In classic Burghley fashion, cross-country day has been a day of major changes, colossal climbs — and no shortage of surprises. Just four of our top ten after dressage remain in the hunt after cross-country, though no one could quite have predicted the variety of ways in which major contenders fell by the wayside: second-placed Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs retired at the Dairy Mound (20ABC) after effectively landing in the huge oxer at A; fourth-placed Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser also pulled up, though just before fence 12, the Waterloo Rails, after the horse took some lame steps. Fifth-placed Ros Canter and Pencos Crown Jewel saw their day end at the Dairy Mound when the newly-crowned European Champion took a shock tumble at the second element, the first of the skinny triple bars, and tenth-placed Emily King and Valmy Biats dropped down to 29th after a topsy-turvy round full of enormously classy moments but also no shortage of rotten luck, which saw them activate a pin at those Waterloo Rails — “I don’t think you’re meant to miss at a five-star fence,” she jokes, wryly — and then get their stud girth caught on the fence. They steadily navigated the rest of the course battling a shifted girth, a lost whip, and a bad chest infection (for Emily, not, crucially, Valmy), and so finished in fine style but with a sensible 30.8 time penalties as well as those 11 frangible penalties.
But where there were high-profile disappointments (who, for example, could have guessed that Oliver’s first ride of the day, with Tregilder, would end because of a snapped rein, or that hugely experienced trailblazers Harry Meade and Away Cruising would pick up their first 20 in six years?), there were also countless of the kind of stories that make this event so special, and so unique. Take, for example, the 33- and 23-place climbs executed by Scotland’s Wills Oakden, who rocketed into the top ten on both rides as a result of his swift, capable riding; see also the lifts from 37th and 26th to 13th and 14th, respectively, by Alice Casburn and Topspin and Tom Crisp and Liberty and Glory after masterclass efforts. We’ve seen first-timers — horses and riders alike — excel: take British-based US representative Grace Taylor and Game Changer, for example, who might have dropped out of the top ten into 16th with their 17.6 time penalties, but still looked as though they’d walked the course together while tackling their step up, or Wesko Equestrian Foundation beneficiaries Emma Thomas and Icarus, who kept on digging deep and romped home to sit just outside the top twenty with a 25-place climb.
And then there was our overnight leader, who left the startbox late in the day with an enviable margin, thanks to the remarkable 18.7 he’d put on the board yesterday, setting a venue record, a five-star record, and a personal international record all in one go. As it turned out, New Zealand’s Tim Price and Vitali would need it; they added 8 time penalties during their round, allowing them to maintain their grasp on first place — thanks, in part, to disasters that befell many of their nearest competitors — but taking away any hope of a rail in hand for tomorrow’s finale, too.
That eight time penalties — that’s twenty seconds — came as something of a surprise, both to spectators and to Tim, too: the 13-year-old Holsteiner hasn’t yet made the time at five-star, but he’s come close to it. But, Tim explains, today he had a rather different feeling underneath him than he’s used to.
“He was just not taking me from the start for whatever reason — horses aren’t machines,” he reasons. “He still had a desire to go, but just not the same speed as what I’ve had with him in the past, so you’ve just got to ride with what’s beneath you. His jump stayed good, and the action was good all the way home. It was just a matter of just trying to just eke a little bit more out of him. For him, he’s such an internaliser. I’ve said before, I think it did him some good at some stages, to take a breath and relax and then get into a good wind kind of mode. He just stayed a little bit held, but I’m really proud of him, he just kept coming. At one point, I thought it was a long way to home, but he kept trying and we got there.”
The pair looked classy around the course, but for one nearly moment at the Irish Bank at 17A, when the gelding came close to tripping himself up while touching down atop the obstacle.
“I just wish I didn’t see that distance,” says Tim. “I was just trying to be cheeky under the tree and took my eye off the distanace and I had to sort of hook it out of the ground. And then I thought, ‘you’ve asked for trouble now’. Anyway, we got away with it, and the rest really was just a tough day in the office around a five-star really.”
One of the highlights of the round came at the Holland Cooper Leaf Pit at 7ABCD, where Vitali locked on and attacked the colossal final elements of the question, which was ultimately the most influential of the day with 15 combinations picking up penalties, despite most riders assessing it as an easier iteration of the complex than in previous years.
“That’s what makes him the horse that he is cross country,” Tim explains. ‘He switches on when it’s really important to, and he responds to my questions when he needs to. Not just for staying inside the flags, but for safety and for all these other things that we have to deal with all the way round the course. But we’ve had lovelier rounds; Badminton in the mud was really smooth and it was, I think, one of my most favourite rounds of my career. But with horses being horses, you can’t expect that every time, and every day is different. It’s become quite warm this afternoon, whether it’s that or whether it’s just the side of the bed he got out on, he just wasn’t taking me today like he can do.”
Now, the pair go into tomorrow’s showjumping finale with less than a rail — 2.3 penalties, to be precise — in hand. That’s not, perhaps, the proximity that Tim would have liked to have borne; in his three five-stars, Vitali has had three rails down each time.
“He’s just not all that confident with atmosphere,” says Tim, who has taken the gelding jumping in the Spanish winter tours in a bid to build his confidence in this phase. “He’s actually quite a good jumper. He’s quite an athlete and he wants to do the right thing, but he might leave the building for thirty seconds or so which isn’t helpful. But our preparations have been really good; I’ve been mixing it up a little bit with my approach to it all, and I think he’s come here really happy and relaxed. I’m looking forward to having a chance of demonstrating that tomorrow.”
After two rounds that he’d rather forget — that broken rein with Tregilder, for one, and the crash through the oxer at the Dairy Mound with Swallow Springs, after which he retired — Oliver Townend was relieved to leave the start box for the final time on a horse who’s not only won here, on his debut as a ten-year-old six years ago, but is, arguably, the most consistent cross-country horse in the world. Ballaghmor Class has run at eight five-stars, and has never finished outside the top five in any of them — and once again, he proved today precisely why that is, with a positive, confident round that saw him hold his overnight second place, albeit with 4.8 additional time penalties.
“After the first two, I did think, ‘here we go again!’ It’ll be like twelve months ago, hitting the floor twice without feeling like we’d done too much wrong,” says Oliver. “So it was good that the last one was Mr Reliable. What can you say about him? He’s a freak of nature, and not only is my hero, but the horse of a lifetime.”
His time penalties, he explains, came because adjusting the 16-year-old’s stride proved tricky around the long, tough track.
“He wasn’t giving me the easiest ride; he’s definitely not showing his age! He was keen, keen, keen,” he says. “He opens the stride easily, but then it doesn’t close — going down to fence five, the rail and ditch, I had no control whatsoever, and the very last stride before we took off at the rail was the shortest stride he took and the only split second I was in control. But he just knows what he’s doing, and as long as I show him where we’re going, he does it nicely.”
Both his earlier rides, he says, returned to the stables feeling fit and well and ready to potentially reroute after some conversations with the owners.
“It’s a huge credit to the team at home. These horses don’t lie; they don’t turn up as old as they are again and again and again and again with their ears pricked, doing their jobs, without incredible management behind the scenes,” says Oliver. “All the girls back home have been there for years and years. We’re all getting older, but we’re all still madly passionate about the horses and they keep coming to these big events and putting in great performances.”
At the very start of the day, two riders put down exceptional clear rounds inside the time — and though we all wondered, for just a fleeting moment, if that might mean that the time would prove gettable all day, nobody else managed it throughout the rest of the 58 rounds.
The fastest of those? Wiltshire-based David Doel and the consummate galloper Galileo Nieuwmoed, who once again showed the utter class that has seen them finish in the top ten at Badminton, Kentucky, and Pau — the latter of which they led after this phase. They came home in 10:57, nine seconds inside the time, and stepped up from overnight 25th to third place going into the final phase.
“He’s had great five-star form and he’s a lovely galloping horse — he gallops so easily across the ground,” says David, who was up on his minute markers throughout the course. “He turned really well, even though this was probably a bit of a fiddly course for him; he’s got a big stride and really likes to open up, so with the twists and turns, I wasn’t really sure how he’d take it. He felt a little bit tired coming off the Dairy Mound, but he picked up really well coming home and gave me a super feel.”
But the credit can’t go wholly to Galileo Nieuwmoed: David himself has proven time and time again that he’s exceptional at riding a swift rhythm and finding economical lines and approaches, a skill that’s helped him catch the time at several five-stars with different horses.
“It’s been a lot of years of work, and it’s been a real team effort over the years — we’ve made some mistakes and learned from them, and I made mistakes today and we’ll learn from them again,” says David, who also sits 25th with second ride Ferro Point after an early drive-by at the final element of the Leaf Pit and a respectable 9.6 time penalties, even with that runout. “So it’s an ever-evolving sort of picture really. I like going quickly, don’t get me wrong, it’s good fun, but I’m very lucky to have two lovely horses here at the moment that you can sit on top of and let jump underneath you, and they gave me super rides.”
And going into the final phase? David sits on a score of 33.7, which puts him seven penalties — or less than two rails — behind the leaders, and a rail and just under two seconds behind Oliver, who, like our overnight leaders, will be achingly aware that tomorrow’s phase isn’t always his most straightforward. As for Galileo? He’s not yet had a rail this year, and he jumped clear on the final day at Badminton last year, so while the memory of losing the win at Pau when the final rail fell will probably still sting, he has the great benefit of going into tomorrow’s competition without the pressure of jumping for the win outright. All he has to do is get the job done and wait, for what will probably be the longest two rounds of his life thereafter.
The other clear inside the time went the way of Scotland’s Wills Oakden, who brought to Burghley all the confidence that comes from having just won a home CCI4*-L — he took Blair Castle’s feature class, plus a three-star victory, last month — and, of course, two excellent horses. His first, the hugely athletic Oughterard Cooley, was the one with whom he caught the time, and really, this has been waiting in the wings for a while: the gelding finished just outside the top ten here last year and at that tough Badminton this spring, and now, at thirteen, he’s truly hitting his peak. He now sits fourth, having climbed from 27th after dressage.
But, he laughs, “I’ve no shame to admit, I was out of control the whole way! There was not much being able to ‘whoa’ to prepare for fences. It was just trying to pick a spot, either left or right, in the gear we were in, because he was just relentless, but so cool. He’s a really cool horse.”
One of the secret weapons that Wills has utilised to find Oughterard Cooley’s penchant for speed has been to team up with Grand National-winning racehorse trainer Lucinda Russell, with whom he’s undertaken fitness work on her gallops in Kinross.
“I’m very grateful for the support I get with him, and for the owners — I’m so happy for them,” says Wills. “We’ve had a lot of help this summer from Lucinda — we used her gallops and she’s helped us with the fitness, because he’s been five-star twice and I thought both times we could have got more out of him. He’s really found his guts now with a little tweak from her, and I’m just so proud and so impressed with him. I was slightly terrified at times; it was good! He’s so gutsy, and he just digs so deep and gets going.”
Another way that Wills moderated the energy to ensure he had enough in the tank to catch up at the end was by moderating his own reactions — something he learned from his experience here last year.
“I got very excited last year when I went through Discovery Valley, I got a bit of a cheer and I thought ‘wahey, let’s go!’ And I think that set him alight even more. So this year, I just kept saying to myself, ‘don’t use him. Don’t use him. Don’t use him’. I knew where my minute markers were, I knew I was sitting just behind them. I just thought to myself, ‘wait, wait, wait,’ and I managed to keep waiting all the way until I was through the last bit of the Lion’s Bridge. And then when I pressed go, oh my god, he went! God knows what happened at the last two fences — I can’t remember, but it was pretty fun!”
Not content with just one mountainous climb, Wills returned near the end of the day for another go-round, this time with the former Oliver Townend ride Arklow Puissance. Though he couldn’t quite catch the time, he added just 4.4 time penalties, moving up from 43rd to tenth place going into the final day in the horse’s first five-star completion.
There’s obviously something to be said for Puissance offspring, because alongside Oughterard Cooley and Arklow Puissance, who are both by the stallion, there’s another well in the mix in our new-look top ten. Ireland’s Sam Watson came to Burghley knowing that his very blood SAP Talisman would be perfectly suited to a terrain-heavy stamina test, and so he was — so much so, in fact, that like Wills and Oughterard Cooley before him, he crossed the finish line and found that his horse still had several minutes of running left in him.
“If I could have settled him, I would have been inside that time, but I was a second over,” says Sam ruefully. “Firstly, I take the blame: I wasted two seconds on my way to the first fence, and I knew it at the time as well. And I thought, ‘if I’m a second over I have myself to blame’ — but then I couldn’t settle him either, so it was hard to get it back. It really was.”
Where they could catch up, though, was in Talisman’s unerring ability to cover the ground, delivering stride patterns emulated by much bigger horses throughout the day.
“He’s not big; he’s barely 16 hands and he has a small stride, and he’s spooky. So he’s unreal to shuffle, but like, he did three strides up on the Dairy Mound. He did those big corners in four and three and he wasn’t off them. He had his stride. I didn’t have a good start, and I wouldn’t say that was my smoothest round ever by any stretch but I was on a very good horse today.”
After a frustrating blip in an otherwise smart trailblazing ride with Away Cruising, Harry Meade returned midway through the day with an exciting debutant in Cavalier Crystal — and although she’s the least experienced of his three rides this week, she’s also put in the top result of his trio. They picked up just a scant 5.2 time penalties, helping them execute a climb from 21st place after dressage to overnight sixth.
“I was thrilled with her,” says Harry, who masterfully negotiated a green moment at the Leaf Pit to add confidence and pace throughout the round thereafter. “I was on a little bit of an ambiguous stride coming up to it and it’s not a thought process. It’s just instinct. It’s always better just to kick on, rather than manhandle them and override the horse’s instincts — but she was mega. She’s been a slow burn; I never, as a young horse, thought she was necessarily a five-star type. She scuttles in her gallop, and she’s very careful and she’d sort of drag herself to the roots of a fence and then jump it in a careful way. But I’ve ridden her since she was a five year old and she’s just gotten better and better. I was slightly in two minds as to how she’d be — I just thought she was an unknown chapter for me here, but she just found it really, really easy. She could see everything — so long as she can see the fences she just pricks her ears and goes. It felt great fun, and she felt she could have done another two or three minutes on the end of it. She could go in a bottomless year and feel like she’s got loads of engine.”
Harry also delivered an end-of-day top-ten round with Tenareze, who was initially awarded 15 penalties for a missed flag but, after those were rescinded, stepped two places up to ninth with his 9.6 time penalties — though it’s unlikely we’ll see him return tomorrow for the final phase, as he was taken for veterinary inspection after he pulled up at the finish. We’ll keep you updated on this as the story develops.
Boyd Martin is best of the fearsome US contingent after delivering a classy and capable round with Tsetserleg TSF, putting a tricky year with run-outs at Kentucky and Luhmühlen well behind him. They added 9.6 time penalties, moving them down just one spot from sixth to seventh.
But that round was very nearly a bit of a different story: they were pulled up by the ground jury late in the course, just before the colossal Agria Slate Mine at 23, for closer inspection of what had appeared to be blood in the horse’s mouth. While they were subsequently deemed fit to restart, Boyd didn’t totally relish the prospect of jumping one of the course’s biggest fences as a re-starter obstacle.
“It was bloody nerve-wracking!” he says. “I was getting waved down in front of the big tram, and I thought someone might have crashed in front of me as they were just pulling me up, but they thought they saw a speck of blood on him. Luckily for me, a couple of vets and a TD there opened his mouth and looked through him and then said, ‘Alright, turn around and come to the biggest jump on the course from a standstill.’ I was like, ‘oh, God!'”
It’s not, perhaps, an ideal moment in an otherwise very exciting round, but Boyd is pragmatic about it all: “To be honest, it would have been better if I could have just kept rolling but you know, I think the welfare of the horse is always important. Part of me was frustrated but then the other part of me thinks, I love this horse so much and if he was injured, I’d be the first one to pull him up.”
That was Boyd’s second ride of the day; the first, with Maryland 5* winner On Cue, sees him sitting pretty in twelfth on 10.8 time penalties, which came as the horse began to visibly tire in the latter stages of the course, which prompted Boyd to ease off her and coast her home.
“It was a tough round, and she had to fight hard,” says Boyd. ‘She hasn’t done much since the last two years. So she was sort of lacking a previous five star to really get her fit. But God, she tried hard, and I love her to bits. It doesn’t matter what the scenario, she pricks her ears and gets over the jump.”
Pippa Funnell remains in eighth place with Majas Hope after a round that began and ended in much the same way: with an eye on the clock and a palpable air of determination from both horse and rider en route to adding just 8.8 time penalties.
Most interestingly of all, though, is the fact that, in a bid to keep Hope from getting wound up, Pippa didn’t jump a single warm-up fence before leaving the start box — instead, she warmed the gelding up on the flat and then used the early single fences to get the experienced gelding in the air and feeling confident.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking with the warm up, because we didn’t warm up,” she says. “I kept him so far away and trotted and just went up the canter strip, and my practice jumps were the first two three fences So I maybe wasted a bit of time over the first three fences; I felt I was ten seconds down at one minute, which a little bit is me, from the old days with the steeplechase. I always used to start a bit slow, and then you felt the horse underneath you, and you get quicker and quicker. And so that’s what I did. But he was great. Really, really great. I mean, I can’t be unhappy with him at all — I thought he was pretty much foot perfect.”
Will Faudree was disappointed to pick up 12.4 time penalties with Mama’s Magic Way, dropping them from ninth to eleventh place, but he shouldn’t be, really — the 12-year-old gelding and his rider alike looked exceptional around the course, making light work of both the terrain and the colossal fences.
“He jumped great — he’s a real game horse,” says Will. “Unfortunately, I got in his way a little bit too much to catch the time, so I’m a bit perturbed with myself. But, you know, I got home, and I’ve just got to be better and come back and do it better.”
Now, he tells us, he plans to re-evaluate how he prepares for these big events: “I don’t ever really let him run fast at events at home, because nothing holds him back, and these jumps here actually do hold him back a bit, so I’m going to think about how to train better at competitions,” he says.
Part of it, too, comes down to Burghley’s unique terrain, which was a new experience for ‘Mason’.
“I was actually right on my minute markers up until the Rolex combination [at 15ABC], and then I slowed him down for [the steep Capability’s Cutting road crossing], but he got to the edge of it and just stopped,” explains Will. “I don’t think he’s ever seen anything like that. I also didn’t kick him up the Winners’ Avenue; I let him go kind of on his own, which in hindsight, maybe I should have kicked him up there. Because then I ended up having to add a stride to the corner to get him in front of me.”
Canada’s sole representatives here, Jessica Phoenix and Wabbit, stepped up from 29th to 15th after adding 10.8 time penalties — a quick and efficient round that began with a tactical bit of steady riding out of the start box.
“I was hoping to be closer to the time than we were, but he needed me to just settle him a little at the start,” she says. “He’s a full Thoroughbred, and he raced, so sometimes when he hears people he loses his brain a little bit. But after minute three, he really settled in and then we found our rhythm, and then I was just so thrilled with him. He absolutely lives for this day. He loves the terrain, he loves when the fences are that big. He love the complexity of it all. He’s just got a brain that moves so quickly that he thrives under these conditions.”
British-based US representative and five-star debutante Grace Taylor had to settle for stepping out of the top ten with Game Changer after they added 17.6 time penalties, moving them from seventh to 16th, but she certainly wasn’t disappointed with her first run at the level: “He tried his guts out,” she says. “He tired towards the end, but I think he had to help me out towards the beginning, which saps their energy. Hopefully next year I can come back and conserve his energy in the beginning and do better, but it’s really exciting.”
Jennie Brannigan and the very game FE Lifestyle dropped just three places, from 14th to 17th, after adding 15.6 time penalties in a confident campaign across both horse and rider’s first Burghley track.
“It’s quite special,” she says. “I’m probably a little in shock, to be honest, because normally I’d be, like, crying and freaking out! I’ve never felt him tired like this; this is his sixth five-star, and it’s definitely the hardest in the world. He’s just a gem.”
Our final US pair, British-based Tiana Coudray and her debutant Cancaras Girl, sadly didn’t complete after a rider fall at the B element of the Irish bank complex — but we look forward to seeing them back out again soon.
Tomorrow takes us into the grand finale of the 2023 Defender Burghley Horse Trials, and first on the agenda is the final horse inspection in the main arena, set to begin at 9.00 a.m. local time/4.00 a.m. EST. Pending any overnight withdrawals, we’re down to 37 competitors from an original 58 — that’s a 63.8% completion rate — and of those, we’ve seen 25, or 43.1%, complete without jumping penalties. Once they’ve tackled that inspection, we’ll go into the morning’s jumping session from 10.45 a.m. local/5.45 a.m. EST, while the top 20 will jump from 14.15 local/9.15 a.m. EST. Then, we’ll have a winner — and what a competition they’ll have topped. As always, you can watch along on Burghley TV — and keep it locked onto EN for a full report and plenty more content from this special event throughout the day. Go Eventing!
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