and ticked all the boxes for me today,” she says. “He had some super work, and there were some big highlights in the test, so I think that’s a great starting point to go into the jumping tomorrow. Kentucky is the plan, depending on having a good run here at the weekend!”

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The hot favourite to lead today’s dressage would, no doubt, have been Laura Collett and London 52, who so love to flirt with the 20 barrier – but, laughs Laura, “he was pretty feral this morning when I tried to ride him, so I’m just glad he didn’t completely disgrace himself!”

‘Dan’, who’s on three five-star wins from three attempts and has grown into the consummate unapologetic showman over the last few years, was so delighted to be back at a party that he picked up an uncharacteristic mistake, breaking in the half-pass to lose valuable marks. But even with that blip, the pair sit pretty on a very competitive 23.9, putting them into third place as we head into jumping.

“I guess you feel a little disappointed when you know things don’t feel quite as good as they can be, but I also know he’s not at his best in the mud,” says Laura pragmatically. “He’s always offended at not being on a surface, and holds a little bit back for himself. But he’s pleased to be out, and the sun is shining, so fingers crossed it stays!”

Unlike the two horse-and-rider combinations ahead of her, Laura’s spring plan with London 52 doesn’t involve a five-star run – instead, her focus is on maintaining his good form and fitness with a view to straightforward selection for the Paris Olympics, sans heroics.

“It’s going to be a hard call, but he’s feeling good and it’s all about going out and getting the show on the road,” she says. And as far as Thoresby goes? “We pray the sun keeps shining,” she laughs. “They’ve built a really good cross-country course here and fingers crossed it rides well.  It’s going to be an educational and challenging run, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

 Laura, too, has her eyes on the new bank complex at 11ABC as a significant part of the course’s tests.

“The first real challenge are the corners [at 9ABC] — they’re big old corners and there’s three of them, so I think it’s going to be really important to get the line right through there because of the back rails. They’ve been very clever; if you try and shut down a run-out then you make it a very wide question for them, so I think that’s the first real question. Then the other one is the new bank complex — a trailer bank, down to a very big skinny down the hill after a bounce step up.  I think that’s a really good test for the horses.”

Ros Canter now sits fourth on yesterday’s leader, 2023 Pau champion Izilot DHI, on a 25.6, while her reigning Badminton and European Champion Lordships Graffalo slotted into fifth at the tail end of the day on a 25.9.

“I was pleased with him, really, but he was quite hot to trot when he came down here and heard the tannoy going on from the cross-country,” laughs Ros. “Definitely, over the last few weeks, he’s been telling me at home that he’s ready for a good pipe-opener, so he was maybe a bit hot in there! There was a bit of sneezing, a bit of anticipating, and the walk was questionable — but he feels amazing. I can’t ask for more, really; it’s only the start of the season and I’d rather him fresh than lazy at this time of year.”

Lordships Graffalo won’t return to Badminton to try to retain his title – like London 52 before him, he’s being maintained in favour of a – hopefully – straightforward bid at a berth on the British team for Paris.

“I’ve only got Izilot DHI aiming for an early five-star at the moment; Lordships Graffalo’s not going to do a big one this spring, which he’ll be very disappointed about. After today he does feel like he could maybe do with a run around Badminton!”

Gemma Stevens will go into the jumping phases on her Badminton-bound Jalapeno, who finished in the top ten at the five-star last year, in sixth place on a 26.4 – a test that she was pleased with despite battling slightly with the going.

“I’m seriously questioning my life choices,” she jokes, “but I’m really pleased with that test. There’s only so much you can do when it’s a bit slippy and boggy.”

Comeback queen Jala, who Gemma spent the better part of two years meticulously rehabilitating from an injury sustained in 2019, is joined by stablemate Chilli Knight, who returns for his first bid at a five-star season since he won the one-off Bicton CCI5* in 2021.

“He’s busting for a run – he’s been a little out of control,” she laughs. “He’s usually furious with me if I make him go at anything other than a hundred miles an hour! But he does need to get a qualifying result here for Badminton.”

His rehab process, she explains, has been very similar to Jalapeno’s, and both horses have benefited from plenty of time spent hacking on the hills of the South Downs to build strength on long, slow rides rather than over-relying on gallop sets.

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Gemma and Jala are followed in overnight seventh place by individual European silver medallists and team gold medallists Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, on a score of 27, and in eighth place by New Zealand’s Tim Price and his Tokyo mount Vitali, who posted a 27.2.

Tim Price and Vitali. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“Vitali feels like the fitness is starting to come on board for his preparation towards Badminton,” says Tim, who also sits tenth on a 27.8 with his 2022 Boekelo winner, Happy Boy. “[Vitali] went in there and tried really hard for me. He’s just a little diddy thing, so to go in after Laura and London 52 — that’s always quite difficult! My wee guy in the deeper going just finds it a bit difficult to be as flamboyant as he can be.”

Badminton-bound Vitali, whose last four FEI runs have been four top-ten finishes at five-star, will, Tim hopes, benefit from the pipe-opener that this weekend will offer him – something he felt was missing ahead of his Burghley run last year, in which he finished fourth after leading the first two phases.

“For Vitali, I think he needs to work a bit hard,” he says. “His prep into Burghley last year was probably lacking one good proper run, with Gatcombe cancelled, and we paid for that with some time faults, so I’m hoping that this year I can push him along a bit and make him work a bit. I’m sure there’s a proper cross-country test put to us out there and lots of jobs to do.”

Pippa Funnell and Billy Walk On. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pippa Funnell will go into tomorrow’s jumping in ninth place, having posted a 27.4 with the charismatic Billy Walk On, who will, all being well, aim for a run at Luhmühlen’s CCI5* in June.

“He got a bit stuck in the mud on the first corner, got his feet in a muddle and popped into canter, and then I couldn’t get him back to trot — so that spoilt the whole first shoulder-in movement,” she says, “but other than that he did a good solid test and was a good boy.”

The secondary CCI4*-S section, for lesser-pointed horses, is led going into jumping by Wesko Equestrian Foundation beneficiary Saffron Cresswell, who posted a 28.5 with Vivendi Hero.

“I was really, really pleased with Louis’s test today,” she says. “Obviously at only nine years old he’s still new to the level, so I’m delighted with him; he tried really hard in there.  The ground was testing, particularly in the warm-up,  but it was actually much better in the ring, and I just tried to utilise the warm-up ground to prepare for the test.”

Showjumping will begin at 8:30 (ish, anyway – we’re currently awaiting updated times!) tomorrow morning, with cross-country following on from 12.00 p.m. You can follow all the action live on Horse&Country TV, and tune back in to EN tomorrow evening for a thorough unpacking of everything that happened – and what it might mean for the season to come! Until then: Go Eventing.

The top ten at the conclusion of dressage in Thoresby’s Grantham Cup CCI4*-S.

The Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby: Website | Live Scores | Live Stream | EN’s Coverage

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