We’ve waited a long time for this moment, and now it’s here. Folks, we’re getting Piggy with it.
When Oliver Townend established such a dominant lead in the first phase, we thought that was it: the competition was in the bag, and the unbeatable man would be just that once again. When he produced two tactical clears and led after the second phase, swapping his leader around, it seemed almost set in stone. And when he knocked the one rail he had in hand and cleared the final fence, we started writing the headlines in our head. But then the pause happened.
A margin of 5.3 marks heading into showjumping might seem like too wide a gap to leap. It might seem like a foregone conclusion. And it might, when the horse with that lead has never been out of the top five in a five-star, seem like a total impossibility to assume that the balance could tip over the edge by a fraction of a second to change a slew of fates. But that’s exactly what happened, and time was momentarily crystallised as over 150,000 horse people tried to puzzle out some quick-fire calculations. Then the penny dropped.
Piggy French had contested 24 five-stars before this running of Badminton. She’d come close to the top, too, with a close second at Burghley in 2017 among her top honours. But the win? Well, that had eluded her. But it’s not the Chinese Year of the Pig for nothing, and after recording the most early-season wins of any rider in British Eventing history (and, of course, a cheeky little top-five finish at Kentucky just last week), her star was only rising. When she and second-placed Vanir Kamir delivered the clear round she needed today, all she could do was wait – wait to lose, wait to win, and wait for an absolution that may never come, to butcher a quote from, um, Titanic.
Absolution would come in the form of a single second. Leaders Oliver Townend had a rail and three seconds in hand, and when that rail toppled mid-course, the crowd began to hold its collective breath. When Ballaghmor Class hesitated and found himself on a half-stride, Oliver had to use all his experience to regather the rangy gelding, nearly hover on the spot for a stride, and find one more to make it out cleanly. And he did, but it was costly: he finished four seconds over the optimum time, and the win – after that stutter-step of puzzlement – was Piggy’s.
“I looked at the scoreboard and I couldn’t believe it – I was quite happy to think that second is great,” said a delighted and emotional Piggy. “You get so used to it not being your day, and going home, and you just keep going. I woke up first thing this morning and thought maybe I could do it, but then I walked the course and I thought there was no chance – it’s tight, there are so many related distances and lines, and it definitely wouldn’t be her sort of track. We were getting lower and lower [over the fences] as we went on; I kept hearing rattles but no noise from the crowd, so I thought we must be all good. Oliver’s is a great jumper – I had to turn away [as he jumped] the last, and I just thought, ‘well done, him’, but then the clock went red … it was very, very close in the end.”
Piggy’s win doesn’t just mark her first five-star win, nor just her 25th attempt. It also makes her the first British winner of Badminton since William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning took the title back in 2015. Furthermore, her victory is the 100th-ever victory for a British rider at the five-star level. And on a more personal level? It’s been a long time coming, both for the enormously likeable rider and for her plucky, gutsy mare – the second consecutive ‘very ordinary’ mare to win here.
“It’s these little horses that make it for us,” said Piggy of Trevor Dickens‘ fourteen-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare (Camiro de Haar Z x Fair Caledonian). “She’s a pain in the ass 362 days a year, and she’s really tricky to manage. She’s not the nicest of things to ride, you know, and she’s difficult, but she’s amazing – I say it all so fondly, because we all love her to bits. She’s a true five-star horse that comes to form at Badminton and Burghley. The rest of the time, she feels pretty ordinary, and you have to work pretty hard for what you can get. She doesn’t find any of it easy, and if I’d built that course at home and practiced it on the same side of the arena, I could do it fifty times and never have a clear round. There’s something about her, and those great little mares that just do enough when they need to. If they’re on your side, they’re just incredible.”
For Piggy, the win – and the ongoing upward trajectory towards it – is made even more special by the fact that she’s had to rebuild her business and, more pertinently, her self-belief. After a period of plummeting lows in the early years of the decade, which saw her miss out on an Olympic berth in 2012 and a team place at the Europeans in 2013 and subsequently lose owners, sponsors, and funding, she’s now reaping the rewards and the joys of rediscovered love for her sport.
“It’s a complete fairytale, if I’m honest. It’s such a team effort, and I know everyone says it so much, but nobody has a bloody clue what you go through to get to the level, to be competitive at this level, and actually get your nose in front of the line first. It’s impossible, and you kind of get used to saying ‘well done’ to everyone else, and going home and thinking ‘oh, I had a rail; I could have been here, I could have been there.’ You go home and you work away, and you dream again, but you get way more knock-backs. It’s so hard, and it’s just having those people here when it all comes together means so much. It’s such a team effort.”
Two of those crucial people are Piggy’s partner, Tom March, and their three-year-old son, Max, who had spent much of the week with his godparents. Today, the family was reunited at Badminton as Piggy completed her round.
“The emotions when I saw him, when he came over to me when I finished – it’s really special,” Piggy smiled. “He has no idea what’s going on; he’s much more interested in the tractors going around moving the jumps, but it’s amazing. Hopefully, one day he’ll realise how special this is.”
One day, we suspect he will – but we also suspect he might live to regret his rather casual approach to his first television appearance when he brings a girlfriend home to meet mum and dad.
She has the successes, the happy family, and now the biggest win of her career, but one thing still niggles at Piggy French: “They’ll have to write the name ‘Piggy’ in the history books, which will annoy everyone,” she grinned. “Is it too late to start going by ‘Georgina’?”
Although he missed out on another big win today, Oliver Townend can’t be too upset – he managed, after all, to finish with both his horses in the top ten, despite the general consensus that in the game of Cillnabradden Evo you win, or you, well, crash and burn. He did neither of those things, and instead treated us to a week full of masterclasses in riding the horse you’ve got in the phase you’re in.
2017 Burghley winner Ballaghmor Class ultimately finished second, marking the fourth five-star for the twelve-year-old son of Courage II, who’s never yet been out of the top five at this level. In spite of all the horse’s previous achievements, Oliver found a new level of quality in him this week.
“He’s impressive all the time, but that was his best performance to date, yesterday,” he asserted. “The horse doesn’t really know it’s not won Badminton – he never does prizegivings anyway because he’s a bit wild, so he’s probably down there in the stables telling his mates he’s won!”
Oliver was quick to celebrate the victory, despite the fact it cost him his moment of glory: “congratulations to Piggy for an unbelievable performance and an unbelievable achievement,” he said. “We were actually together for seven years, so we know each other quite well, and it’s been a long time coming. It’s a very special week for her and the family.”
Finishing in sixth place was the competition’s ultimate dark horse, stablemate Cillnabradden Evo. Sally-Anne Egginson’s thirteen-year-old gelding, defying the odds and his detractors, and showing Oliver’s riding at its very best. The horse seemed to bottom out in the latter stages of yesterday’s course, but Oliver picked him up and guided him home, breathing a second wind into him and adding just 12.4 time penalties to his record-breaking 19.7 dressage. Today, ‘Gary’ came out as fresh as a daisy, delivering a very nearly foot-perfect round and just tipping one rail. Despite this, he was one of the most enjoyable horses to watch – he’s a consummate showjumper, and looks quality enough to tackle this discipline with aplomb, too.
Australia’s Chris Burton made it a double in the top five, despite a shock moment in fourth-placed Graf Liberty‘s round. Mid-way through an impeccably smooth course, he dropped anchor at the water tray, crashing through it and stopping the clock for a rebuild. Undeterred, he then restarted to produce an otherwise clear round, ultimately losing Chris no ground on the leaderboard, but allowing Kate Walls’ young gun Cooley Lands to step up into third place.
“I’ve had a terrible run at Badminton [over the years] – I’ve never had any luck here, so I’m delighted with how the week’s gone,” he said. “There’s no doubt it’s the premiere event in the world; in the weeks leading up to it, I try to tell myself it’s not important, but you can’t help it. I’m delighted to have gone so well.”
Cooley Lands’ success is made even more remarkable by the fact that he isn’t ridden full-time by Chris; instead, owner Kate produces, schools, and occasionally still competes the horse, just handing the reins over to Chris for major competitions.
“I’ve always been very fond of him, and I was very lucky to pick up the ride on him,” said Chris. “He’s a little star, and he showed it today. Of course it’s sometimes a bit of the unknown, but he’s a very good horse and that makes it work.”
The indefatigable Kiwi Andrew Nicholson rounded out the top five with the twelve-year-old Swallow Springs who, we think it’s fair to say, has officially taken the step from ‘up-and-comer’ to ‘stable star’. The tricky grey didn’t quite manage the FOD he delivered for third at Burghley last year, but two rails down still only cost him two placings on the leaderboard.
“He felt very babyish at the beginning of the round – it’s difficult when you’re up against the crowds and the trees, and he just showed his inexperience there,” explained Andrew. “He went into himself a bit and wasn’t really concentrating, but the second half of the course felt very, very smart. He’ll have learned a lot from it. I’ve been very pleased with him; he’s a youngish horse at this level and I think he’s done very well.”
Dreams came true across the board: Imogen Murray and Ivar Gooden once again took the Glentrool trophy for making the biggest climb up the leaderboard, leaping an incredible 57 places through the weekend. Even better, they finally cracked the top ten, finishing eighth overall. It would be amiss, too, not to mention William Fox-Pitt, who completed his first Badminton since his 2015 victory and the subsequent accident that nearly ended his career. He finished tenth aboard Little Fire and thirteenth aboard Oratorio II, a son of his five-star winner Oslo.
“For a while I did wonder what I was doing [coming back to the sport],” he said. “But suddenly, at 50, I see a future. Who says that at 50?!”
So what should the take-away of all this be for those of us who struggle through, who try to make it happen, and who take the hits and wonder, sometimes, why we’re doing it at all? Our 2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials champion says it best:
“Three days ago if you’d asked me [whether to make eventing a career], I’d say do something else, do anything else – but now I can say that dreams do come true. You’ve got to keep believing, keep working, keep believing in your system, and keep loving riding horses. Everyone earns their own success one day, and this is mine.”
From Badminton, with love – we bid you adieu.
The 2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials is brought to you in partnership with the team at Voltaire Design United Kingdom. Going to Badminton? Head to Voltaire Design on Stand 253 on Somerset Way and meet the team of Sports Saddle Specialists, arrange a free, totally no-obligation fitting for you and your horse, or indulge in the Deal of the Day. Put a deposit on a new saddle during the event, and you’ll receive a matching girth, stirrup leathers, and saddlepad – free! Looking for a bargain? Head to Voltaire Design’s sister stand, EquiTack, to check out their premium pre-loved saddles at rock-bottom prices.