The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials‘ core team has seen plenty of changes this year: not only is there a new director in Martyn Johnson, who’s previously been at the helm of Burgham International in Northumberland, there’s also a new course designer — Kentucky’s Derek di Grazia, making his English debut — and, finally, a new showjumping designer in Paul Connor, who had the unenviable job of building a track today that would shake up the standings without punishing tired horses.
Of course, this isn’t Paul’s first rodeo:he took the reins at last year’s Burghley replacement at Bicton, and so was well aware of the interplay between tough terrain tests and athletic ability the following day. Still, though, he took the time to get to know Burghley’s uniquely undulating grass arena, siting his fences amongst its gentles dips and mounds in order to up the ante. And up the ante it did: just seven horse-and-rider combinations of the 28 starters would secure a clear round, and just six would do so without adding time penalties.
“The ground was perfect, and we’ve worked hard on that — but actually, when I walked on it firstly it already felt lovely,” says Paul. “The ground itself is very undulating so it’s a little bit up and a little bit down all the way here and all the way there, which is good, because you can use that to help your distances. The field was very good, with some very scopey horses, and a few unlucky poles — but again, I think that’s where the ground does a little bit and it catches the odd person like that.”
That undulating ground and tricky course meant that just one horse and rider of the eight in the morning session turned in a clear round, and though Andrew James and Celtic Morning Star‘s achievement will have given the afternoon’s top twenty some confidence, the seven other rounds made it achingly clear just how tough the task ahead would be. And just as we always say that the measure of a true Burghley is its ability to propel people up the rankings on Saturday, there’s also much to be said for the influence that a serious final-day track can play as well. Paul Connor’s piece de resistance did exactly the job it was meant to do: by the end of the competition, those scant few clear rounds saw their riders rightfully find themselves in the midst of the very best in the world.
Of course, that made for an afternoon session of showjumping that was very nearly unwatchably tense, particularly as we crept towards the business end of the proceedings. The top three after cross-country — Piggy March and Vanir Kamira, Tim Price and Vitali, and Jonelle Price and Classic Moet — are highly regarded for their many inimitable qualities, but it would be hard to argue that showjumping is high on the list for any, and while Vanir Kamira and Classic Moet alike had both previously managed rare clears under pressure to win Badminton, a smattering of poles between them didn’t feel like an unlikely possibility.
For 19-year-old Classic Moet, jumping in third place, that proved the case. She didn’t have a fence in hand over fourth-placed Tom Jackson and Capels Hollow Drift, who had jumped one of the best rounds of the day, and although the round started well, without the mare’s classic tip-tap skimming technique, they took the airy upright out of the first part of the treble at 8ABC, and then added another rail at ten, handing Tom a podium finish. He would move up one more place after Tim Price and Vitali, who have historically struggled in this phase but had one rail in hand to spare, took out the second fence and then the first and final parts of the treble.
And so, as overnight leaders Piggy March and Vanir Kamira cantered into the ring, now with two rails and a touch of time in hand, it was with the grimmest of game faces firmly in place. As the seventeen-year-old mare met each fence, she did so with her feet first, clattering her way around the course but somehow keeping the rails in situ — until she came to the first part of the double at 4, which fell with a thud. Now, she had just one in hand, and a tough time on the clock to keep half an eye on, too — but she would need neither. Pole after pole bounced in its cups, but no more fell, and Piggy March crossed the finish line as the 2022 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials champion.
“I can’t quite believe it, really, but I’m just so relieved,” she says.”I felt like I put more pressure on myself today than I normally do; I’m usually pretty… well, relaxed might be a strong word, but I definitely understand that what will be will be. Today, though, I just felt so much that this little horse deserves it as much as any horse here does. I just didn’t want to let her down. You’ve just got to go and do your thing, but I was just so desperate for her name to be up there on the plaques at Winners’ Avenue. She’s been a Burghley horse through and through — she’s been second twice, fifth, and has now won, and she’s got a total of 4.8 time penalties across all of those runs. It’s the toughest cross-country course in the world to make the time, and she’s a very special horse for that reason.”
Now, plucky ‘Tillybean’ — the very model of an unconventional champion with an oversized heart — becomes just the third-ever mare to win this event, and the fifteenth horse in history to win both Badminton and Burghley. For Piggy, who recorded her first five-star win with the mare at Badminton in 2019, it feels every inch as surreal to follow it up at the world’s biggest event.
“It’s really what dreams are made of, and without a doubt, this’ll be one of the best days, if not the best day, along with Badminton for me,” says Piggy. “I’m just so proud; it’s a massive, massive achievement, and even out there taking the trophy pictures with the cars, I can look back on all the pictures of Oliver, of Pippa, of William, and everyone you see in the magazines. You think, ‘oh, that just looks amazing — will it ever be me?’ You believe it in your training, and you believe it going, but it can easily not be. We all know that, and it’s the same in every sport — but you just keep trying and keep believing and you just hope that someday, someone’s looking down and it’s your day. We all know that as sports people and horsepeople; you have your moments every now and then, and someone was looking down today to say it was the moment for me.”
Tom Jackson is no stranger to the topmost level, nor to great success in the saddle: he rode around Badminton and Pau a number of times, with a top-ten finish to his name at the latter with Billy Cuckoo and a wealth of experience gleaned with his former Junior and Young Rider Europeans medallist Waltham Fiddlers Find. But this trip to Burghley was a first for him — and a top ten placing at the level on home soil, too, had eluded him.
He hasn’t quite had a horse like Capels Hollow Drift, though. The eleven-year-old impressed enormously at Badminton, finishing sixteenth and looking for all the world like a win might be in him one day — and when he pulled out a foot-perfect showjumping round today, he was able to rocket himself and his rider up from fourth to second place, having started the week outside the top ten.
“That horse is just class — to go around the cross-country like he did yesterday, and then to go in and jump as well as he did today,” says 29-year-old Tom. “It makes my job so easy knowing that he’s got that capability, and he always wants to do the right thing. I’m over the moon with him. He jumped really well, but not as well as he can do after yesterday’s efforts — so for him to dig as deep as he did is really pleasing.”
Though Tom hasn’t previously ridden at Burghley, his gelding’s progression throughout the season made him quietly confident that a placing could be on the cards if luck was on their side.
“I’d sort of been thinking in the back of my mind that we could be in the top five, but to be second — especially to Piggy! — almost feels like winning. We’re over the moon with how he’s gone, and how he’s come out of Badminton and stepped up this week. He’s obviously very talented, but one of his best assets is that his brain is so good. He always wants to do the right thing, and he’s always with me and concentrating. That makes my life so much easier.”
Still, though, being conscious of the realistic possibility of a great result and actually achieving it are two different things, and for Tom, a result of this magnitude is an emotional moment that heralds the next phase of his exciting career.
“We dreamt of doing this well, but actually come here and do it is something else,” he says. “We’ve been working quite hard for quite a while, and I hope that a lovely horse like him can keep progressing and get us closer to these teams.”
Tom, who’s based in the Surrey hills just forty minutes from the Billy Stud, was one of a number of riders mentored by Pippa Funnell this week, and she gave him some simple advice ahead of his round: “She said, ‘just concentrate on what you’re doing and ride like you normally do’ — and hopefully, I did that. He jumped so well for me.”
It’s hard not to feel frustrated for Tim Price, who has in Vitali an extraordinary horse with one great weakness at the moment. Like a musical theatre actor who can’t get the choreography quite in time, he’s something of a double threat and a promise — and after tipping the second fence and the first and last parts of the treble, slipping from the runner-up position he held through the week to a final third, Tim had to think of the horse’s long-term prospects to avoid the weight of disappointment that comes with another showjumping round gone awry.
“I’ve got to keep it all in perspective,” he says. “It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that you’re in a very good position, and it was a ‘must jump clear’ day to win — but for this horse, it’s his weak phase.”
That weakness has caught them out previously at the Olympics, where they took three rails, and at Luhmühlen CCI5* this summer, where they did the same — but the partnership, which began in 2021 after the horse had had two years out, is a relatively new one, and the talented but inarguably quirky gelding still has plenty of learning and growing to do as an athlete. And at Burghley? Two out of three phases ain’t too shabby, particularly when you still find yourself in a podium position come Sunday evening.
“Overall, he’s been excellent; he put out a really good performance in the dressage to be right up there, and he just excelled yesterday,” says Tim. “He was superb, but that’s bound to take its toll, especially on a horse that’s never been in this position physically before. It’s an unfortunate three rails, but he actually made a lot of very good efforts, too, so we’ll take that away as a positive and look forward to the next one. He’s class, and what he showed me yesterday has definitely got me excited about the future.”
If there are two things that run deep in the Price family camp, it’s fierce competitiveness — and pragmatism. Jonelle Price knew when she entered the arena that a clear round on Classic Moet wouldn’t come easily — after all, when the mare delivered one in 2018 to win Badminton, it was her first international showjumping clear in four years. Though it didn’t quite happen for her, with rails falling at 8A and 10, the nineteen-year-old mare and her exceptional rider only slipped one place to fourth, which even Jonelle had to concede wasn’t a bad way to finish the competition — and, potentially, the remarkable horse’s career.
“If you’d given me a top five at the start of the week, I’d have been very happy — but of course, when you’re up there in the mix you dream of a clear round and of what could be. But we’re going to have to be happy with third and fourth today,” she says. “It’s been a phenomenal week for her. She showed why she deserves to still be here, and she felt as good as ever today.”
One of the great climbs of the week belonged to 20-year-old Alice Casburn, who was born just a year before Classic Moet and is the real-life embodiment of every pony novel you ever gobbled up as a child. She and Topspin only began eventing a few years ago, and the homebred Thoroughbred is out of a mare her mother, Caroline evented — and that mare, too, is out of one of her former Advanced rides. But although they’ve had an extraordinary year, with 19th place finishes at Pau last year and Badminton this year, plus an individual bronze and team gold medal at the Young Rider European Championships, and although Alice has considerable experience over much bigger showjumping courses and even Puissance classes with the gelding, she still found the nerves nearly unbearable ahead of her round.
“I was really, really nervous going in — I was quite relaxed in the lorry park, and then I came down and saw quite a few people,” says Alice, who nonetheless delivered a sparkling clear to move up to fifth after a starting position of 30th. “I said to myself, ‘you’re not here — you’re just showjumping at home!’ But then I heard the crowds cheering for everyone else and I was like, ‘no, I really am here.’ My heart started going but then I felt him spook at the plant pot going in, in his usual fashion — and that’s when I know that he’s up for it and wants to have a good crack. And that’s exactly how he jumped.”
Though cheerful, ineffably cool Alice is outwardly calm — enviably so, in fact, prompting those of us in the mixed zone to discuss whether we’re too old to try to be friends with her — it’s something she’s had to work at. But that work, and an understanding of how her mind works, is what helps her to refocus and get in the zone ahead of pivotal rounds like these.”
“It never came naturally,” she says. “I saw some of my family friends earlier, and they remembered when I was crying my eyes out, refusing to go into the ring for a 70cm round. I think it’s been about blocking out social media and having a nice small bubble, and I’m kind of just in denial that I’m at places when I there. I’m riding around sort of blanking everything out and imagining that I’m at a training show. So no, I never was that brave, and then I hit the hunting field a couple of times and I got more competitive. My competitiveness and my trust in him overpower the fear. I’m still a nervous person, but it’s like my body registers it and my brain doesn’t anymore.”
Alice doesn’t hunt Spin — “I think I’d end up in Yorkshire from Norwich; he’s quite a live wire!” — but instead hunts a former eventer called Ruby, with whom “I can go with my pockets full of sweets and snacks like I’m seven, and just have a nice time.” But really, is there any nicer time than jumping a double clear to finish fifth at your first Burghley?
“I just feel in shock — when I got off I just stood there shaking for a good couple of minutes! I can’t believe it. To finish like this is phenomenal; I’m so grateful, and he’s been absolutely fantastic,” she says, grinning from ear to ear.
Kitty King took sixth place with the exceptional Vendredi Biats after a nearly perfect showjumping round that just suffered from one moment of rotten luck — rather like their excellent cross-country round yesterday, which was looking like their best ever until the gelding misread the width of the wide Fairfax and Favor rails at 19a, hitting a pin and costing Kitty her overnight lead. Had you put a gun to this reporter’s head and asked me to make a bet about her result today, I’d have confidently told you she’d jump a clear round, and it certainly looked as though it was going that way — until the very tidy jumper breathed on a rail to add four penalties.
“It’s pretty bloody frustrating and disappointing, and to be honest, I don’t really like Burghley,” says Kitty with a wry laugh. ” At least I’ve completed this time, I suppose. I’d never managed to complete before, and I really thought this was going to be our week after our start in the dressage, but nothing’s really quite gone 100% to plan. It’s disappointing, and I’m a bit fed up with it all.”
Though their week here has 90% shaken off Kitty’s Burghley demons, the disappointment of being so close to a win and then missing out is palpable — particularly on a horse that jumps with the style that ‘Froggy’ does.
“You see others going around by Braille and they don’t have a rail; he doesn’t touch anything, but touches one and it comes down,” muses Kitty. “And on cross-country he’s foot-perfect, with no hairy moments, but makes one mistake and it’s a pin. We just never quite have a bit of luck on our side. It’s not just been with us this week, but I do hope we win one at some point, because he’s more than capable of achieving it, really.”
“I didn’t think I was going to get down to the first fence,” laughs local rider Richard Jones, who recorded another seventh place finish with Alfies Clover, despite an inauspicious start. After picking up a good canter on the bell, Richard turned to the first fence and his experienced gelding spooked and sucked behind his leg — at which Richard got into the driving seat and found a committed, gusty stride to the jump.
“It was a bit similar to the round we had at Badminton — it was all a bit all over the shop,” laughs Richard, who finished in the same position here in 2019. “But we leave Alfie quite fresh, because he’s fifteen and he knows what he’s doing. He always comes out fresher on the last day, and I don’t know how that works — it takes a fairly special horse to do what he did yesterday and then come out and be bloody fresh today!”
Many riders would have chosen a more conservative canter into the first after feeling that little wobble in the turn, but Richard and Alfie are long-time partners, and he knew that the gelding would be best served by a gutsy ride to get him off the ground.
“I wouldn’t have any fear moving him up,” he explains. “He’s a jumper, foremost in his brain, and while yesterday I’d have liked him to jump a foot lower in the first half of the course so he could be quicker, today I wouldn’t want to be sat on anything else. I’m over the moon with him — to be honest, I’d liked to think I could have finished in the top five, but I was a little bit slow yesterday. When the course is this way around, with the busy bit early, it takes a little bit of time to get him settled, and he jumps a little bit big to start with. But I’m delighted. It means everything to be back at Burghley.”
Pippa Funnell‘s duo of very different geldings have been playing swapsies on the leaderboard all week: at the end of the first phase, she was eighth with the rangy Billy Walk On and tenth with Mr Consistent Majas Hope, and by the end of yesterday, she’d stepped up to ninth with Majas Hope and down to thirteenth with Billy Walk On. But it was the homebred Billy Walk On who would triumph, jumping out of order as the first of the afternoon session and delivering a sparkling clear that would step him back up to a final eighth place — while Majas Hope took a disappointing four rails to move down to sixteenth.
Just a fortnight ago, part-time firefighter Tom Crisp thought about withdrawing from Burghley, which was to be his first crack at five-star since Badminton in 2019, because a smattering of broken ribs accrued in a cross-country schooling fall at home left him in too much pain to ride as normal. But getting Liberty and Glory back to this level has been a serious labour of love for Tom and his family, who bred the tiny, feisty mare from a former Advanced ride of his wife, Sophie’s — there have been niggling injuries along the way, and false starts, and a pesky little pandemic that have put all those big dreams on hold. Finally, in a fit of hubris and with the memories of their sixth-place finish at Pau in 2018 in his mind, he decided to pack the lorry, and his army of children, and point his horse of a lifetime at her first Burghley.
And what a pay-off the Crisp family has had. Though ‘Lori’ was never going to trouble the leaders in the first phase, she soared up the leaderboard from 39th after dressage to fifteenth after a remarkable cross-country round that saw her add just 10.8 time penalties while pinging every jump like a pony show jumper. Today, she proved that the hard work the family and their home team has put into getting her sound and healthy has been well worthwhile, jumping in fine style — with knees well above nostrils — all the way around Paul’s track, adding nothing and climbing to ninth place.
“You can’t beat a clear round at Burghley on the final day, and to jump as well as she did — she rubbed number two and I thought, ‘oh no, come on!’ and then I don’t think she touched another one,” says a teary-eyed Tom with a smile. “She rose to the occasion and made my job easy; she’s a lovely mare, and she’s had a great event. She’s exceeded expectations; two weeks ago I didn’t even think I was coming, but it’s a magical place and it does wonderful things to you. This week, it was good to us.”
For Tom, who’s been working away, often out of the spotlight, for many years at five-star, today’s result was an enormous and emotional milestone.
“In my mind, it almost feels like I’ve won it. You ride your own competition, don’t you? For me and her, it felt like a win: I can’t tell you the ups and downs of the last three weeks, of thinking I couldn’t ride and cancelling all my other events. It’s crazy, and to come here and jump a double clear in her first Burghley when she hasn’t had the best time has just been fantastic.”
Though Lori hasn’t always been the most straightforward of partners — a fact that’s sometimes still evident in her dressage tests — Tom knows that the fire in her belly is what makes her so good, in much the same way that the great mares above her on the leaderboard are so good because they’re unconventional.
“You can’t beat a quirky mare,” he says fondly. “When you get them on side, they love their job and they make training them and working with them so interesting and fun. They give a whole lot more, I think, than any other horse. She’s a quirky one, with a heck of a story behind her; she wasn’t easy in the beginning, and used to just lie down in the start box, or wouldn’t go past fence three, and I always said to Sophie, ‘just sell it and get something easier — we’re wasting our time!’ But we stuck with it. She’s always been a talented thing, and she moved and jumped well, but she wasn’t prepared to apply it in the beginning. She’s a crazy thing, but you need a bit of crazy to do this.”
And speaking of quirky mares, it’s only fitting that the top ten is rounded out by one such oddball, who gained an expansive fan club — certainly among the gathered media — throughout this weekend’s jumping phases.
“There’s no other word for it — she’s just an incredible jumper, and she has such heart,” says US rider Cornelia Dorr, who executed an extraordinary climb throughout the week to move up from first-phase 50th place to a final 10th place with Daytona Beach 8 in their first-ever five-star. Though the mare often looked to have just one (admittedly very high) gear across the country yesterday, she’s extraordinarily quick-footed and catty at the combinations, and she and her 24-year-old rider exhibited such gutsiness and trust in one another that their round was a joy to watch. Today’s showjumping round, which saw them deliver one of those six clears inside the time, was also one of the most enjoyable to watch, as the mare looked to barely touch the ground before clearing each fence by generous inches.
For Cornelia, a good experience at her five-star debut would have been enough of a reward — but to finish in the top ten at Burghley has bolstered her faith in her system in a way that looks set to skyrocket her career.
“It’s given me so much confidence — it’s been amazing,” says Cornelia, who will now plan for a move back to the US in November after a fruitful year spent in England with Kevin McNab.
It was Kevin who first suggested that Cornelia aim the former Sandra Auffarth ride at Burghley — an idea she wasn’t convinced about at first. And even as the benefits of tackling the biggest course in the world started to take root, would Cornelia have believed it if someone had suggested she might finish in the top ten?
“Never — I’d have told them they were crazy,” she laughs. “But she has my back so much. She gives me an unreal feeling, and even though she’s a little bit tired, she’s still just so self-aware. She’s amazing; you can’t beat these good mares.”
Cornelia tops the bill of US riders, the remaining three of whom finished in the top 25: Emily Hamel and Corvett looked on springs around the tricky track, adding one rail and 1.6 time to take 20th place, while Meghan O’Donoghue and Palm Crescent tipped two and added 1.2 time to take 23rd place.
And that’s all she wrote, folks — for now, anyway. We’ll be looking back at Burghley with our analytical (and emotional) glasses on over the next couple of days, but for now, we’re signing out from what has been an unbelievable week of sport. Burghley: it’s great to have you back. Go Eventing.
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