Wow. Just wow. It could not have been more tense, down to the final second.
The SJ course was the biggest ever at Badminton, and in the morning session, faults were spread all around the course. It was inviting (I only saw one stop all day), the distances were forward, but the poles were light, the cups fairly shallow, the oxers airy, the time pretty tight, and there was everything to play for. Fortunes to be made and lost.
The small first fence was pretty much the ‘bogey fence’, if anything was, and many horses faulted here then jumped the bigger fences flawlessly. When we got down to the top 20, clears inside the time started to have a dramatic effect. Rebecca Howard and Riddle Master pulled up from 22nd to 12th (but she Tweeted that she was given the 11th place rosette, bizarrely!) and Nicolas Astier and Piaf de B’Neville pulled up from 17th to 9th. It was hotting up at the top!
Vittoria Panizzon and Borough Pennyz never looked like touching a pole and their clear boosted them relentlessly from 13th to 7th. Stefano Brecciaroli had 1 down and held his 6th place, probably rueing his 6 time penalties yesterday – without them he could have won.
The placings from 5th to 1st just shuffled around. Sandra Auffarth’s masterful clear on the impressive Opgun Louvo (who is absolutely NOT a homebred, however many times bumbling Mike Tucker says that he is, since they really don’t breed many Selle Francais horses in Germany!) proved that their 3rd at Greenwich was no fluke, and pulled her up to 4th.
Andrew Nicholson then went clear inside the time to pile the pressure on the three above him, and, knowing that William was next into the arena, he milked the crowd for all he was worth, gee’ing them on to cheer and cheer again, presumably to make it clear to William that it was still Game On for the Rolex Grand Slam. I’ve never seen him interact like that with the crowds before, so I’m sure this was pure gamesmanship. Is all really fair in love, war and eventing?
William Fox-Pitt was as composed as ever, but Parklane Hawk just rolled a pole and extinguished the Rolex Grand Slam dream for him and his team, raising Andrew’s hopes higher.
But the dark horse, Jock Paget, in 2nd place overnight on Clifton Promise but with no additional pressure of expectation – no Team Jock t-shirts had been printed, he was a Badminton 1st timer with no Grand Slam hopes – had his horse jumping as I’ve never seen it do at a 3 Day, and pulled off a supremely classy clear round to finish on his dressage score. The dream of the big Rolex payday dissolved for Andrew Nicholson at that moment. Suddenly people realised this possibly wasn’t a three horse race after all…
Michael Jung and La Biostheque Sam, reigning European, World and Olympic Champions (an unprecedented clutch of achievements in a lifetime for anyone, never mind simultaneously on one horse before the age of 30) came into the ring, without a fence in hand. You could have heard a pin drop. Calm and stylish as ever, he pulled off an immaculate clear… until the front rail of the final oxer, a classic ‘lazy pole’, rolled, agonisingly late, to the floor, well after they’d landed over the fence. The pictures in HJU’s article show just how late it fell. The FEI commentator had apparently already announced him the winner when it hit the deck. Nail-biting to the last. This gifted the win to Jock and Promise.
There’s a sort of weird poetic justice in the fact that this is exactly what happened to give Michael and Sam the Greenwich Individual Olympic Gold – Sara Algottson and Wega just toppled the last fence when leading and clear till that point. Still, Michael and Sam fans, of whom I am now unashamedly self-appointed chief, were gutted for them. But Michael has already been quoted as saying that he sees the parallel, and will take Olympic Gold over Badminton, given the situation! Can hardly blame him. There’s always next year. 🙂 🙂 🙂
That was it. As hearts rose and fell around the world, Jock and his team celebrated, and Michael was impeccably gracious. He was happy with his horse. He rode the final line maybe a tiny bit fast, maybe a little bit flat. Perhaps nerves got to him and he got a teensy bit deep. Or not. Maybe the crowd’s premature uproarious cheer made the horse tense before he’d cleared the fence, as some have said. Superhorse Sam had just breathed on the pole somehow, and it fell.
I wonder if it ever crossed Michael’s mind that he might one day regret his generosity in having so keen a rival bring his horses to stay for training last winter, and working with him to change and improve Jock Paget’s show-jumping in particular. Jock’s Eventing Magazine articles about it made fascinating reading. (Of course, Andrew Nicholson has been training Stefano Brecciaroli, who could also have pulled it off. True horsemen share their secrets.)
Anyway, I doubt it. Michael is a true sportsman but also a true horseman. I get the overriding impression that he just does the best he can with his horse and if that’s better than everyone else, great… if not, great too, as long as the horse went well.
The day and the trophy were Jock’s. The delight around the Media Centre and in the crowds was palpable. A new winner. A New Zealand winner. A first timer. Someone not bred to it, someone who started riding in his late teens and went from being a bricklayer to 3* eventing in 2 years. A really popular, much-admired rider had won the day from all the favourites. When praised for his accomplishment later, Jock, like Michael yesterday, instantly deflected all the praise to his horse.
I saw Jock an hour or two after the Press Conference, down at the Outside Chance bar, signing autographs and attempting to have a drink with his Team NZ friends. Impressively prepared, he had a felt tip pen ready in his breeches’ pocket for the Badminton Programmes which children were lining up to proffer him. He was asking their names and writing a brief personalised message to each one, before adding his name with a flourish. He was patient and relaxed and obviously very very happy. He’s been knocking on the door for a while, but now he’s really in the big time. A worthy winner of an awesome competition. It’s been an amazing week.
I seized the moment and asked him to autograph the Saturday Dressage Timetable, which is where his winning campaign began… but which incidentally was the only piece of paper I had!
This will be a nice little prize for an e-Venting Badminton competition, we just need to think of a fiendish question. Stay tuned…