Tom McEwen Triumphs in Houghton Cross-Country Shake-Up; Team USA Takes Silver

The US team takes another podium finish at Houghton after a pandemic-induced leave of absence. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We’ll admit it: yesterday’s showjumping in Houghton International‘s CCIO4*-S didn’t necessarily thrill us. With just over a 65% clear rate, it was considerably less influential than it has been in the past, and our report yesterday was more of an exercise in finding 500 creative ways of saying “nothing’s actually changed here, folks” than anything else.

But today’s cross-country, designed by Musketeer Events’s Alec Lochore, ensured that no one was feeling complacent through the afternoon’s proceedings. The field of nearly 100 had thinned to a scant 72 prior to the start of the phase due to a spate of withdrawals that included ninth-placed Pippa Funnell and Billy Wonder (28.9), tenth-placed Laura Collett and Hester (29.3), and, most crucially, two-phase leaders Tim Price and Vitali, whose withdrawal also eliminated the second-placed Kiwi team from contention in the Nations Cup. Across the class, we saw a generous 80.6% completion rate – but a more telling and influential 65.3% clear rate, with the Suzuki Water at 8ABC leading the way on eleven faulters. The Sema Lease trough and corners at 11ABC, which featured a table atop a mound and then a sharp downhill run to a double of corners, followed closely behind with ten faulters through the day, while issues were otherwise scattered across the track.

Beyond the realm of the Nations Cup teams, the individual leaderboard in this CCIO4*-S class saw some significant changes: Oliver Townend had sat second after showjumping with the eight-year-old Cooley Rosalent, but she picked up a twenty at the corners in the second of her thus far educational, rather than competitive, four-star runs. New Zealand’s Jesse Campbell started the day in sixth place with Gambesie but opted, as many riders did, to run slowly over the hard ground, dropping down to 41st with 30.8 time penalties.

Tim’s withdrawal — and the drop-out of the Kiwis — meant that Team USA, who had held third place through the first two phases, were able to step up into second place from the get-go today, but the dominant British team looked wholly untouchable on their two-phase score of 79.2, which put them 23.5 penalties ahead of the US at the start of the day.

Tom McEwen takes the CCIO4*-S title – and another British team win – aboard the five-star bound Bob Chaplin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But what’s that about the fat lady and singing? By the time the class came to its exciting conclusion, the gap had narrowed significantly, and though Great Britain did still take the eventual win, it was by just 3.9 penalties over the US team. It certainly wasn’t the most straightforward victory the Brits have ever had; though their pathfinders, Tom McEwen and Luhmühlen-bound Bob Chaplin, made easy work of the course to also take the individual win, and second rider Heidi Coy, too, featured in the top five with her Russal Z, they also lost a team member in Phoebe Locke, who was forced to withdraw Bellagio Declyange after an earlier tumble from first ride Pica d’Or — and most startlingly of all, anchors Piggy March and Brookfield Quality picked up 20 penalties at the quarry combination just a couple of fences from home while sitting sixth.

The US, too, had to fight for their close second place: though a blazing-fast pathfinder round from debutants Cornelia Dorr and Daytona Beach 8 buoyed resolve in the camp, the team suddenly found itself down to three — with every score to count — after an excellent early effort by Isabelle Bosley and Night Quality ended suddenly with a stop and rider fall at the influential water complex.

Allie Knowles and Ms. Poppins prove themselves as team bankers with their thoughtful round. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Isabelle was fortunately unharmed and cushioned by the liberal brush atop the log she fell at, the fall put plenty of pressure on the riders to follow her — and Allie Knowles, who left the box fighting for a top ten placing with Ms. Poppins, felt the weight of team expectations most tangibly.

“I took the long route at the water and man, that’s the difference in my mind between the team winning or losing,” she says ruefully. “But she jumped in so big that I wasn’t sure she was going to lock on, and I knew Isabelle had fallen and so I had to get home clear — so in that moment I just thought, ‘no, I’m going to play it safe’.”

Allie was far from the only person to make the decision to ride for the longer, circuitous route out of the tough water complex, which saw her finish with 13.2 time penalties and wind up in 14th place at the culmination of the class — but the choice weighed heavily on her in the aftermath.

“I’ll be wondering about that for a while, whether it would have worked out or not, but she’s so honest that I just didn’t want a stupid mistake happen and for her to genuinely miss it. I saw horse after horse run past it, and I was like, I know I can have a clean round; it’s slower than I wanted, but I knew what had happened and Leslie said to me in the box, ‘we need you to get home. We need you to go clean.’ In that split second, you just think, ‘I don’t see the line — how’s she going to see the line?’ It’s just one of those split-second calls, and when there’s anything left on the table, you always wonder ‘what if?'”

There are plenty of silver linings for Allie to look back on, though — namely, the fact that her excellent eleven-year-old once again proved that all the faith her rider has in her is totally well-founded.

“She was bold, she was honest, she jumped clean, and she’s ready for Bramham — so I couldn’t be more proud of her, and I think this was a nice prep run,” she says. “Every other thing went to plan, so what else can we really ask for — we got second, we all made a long trip to be here, and we can’t be disappointed in that.”

Caroline Martin cruises to fifth with Islandwood Captain Jack, making a super start to her stint in the UK. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

When anchor Caroline Martin set off, she did so with a valuable asset in her pocket: she was the one member of this week’s US team that had been here before, and been in the position of riding for the team before. Even more importantly, she’d logged prior team experience with Islandwood Captain Jack and knew exactly where she could push his natural rhythm, and where she could take calculated, competitive risks to try to slim down the margins on both leaderboards. When she did, she wasn’t just best of the US team, she was also at the upper end of the individual leaderboard, too: she climbed from a first-phase 19th to eventual fifth place after adding just 1.6 time penalties across the country. Their round — which was one of the fastest of the day — put a neat bow on an excellent weekend that saw them jump a sterling clear round in yesterday’s showjumping, and deliver a competitive 30.4 in the first phase.

“He’s not the fanciest, and he’s not the best jumper, but he has a heart of gold, and he’s done well in his career because of that heart of gold. Whenever you tell him to do something, he does his best to do it — and he’s a bit of a plough horse, but we know each other so well and he’s getting stronger, which is the biggest thing. Now he’s getting the strength to do it, and he’s just very, very, very genuine — I don’t have another as genuine as him,” says Caroline, who returns to Houghton after making her Nations Cup debut here in 2018 — this time, with a longer-term stay in the UK on her radar as she settles into life at Andrew Nicholson’s Wiltshire base.

“I was grateful to come here, because the course stays pretty similar and I’ve had a few trips around it now,” she says. “I’ve had such different horses in the past, but it’s kind of the same track, and it’s really good to start my new life here with a couple of things I’m familiar with. I’m not totally off the deep end.”

Caroline is quick to credit the team around her that helps make a trip like this a reality — “at the end of the day, I just ride the horse,” she says modestly — including this week’s chef d’equipe and Development Program head trainer Leslie Law, previous US team trainer Erik Duvander, head groom Casey McKissock, and many others, particularly as she turns her eye back towards chasing her biggest dream of riding on a championship team: “You’ve gotta take the wins sometimes; you get pretty beaten up in this sport, so you’ve got to smile and take a breath. I’m just really grateful for the team for continuing to give me these changes — I know people are a little hard on me that I’ve done so much, but I’m 27 and I still need to practice at this stuff, so if I get a chance to be on a team and work on that, I’m always going to take it.”

Cornelia Dorr and Daytona Beach 8 put on a gutsy, gritty display to climb to the top fifteen and help the US team to second. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There’s a lot to be said for a rider who can take on pathfinder duties in their team debut, and Cornelia Dorr certainly rose to the occasion, delivering the second-fastest round of the day with the electric Daytona Beach 8 in a round that included one particular moment of gutsy, agricultural riding: after a big leap into the influential water question, Cornelia and Daytona found themselves off their intended line, and Cornelia put herself in the back seat and drove her horse with resolve to the flags of the skinny element in the water. Once the horse spotted her target, she twisted herself through the air to make sure she cleared it — and both horse and rider reached the other side unscathed and brimming with determination as they set out to tackle the remainder of the track.

“She’s amazing — so genuine, so smart; I have no words for her,” says a delighted Cornelia, who finished fifteenth as an individual. “She sees things from so far away — she reacted a little bit differently to the water than I thought, so when I came around the corner, plan A, B, C, and D kind of went out the window! I was just so glad we were able to think that quickly. It was scrappy!”

Unlike her three teammates, who all head to Bramham CCI4*-L in a fortnight, Cornelia’s now planning ahead for the mare’s five-star move-up later on in the season – though her lips are sealed as to which she’s going to aim for. In any case, the mare’s ‘oceans of scope’ look set to see her through even the biggest and beefiest of challenges.

As far as a team-building exercise for the US program goes, making the long journey to Houghton Hall has certainly been a productive one.

“For us, it serves a big purpose — before Covid, we brought our younger athletes here for the two previous years, and we had a good run in the Nations Cup before everything got shut down, so as soon as it opened up again and allowed us to come back, it made it very much a destination event for us,” says Leslie Law, who acted as the team chef d’equipe for this leg as he has done previously. “It’s great to bring the younger athletes and get them into that team space; we don’t have the biggest opportunity to get them into team competitions back in the US, so I think it’s extremely important and it’s what we need to do to give ourselves a bigger pool of athletes with team experience.”

To create that team atmosphere, Leslie focused on fostering a close-knit collaborative approach, not just between his riders, but between their support teams, parents, and owners too — many of whom could be seen out on course together, celebrating and commiserating en masse through the afternoon.

“The girls are great; they really work. We’ve been doing team meetings and coursewalks together, and it’s about fostering the respect for one another, starting off by putting them in that space,” he continues. “Obviously it’s very exciting for them; I think this is Caroline’s second or third time on a Nations Cup, and you can see it’s starting to show: she’s starting to become very cool about it and handle the pressure, which is why I put her last on the team. For the other three, it’s their first time, so you can see that they perhaps had some more nerves — but that’s why we’ve got to do it. The more we do it, the more we can work on building that team atmosphere and strength. You’ve got to do it to make it happen.”

Heidi Coy, pictured riding Russal Z, nails the double with two ten-year-olds in the top ten. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

22-year-old Heidi Coy is only just out of the Young Riders programme but already, she’s proving herself a force to be reckoned with in Senior competition — and her Nations Cup debut this week was capped off with top ten finishes for both her exciting ten-year-olds. Halenza finished ninth, adding just 3.6 time penalties to her first-phase score of 29.9, while the star of her string was the diminutive, gutsy team ride Russal Z, who added 4 time penalties to Friday’s excellent 26.3 to finish third. She completes a British podium, with Kitty King taking second place on her Rio Olympics mount Ceylor LAN, who’s now enjoying ‘fun runs’ at the CCI4*-S level in the twilight of his career.

“The course rode pretty much as I’d expected — it’s flat, but the time is always tight here, and the questions come at you fast,” says Heidi, who finished second in last year’s under-25 CCI4*-L championship when it was temporarily relocated to Bicton, and will now tackle the ‘real deal’ at Bramham with both horses in a fortnight.

Though Heidi’s still very young, she carries herself with a quiet maturity that makes her come across as enormously calm, even in high-intensity situations — but, she admits, she certainly felt the nerves when she knew her score would have to count for the British team to complete today.

“I knew my little grey mare is a cross-country machine — I’ve had her a few years now, and she’s tiny, but she just gets her head down and she’ll jump whatever’s in front of her,” she says. “I felt fairly confident that once I got out there, we’d be fine — it’s just when they count you down that you’re like, ‘oh my god!’ And of course, I broke my collarbone not that long ago, so I was still a bit anxious about that. I got down there quite early and didn’t realise there was a bit of a hold, so I said to my mum, ‘I need to get off and have a look at the course, not just walk around!’ Once I’ve got something to think about, I’m okay.”

Therese Viklund and Viscera make a super comeback after injury. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Like Kitty King before her, Sweden’s Therese Viklund had a hugely enjoyable weekend with an Olympic mount that’s now enjoying less pressurised competitions: her one-eyed superstar Viscera sustained two suspensory injuries after Tokyo last year, and made her return to competition for the first time since August this week. And what a return it was: their first-phase score of 29.4 put them well in the hunt, and their clear round over the poles yesterday proved an asset both to team Sweden and to their own climb up the board. Their efficient round today, which added just a scant 1.2 time penalties, propelled them into fourth place, setting an exciting tone for their four-star ventures to come.

“She’s been brilliant; she did one event after Tokyo, which she won, and then she got injured after that — so this is her first outing and she feels super happy,” says Therese, who will now campaign the mare exclusively at short-format competitions. “She’s just like an old pair of gloves; she just fits.”

The dressage-bred mare has had an unusual trajectory; she was rejected as a prospect for her intended discipline because it was felt she wasn’t a good enough mover, and then had a foal quite young before joining Therese’s string as a six-year-old as a sales prospect. Three years ago, the now fourteen-year-old had her left eye removed after a two-year battle with uveitis, and in the years since has picked up a number of four-star placings, several team spots, and a trip to last year’s Olympics, seemingly without missing a beat.

“From day one, it’s like she hasn’t noticed. She’s very confident, so I think that helps a bit, but she just thinks she knows it all and just does it. I’m so impressed with her — every time she does the cross-country, she’s so straight,” says Therese, who suspects that the mare’s sight had begun to wane prior to the removal of the eye, indirectly helping the transition process. “I’m thinking, ‘is it harder to have the flag on the left side or the other side?’ but she’s so straight between my legs that she just goes for it either way. She’s the bravest little horse.”

The Swedish team finished third in the final rankings, though they, too, had just three riders left to count after the overnight withdrawal of Sofia Sjoborg and Targa.

Italy’s Daniele Bizzarro is the only rider of the class to make the time. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just one horse and rider would make the time: British-based Italian Daniele Bizzarro, who has previously worked as a stable jockey for William Fox-Pitt, redeemed a tough day for his team by sailing home bang on the 6:41 optimum time with Alice Dazeley’s Stormhill Riot, finishing 24th. Italy, who began the week with just three riders, fell almost literally at the final hurdle when their third rider out of the box, Giovanni Ugolotti, took a tumble in the latter stages of the course with new ride Lark Away.

Sweden’s consistency — this is now their second third-place finish from two legs in this year’s series — means they take the lead in the 2022 FEI Nations Cup series rankings on a total score of 180, while Great Britain and Switzerland are tied for second on 100 points apiece. Third place is held jointly by France and the USA, who are on 90 points apiece.

The next leg of the 2022 series will be held at Poland’s Strzegom Horse Trials from the 22–26 June. There are nine total legs in this year’s series, including one in North America at Canada’s Bromont International from 18–21 August, and the series will conclude, as always, with a long-format finale at the Netherlands’ Military Boekelo in October. Will we see another Swedish series win? It’s hard to bet against them at this point.

The final individual top ten at Houghton CCIO4*-S.

The final team standings in the second leg of the 2022 FEI Nations Cup series.

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