A Moet moment - Badminton Horse Trials 2018
The Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials of 2018 was always going to be memorable. With Michael Jung planning to make this the last Badminton for the great La Biosthetique Sam and Oliver Townend going for the Rolex Grand Slam, there was never going to be a shortage of stories to tell.
Our Badminton experience began with an epic voyage to the historic estate. 3 major accidents on 2 different motorways meant our journey took 6 hours rather than the anticipated 3, meaning we only arrived at the event after lunch on Friday. This was incredibly disappointing as it meant missing a hotly anticipated course walk with William Fox-Pitt organised by The Eventing Club.
We were, however, just in time to watch a hugely interesting (and entertaining) dressage demonstration by Pammy Hutton and the Talland School of Equitation during the lunch break in the main dressage phase. The demonstration was very much a family affair, with Pammy, her son, daughter and daughter-in-law all involved in showing the packed stands how they trained their young horses to make the transition up the dressage grades. We can't have been the only ones who aren't particularly well informed about how Grand Prix dressage horses are trained, so the insight given during the demonstration was fascinating.
It wasn't all dressage for us on Friday however, as the lure of the shops proved too strong to resist. We were particularly keen to seek out new products from the brands you love as well as some fabulous new finds (keep an eye out for more on both of these soon!) Our find of the day was the launch of the brand new Amira boots with a flat heel from Fairfax & Favor. We can't have been the only ones who loved the original style but were put off by the height of the heel, so to find the boots in a flat version led to more than a moment of serious temptation!
Not surprisingly, the equestrians amongst us were exceptionally well catered for, and the highlight here was the new jumping saddle launched by Albion England at Badminton. Genuinely the most comfortable saddle we've sat on, we loved the close contact style and were left wishing we could try it out on horseback (look out for a special feature on Albion England coming soon).
But for now, back to the competition...
This year saw the removal of the 'co-efficient' or 'multiplier' scoring system used in previous years. Designed to bring the dressage scores closer together and thus make for a more exciting competition across all three phases, opinion was divided in the run up to the event as to whether this would be good move for the sport.
Sue Baxter, the judge at C writing in Horse & Hound (26 April, Badminton Special) felt that the new system would reward those who had spent the endless winter off-season working on their horse's flexibility and ability to listen to the rider's aids even during the competition atmosphere. The marks were certainly close, as by the end of the dressage phase, less than 7 marks separated the top 20. Ironically, the top 3 would have still been the top 3 under the old scoring system.
Standout performances over this first phase of competition were Ros Canter and Allstar B, who put in their usual beautiful test to go into 3rd place, and Jonty Evans with Cooley Rorke's Drift. This pair delighted the crowds with a lovely relaxed test to take them into a surprise 4th place, something that delighted all 6,800 odd of 'Art's' 'owners', who memorably came together during last year's crowdfunding campaign to keep the ride for Jonty.
As over 100,000 cross-country fans descended upon a sun-drenched Badminton House on Saturday, there was very much a holiday atmosphere. We headed straight for the lake to catch the action and were quickly overheating in our favourite Dubarry Galway boots - we'd have been far better to have chosen some deck shoes or even flip flops in hindsight!
There were more fences visible than ever from this most iconic of Badminton locations and, due to the course running anti-clockwise this year, the Lake fences came early in the course. Although this meant the drama levels and the number of 'swimmers' were reduced, it was wonderful to see horses travelling well through the 4 fences here.
On a day where no one finished inside the optimum time (though Jonelle Price and Classic Moet came close with only 0.4 time penalties), the lack of preparation that British-based riders had to cope with in the run up to the event was noticeable with a number of combinations struggling with the combination of sticky ground and high temperatures, leading to a number of retirements.
It wouldn't be eventing without some spills as well as thrills, and Piggy French was one who went for an unscheduled swim at fence 20 on Vanir Kamira. Jonty Evans and Cooley Rorke's Drift also gave the crowd a 'heart in mouth' moment as 'Art' managed to get stuck on one of the fences (we're pleased to say he's absolutely fine).
Very sadly, Alexander Bragg's Badminton dream ended in tragedy when his ride Redpath Ransom sustained a devastating suspensory ligament injury while travelling between fences towards the end of the course. His injuries were such that he had to be put down after veterinary consultation and our condolences go to Alexander and all his connections.
The happier stories of the cross country phase belonged to Jonelle Price and Imogen Murray (Classic Moet and Ivar Gooden respectively), whose cross country rounds were so phenomenal that they climbed 21 and 43 places respectively to lie in 1st and 16th places after the 2nd phase.
With all horses that presented safely through the final vet inspection, and with Oliver Townend getting both his horses through despite the extra scrutiny resulting from his warning for excessive use of the whip in both his cross country rounds, it was onto the coloured poles for the final phase of competition.
As well as being the final phase of this year's Badminton, this year's showjumping phase presented a number of 'lasts'. Last year's winner, 18 year old Nereo was retired from 4* competition by Andrew Nicholson and it definitely felt like the end of an era with the knowledge that this would also be the final time we would see the legendary La Biosthetique Sam at Badminton.
Due to the narrow range of marks separating the top 20, with the top 8 all being within 1 fence of each other, we were in for a nail biting competition in this final phase. Clear rounds were few (only 9% of the entire field went clear), and the scorers were kept on their toes as placing changed considerably with each new rider into the arena right up to the top 5.
The top 5 showed their absolute class however, and 4 out of the top 5 after cross country retained their places at the end of the showjumping. Despite the whip usage controversy from the cross country phase, Oliver Townend produced two solid if unexceptional rounds on both Cooley SRS and Ballaghmor Class to take 2nd and 5th respectively. The disappointment was palpable however as he missed out on what would have been an incredible story of his winning the Rolex Grand Slam on three different first-time 4* horses. He is, however, the only person in well over a decade to have 4 different horses in the top 10 over the Kentucky and Badminton events in the same year - a huge achievement by any standards and a testament to him, his owners and support team.
Ros Canter again showed us what a exceptional event rider she is in this final round, incidentally also showing us how all 3 phases of competition are influential in today's sport. Having been in 3rd place after both dressage and cross country phases, Ros showed herself to be Miss Consistency on Allstar B, the super 13 year old bay gelding owned by herself and Caroline Moore, retaining her 3rd place after the final phase was complete.
The afternoon, however, definitely belonged to Jonelle Price and Classic Moet, a lovely British-bred 15 black mare owned by Jonelle and Trisha Richards. With only 0.4 penalties accrued during cross country Jonelle rode into the sun-drenched arena on Sunday in 1st place and with a full fence in hand. You could hear a pin drop as Jonelle and Classic Moet travelled round the course, all until the combination landed after the final water jump at which point the silence turned into a roar from the delighted crowd who were thrilled to see another Badminton champion crowned.
Congratulations Jonelle and we'll drink a glass of Classic Moet to next year's Badminton Horse Trials!
With thanks to Equiratings for their invaluable help and statistics over the three phases of competition.