“I can’t tell you how special winning a big one is when you get to this stage,” says Pippa Funnell, who jumped a faultless round to retain her lead and secure the win in the 2023 Bramham CCI4*-L with MCS Maverick. “You think you’re past it — oh, god, I’m going to blub! — and then to do it…”
This marks Pippa’s fourth win in this class — she’s previously taken the title in 1992, 2002, and 2010, although this win, she says, “makes me a feel a little bit of a fraud, the way I’ve come in here saying ‘oh, I don’t know how he’s going to be’, but I genuinely didn’t know! I think this is the first rosette I’ve won on him!”
CCI4*-L debutant MCS Maverick is a new ride for 2023 for Pippa, who inherited him from her Billy Stud stable jockey and fellow five-star rider Helen Wilson. Even having been previously impressed by the look of the horse, though, Pippa had her reservations about taking the ride on herself: “He’s very, very hot, and I thought, ‘do I really want to put all that time and work in?” But once she did commit to giving him a go, “I really wanted to bring him here because I wanted to find out if it was worth putting the time in at my age. And at the moment, it’s definitely been worth it!”
The time she does have to put in isn’t inconsiderable, though, and it begins with an early arrival time to maximise the ten-year-old’s settling-in period.
“At every event, what I’m trying to do is go a day early. I knew my dressage was going to be on the Friday, and I came on the Tuesday anyway, because you can’t tire him out, and I don’t want to tire him out,” Pippa says. “The last thing you want to do is put loads of wear and tear on a nice horse, so instead, it’s about the mind games — it’s getting them out, then putting them away, then getting them out, then putting them away… just keeping him relaxed and getting him to slow his brain down. That really showed, I think, in the showjumping — he was so relaxed, although that might be because he ran all the way round yesterday!”
The reward of the slow approach was evident in the first phase, too, where the pair earned a 29.3 to sit second going into cross-country.
“I think all the time, it’s been going in the right direction, but when I went to Bicton CCI4*-S, it had been a long time since he ran at Burnham Market CCI4*-S, but I really thought we were getting there,” she says. “In the trot work, he got 7s and 8s — but in the walk work, it was 1s and 2s. He didn’t take one step of walk through all those movements, but then in the canter he was good. That was the same test as here, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to get stressed about it; I’m going to make sure I give him time’.”
This morning, after the final horse inspection, and after the efforts of yesterday’s speedy clear across the cross-country, Pippa also carved out pure, unadulterated time for the horse to just settle within himself before the competition’s climax.
“After the horse inspection, I took him up beyond the stable field, and I didn’t want to jump him this morning, but I did want to do some pole work and stretch him,” she says. “He’s got a very big stride, so I just did some canter poles and got him to close himself up, but in a relaxed way. He’ll sleep well after this — he’s running on adrenaline, but I’m really chuffed because you often question whether you’re doing it the right way when you have a horse that wants to go faster than you want to go. I’m chuffed that it worked, and delighted for his owner, Sarah Ross — it’s just sad she wasn’t here!”
She had reason enough not to be: it’s Sarah’s birthday this weekend, and as Bramham was never necessarily a sure thing in Maverick’s calendar for the year, her family organised to spirit her away for a celebration, but she’s been cheering her horse and rider on from afar while making sure that Pippa, like Maverick, is totally unpressured.
“She sent me a text saying ‘absolutely brilliant yesterday — but there’s absolutely no pressure for today’,” says Pippa. “Of course, there’s that bit of me that wanted to stay ahead of Piggy, but actually I came in looking at it as a way to find out more about the horse.”
Of course, ultimately she managed both: she learned that the horse, and the system, were both even better than expected, and she stayed ahead of her great friend, too.
“I said to her yesterday, ‘god, you’re an annoying cow, aren’t you?'” she laughs. “Gemma Stevens was messaging me, and because Piggy had been right on her tail last week, I said, ‘as much as I love Piglet, she’s bloody annoying, the way she’s right there waiting!'”
And waiting in close quarters, she certainly was. Just four competitors finished on their dressage score in this week’s CCI4*-L competition, and the highest-placed of those was runner-up Piggy March, who secured the goods with her Thoresby CCI4*-S winner and CCI4*-L debutant Brookfield Cavalier Cruise, just 0.3 penalties behind Pippa. But while she and the Brookfield team came in with reasonable expectations for their first-timer, it also wasn’t really a surprise to anyone when he pulled three exceptional phases out of the bag: “He felt very careful and good and easy to do today — it didn’t take anything out of him, so it’s really exciting. He’s kind of gone as well as I hoped he would, but until you do it, you don’t know. And it’s so tough out there — the cross-country’s as tough as it gets for a four-star, so to deal with it well and come out and jump nicely is really exciting.”
So far, 2023 has represented a very promising start for Piggy and the ten-year-old, who she previously rode as a young Intermediate before suggesting that he go the way of fellow Brookfield rider Tom McEwen, “because I thought he’d be better for him at five-star, and Tom might be braver about going a bit quicker!” But when Piggy’s top horse, Brookfield Inocent, sustained an injury last year that has sidelined him since, the decision was made to rearrange the situation again so that each rider could have a Brookfield horse at the upper end of their strings.
“Brookfield tries to share the horses around a bit, and he’s a horse who’s won with every rider — he’s an easy, charming horse — so I’m just the very lucky one in that it’s worked out at this stage of his career that he’s with me,” says Piggy. “It’s a testament to the horse — he’s a very straightforward, level character, and ever since he was a five-year-old, he hasn’t needed to run much. He’s got a very old head on young shoulders, and that’s the beauty of him, and why he’s progressed quickly.”
British-based Kiwi Jesse Campbell delivered a clear to secure the third place he’d held overnight with the former Jonty Evans ride Gambesie – despite “a few butterflies!” at the final horse inspection this morning, where he was asked to trot the horse a second time, but then quickly accepted.
Jesse came into the final phase with something of a secret weapon on his side: Irish showjumper Shane Breen, who gave the pair a final training session on the Monday of the event. Training with the Hickstead Derby winner has been transformative, even if, as Jesse explains, it began as something of a time-filler during the pandemic: “It’s a bit of a Covid development,” he says. “We sort of were scratching our heads with Team New Zealand on sort of things that we could do during 2020, and we made some calls and explored some options, and that was one of them. He’s based at Hickstead, which isn’t far from where I am now, and so I’ve been really lucky to be under his tutelage. He’s a true horseman, so he just understands horses on a whole ‘nother level that I wouldn’t have even explored before. Mostly he’s changed things for us by telling me, ‘just use your legs more!'”
When Jesse found himself sitting in third after cross-country with the level debutant Gambesie, he sent a text to the Irishman — “he texted me back saying ‘relax, and remember how to be a showjumper.’ And then the horse did it for me. It was magic.”
In just about every way, the twelve-year-old gelding has exceeded expectations this week: Jesse and his team have focused on short format events with him exclusively since the Seven-Year-Old World Championships in 2018, largely due to ongoing issues with the horse’s hooves, which they now hope they’ve conclusively solved.
“It was all a bit of an unknown as to what he could do this week,” says Jesse, “but we’re lucky in that we’re able to train on the South Downs, and because we’ve had such a wet spring, we’ve got perfect ground. He’s had a really long, slow build-up to this, and I really hoped that that bank of fitness work would come through for us, especially as he doesn’t really have a catalogue of long-format experience to fall back on. He’s come through it amazingly well, and I found him so rideable. I loved riding the track; it was just really cool.”
If Jesse stumbled upon any surprises out on Ian Stark’s tough track, it was simply the pleasant shock of discovering that his short-format horse might actually be the perfect contender for the toughest, longest of tracks.
“He was just so easy — like, I was continually surprised just how easily he travelled,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘oh, we’re five seconds up!’ and it was coming easier than it had on my other horse, who’s the one I think of as the fast one. He just kept on jumping and galloping.”
Tom McEwen‘s smart, sharp ten-year-old Luna Mist, who was a winner at Blair CCI4*-L last summer, stepped up two places into a final fourth place on the strength of her clear round. That was enough to earn her the competition’s best-placed mare prize, edging out Harry Meade‘s Cavalier Crystal, who finished fifth just 0.6 penalties behind. Fresh off the back of her biggest career win yet at Chatsworth CCI4*-S, and in her first year out of the under-25 class, Lizzie Baugh finished on her dressage score of 35.8 with B Exclusive to take sixth place in just her second-ever CCI4*-L, while Aaron Millar and KEC Deakon put a pin in a successful Badminton reroute to take seventh.
Winner Pippa had another reason to celebrate today: Harry Mutch finished his inaugural Bramham senior CCI4*-L competition in eighth place, tipping a solitary rail with his seventeen-year-old top-level campaigner HD Bronze. Harry has recently come through the all-round training programme offered by the Wesko Equestrian Foundation, of which Pippa is the primary trainer; at the tail end of his tenure with the programme, he temporarily relocated from his northern home base to ride full time with Pippa at the Billy Stud, and the results of their combined efforts have been writ large across the 26-year-old’s recent performances. At Bramham particularly, it’s a significant uptick: he’s previously contested the under-25 class three times with HD Bronze — once at Bicton, when the class was relocated there during Covid — and has never previously completed cross-country. This time, though? His 30.2 saw him sit fifth after dressage; adding just 3.2 time penalties yesterday kept him in the same slot; and while that singular rail today will be a touch disappointing to any elite athlete, that competitive trajectory over the course of the last year can’t be sniffed at.
There was just one competitor for the US across any of Bramham’s classes this year, but Grace Taylor made sure to represent the Stars and Stripes well: she and the eleven-year-old Game Changer overcame a tense start to the week, when they were held at the first horse inspection, to stay well in touch with the business end of the leaderboard throughout the competition. Their 35.5 put them in the mix on day one, and while they didn’t feature in the top ten at the close of dressage, a barnstorming round with just 3.6 time penalties across the country yesterday nudged them closer. When they delivered a classy clear today, the daughter of British team selector Nigel Taylor and US Olympian Ann (neé Sutton) and her relatively inexperienced mount were able to make the final leap and take a final ninth place. The top ten is rounded out by Gubby Leech, who finished on his dressage score of 39.7 with Royal Harvest to close the book on an impressive week-long climb.
And so the crazy train rolls on into another five-star week — one that both EN and Pippa Funnell will be heading full speed towards tomorrow. We’ll see you there — and we’ll be back soon with a final report from Bramham’s CCI4*-S class — but until then, and as always, Go Eventing.