A (Ballaghmor) Class act - Burghley Horse Trials 2017

The weather gods were truly smiling on a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire last weekend. Early morning mists lent an almost fairytale quality to Burghley House as the historic estate welcomed the approximately 160,000 spectators who gathered there over four days of competition to see who would be crowned champion of this year’s Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.

Thursday and Friday’s dressage phase produced some incredible scores, and Sir Mark Todd took the lead going into the cross country with Leonidas II on 36.7. The longer-term eventing fans amongst us have noted with interest just how influential the dressage phase has become over the last decade or so, with combinations on higher scores (in contrast to pure dressage where it’s a case of the higher the score, the better) increasingly ruling themselves out of contention before they ever see a fence. This year’s competition at Burghley was no exception, as, although the cross country course claimed a fair few victims as we shall see, the eventual top 3 finishers could all be found in the top 10 after dressage.

With what the showjumping phase’s course designer Richard Jeffery would later describe as “the best going I can remember”, and bathed in glorious late summer sunshine, thousands of eventing fans descended on every fence of Captain Mark Phillips’ testing cross country track on Saturday to enjoy all the thrills (and more than a few spills) that the cross country phase has to offer. Taking a clockwise route for the third consecutive year, the time would always prove challenging as the undulations of the ground, in combination with how the fences are positioned, make the course a significantly harder test of stamina. Only three combinations were to make it round inside the time, and taking alternative routes were effectively out of the question if riders wanted to remain competitive this year.

The questions came thick and fast over the 34 fence track and there were very few ‘let-up’ fences anywhere on the course to give either rider or horse a breather. From the perspective of the side lines, one tough test, for the riders at least, came at fences 12 and 13, as the horses had to jump the fence 12 log pile on their way up the dauntingly steep Winners’ Avenue before having to face the Cottesmore Leap, dubbed “the [eventing] world’s most scary fence” at the top of the long climb. We could certainly see why some riders choose not to get too close to the fence - wide enough to park a Range Rover in - when they walk the course!

The testing track felt back-loaded with difficulty, and this is certainly borne out by the fence analysis. With horses tiring towards the end of the course, both the Discovery Valley (fences (26 and 27) and the FEI Classics Leaf Pit (fences 29 and 30) proved hugely influential with more faults or eliminations here than anywhere else on the course.

Some high profile casualties on the course included Michael Jung, who took the decision to retire his legendary La Biosthetique Sam at the Land Rover Trout Hatchery (fences 22 and 23) after Sam had a most uncharacteristic run out, and Sir Mark Todd with Leonidas II, who lost his footing after an awkward jump at the Discovery Valley. The Trout Hatchery also claimed Zara Tindall, as High Kingdom looked strong heading into the latter part of the combination before leaving a leg and catapulting the unfortunate Zara into the drink. Not for nothing can the largest crowds always be found at the water complexes… There were no real ‘bogey’ fences however and most combinations got round safely, even if the majority had a fair few time penalties to add to their dressage score.

With 4 British riders in the Top 5 heading into the final day’s showjumping, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air on Sunday, as crowds packed the stands around the main arena for the climax of the four days of competition. We were fortunate enough in the morning to walk the course with the hugely experienced showjumping course designer Richard Jeffery, and he took us through the pitfalls of designing a course that had to take into account, among other things, the surprisingly undulating ground – a bone of contention with the riders who lock horns annually with those in charge of preserving Burghley’s heritage over trying to get the arena area flattened. Early predictions of trouble at fence 11, a triple combination heading downhill away from the collecting ring proved unfounded as it was instead fence 5, a beautiful Burghley House themed gate set at an angle across the earlier tramlines created by the dressage, that fell most frequently.

With only three fences separating the top 10, it was set to be a close competition and so it proved, with every fallen fence proving influential. Some lovely clear rounds from Tina Cook on Star Witness and Tom McEwen on Toledo de Kerser pushed them up the leaderboard as several poles fell for such class combinations as Izzy Taylor on Trevidden and Andrew Nicholson on the mighty Nereo (a horse we featured, alongside Michael Jung’s La Biosthetique Sam, in our ‘Golden Oldies’ article earlier this summer (www.thefinerhorse.com/single-post/2017/07/18/Golden-oldies---not-such-a-rare-breed)).

Crowd favourite Piggy French on the lovely Irish-bred 12 year old bay mare Vanir Kamira put in a very stylish clear, moving from 5th after cross country to finish 2nd. With Vanir Kamira not having originally been scheduled to run at Burghley and having contemplated giving up eventing following the birth of her first child last year we’re sure Piggy feels she made the right decisions now! Second last to go, no one had told Gemma Tattersall’s Arctic Soul, an Irish bred ex-racehorse, that he could be expected to feel a little weary on this final day of competition. Coming into the showjumping phase in second place, and less than a fence behind Oliver Townend, Arctic Soul had an unfortunate fence down as he towed Gemma round in his determination not to get any time faults, finishing in 3rd.

The biggest cheer of the day went up for Oliver Townend as he was last to enter the ring on Ballaghmor Class. Clearly still full of energy, as he had been at the very end of the cross country phase, this lovely Irish Sports Horse grey gelding, who is still only 10 years old, was able to take full advantage of the large lead opened up by the unlucky falling poles of earlier competitors. In fact, Oli was so far ahead he was able to have not only a fence down but also a time penalty and still retain over a point’s lead from his nearest competitor. As he took his victory lap to thunderous applause and cheers from the crowd, it was clear this victory meant a lot to a man who hasn’t had a 4* victory since winning at Burghley on Carousel Quest, another grey, in 2009. With his more famous former ride Flint Curtis also being a grey, clearly he has a lucky horse colour…

Lastly, with one 10 year old in 1st place, we turn to lower placed 10 year olds that we think are ones to watch. All these combinations managed to climb from top 50 to top 15 placings on cross country day and impressed over the coloured poles as well - definitely potential stars of the future. We were seriously impressed with Away Cruising, a handsome grey Irish Sport Horse gelding ridden by Harry Meade, as well as Xam, a British bred grey Thoroughbred gelding ridden by Harry Dzenis and Ivar Gooden, another British bred horse, this time a bay Irish Sport Horse gelding, ridden by Imogen Murray. Toledo de Kerser, a French bred bay Selle Francais gelding is another one to watch under Tom McEwen, a rider who has managed the rare feat of representing Britain at Pony, Junior, Young Rider and latterly Senior level. With British Eventing already looking to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, it’s clear that we have some exciting combinations for selectors to pick from in the next few years.

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