“Oh god, that’s not the one you’re taking to Luhmühlen, is it?!” asked a horrified Alex Bragg as Tim Price waited in the wings to accept top honours in the George Mernagh Memorial CCI4*-S. He has jolly good reason to worry – the eleven-year-old Ascona M (Cassaro x Naomi IV) has gone from strength to strength over the last eighteen months, choosing more and more frequently to use her formidable talent for good, rather than evil. In doing so, she makes herself almost unbeatable, and she was just that this week, leading throughout to take the win in her final run before the German five-star.
Tim and ‘Ava’, owned by Lucy and Ben Sangster, Sir Peter Vela, and Suzanne Houchin, started their week with a 25.9 dressage, giving them a commanding lead of 3.9 points.
“She’s sensitive and a little bit outrageous,” Tim told us after his test, which very nearly rivalled the performance she produced in her five-star debut at Pau last season. “Her reaction to something she detests is big. For example, with the flying changes, she can claim that she never saw that aid coming, and what the hell were you thinking?! She’ll throw herself into the air, and there’ll just be legs everywhere. So you say, okay, no worries girl, and a couple of minutes later, she’ll do them perfectly. I won’t have done anything different, but she’ll have taken it better. I have to be the diplomat in the relationship!”
When the duo took to Tattersalls’ notoriously beefy showjumping track yesterday, it looked as though we might see a glimpse of Ava’s radical side. But a few sassy head-tosses notwithstanding, she picked her way over the twisty course, never threatening to touch a rail. Although her exuberant jumping style meant that she and Tim added 1.2 time penalties, the lead was still theirs.
But there was still cross-country to face, and after yesterday’s CCI4*-L track caused such an incredible shake-up of the leaderboard, nothing was certain in today’s fast and furious short-format. And though Ava is unarguably a phenomenal talent, winning a CCI4*-L at Haras du Pin as a nine-year-old and finishing second in Blenheim’s Event Rider Masters the same season, she’d also had a surprise elimination in her five-star debut at Pau last season. Though she spent the winter showjumping on Spain’s Sunshine Tour, and had three good – though slow – Open Intermediate runs this season, she hadn’t contested an international since that unlucky tumble.
If there was a question mark hanging over her as she left the start box, it had been well and truly dissipated by the time she crossed the finish, three seconds under the optimum time of 6:56. Her exuberant, attacking style had been her downfall last autumn, when she took an enormous leap over a log drop into the water at Pau and consequently stumbled upon landing but today, she looked confident and calculated as she tackled the final water on course. From there, she was home free, and Tim was able to enjoy a fitting conclusion to a busy week in Ireland.
“We’ve absolutely loved it, as usual! It’s so nice to go somewhere with proper jumps and perfect going, and with that little bit of competitive spirit,” says Tim. “That’s certainly the Ian Stark influence coming through, and his design has come on so much. We’ve been coming here for many years, and we’ve got so many stories. In the beginning [of our careers], when we were really struggling, Tattersalls was so kind to us and really helped us to keep the show on the road.”
Between them, Tim and wife Jonelle had five horses to manage throughout the week – and they also had their young son, Otis, along for the ride.
“I’ve heard a lot of feedback on bouncy castles and fair rides, and all sorts of things like that,” says Tim with a wry grin. “He comes back exhausted and sleeps all through the night, which is a very good thing for all of us!”
Otis, for his part, enjoyed his first podium appearance, stealing his dad’s thunder as he clambered aboard, ably assisted by second-placed Kazuma Tomoto, who finished a second inside the time, further establishing his new partnership with former Astier Nicolas ride Vinci de la Vigne JRA.
This week has been a crucial fact-finding mission for the Japanese rider, and an exciting prospect for committed followers of #JapanWatch. Would Vince’s step back up to four-star be a success with his new rider? Could he, in fact, be Kazu’s mount for next year’s Tokyo Olympics? Those watching in suspense will have been gratified to see that the partnership between man and horse already looks well-established, with Kazu taking calculated risks and riding seamlessly at speed throughout the tricky combinations on course. If this is what a fact-finding mission looks like, then Olympic podium pretenders, be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
Alex Bragg and Zagreb enjoyed a welcomed return to form, recording one of the fastest rounds of the day to stay in third place. Their spring season has been a bit of a rollercoaster – Alex opted to withdraw his fifteen-year-old campaigner from Badminton after they found themselves off the pace after the first phase, and then, after performing exceptionally around two-thirds of Chatsworth’s fiendishly tough CCI4*-S track, they made a costly mistake and fell on the home stretch. But a 29.9 dressage, with nothing added throughout the week, is none too shabby – and Alex, who heads to Luhmühlen’s five-star in two weeks with the lanky gelding, should be able to draw crucial confidence from his performance here. Zagreb is back, baby, and both he and his rider are fuelled by hunger for a big one.
That hunger for success also propelled Alex and one of his debutantes into the top five. Hester may be just eight years old, and her first phase performance might have been marred by some greenness in the atmospheric main arena, but two foot perfect jumping rounds inside the tight times allowed her to climb from thirteenth to an eventual fifth place in her first-ever CCI4*-S.
Sam Watson took the best Irish rider honours in this class, finishing fourth with the Luhmühlen-bound Tullabeg Flamenco. Though they added 1.2 time penalties in yesterday’s showjumping, they were one of seven combinations to complete clear and inside the time today – and, in fact, those seven combinations filled the top seven spots on the leaderboard.
(As an aside, we have a new motto: #BeMoreToby. Just look at how thrilled Mini Mr Watson was about getting his hands on dad’s rosette!)
Only two of the sixteen starters in today’s cross-country failed to complete – Niall Ferguson opted to retire MX Calamity after a problem on course, while Millie Dumas, ordinarily astonishingly reliable in this phase, took a surprise swim at the final water when Fabian misjudged the skinny triple brush in the water. Eleven of the fourteen to complete managed to do so with clear rounds, while seven combinations finished clear inside the time.
The George Mernagh Memorial Fund and Trophy are named for the titular founder of the event at Tattersalls, which began in 2006. George passed away in 2011, but left a legacy that has proven invaluable to the Irish eventing community: each year, a bursary is granted to someone in the industry who is helping, in some way, to develop the sport within the country. His name also adorns this prestigious class, which acts as a gateway to the top level of eventing for many up-and-coming horses and riders alike, as well as offering Irish riders a chance to compete against the world’s best on home turf.
That’s all for us from this incredibly exciting class – but stay tuned, as we’ll be bringing you a full report from the Irish Field CCI4*-L shortly!